Sometimes, either in the absence of our own mothers or simply because we need a little more support, we adopt “othermothers”–stand-in moms who can act as guides to the territory. Andrea J. Buchanan, author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, graciously allowed Mother U to adapt “Mother Love,” one of the insightful essays included in her book.
When I was first married, I taught piano out of our home. One of my students was a woman named Jeannie, who had received the gift of piano lessons—and an upright Yamaha piano to practice on—in celebration of her fiftieth birthday. At her first lesson, she perched on the bench as if she weren’t really supposed to be there, sitting gingerly on the edge, her feet on the floor, ready to run.
She laughed. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I just can’t bring myself to play even a note. This is probably the first thing ever in my life that I’ve done that’s just about me. I just feel like if it’s not for my kids, I don’t really deserve to be doing it.” We talked for a while about what a big deal it was to learn something new as an adult, and how empowering it could be to learn the piano, just for herself, for no one else.
As her lessons progressed, I heard more about her children, about her life as a young single mom, raising them on her own. She told me stories about what it was like in her neighborhood with two kids in diapers, juggling work and trying to tend to her kids’ every need. At fifty, she was petite and energetic; I could only imagine her intensity as a young mother, the effort it must have taken to do everything she did and still have a huge Italian home-cooked dinner on the table every night without fail.
By the time she was able to play a simple Bach minuet, we had moved beyond a teacher-student relationship. She was a mother figure to both me and my husband, bringing us food, giving us recipes, and crowing over our individual accomplishments. I looked forward to her lessons as much for the excitement of watching her great progress musically as for hearing more stories of her life a mom. It was something utterly unfamiliar to me.
She somehow managed to fit the stereotype of the martyred mother, giving and giving of herself until there was seemingly nothing left, without actually being that stereotype. She hadn’t driven her kids away—on the contrary, they loved her. She was selfless without being overbearing, loving without being suffocating, supportive without being cloying. She was a mystery to me, the kind of mom I’d heard about but never imagined actually existed.
When I became pregnant with my daughter, Jeannie’s stories took on a more practical relevance for me. I had so many questions about mothering: What does it mean to love as a mother? Is it all selfless sacrifice, giving until you have nothing left? Or is it enough just to love and have a little of yourself left over? Is it food on the table every night, doing something special for your child’s birthday, leaving little notes in her lunchbox? Or is just being there, giving your baby a roof over her head and clean sheets beneath her as she sleeps? Would I fall in love with my baby at first sight the way I’d heard I should? What if I didn’t? What if I couldn’t? What if I loved her, but she couldn’t love me? I wanted to be more than just a “good enough” mother, but could I really be like Jeannie? Could I be that selfless?
A few days after I came home from the hospital with Emi, I sobbed as the postpartum reality hit that I was irrevocably, permanently a mother. Gil came in, concerned. “Do you want me to do something?” he asked. I couldn’t stop crying. “Yes. Call Jeannie.”
Though we had stopped our lessons, with our moving to Philadelphia and her moving to upstate New York, we still kept in touch. In those early postpartum weeks we spoke often. She became my role-model mother, in a sense. When things seemed too incredible, too overwhelming, I’d remind myself: If Jeannie did it on her own, lugging two kids up four flights, washing out two sets of eternally soiled cloth diapers ten times a day, doing laundry without a machine and cooking big Italian dinners, then I can do it here, in my elevator building, with my helpful husband, disposable diapers, and one kid. If Jeannie could forge a healthy family from scratch, so can I.
Jeannie was finally able to come visit when Emi was two months old. She was reassuring when I confessed to her that I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for motherhood, that I didn’t know if I could love the way a mother was supposed to love. “Of course you can. We all just figure this out as we go along. There’s no textbook, no right way to love her. You love her the only way you know how.”
I was reminded of the intensity that I had felt when my daughter was handed to me for the first time. I was overpoweringly grateful for the very fact of her. Perhaps this was the mother love I had been wondering about, this ferocity of thankfulness, this intense imperative to protect her from whatever the world may have in store. I marveled at her, at the incredible realization that it was up to me to take care of her, and I felt myself silently pledge to protect her at all costs. Perhaps this was what love was. Perhaps, until I got the hang of it, that kind of love would be enough.
“Just love her the way you do,” Jeannie reassured me. “And she’ll love you right back, you’ll see.”
It was difficult to believe that in the early days of motherhood. In the beginning, there was no reciprocation, no response, just spit-up and burps and dirty diapers, no way to know if anything I was doing was forging some sort of love connection.
In some ways love is easier as my daughter gets older. For one thing I have more feedback, more proof that my love is reciprocated. Of course, in some ways, it was easier to love her when she was unable to stubbornly refuse to go to bed or throw a public tantrum. But I am learning that mothering and loving at every stage is a tangled clutch of intense emotion utterly different from any adult love I have experienced.
“Don’t you just love her so much?” Jeannie asks of Emily when she calls these days. And I do. Powerfully, incredibly, more intensely and more selflessly than I ever could have imagined.
My induction into motherhood was every bit as tenuous and unfamiliar as Jeannie’s break away from motherhood. Three years later, I am less conflicted, able to embrace the complexity of loving as a mother without being dogged by fear. And seven years after her first lesson, Jeannie, too, is less conflicted about devoting time to practicing piano, about the un–kid-focused joy she experiences when she is finally able to play the “Moonlight Sonata.” In fact, her piano lessons led to other risk-taking: She has gone back to school to earn a college degree.
Indeed, Jeannie’s piano lessons were lessons for both of us.