As a child, I always identified with my father more than my mother. My father was the bookish one, the odd one, the introverted intuitive with an innate grasp of language and problem-solving and a fumbling awkwardness in social dynamics. My father was my role model, the person I was going to be like when I grew up, the person who (as I got older) I feared being like when I grew up. It’s not that I considered and rejected my mother for that role; it’s simply that there’s a natural affinity between my father’s temperament and mine, while my mother and I are very different.
After high school and before college, I took a job as a live-in nanny. It was perfect: I was still living in my parents’ city, but out of the house and for the first time financially independent of them. I worked 45 hours a week caring for two toddlers, and it was then that I began to understand many things. I loved the children, but it was draining on a level I’d never imagined. I noticed myself sneaking little bites of candy and junk food every day, repeatedly — not a habit I usually indulged — and realized that it was because these were small indulgences, ways to pamper myself in a day that was scheduled entirely around someone else’s needs. I realized that there was no mystical ordinance appointing my mother as Doer Of Housework, but that she was a person like me, who felt more or less the way I did about it, but did it anyway because somebody had to. (She noticed a marked change in my willingness to help out when I came home for a visit.) In short, I understood a little better exactly how much work mothering is, and by contrast, how joyfully and uncomplainingly my mother did it.
Several years and a college degree later, my mother had gone back to work outside the home as a nurse, and she helped me get a job as unit secretary on the labor floor where she worked. Here I got to see an entirely different side of her. I discovered that my mother was smart — that her work involved things like reading and interpreting a fetal monitoring strip, a tricky, nuanced thing that she was better at than many of the doctors. I discovered, though I had already suspected, that my mother is a very good person: honorable, friendly, professional, caring, intelligent, and creative. I got to know many of the nurses on the floor, got to see the way they related to each other as well as to the patients and other professionals, and my mother was, without bias, one of the most excellent human beings among them. She did not stoop to gossip and rivalries, she was generous with her time and wisdom, and she dealt with frustrations maturely, with as little collateral damage as possible.
She was also a badass: there was a doctor who all the nurses (and many of the patients) hated for his rudeness, his lack of respect, his frequent inappropriate comments to staff and patients alike, and his refusal to let anyone question what he’d said. My mother had a couple of storied confrontations with him where she firmly and appropriately let him know what was what. When things had gotten out of hand, she was instrumental in bringing a case for his suspension before the hospital’s board. In the complex political world of a hospital, challenging the doctors can be a dangerous move, but she stuck to it and she won. She tells us that when she was younger she was aggressive and willful; to people who have known her in my lifetime, she is almost uniformly perceived as friendly and easy to get along with, but she’s kept that strength and brings it to the forefront where it’s needed.
One thing my mother and I share is a love of crafting; while her primary hobby is quilting and mine is knitting, we love working meticulously to create some beautiful thing. Last winter I found a breathtakingly gorgeous silk/cashmere yarn, and I’ve spent much of the spring turning it into a lace shawl that is the loveliest thing I’ve made yet. I was intending it for myself, but as I got near the end I considered my mother, considered her love of plummy purple and other jewel tones, and I knew it had to be hers. She’ll open it today, and I hope it says something to her about how I appreciate her, all the work she’s put into me and my siblings, how much I love her despite our differences, and how proud I am to be her daughter.