Still, when Sunday evening rolls around, my heart will ache with longing because I cannot do for my mother what my children do for me.
My mom, Frances Catherine Ponke Schafer, died when I was 20, about a decade before I had the epiphany most daughters do a few years after first becoming mothers themselves. It is at that moment, after a young woman has had her selfishness stripped away by caring for another human that she recognizes the obvious: Her mother once did for her what she is now doing for her child and, Lord Almighty, it isn’t easy.
If you’re paying attention when that moment comes, you pick up the phone or put pen to paper and tell your mom, “I get it now. I see now how hard this is, and I’m sorry I never appreciated you until now. Thank you.”
But sometimes, that moment comes too late. I was 29 when I had my motherhood epiphany. I was talking to a friend on the phone, stretching the cord from the kitchen wall through the living room to the backdoor so I could keep an eye on my then 5, 3 and 1.5-year-old children in the backyard. Shelly was watching her own “three under 6″ crowd in a city 40 minutes away. I complained that I was so exhausted I felt I might die and she explained that no one had ever died from fatigue.
“We just have to put one foot in front of the other until this part passes,” she said. “Think about our moms. They did all this with zero help from their husbands and no microwaves!”
Indeed they did, the women of the ’40s and ’50s, women we tend to idolize through popular media and vintage clothes while we simultaneously dismiss them as unfulfilled and unwoke.
Until that moment, chatting with my friend, watching my kids play, I didn’t completely realize how difficult that life must have been for my mom. I was sitting in my backyard literally wanting to pull my ears off because the 3-year-old couldn’t stop asking me why this or why that and my spider-monkey 5-year-old wouldn’t stop trying to impale herself on the jungle gym. Suddenly I understood what my mother had been through – except she didn’t have a husband who would take over when he got home from work because no fathers of the ’50s did that. And all I wanted to do in that moment was call her and tell her I was sorry for taking everything she ever did for me for granted. I was nine years too late in understanding.
As my children grew and reached other milestones, other realizations came: I didn’t understand how terrifying it is when a child has to be in the hospital until it happened to me, and by then, my mother had been dead six years. I didn’t understand how excruciating it is to have your children go from telling you every detail of their lives to being silent and sullen teens until it happened to me, and by then, my mom had been gone sixteen years. I didn’t realize the depth of my mother’s worry that I would screw up my life forever by making one bad choice until I was the one pacing the floor at midnight worried sick about my college kids for the same reason. And by that time, 24 years had passed without her.
More times than I can count I’ve wished I could pick up the phone and call my mom to thank her for the many gifts she gave me (faith, education, perseverance) and apologize for my snotty teen years and my unappreciative college years and the simple arrogance of my youth, thinking I knew so much more than she did. I want to fall on my knees and beg forgiveness.
But I can’t, and on Mother’s Day, it just breaks my heart.
So, if you can dress yourself, tie your shoes, say please and thank you, wait your turn, feed yourself and use the bathroom properly — thank your mom. (Especially about that bathroom thing because, trust me, potty training someone is a nightmare.) If you have a momma who is still with you, tell her you love and appreciate her. Ask her about her life, her interests, the things she misses most about your childhood. Tell her you’re sorry for being a bratty teen – unless you’re one of the .001 percent of teens who wasn’t a complete jerk to your mom during adolescence. And if you’ve never heard “The Mother” by Brandi Carlile, listen to it here.