“I should’ve never had kids.” I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard my mother utter these words, always with a sigh, always with eyes seemingly filled with regret and longing for a life better lived. And this seems true to me. For some women motherhood is a biological act of happenstance, a misstep to repent the morning after. This certainly wasn’t my mother. For my mother, motherhood was simply a duty bound obligation that put her hopes on hold and deferred all her dreams.
This is not to negate my mother’s parenting efforts. She has been and continues to be a great example to her children and fervent champion of most of our endeavors. Still, when you’ve had the opportunity to track a person’s every movement since birth, it’s hard to turn a blind eye, or ear for that matter to those, “If I had it all to do again…” moments that let you know all too well that as often as Oprah admonishes everyone to “Live your best life” this continues to be that particular brass ring just beyond her grasp.
And how could it be? If you are a nomad at heart, then, of course, dragging around three kids would slow down your efforts to do those things nomads are always clamoring to do: wandering all the earth in order to do pretty much anything you want to do. This for my mother would include: doing the Peace Corps thing, feeding the hungry, building homes for the homeless, all the while content to have no fixed address of her own. If she had been raised in another time, not the 50s, and another place, not the South, this Gandhi-inspired life, not the more traditional one of hubby, kids, home and hearth, could have been all hers.
My mother is an archetype from bygone days. She’s a mother anyone would be proud to call their own. She has fed the homeless, built homes for the homeless, taken in the homeless into our home when they had no other place to go, not even a shelter. She’s acted a counselor to numerous substance abusing souls, those unwilling to listen to their mothers’, but who freely shed tears listening to mine as if she spoke gospel--which she often did.
When my mother worked as a director at a homeless shelter rampant with drug dealers and other unsavory elements, she was told that a “hit” had been put out on her life to stop her efforts at cleaning up the shelter. The “round the way guy” who told her this said she shouldn’t worry, that he and his “friends” had her back. He hadn’t spoken to his mother in twenty years, but mine he said reminded him of her. At hearing this, she wasn’t worried for her safety, nor did she feel the need to call the police. She continued with the shelter’s mission to house the homeless. Even given the limits of motherhood, she was a warrior woman.
The problem was I didn’t want a warrior for a mother. I wanted June Cleaver, and I got her for awhile. Then things changed. Off came the Kiss the Cook apron. No more homemade cookies. Baking made the apartment too hot. No more Eddie Haskell-like friends allowed inside the perimeter. Kids need fresh air. It was like she forgot being June made her (and me) happy. I don’t know when this happened exactly, but the change was palpable.
When it was just the two of us, she for the most part appeared to my five year old eyes to be a young woman with everything going for her. Then my father had to go and die. She was twenty-seven. The only picture I ever saw of him, had him seated in a gleaming new car, smiling broadly. He looked like a man who had an affinity for sitting in late model cars. When I asked how he died, my mother said he died in an automobile accident.
Still, somehow she managed to navigate a series of low rent apartment complexes, brood of three in tow, working hard in the highly transient world of Washington DC nonprofits. Instilling in her brood a level of mind control that kept us from procreating at early ages (in my case not at all), and adding to hers and the world’s burden. Even so, as the years passed, every so often, she’d be heard to mumble, “I should have never had kids.”
Hearing this time and time again as a child, especially when said in the company of others, usually her sisters, often left me feeling somewhat diminished. I mean, what kid wants to hear their mother say over coffee and bread pudding, “Girl, I wish I’d never had kids.” At least she hadn’t said “these” kids. And, though I know this was on many levels just “grown folks talk” and had a lot to do with the sugar rush of the bread pudding and the over stimulation of the Maxwell House, then, too, all that sisters bonding business. Still, it’s not like us kids were likely to be found hanging around the swing set jugging Yoo-hoos and lamenting, “Brother, I sure wish she had thought more seriously about giving us up to that foundling home. Whew, the karate lessons we could be taking right about now.”
I’ve always thought of my mother’s voicing her regrets at having chosen motherhood in my presence as, well, cruel. I also had determined, even at the tender age of eleven, at first hearing these words, that she, as I understood from Reader’s Digest Word Power definition of the word, was extremely uncouth.
Today, I continue to try to remember that for her time, she was simply attempting to be the woman she thought she needed to be; hindsight being 20/20, I now know it certainly isn’t her fault that in reality she was indeed a nomadic warrior woman with desires and dreams of her own, but also one burdened with a saddle (her brood) and no horse (a husband) to easy her travels. Couth or uncouth, she’s my mother.
Fleetingly, I find myself wanting to ask just what it is she thinks she would have done, become, if not for having us, her brood? But this is fleeting. I don’t really care. I don’t believe in pining for a life that there’s no evidence would have ever occurred. Those, if I had only walked down that street, and turned. Well, you didn’t. You didn’t turn, nor did you slip on the banana the guy threw over his shoulder before getting into the cab on that street you didn’t turn on to. And if you had, then where would you be? Where would your son be? Where would your other daughter be? Where would any of us be if you had taken that turn?