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Who is left to mother me?

Mothering fore and aft while riding the waves

By Terri Pantuso

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While considering the multiple definitions of feminist mothering and motherhood, I personally struggle with the question of whether feminism is intrinsic or organic. I realize this is a loaded question because there are many factors involved. Yet my own experiences lead me to question how do we raise our daughters to be strong women?  Does it require a strong mother to provide the example?  What is the twenty-first century definition of a 'strong woman' anyway? Is there a gene each woman is born with which dictates what type of woman she will become, or is environment the overriding factor? These are the types of questions that keep me up at night as I grapple with my own sense of motherhood/daughterhood/womanhood. As I rapidly approach forty, I find myself in the precarious situation of being mother to my three daughters, my own mother, and myself, leading me to question my decisions in a semi-schizophrenic dialogue even Dr. Phil would find challenging.

In 1997, I became the caretaker of my mother over the course of one weekend. Although she was only 49 at the time, she could no longer take care of herself due to a debilitating attack of Multiple Sclerosis. I had known about my mother's diagnosis for several years, but never knew the extent to which it had progressed until she drove herself to visit me for Halloween weekend. At the time, she lived in Houston, Texas, and I lived in San Antonio, Texas, with my 21-month-old daughter.  San Antonio is approximately 350 miles from Houston, roughly a 3-4 hour drive. My husband of six years had decided to leave our marriage in April of the same year. I had never told my mother the extent of the trouble in my marriage, but she somehow sensed it. When she arrived, I noticed that she was unable to walk straight and that her speech was somewhat slurred.  I asked if she'd been drinking and she laughingly changed the subject. Within minutes, I revealed the truth about my failing marriage, and she held me while I cried.

For the entire weekend my mother indulged both my daughter and me by taking us wherever we desired to eat, and by buying us both new clothes and toys. Such pampering was a habit I had grown accustomed to as the only child of a woman who had raised me without the benefit of a husband for eleven years. You see, although my parents were married until I was seven years old, my father was never home. When my mother became pregnant as a senior in high school, my father reluctantly married her because she was "a good girl," and he felt I should have a legal name. During the 1970s, with the Women's Movement in full swing, my mother was a married yet single mother, working full-time to support the two of us while my father was off doing who knows what with who knows whom. While her high school friends were beginning graduate school and wearing the latest fashions, my mother, dressed in conservative clothing with her hair neatly teased and shellacked in place with hair spray, was working in any office that would hire her since she had neither a high school diploma nor GED. Although we lived with my grandparents for years until she remarried when I was eleven, my mother never let me know just how broke we really were. She also never let me know the full extent of neglect my father showed towards us. In short, whenever a crisis arose, my mother chose to look on the bright side -- or so I thought that's what she was doing. I now realize it was her way of avoiding the inevitable. When, on that Sunday afternoon in 1997, we waved goodbye and she drove off, I felt a strange gnawing in my stomach that I might be following in my mother's footsteps.  Yet, something subconsciously told me that her shoes would never fit my feet. My own motherly feet would become much wider than my mother's had ever attempted to stretch.

Three hours after she left me, my phone rang. I expected it to be my mother saying that she had arrived safely at home.  Instead, it was a friend of hers in Houston calling to tell me that she was on her way to pick my mother up just 70 miles from my home. Normally, it would take about an hour to drive those 70 miles. However, her vision had become so impaired, and her hands and feet were so numb, that she pulled off of the road into a gas station and called her friend. Why didn't she call me? She figured I had enough to worry about and that I didn't need to add her to my list. However, I knew that she would never abandon me, so I packed up my daughter, called in for a substitute to take my classes the following day, and headed to pick her up.  It was with this decision that I shifted from being the daughter in our relationship into the mother's role.

With the help of my uncle, I moved my mother from Houston to San Antonio to live with my daughter and me.  I found a highly qualified neurologist who was on her insurance plan, and despite my mother's initial objections to the doctor's youth and gender (a woman just out of medical school), began the course of treatment that eventually led to an amazing recovery of my mother's eyesight and reversal of paralysis. I learned from the neurologist all about lesions on the brain and how they affect the central nervous system. What I also learned was that my mother was suffering from a severe case of mental depression, and that her physical health would not improve until her mental health had been treated. Depression?  Sure, I knew she had been through quite a lot over the past five years with bankruptcy and divorce, but she seemed fine.  To my way of thinking, she had been through worse in my childhood. How could she be depressed now?  \At thirty, I learned for the first time the extent of my mother's insecurities and depths to which she went to protect me from becoming the same weak person.

Although my mother is a chronological second-waver, she never participated in any feminist movements or activities. She was raised by her mother to be an executive secretary, and was told that the best she could hope for in life would be to marry the president of an oil company for which she should work. In short, she was taught to rely upon men to define her worth. Such teaching is in line with the critical observations of bell hooks as she discusses the misguided beliefs by some of the women (such as my Grandma) who lived between the first and second waves of feminism and their reliance upon patriarchal terms to define female independence.1 While my Grandma was not opposed to women working outside of the home, she believed that a wealthy husband was more beneficial to a woman than a good education. From my vantage point, it is easy to see how this led to my mother's low self-esteem. What is shocking is how she did not pass this mind-set along to me. What is even more confusing to me is how this lesson was taught to her in the first place.

generations of women

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