Are You My Mama?

By Donna Surgenor Reames
Web Exclusive

Mother comforting adult daughterThe worst part of having a brain tumor was not the surgery, the medicines or the seizures. It hasn’t been the confusion, the fear, and the nightmares. The worst part was having to send my three children 400 miles away to their grandparents. I’m back with them now, at my parents’ house while we await the first of my disability checks so the girls and I can live on our own again. I haven’t worked in seven weeks and I have no more sick leave. We’re basically broke. But none of that matters as much as all of us being together again.

I didn’t realize how confusing my absence would be for my girls, in spite of the stability and nurturing they have received at the home of Nana and Papa. So much has changed in two brief months. Sometimes each of my three daughters will start to call me “Nana” and I’ve heard each of them also call my mother “Mama.” In an odd sort of alliance, my girls have begun to link my mother and me together as their maternal unit.

“Mama, you do it for me,” urges six-year-old Caroline repeatedly throughout our days now. When she went to Nana and Papa, she had already been dressing herself for awhile. She could tie her shoes, read simple books, sing more songs by heart than I can. She knew how to make chocolate milk, how much milk to put in her cereal bowl without spilling any, and how to fall asleep in her own bed with the lights out. Now, however, she asks for help with all these things and more. When I look at her, surprised, she shrugs. “Nana helps me all the time,” she explains firmly. “Nana says I’m only six and I still need lots and lots of help.” I do not argue. My mother’s way is different, that’s all, and I am grateful for her willingness to spend the time with Caroline. It is just unfamiliar territory for me: helping my daughter slide her small feet into slippers and spooning cocoa into her milk feels like we are moving backward instead of forward to me.

Chloe, 9, has begun to cling. She sidles up to me as I fix supper plates, comes up behind me to hug my waist, gives me kisses every time she walks by. She reaches out in church for my hand and holds it from opening announcements till the benediction, letting go only long enough to sneak a piece of gum from my purse or a pen to draw pictures with. Last night, I snapped at her and felt bad immediately. I was helping to feed one of my sister’s 11-month twins and didn’t know Chloe was right behind me. When I turned to get another spoonful of carrots and peas, I jumped and yelped. “Chloe, don’t scare me like that!” I said irritably. “Why do you have to follow me around?” The hurt in her beautiful brown eyes shamed me and I drew her close and hugged her. “I’m so sorry for being mean,” I whispered into her straight blond-brown hair. “It was wrong.” She hugged me back, hard, and said it was okay — but she didn’t come near me the rest of the night and my heart ached.

Why wouldn’t Chloe want to cling a little? My hospitalization had brought abrupt changes: the person who has been with her for nine whole years, her mother, suddenly wasn’t there one night to tuck her in or say prayers with her. In one day, the world as she knew it changed drastically. Mama didn’t wake her up the next morning: Nana did, and the morning after that and the morning after that for 62 whole days.

My oldest daughter, Zoë, is going to be 13 in March. It is too embarrassing for her to admit need for me. But I see the effects on her as well. She says she loves me a hundred times a day but she goes straight to Nana or Papa for advice, help with homework, and permission slip signatures. It is as if she doubts that I will still be there by the time the dance rolls around or the library book is due.

I find myself stumbling through uncertain terrain. This is the house of my parents. It is their food we eat, their rules we follow, their routine I must join my girls in keeping. There is an alliance and it doesn’t include me.

I feel left-out at times and then I feel guilty for being so childish. I remind myself of why this had to be, and I realize how fortunate the girls and I are to have my parents do this.

My daughters have things they’ve never had before with me as a single parent: they each have a dresser, a bed and a desk in – joy of all joys, a room of their own. Socks and panties lie folded (yes, folded) neatly in top drawers, with tee shirts and shorts and pants placed just as properly in their own individual drawers. Little dresses hang from small-sized hangers in order of size, color, length of hemline…just like mine and my three sisters’ did when we were young. Mary Janes and Nikes line up in perfect rows, with every pair intact.

After-school hours have been given specific, timed roles: there are snacks for 30 minutes, homework for an hour (this includes my parents checking folders and agendas, and is usually extended for my oldest daughter, whose work seems interminable now that she’s in middle school), and free time till supper, which happens promptly at 6 p.m. every weeknight, a “flexible” 6:30 on weekends.

My first few days of this routine found me staring wide-eyed in amazement. Were these my daughters? My girls, whose former routine after school meant a mad dash to the kitchen for whatever we had, followed by haphazard stabs at homework, with one eye on their books and the other on Nickelodeon (“Mama, we can THINK better with the TV on!”). How many hours have I logged nagging them to “turn off the TV and DO THIS HOMEWORK!”?

There’s been a trade-off: our old lifestyle (spontaneous, a little bohemian) for a newer, improved one (structured and stable). A slow sadness creeps up inside me. I know we won’t be here forever and I am in awe of what my parents have accomplished in two brief months. But I feel I’ve been replaced as my daughters’ parent. And after having been their primary parent for so many years, I am lost.

I’ve defined myself in the parameters of how I parent my girls — what they learn from and with and by me, who they become, how they think, feel, act, relate — for so long now. At night, when I sit up in my sister’s old bed and try to write out how I feel, a word comes to me. I chew on my pen, rolling it around in my head for a minute before I write it down. It seems so over the top, so self-pitying. But it is the best word for how I honestly feel. Bereft. Bereft. I write it over and over again…in cursive, spelled out, all CAPS. I left a world as familiar to me as cold cereal and runny noses and I came back to a place I haven’t been in years.

It is my mother who will, ironically, bring me to my current point of resolution. She watches me one morning, sees me standing back instead of jumping in when two of the girls argue. She waits for me to intervene. I wait for her. Neither of us does and the girls find their own way out of the squabble without either of them being killed or maimed.

My mother walks over to me after and hands me a cup of hot chocolate. She has her coffee. “Let’s talk,” she says, motioning me toward the kitchen table.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asks softly. I sit there for a moment, trying to figure out how to put what I feel into words without hurting her or seeming ungrateful for all she has done.

“Mama, you do everything so much better than I ever have with the girls.” I put my cup to my lips, blow to cool it, put it down without tasting any. I lean forward, pull my legs up to my knees and sit on them like I’ve done so many times over the years when talking to my mother. “They’re so organized. They do their homework and don’t gripe about it. Sometimes it makes me think of that book Caroline likes. The one with the baby llama and he runs around asking everybody ‘Are you my mama?’ I’ll never be able to do this when we leave.”

My mother looks at me and I am shocked to see tears in her blue eyes.

“Donna,” she says quietly, “you don’t have to be like me. We aren’t the same kind of woman and we’ll never be the same kind of mother.” She looks down, picks at a tiny crumb left over from breakfast. “Sweetheart, we’re strong in different ways.”

She goes on to tell me things about my girls, things they talked to her about while I was sick and gone from them. She tells me how they love our all-nighters, when we put on pajamas and stay up late watching movies and dancing in our living-room, just laughing together. She tells me they say I’m “real”, that I’m the only mom they know who says she’s sorry when she yells or “freaks out.”

“Donna, I’m good at organizing. I like socks in drawers and tee shirts folded because that makes me feel like I’m being a good mother. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Your girls were so used to searching through laundry baskets for matching socks; they kept forgetting all they had to do was open a drawer when they first came here.” She pats my hand, won’t let me say anything back. “Wait. That’s just what I’m good at. You are good at things I’m not.”

The tears in her eyes slide down on her cheeks. I feel like crying too.

“Donna, you are good at things I’m not. Your girls have seen every movie out there, first runs. They’re proud of that. They tell everybody how much fun you have when you go to the movies. You make them laugh. Their friends like coming over because you make them feel welcome.”

She leans forward, embraces me as I am leaning forward too.

We cry together, then, and go about our day, both of us tender and a little exhausted. I go to bed that night and I add a new word, just under bereft. The word is ‘whole’. Between my mother and me, my girls are being parented and what we have to give them is something strong and good and true. Her strengths, my strengths overplaying one another’s weaknesses. And knowing this makes me feel exactly that: whole.

There is a long confusing road up ahead for my parents, my daughters and me. I still forget things every day – what is that green leafy thing you cut up for salad? (Hint: Try ‘lettuce’.) I don’t know when I’ll be able to pay my bills, which just keep getting higher, or settle the negative balance in my checking account. Mama and I are going to keep clashing on how often to eat meat, letting the girls pick out their own clothes, and how early is ‘early’ when it comes to bedtime.

I don’t know when the girls and I will be back in our own home with our own life again, or what our life will look like when we get to that point.

What I do know is that while we’re still here, we’ll all do some stretching. We’ll take Mama with us to movies, invite her to our slumber parties and paint her fingernails in ten different colors. We’ll go to McDonald’s for French fries and have breakfast for supper. And I’ll get better at organizing laundry and sticking to a routine and keeping the right bedtime…and make sure my daughters can always find socks.