My other mother

To learn how to mother well, you must first be mothered yourself.

Published May 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"So you're all buying the house ... together?" Myrna the real estate agent looked at us as though we'd just told her we slept hanging from the ceiling like bats. We all nodded: me, my husband John, and Karen.

"Karen practically lives here anyway," I explained, "so we figured, why should she be paying rent when we could all be picking up equity on a bigger house?" John kicked me under the table. He's never been able to break me of babbling to strangers. Once someone sits down in our kitchen, I might as well just hand them my diary and point out all the good parts.

Karen excused herself to pick up the kids from swimming lessons. John and I are their biological parents, but only my oldest child, Katie, remembers a time when Karen wasn't part of the family. The division of child-care labor mirrors our respective personalities. At any given time, I know where my children are emotionally, John knows where they are academically, and Karen knows where they are physically. She thrives on managing the detailed morass of school holidays, bus schedules, sports events and music lessons that leave John and me feeling exhausted and bewildered.

After Karen left our real-estate meeting, Myrna turned to me and beamed, "A nanny!" she said. "How wonderful! I wish I'd had another mother around when my kids were little!"

I smiled insincerely, wondering how Myrna thought I'd managed to convince a college professor my own age to work as my nanny. I didn't bother to correct the real estate agent, because I know there's not an established social category for Karen. I've heard my children introduce her to friends as their "godmother." Though this isn't true in the technical, religious sense of the word, it certainly conveys the right meaning. If I am the mother whom nature gave my children -- that would be "nature red in tooth and claw" -- Karen is the one furnished by an improbable, benevolent higher power. I am consciously aware of this, because, truth be told, Karen isn't just my children's "other mother." She's mine too.

I come from a long line of maternally challenged women. My mother had eight children, spreading her pregnancies from one end of the baby boom to the other. I was born seventh. After my younger sister came along, when I was still less than two years old, my mother went to bed for a well-earned rest. I'm not sure she's gotten up yet. She figures in my childhood memories as an exhausted, mostly horizontal figure, visibly overwhelmed by the endless needs of the horde she had conceived and delivered.

Compared to the woman who raised her, however, my mom was the Madonna. My grandmother, a spiteful, paranoid bigot we called Groin Murder, is the only person I've ever known who flunked nursing home. She was so nasty that no one would room with her, and the officials sent her home. (They eventually called back, having found the perfect roommate for Groin Murder: a woman whose long-term memory had been wiped out by a stroke. Until Groin Murder passed away, her roomie lived in a state of constant annoyance, but could never remember why.) Even so, I don't really hold Groin Murder responsible for her flagrant emotional inadequacy. Her mother died in childbirth, when Groin Murder was only three. In my family history, as in most such dismal legacies, there are many people to pity, but none to blame.

As a teenager, I made silent but mighty vows to be the perfect mother. In the innocence of youth, I thought this could be achieved through hard work and book-learning. I had no way to understand how wrong I was. Parenting is the most intricate and difficult set of skills human beings ever have to master, and we learn to do it by having it done to us. No social animal can mother well without first being mothered. Jane Goodall's observations of chimpanzees showed that mothering style is passed down through family lines; some of her subjects were cold and uninterested parents, others tender and nurturing. As the babies grew, they displayed the same behaviors toward other chimps that their mothers had directed at them.

Even more brutal evidence of this came from the famous Wire Mother experiments. These were laboratory tests in which researchers raised baby monkeys with a variety of caretakers. Some were left with their natural mothers, others with stuffed-animal substitutes. A third group had only wire milk dispensers to serve as "mothers." I remember seeing film of these experiments as a freshman psychology student in college. They were very hard to watch. The babies with the "wire mothers" were in obvious, terrible pain. They cried endlessly, never played, wrapped their little arms around themselves and rocked for hours on end. I sat in the darkened lecture hall, my face hot with recognition and shame, wondering if any of the other students felt as though their souls were being projected onto the screen in front of us. It was like seeing myself with the skin stripped off.

Long before my first child was conceived, I swore that she would never feel this way. The first words my babies would ever hear me say were "I love you." I carried through with this plan, whispering the phrase into Katie's tiny ear minutes after she was born. What I hadn't planned was that as I spoke, an endless abyss would open up inside me. I mouthed, "I love you," but I couldn't help thinking, "When does she start to hate me?"

I suppose I started looking for a mother right then. Something in me knew that I had to find a flesh-and-blood teacher, not just a Platonic ideal, before I'd get the hang of this maternity thing. I didn't find my role model for some time -- and it was a hard time, for me and my children. I had two more babies as I worked and completed my Ph.D., following the family tradition of trying to compensate for my lack of maternal talent with sheer persistence. Though I read every parenting book I could find, asked friends for advice and imitated TV moms, motherhood continued to come about as naturally to me as Olympic pole vaulting.

At one point I created a vivid imaginary friend, a wise, maternal woman I could go to when I didn't know what a real mother would do next. Maybe all my imagining conjured Karen out of thin air. She certainly didn't present herself as the answer to my mothering woes. She was just a colleague, a fellow professor with whom I occasionally had lunch and discussed my work.

Looking back, I see that these lunchtime discussions were rife with subtext. As a sociologist, I was studying the way women's roles had changed over time. Karen listened patiently as I held forth at length about one of our culture's great ironies: the fact that what we call a "traditional family" (an employed man and an unemployed woman raising their children in a single-family dwelling) is actually a bizarre anomaly that existed only in the United States during a brief period after World War II.

"It's insane!" I would rant over salad or sandwiches. "Human children are designed to be raised by large groups of adults. No culture in history has expected one woman to spend all her time locked up with a bunch of children, without any adult company! It's bad for everybody!"

Karen was gratifyingly sympathetic, knowing that I was talking more about myself than "society" in general. She had never borne a child, but she knew all about being a mom. As another friend of mine once told me, "Some women bear children and raise them, but never really mother them; others mother all their lives without ever giving birth." Karen had spent her adult life living and working in some of the poorest ghettoes in the Third World, mothering refugee children and impoverished families back from the brink of physical and emotional starvation. Even after she accepted the burden of motherhood at its most onerous, she still had the generosity to sympathize with my parental woes.

When it was Karen's turn to direct our lunchtime discussions, she talked about the fatigue and loneliness of being a mother without a permanent family. She was tired of her saintly role. She wanted to belong. I don't think either of us noticed how nicely our problems dovetailed. Inch by inch, we were moving closer to our own little social experiment.

John and I were moving, leaving the state, and as I tied up loose ends I was startled to realize how much I would miss Karen. I knew I'd regret it if I never told her so. I don't remember how I put it, although I recall saying, "I want to be someone who cares when you go to the dentist." There's no established protocol for telling a co-worker that you want her to be part of your family. Our mutual training in social sciences was like a common language we could use to describe an uncommon type of relationship: closer than friendship, not quite blood. Using this language, Karen and I agreed -- tentatively, experimentally -- to consider each other family.

Psychology texts never mention that one of the iterations of the famous "wire mother" experiment had to be aborted. I heard the story around the time that Karen joined our family, from one of the researchers involved in the project. One night, this elderly scientist told me, a lowly research assistant was cleaning the cameras that recorded the motherless monkeys' endless anguish. In the small hours of the morning, the assistant turned off the cameras, went into the cages, and comforted those keening, rocking, aching babies. She spent the rest of that night talking and stroking and singing to them. By morning, the monkeys had stopped crying, and the assistant had lost her job. The psychologist who told me how this story ended shook his head when he told me this.

"The thing I didn't realize at the time," he said, "was that the research assistant's 'mistake' was the most important finding of the whole experiment. I can see that now."

I can see it now, too, I thought. I lived it.

One day, just before John and I moved, Karen brought over a CD of her favorite lullabies. She explained that they were for my children, "although," she said, "I'm sure they'll like it much better when you sing the songs yourself."

Sing them myself? I felt the familiar abyss open up inside me, the empty space where my maternal know-how was meant to reside. Since it was Karen, and since we'd decided to be family, I told her the truth.

"I've never really sung a lullaby," I stammered. "I ... uh ... don't know how."

Instead of edging away from the horrible mother I'd turned out to be, Karen looked at me with a mixture of sadness and understanding. Then she put an arm around me and began to sing a lullaby, and I have never been the same. Hearing that song, that simple, incredible gift that most adults are never lucky enough to receive, was like feeling the sun light up all the dark and foggy corners of my desperation, my confused effort to understand a mother's role. Despite all my relatives' very best intentions, I never felt mothered until Karen walked into my cage and comforted me.

Four years later, our experiment is going strong. By a coincidence that I still consider a bona fide miracle, Karen was offered a job in the same city where my family and I lived -- where we all live now, in the house we bought together. Her presence has filled me with gratitude, released my resentment of my female forebears, and made mothering my own children feel easy and natural, for the first time.

I suspect that relatively few of us needy, problematic humans have the good fortune to be born to our real mothers, or to stay with them as long as we need them. But because of my relationship with Karen, I believe that mothering is available to us, nevertheless. The trick is to think of the word "mother" as a verb rather than a noun; to remember motherhood not as a body that reproduces itself, but as a love that reproduces itself. Maybe people like Myrna the real estate agent will never understand why Karen is part of my family. That's OK. I've found my other mother, and that's more than enough for me.

By Martha Beck

Martha Beck is the "Quality of Life" columnist forMademoiselle and the author of "Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create Their Lives." She lives in Phoenix, Ariz.

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