I know so many people who say their mother is their best friend, and that gives me mom envy. I always thought it would be so incredible to feel close enough to my mother to want to call her when exciting things happen. I wanted us to be so close that I’d naturally want to share the most critical moments of my life with her. I wanted her to shriek with excitement when I got into all the graduate schools I applied to, when I got a big promotion, or when I decided to get married. I wanted her to celebrate with me and tell me how proud she was. Throw me parties. Tell me she loved me. But that is not the relationship she and I have ever had. My mom never fussed over me. She was not a gift-giver or a big-deal-maker about my birthday or any other milestone. She doesn’t ever tell me she’s proud of me or that she loves me. Still, I tried. I hoped things would change. When I found out I was pregnant with my first baby, I called her right away. Mom, I said. I have something to tell you. I’m pregnant.
The silence that followed told me immediately that the conversation was not going to go as I hoped. Eventually, she asked me how it happened. I said well, we’d been trying to conceive. She said she didn’t know that. I said we got lucky and it happened almost immediately, so I hadn’t thought to tell her or anyone. She said she’d thought I was going to be a career woman. I said, I am a career woman, whatever that is. And now I’m going to be one who is also a mother. I thought you would be happy for me.
More silence. And then… a click. She’d hung up. So there went my fantasy.
My relationship with my mother has always been strained at best, but my pregnancy added a whole new layer of awkward tension. I think that was in part because my parents had adopted me when I was a baby. My parents never shared many details about their infertility with me, but from what little I know, it is stressful and painful and can push marriages to their edge and beyond. Back then, there were no fertility specialists. There was no IVF. My parents just waited for years to adopt a baby, and when the call came, they became parents overnight. My mother had never experienced pregnancy herself.
So I didn’t want to share with my mother how we’d started trying. I didn’t want to talk to her about how my body was changing, what I was feeling, and most of the time she didn’t ask. She didn’t want to know. The few times she addressed my pregnancy at all, she invoked her experience as a labor and delivery nurse from a thousand years ago, using the tone she reserves for me when she is telling me I am doing something wrong. Out of nowhere she would tell me how unsafe sonograms are, or that I shouldn’t exercise too much, and that I should remember to eat for two, generally handing down all kinds of outdated information in as knowing a way as if she’d had a dozen babies of her own or if it were the very word of God.
I had to be honest: I was not going to miraculously find myself with a loving, celebratory mother who wanted to be there in the delivery room to welcome my daughter into the world. Even more than that, my mother had taken her place in a long line of people who gave me unsolicited advice and made all kinds of offensive comments about my body, my baby, my sleep, my eating, my whatever. I did not want to hear it, especially not while I was in labor.
Unlike my adoptive mother, my birth mother was absolutely overjoyed to receive the call and hopped right in the car, driving 200 miles to see us.
So when labor came, I didn’t call her. I didn’t actually think she would show up uninvited, but I couldn’t take the chance. But then just as I thought it was getting going, my contractions subsided. They came and went and came and went. I had five terrible days of stop-and-start prodromal labor, and was extremely relieved that I spared myself that call and all the lectures, the judgement and the constant commentary that would have ensued had she known what was going on. The baby was finally born in the middle of the night five days after I was first declared to be “a fingertip” dilated. We marveled. We cried. We nursed. We slept. And the next day, I called my mother to tell her she was finally a nana.
I also called my birth mother, with whom I’d had a very slowly developing relationship for about 10 years at that point. Unlike my adoptive mother, my birth mother was absolutely overjoyed to receive the call and hopped right in the car, driving 200 miles to see us. She held my baby and cried, and it was the most poignant moment I’d ever had with her. She’d had three pregnancies of her own and had been a foster parent to upwards of 65 babies by the time she held mine, and if I were to take advice from anyone, it would have been her. But she didn’t ask questions. She didn’t judge. She didn’t tell me what to do. She let me have my own experience, and I was so grateful for that.
So 10 months later, when I found myself holding a wet plastic stick with a pink plus on it, the first person I texted a photo to was my birth mother. She responded immediately with “!!!!” and “When can we go shopping?”
It was exactly the response I wanted. I didn’t tell my mother until I was eight weeks pregnant and already showing. This time I said it casually, as she was walking out the door at the end of a visit. You’re going to be a nana again, I said, patting my belly. I smiled and closed the door behind her, not waiting for her response. I didn’t really want to hear it.
My birth mother, on the other hand, continued to celebrate the coming of my second baby and I couldn’t get enough. I texted updates after every midwife visit, random complaints about nausea, how much weight I was gaining, every little detail. She visited with increasing regularity, getting to know our toddler and gradually becoming an important part of our family.
Becoming a parent helped me heal my relationship with my mother because I stopped expecting the impossible. I suddenly understood that there are as many ways to parent as there are parents, and while I wish my mother had been different with me, I came to a place of acceptance around how she actually was. She was never going to change, so if I wanted a more peaceful relationship, I was going to have to do the changing.
I’d heard nothing from my mother and I didn’t reach out to her either.
Having my own baby also improved my relationship with my birth mother in ways I could never have dreamed. She was affectionate, loving, and effusive in ways that I’d always hoped someone — anyone — would be with me. She and I became very close in a short period of time, and I began to envision my second birth going very differently from my first. She wanted to be involved with my children. She wanted to be involved with me. I felt noticed. I felt celebrated. I felt loved. Shyly, I asked her one night on the phone if she would be there when my baby was born, and she said yes.
We didn’t get far in the planning process. On Mother’s Day that year, she was ill. I was five months pregnant and traveling for work. I had brought my family with me, and we were celebrating my second Mother’s Day thousands of miles from home. I’d heard nothing from my mother and I didn’t reach out to her either. My birth mother emailed me saying she loved me and thought I was already a wonderful mother. I emailed her back and said I wished she was with us. She replied and said, she’d have joined us if she felt well enough, but she’d see us very soon. A week later, my phone rang before dawn. She had had a stroke. It was my turn to drive to her, but this time it was to hold her hand throughout an endless night, talking to her, saying thank you — and goodbye. She was gone just as we were getting started again.
Four months later, our baby was born at home. I was with my husband, my midwife, my doula and my daughter. My birth mother wasn’t there in person, but she was there in spirit: we named our baby after her. And then we rested and, in the morning, I called my mother and told her she was a nana again.