You should know from the start that I never was an instinctual mother. I have spent more than 25 years in what Grace Paley called “the mommy trades”, but I didn’t come by nurturing naturally. By hit (never the corporal kind) and miss, I have raised two extraordinary children (just like yours, I’m sure) to adulthood. Note: The age of adulthood is 21 but the state of adulthood has nothing to do with age. You should also know that there is no retirement from the mommy trades. Motherhood is a lifelong occupation. There are no days off or vacations and, while there may be coffee, no real breaks. So. . . I am the mother of two grown daughters but my nest is not empty. In fact, for the very first time in my life –I am a stay-at-home mom. (One of my daughters recently got her own apartment –I miss her!)
My work as their parent is unfinished but I feel I am in the less time consuming but no less demanding “tweaking stage”. I sleep regularly after double-digit years of deprivation and I can see clearly what’s left to do before they are fully launched into an ever more challenging world where survival – not a better life than Mom and Dad’s – is the new American dream.
Like veterans of long past wars, I can recall in technicolor my daughters’ childhood; I can call up memories–among the most important and significant of my life–in a second even while I can’t remember last night’s dinner. Here’s an early memory, hopefully a helpful story, a lesson of my own realized in hindsight.
My initiation into motherhood was wildly unexpected. “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” was not even a glimmer in that perennially best-selling author’s mind. Among the first generation of women planning to have it all, I was hell-bent on advancing my career before starting a family. I finally agreed to marry my college sweetheart 10 years after we met with one caveat: No children until I was an established foreign correspondent. Five months after our wedding we were at a dude ranch in Southern Arizona. I was on assignment; he was accompanying me. It definitely felt foreign but strictly speaking did not qualify. Then I started throwing up. Was it that long ride on that feisty mare the day before? The tequilas shots I had thrown back one night at a border town bar? Had I inadvertently swallowed the worm. . . You know the answer though at the time, I didn’t. Pregnant!
Last year, I was in Arizona on business and I decided to revisit the ranch. I explained to the wrangler at the barn (George, the same wrangler from my first visit, and he too now had grown children, one of whom was fighting brush fires in California fort the season) that I hadn’t been on a horse in 25 years. George chose a nag that in my urban opinion was days away from the glue factory. Chula was nothing if not a follower, nose to tail with the horse ahead longing (I could tell) for the moment when he could turn that last corner towards the stable. I kicked him. I cajoled him. I brought him carrots. I got a stick. Is it okay to hit a horse? Chula showed me nothing but distain. On our daily rides, I was the last in line and the first back to the barn. I pleaded with George for a different horse but he was unmoved. I wondered if calling 911 would bring a horse ambulance.
Then I struck up a friendship with a lovely young mother and her teen-aged daughter who were combining college searching with a riding weekend. One morning the mother and I decided to hike to the highest peak in Southern Arizona. We rose before dawn so that we’d be back in time for the morning ride. My new friend charged up the trail while I followed panting, listening to her talk about her life. She was headed for a top job at her international corporation. If I had been able to catch my breath, I might have told her how my generation broke the glass ceiling so she could be CEO. Both she and her husband were lawyers; they had twin MBAs. Marathon runners since college, they continued to run long distances. She confessed that her first child—the daughter fast asleep in her bunk at the moment—was nothing like them. She wasn’t an athlete, not much of a student either but loved musical theater. In fact, they were looking for schools that specialized in drama. She seemed fine with her daughter’s direction but I gathered the father was still coming round. She told me how as little girl her daughter would wait at the finish line amusing herself by singing her favorite songs as her parents and younger brother raced to the end.
We made it to the top of the mountain where the ranch kept a note pad and a bottle of Jack Daniels. We signed our names, wrote down the date, and took a swig. This time, at least, I was not polluting my gene pool. Then we hurried down and mounted our horses for an ambitious ride over some rigorous terrain. Chula was right behind the CEO’s horse. Primo, her horse, stumbled on a rock and down she went. My faithful Chula came to a graceful stop and waited in place politely while the CEO rose to her feet and dusted herself off. On the trail back to the barn, I reflected on the long road I had traveled since my first visit to the ranch all those years ago. That mystery baby, now an accomplished young woman, was a lot like me in many ways but also a lot different. I realized how learning to respect those differences made me a better mother and a more generous and accepting person. That afternoon, as I brought Chula his carrot, I thought about the most critical tenent I had learned as a mother: Raise the child you are given. And as I stroked Chula’s mane, my faithful, sure-footed steed, I said it out loud. Ride the horse you get.
Photo: Andrea Chu