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No Mothering Required

If motherhood had a job description, the hours would be 24/7, the pay nothing you could take to the bank, and the vacation/sick time nonexistent.

Advice for new mothers is plentiful. Amazon shows nearly 14,000 book titles for the search term “becoming a mother.” Those three words deliver 170 million results on Google.

Yet a “successful” mother is one who eventually works herself out of a job by raising a child who needs her less and less. As the responsibilities of motherhood wind down, there’s little guidance about “unbecoming a mother” and surviving the painful wrench as children shift from needing Mommy to ignoring her. Some pull away abruptly or rudely, while others grow cold or distant. It’s part of the separation process but nonetheless hard to endure.

We’re told the big break occurs when children leave for college, but empty nesters know that’s a myth. Unbecoming begins years earlier with the onset of adolescence. It’s like the square dance step do-si-do in which two face-to-face partners move forward, pass each other, sidestep, then move back and return to their original positions. For a while, as each moves ahead, they lose sight of each other, and it’s only blind faith and the pattern of the dance that bring them back together.

All this went through my head when a friend shared her first “unbecoming” experience via social media.

A former journalist and deputy director at a federal agency, Joanne Bamberger shifted careers after she became a mother. PunditMom, her blog on politics and motherhood, earned national attention and launched her as a political strategist. She published a book on women, politics and social media, writes for several top-tier political websites and frequently appears on cable news networks.

Joanne impresses everyone she encounters—except her daughter. I felt her pain when she announced on Facebook: “As a mom of a 12-year-old, I now understand irrelevance.”

That word hadn’t been part of her family narrative when we first met five years ago inside a restroom in the Empire State Building. A bathroom break during a media training seminar gave us the chance to discover common ground. She’d been a news anchor at a TV station in Utica; I’d been a news intern at a competing station. We were both journalists, bloggers and mothers of daughters. But the similarities ended there.

Joanne’s 7-year-old regarded her mom as her best friend. My own daughters (13 and 16) were already in the shoulder-shrugging “whatever” phase. From where Joanne stood, she couldn’t imagine a future in which her daughter wasn’t on her side. From where I stood, I was a mother in noun only. The verb—the act of
mothering—was fast becoming obsolete in my life.

According to Merriam-Webster, to “mother” means “to attend to the needs and comforts of.” But what happens when those needs are on the decline? During adolescence, children depend less on parents and become more self-reliant, shrugging off those proverbial apron strings. A mother’s mistake lies in believing they’re all she has to keep her child by her side. By removing the apron and opting for collaboration with rather than service to her child, a woman enters the most rewarding phase of motherhood: the adult-to-adult exchange in which care and comfort flows both ways.

An empty nest and five years of do-si-do-ing with my daughters taught me that as we move forward on our separate paths, we will lose sight of each other for a time. And that’s OK because family is a square dance in which we’re partnered for eternity. Although we may move past each other and focus elsewhere for a time, we eventually circle back to where we started–face to face.

The daughters who found me irrelevant five years ago are now 18 and 21, happy to be home for the summer and comfortable discussing the big and small details of their lives. They need me less yet love me more. Free of my need to “take care” of them, they have established a new dynamic that includes occasionally mothering me—a role they embrace.

After years of doing, at the other end of motherhood I learned to undo. Although it seems counterintuitive, unbecoming requires us to sit back, love our children unconditionally, and just wait. Thomas Wolfe was wrong when he said, “You can’t go home again.” If we continue to keep a light in the window and a key under the welcome mat at the front door, they will come home.            

Linda Lowen is a freelance writer for MSN.com and the New York Times Company, where she writes and edits the Women’s Issues site at About.com. She lives in Syracuse with her husband, two daughters who come and go, and her mini schnauzer. Maggie Lamond Simone is on vacation.


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