When Mothers Suffer

Happy Mother’s Day! As you might expect, my thoughts have been full of my mother and also my grandmothers. I like this old photo of my mom, JoAnne, and her mother, Erma, because it’s not posed and seems vulnerable and “real.” It’s hard to condense a few thoughts for this post concerning the immense topic of motherhood and all that it means to me, but my mind keeps going back to a few memories again and again, which tells me these need to be expressed.

I’m learning that the selflessness that generally accompanies motherhood is something that has to be learned (for me anyway). Sure, when that first baby comes, the inclination to be selfless comes naturally, springing from the tender feelings you feel for that precious child. But the truth is, those tender feelings don’t hang around on a constant basis, and when they are absent, it is so much harder to choose what’s best for the child over what I want.

This is an area in which my own mother is a saint. She’d be the first to admit that she’s not perfect, but the consistent pattern of selflessness that she has shown over my entire life is awe-inspiring. She had to have wanted that last piece of pizza or cake all those times, but she always offered it to me or my brothers. (And of course, immature as we were, we always took it.) What’s even more amazing to me was that I almost never saw her spend her time or resources on anything self-indulgent. I never saw her watch movies or TV (unless she was simultaneously exercising or folding laundry). She never asked for “alone time” away from the family or went on outings with friends. She never spent money on anything for herself that was unnecessary. I don’t think those things are bad; they can, in fact, be very therapeutic for a mom if done responsibly. But, unlike me, my mom would never have taken 3-4 days away from her young family to indulge in a road trip to the Shakespeare festival to attend six plays with friends. (Although I feel a twinge of guilt for these trips, I’m not going to give them up! I’ll write more in the future about the need to feed our souls—fill our own buckets—so that there is even more of ourselves to give and share with others.)

My mother knows how to walk the line of serving her children without spoiling them. She made sure we knew how to do things for ourselves, so at those times that she chose to do certain things for us out of love, we knew love was motivating her, and that it was not that she thought us incapable. I have some brothers who still say, “I’m capable of getting it myself!” when she offers to bring them a glass of water or something else small. I know they simply don’t want her to exert herself on their behalf, but I’ve learned to just gratefully allow her to serve me, since “acts of service” is her primary love language. Not allowing her to express love in these ways might feel to her that we’re not accepting of her or her love. Furthermore, what I’ve learned from the Give and Receive Cycle is that merely giving isn’t enough. You also need to consciously receive what others give, in order to allow your cycle and theirs to keep turning and blessing you both.

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Here is a photo of my mom and my first baby on vacation. My mom had made that particular little dress for me when I was a baby. I’m able to more fully appreciate her now that I’m increasingly realizing what loving my own children entails. I didn’t understand my mother’s love for me until I became a mother myself. I could really go on for several more paragraphs about how wonderful my mom is and how much I love being a mother, but I feel an urgency to share something much less fun to write about. It’s time for a confession. I’m sure we’ve all hurt our mothers at some point. As a mother, I fully expect my children to hurt me; it’s a question of “when” and not “if.” But the reason I feel so terrible about what I did to my mom was that I hurt her ON MOTHER’S DAY. And because, although I didn’t mean for her to get hurt, my bad behavior was to blame, so I can’t dismiss it as purely an accident. And because I didn’t apologize to her (at least, not until much later).

I had been a teenager, and I don’t remember the details very clearly, but I was fighting with one of my brothers over some kind of big, heavy, solid thing. My mom was sitting on the couch near where we were struggling over possession of this object, and as I finally wrenched it from my brother’s hands, it collided with my sweet mother’s head. I still remember the sickening sound and feel of the wood striking her forehead, and how she cried out in shock and pain. I dropped the thing and ran to my room and cried. When I came out and saw the huge, ugly, black-and-blue lump on her head, I felt so terrible that I wouldn’t acknowledge what I had done. My poor mother had thought that I didn’t care, or that I had wanted to hurt her.

Every time I’ve seen my mother really suffering, I have been too sad to be able to find any words to say anything at all. It seemed so cruel that someone so angelic must suffer that I was completely floored by the injustice of it. I remember a time when she was suffering horrible abdominal pain, which landed her in the hospital for a few days. I regret that, although I had been present, I wasn’t a source of much comfort to her because I was so lost in my own feelings of confusion and dismay. I’m sorry for that, Mom. I wish I had been a more caring and attentive daughter to you during your difficult times.

Thinking back on these times reminded me of an experience my paternal grandmother had had as a young girl, which she shared with me near the end of her life as I interviewed her for her personal history. Here is a photo of her with the first four of her eight children. (My father is the little boy to the far left.)

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The first thing Gert could really recall about her mother was an incident that happened on a cold winter laundry day, when she was very young. Her baby sister, only three months old, had been in a basket right next to the wood-burning stove, on top of which was a big pot of boiling water. Her mother didn’t know that someone had screwed the steam vent shut on the pressure cooker. She went to open the lid and the steam and water burst out all over her. The steam burned her face and body very badly. The steam and water had gotten trapped in her tight sweater where it continued to burn her. Miraculously, just moments before this happened, Gert had heard the baby crying, so she had taken her out of the basket and happened to walk far enough away that they were both unharmed at the time of the accident. Little Gert hadn’t known what to do; her mother was suffering so badly, but she went for help.

My great-grandmother was in the hospital a long time. She had to get skin grafts and wasn’t able to move her arms because some of the skin had been welded to her body. After a long time she got well, but she always had the scars and limited use of her arms. Gert was so glad that she had been able to save the baby, having picked her up at just the right time. (The basket that the baby had been in had gotten boiling water in it, a testament to the horror of what might have occurred otherwise.) Gert says this experience was the biggest shocker of her childhood, and she was so shaken with emotion as she told me this story that I knew it had haunted her for almost her entire life. Seeing our mothers suffer to any degree is probably one of the most tormenting experience anyone can have.

Just today I was reading about an experience a man told at his mother’s funeral. As a young boy, he had been canning peaches with his mother and accidentally spilled some of the scalding juice onto her hand. She calmly went to the sink, ran her hand under cold water, and applied balm and bandages to the burn. She didn’t yell at her son or get angry at his mistake, which certainly had caused her great pain and discomfort.

Because I know just how just how hard it can be on children to see their mothers suffer, the lesson here for me is to selflessly consider their feelings, even when I may be in great pain myself. I look back in regret at all the times I’ve sobbed and cried in front of them. I had caused their little hearts to grieve through my own indulgent display of emotion, which I should have allowed in private rather than in their uncomprehending presence. I’m filled with guilt at all of the times I’ve yelled at them in anger when they’ve accidentally hurt me through their rambunctious behavior. From now on, I will strive for self-control as I seek to do what’s best for my children and conserve the tender energies of their hearts.

I’ll leave you with some wise words of advice from my grandma Gert:

“Enjoy your life. Follow what you know is true. You can do a lot for others and bring happiness to yourself, too.  Love your partner in marriage to the fullest extent and raise your children in the light of the gospel and love them fully and guide them back to our Heavenly Father; they are precious not only to you, but also to us who have gone on before them!”

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