Mothering’s Hidden Masterpiece

March 16, 2017

In the car on the way to her music lesson, my fourteen-year-old daughter is surly, withdrawn, and irritable. When she is like this, I am careful not to fill the space with anxious chatter, and so these car rides are often silent.

On a recent such drive, I searched out a memory of a similar mother daughter car ride to dance class when I was fourteen. (“You Light up My Life” was often on the FM car radio that year.) Was I surly and irritable with my mother? I probably was, but what I recollect is that my mother was often angry during these trips, and frequently spent them complaining bitterly to me about how inconvenienced and downtrodden she was.

My daughter has it way better than I did!  I found myself thinking. Doesn’t she realize this?

But then I reached further back into time and recalled what I knew about my mother’s adolescence. She had a childhood had been marked by poverty and abuse. She may have fussed about having to drive me to dance class, but she was also consistently warm and loving. Clearly, she had grappled with demons and did a much better job of parenting me than her own parents had done parenting her. And I couldn’t fully appreciate that at the time.

Back to the present-day car ride to my daughter’s music lesson. (Marina and the Diamonds is being played via her iphone.) She can’t know that I too have worked to heal the relatively minor wounds I sustained during childhood so that I could be an even better parent than my mom. She sits in the passenger seat, sighing audibly, exuding dissatisfaction and contempt.

There is a legend about a master sculptor working on one of the great cathedrals in medieval France. He spent hours and hours carefully carving the intricate folds of a gown on the back of a statue of Mary. Someone asked him why he bothered to take such care, when no one would ever see the back of the carving. The sculptor replied that God would see it.

My mother’s psychological work was unseen and unappreciated by me, and yet it had a tremendous effect on my life. Her efforts allowed me to have a richer, more solid foundation from which to live and parent. In other words, in some sense, her work was invisible, but by no means unimportant.

I like to imagine a car ride 30 years or so from now with yet another mother daughter pair. If that fourteen-year-old is huffy and peevish, will my daughter remember our car rides? Will she remember with gratitude my patient silence in the face of her prickliness?

Maybe she will, but it doesn’t matter. My careful attention to our imperfect relationship will likely be good enough to set her upon her own path. Whether she ever acknowledges this or not, I can feel satisfaction in the work I’ve done.

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