Our Mothers


The name of the daughter I never had was . . . well, it kept changing, but it always billowed off my tongue like clouds of tulle: Sabrina. Calista. Alyssia. Madeleine.

I’d always been a girly girl, you see: partial to pink, ponies, pajama parties and princesses. And I’d always thought that, naturally, I someday would be raising a cluster of raging estrogen just like me. I had watched as my mother and grandmother grew old together, and I looked forward to having a daughter who could finish my sentences and would know just what to order when I could no longer read the menu.

When the first of my two sons was born, I was blissfully unaware of the changes to come. Our world was a bubble just big enough to hold the two of us. Everything he needed, I could supply, and thus my own crevices of need were filled.

Then my son sprouted walking legs, and my second son was born. Now, after almost 13 years as a mother, I have resigned myself to the fact that boys—my boys, anyway—spill over into spaces I am not equipped to contain. They make noise for noise’s sake. They chew their sandwiches into gun shapes. They throw their underwear into the ceiling fan just to watch it fly. They have an aversion to motherly affection in public. Today, as I write this, they’re outside lighting smoke bombs—and it isn’t even the Fourth of July. They just like the stink.

And here’s the part that is so unfair: Just when I have come to fully enjoy and embrace this boyness (and believe me, it is an acquired taste), I realize I have to let go. Yes, I read all the books, and no matter how good a mother I fancy myself to be, it is the father who must teach his sons how to become men. I feel my boys slip away a little more with every pocketknife I don’t get to show them how to use and every campout I don’t get to go on. (They don’t want me there because I won’t let them dive off the rocks, and their dad does. Plus I would make them change their socks.) It is a hard thing to know that while a good father is defined by the things he does with his boys, the mark of a good mother to boys is measured by what she doesn’t do (don’t smother, don’t be a mother bear, don’t criticize, don’t disrespect their father), when by definition as a female I am built for doing so much. In that way, the secret to raising boys is like making airy pancakes: The less you handle the batter, the better.

So from here on out, in my role as a mother, I have to live a counterintuitive life—to pull back when I want to reach out, to keep mum when I want to scream. I worry that I’m not that steely. But my reward, if I do it right, will be sons who will spend at least as many holidays with me as they do with their mothers-in-law, and who will kiss my cheek when no one is looking.         —Dayna Dunteman

The two children we were planning to adopt had arrived only two weeks earlier, and the 6-year-old’s gritty protectiveness of his 2-year-old sister was already driving me out of my mind. Not that I could blame him. We were told he had kept her alive her first year, then saw her only once a month, when a social worker picked them up at their separate foster homes and let them play together for a few hours.

He cringed whenever I touched her. He pushed his way between us on the couch at story time. He beat me to everything as I reached for diaper, wipe, lotion, trash lid, faucet. I knew his flashing eyes watched out for a hundred ways I could harm her, and he set off twice that many crises to deflect my attention. 

The rainy cold held us captive. Muddy shoes and sticky hands reached impossible places on every wall. The damp churn of laundry piles was as constant as the rain.

On the first day of the third week, the rain gave way to a lighter gray sky. “To the park,” I announced. My new son rushed up to grab the handles of the stroller from me, only to find that the handles were small and pink. It was a doll stroller, outfitted with a Dressy Bessy doll with an expectant expression. “Bessy needs to get out, don’t you think?” I said to him with a conspiratorial smile. “Would you please strap her in and meet me on the front sidewalk?”

With eyebrows arched, he complied. By the time I jacketed, buckled and wheeled his sister to the curb, he had taken off with the doll baby, entranced by the lightness and speed of the toy stroller. Block after block, the pink wheels careened from sidewalk to tree roots to stairs to railings. Wet leaves clogged the wheels, which squeaked as they scraped and skidded. Muddy waves splashed up from puddles onto Bessy’s tidy buttons and snaps.

“Good job waiting for the green light,” I said as I caught up to him, thrilled we had made it this far. His hands remained tight on the pink handles, secure in their mission. We crossed 30th Street, then Alhambra Boulevard, and headed for the playground. I felt an excited bouncing in the stroller below, no doubt brought on by the sight of the swings.

We each unharnessed our charges and lifted them up into the bucket swings. “Want to trade?” I asked him, not sure how far to take the game. He nodded, so I adjusted Bessy’s sun hat and gave her a gentle push. He grabbed hold of the chains and pulled his sister as high as he was tall, then let her go in a big swoosh. She gurgled and shrieked appreciatively. “You’re a great big brother,” I said. He shifted his weight to the other foot, and said, “Thanks.”           —Elaine Smith

The Reluctant Mother

The three little words my wife Jane most remembers her mother saying throughout her childhood were not “I love you.” They were “Well, nooooo, Janie.”

In fact, Jane doesn’t remember her mother ever saying “I love you” until, at age 36, Jane herself became a mom. Giving birth apparently was the one thing my wife had done up to that point in her life that rated this highest of emotional testimonials. But it almost never happened.

Jane was raised to think that everything she did somehow fell short of the mark—though just where that mark was located was a secret known only to her mother. The presumption of failure even extended to simple domestic tasks.

For example, there is apparently only one way to properly scrub the outside of a metal teakettle, even if it’s an antique and isn’t supposed to be scrubbed at all. This proved to be a watershed moment during one of my mother-in-law’s early visits to our home. “From now on, when other women come to your house, you won’t need to be embarrassed,” she announced triumphantly after scrubbing away all of the kettle’s characteristic markings. (To be fair, on that same visit she did compliment my wife on the way Jane placed toilet tissue on the bathroom roller to allow the sheets to be drawn down from the top instead of up from the bottom. “Well, at least you learned one thing I taught you,” Jane’s mother said, without a trace of irony.)

Given my wife’s upbringing, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reluctance to increase the population of our home. When the subject of having children came up from time to time during the first seven years of our marriage, she hinted that she felt unsuited for motherhood. Sometimes it was a simple matter of changing the subject or recasting the issue: “But we’re going to Europe next year.” “We’ll be late for our dinner reservation.” “What about my TV career?” (Jane was a reporter and anchor on KCRA 3 in the late 1970s.) At other times, she would couch her misgivings in sarcasm. Sitting one evening in an elegant restaurant whose solemn hush was disrupted by a crying baby, she glanced over at the infant and the parents, then said dryly to me, “How rewarding.”

So I stopped lobbying for parenthood, figuring that if someone wanted so much to avoid it, much less discuss it, maybe she knew something about herself that I either didn’t (or refused to) get.

But everything changed the year we turned 35. Toddlers and babies had always been drawn to Jane’s wide smile and warm, conspiratorial voice. But she’d usually resisted their entreaties when they waddled or crawled to her. Now, out of the blue, she not only began to respond but also to initiate contact.

“Well, is that your bankie?” she asked an unknown cherub clutching a tiny floral-print cover for dear life as we strolled through a store.

Then one day as we jogged around McKinley Park, we spotted a young mother sitting with her toddler next to the pond. The mother was helping the child throw bread crumbs to the ducks. “I really want one of those,” Jane said to me with a weird, merry laugh as we panted by.
Somehow, I knew she didn’t mean a duck.

In the summer of 1985, we found out Jane was pregnant. Shortly after our daughter Jessica arrived on Easter Sunday in 1986, Jane quit her job to become a full-time mom. For the next 20 glorious, hilarious years, she and our daughter giggled, tickled, wrestled, did each other’s hair and makeup, painted, sculpted, shopped, talked and went to the movies together. Today, as Jessica prepares to start her final year at UC Berkeley, they still speak twice a day. Each is the other’s best friend.
Guess what their favorite three little words are.           —Ed Goldman

Listening to Mom

There aren’t statistics on this sort of thing, but my mom must have been one of the only mothers in America who advised her daughter not to have children. It was just one of the many nonconformist manifestos she would burn into my brain, along with “Don’t get married; just live with him” and “There are no ‘have tos’ in life.”

For the first 47 years of her life, my mom followed the rules. She was as wholesome as the Shirley Temple movies and Midwestern values she grew up on—a straight-A student and the valedictorian of her high school class. Had she not become pregnant, she might have studied English at UC Berkeley. Instead, she became a good little wife in the classic 1950s tradition, getting the roast on the table promptly at 5 and doting on her three children. “You treat them like kings and queens,” my father once huffed. Her calm retort: “That’s what they are to me.”

Leaving my father was just a matter of time—and timing. It was “unthinkable,” she said, to go until we kids were grown and out on our own. I was the baby and the last to leave, sparking my mother’s long-suppressed rebellion. She became a real estate agent, took lit classes and took a lover. She was finally free.

I guess I must have been listening, or subconsciously taking notes. I did get married, but only briefly, and as I recall, one of the things that made me run was when he said something about putting “a bun in the oven.”
I’m often told I would have made a great mom, and it’s probably true; I spend hours counseling my nieces and my boyfriend’s daughters about boys and career choices and how to deal with a friend who is “acting like a douche bag” (their words, not mine). I’m also well aware that this precarious freelance life of mine goes against all conventional wisdom, and that picking up the bass guitar at 48 lies somewhere outside the margins of what most consider “normal.”

But I honestly believe I’m living the life that’s meant for me—or, as the New Agers call it, “an authentic life.” For this, and for so much more, I have my mother to thank.      —Cathy Cassinos-Carr

The Perfect Gift

I always felt sorry for kids who had birthdays around Christmas. But then I married my wife Pam, whose birthday falls around Mother’s Day. When our son Kyle was born, Mother’s Day officially became a Big Deal.

She’s always enjoyed a birthday party (and the cake that goes with it), and she’s undeniably proud and happy to be a mom. Even if these “holidays” both fall on the same date, they both matter much; it’s clear that they are two distinct, separate events.

So my challenge is making sure to treat them as such. My strategy: Always include a few of her favorite things and mix in a few genuine surprises, stuff she wouldn’t expect or that I figure will at least raise a smile.

One birthday I gave her a big bouquet of flowers; two days later, for Mother’s Day, I bought another bouquet and used all the petals to create a colorful path down the hallway to the dining room, where coffee, newspaper and scones with fresh lemon curd awaited. That worked.

Pam likes to go out to breakfast, and while that’s traditional on Mother’s Day, it’s also a guaranteed jam at most restaurants. So I might “take her out” for a homemade breakfast served on the patio. I might even create a little menu on the home PC, so she can choose what she wants to eat.

When Pam turned 50, on a Saturday, I organized a surprise birthday party, inviting a gang of friends and family—including Betsy, a longtime friend from Idaho—and instructed everyone to bring a bouquet. This went over great; our living room looked a bit like a florist shop. Betsy stayed overnight in our guestroom and celebrated Mother’s Day with us, too. All in all, it was a pretty good one-two combination.

Giftwise, I avoid doubling up: clothes as presents one day or the other, not both. And unless Pam has an express desire, I carefully consider anything utilitarian. Maybe high-thread-count bedsheets or really good gardening tools. No toaster ovens or vacuum cleaner bags. (Honest, I know guys who’ve gone there, to their grief.)

This year, I’m thinking birthday dinner out (it’s a weeknight) at a restaurant that will be discreet in serving a little chocolate rum cake, candles arranged in the shape of a heart. For Mother’s Day, I’m thinking road trip to a nice place where she can enjoy spa treatments all day long. She’s never had that; maybe she’s due.            —Alan Humason   

Other People’s Kids

Every Mother’s Day, I get a card from Andy, who is not my son, though he feels like one. More than a decade ago, he and his stuff moved into my house while he attended the sheriff’s academy. He stayed about a year (his stuff stayed longer), and though his mother is my best friend and he didn’t need another mom, he adopted me.

We bonded over his breakup with his first girlfriend, the getting-back-together part, the inevitable final breakup. He wept on my sofa, worried he’d never find the right woman, then met Tiffany at the academy. One day, I came home to find her cuffing him in my living room. They swore it was just practice.
They got married in Scotland, and now that they have a son, Evan, I’m as proud as any grandma. A young grandma, that is.

I have spent much of my grownup life hanging with, caring for and loving other people’s kids, and I am better for it. Though I chose not to have my own children, they showed up anyway—from my friend’s kids, Ryan, Daniel and Sean, who often accompanied me on kid-friendly stories when I was a reporter many years ago, to my own niece and nephew, Lauren and Kevin, who recently took me and their grandma to see Harry Potter at the IMAX.

After Andy left my back bedroom, Rebecca occupied it for a time while attending Sac State. R. is legendary for tracking down Noodles, my ditzy, 17-year-old cat, who had been missing for days. She was driving when she saw him, stopped the car and yelled out the window, “Noodles! You moron!” She grabbed him and brought him home. I was so grateful.

Every summer, R. now plans a co-birthday party for her mom and me. (Our birthdays are only a couple of weeks apart.) Bless her.

I am grateful that these kids have chosen to be in my life because, like animals, if they don’t like you, they’re not gonna hang around. And living with college-age kids is great—they need a safe place to begin to stretch their wings, and they can drive and feed themselves (mostly). They don’t pay rent—they just have to promise to drive me to the store when I’m old.

A friend came to visit a couple of years ago with his two young daughters and said, “You’re so good with kids—and you don’t have any!” To him, people without children never wanted them, are uncomfortable around them. I know plenty of parents who, once their kids are grown, have no interest in children. Parenthood does not always translate to “good with kids.”

Me, I’m delighted when my friend Timi calls and asks if I can spend time with her 9-year-old daughter, Samantha. Sam’s the kind of girl I wish I had been: She’s fearless, loves basketball and ballet and does both well, loves being a smart girl and has tons of self-confidence. She and her sister Jessica are two of my favorite neighbors.

Recently, Lauren, my college-freshman niece, said, “Aunt Jan, is your offer still good for me to live here?”
I didn’t hesitate. “You betcha, darlin’.”
It’s what I do.           —Jan Haag                                                                                                   

In 1987, my son Max was born with his eyes wide open. He was quite jaundiced, not unusual for newborns. But after his first checkup, my husband and I received heartrending news: Max had a congenital liver disease. A transplant was his only hope for survival. He was put at the top of the list of those waiting for organs. The hospital gave us a pager so we could rush to the hospital in case we got lucky. We knew if we were lucky, some other family wasn’t.

We tried to live a normal life. Max and I watched butterflies in our tiny backyard. He played on the living room floor with his 13-year-old stepbrother. My mother rocked him with warm, loving arms. My husband made him smile as he changed Max’s diapers. He delighted us all with his grave, watchful eyes and endearing baby noises.

Incredibly, about six months after his birth, the pager went off. A liver had become available from a child in Wisconsin.

We hurried to the hospital, full of hope tempered by anxiety. But when the doctors finally finished the long surgery, their faces were troubled. Max was still alive, but the donor child’s liver had been too big for his small abdomen. Six days later, on our wedding anniversary, Max died in my arms.

His death left holes everywhere—in our family, in our marriage, even physically. I remember feeling oddly for months that something essential was gone from my body. A cold emptiness was all that was left.
People told us we could “just have another,” not realizing how callous that was. I was afraid to have another child that I’d love and lose.

Difficult years followed—years full of job changes, marriage woes and teenage angst. It seemed Max’s death was just the first of many tremors to hit our family.

Then, in 1999, my daughter Isabella was born. She’s now a delightful 6-year-old with a strong sense of self, full of curiosity, humor and love. She has brought our family full circle.
My husband says, “She completes me.”

Her half-brother Glenn, who is married to a lovely woman and has two boys of his own, treats her with wonder and tenderness. Isabella and my mother are marvelously close and relish each other’s company. And, for me, she’s filled that empty ache inside. Her sweet trust in me makes me a better person.
But we haven’t forgotten Max. This summer, my family will support me as I bicycle in the 3,000-mile Race Across America as part of a UC Davis Medical Center team raising awareness and money for organ donation and transplant research. Max’s short life brought us joy and was not in vain.
—Jocelyn Isidro