In my family, the last time a mother helped her adult daughter deliver and raise the daughter’s children was in the 1940’s. When my baby arrived, it made sense that I would be on my own. It’s how I found myself – alone – holding my newborn, standing in the middle of a dinner-mint-green nursery, watching my dog throw up an entire pheasant wing – bones and all. I’d just cleaned baby diarrhea off white curtains. Now I had to tackle a small lake of vomit and feathers.
Americans have an idea that generations of women in a single family will lovingly gather around an expectant new mother. We like to think that women in our families share motherhood stories, wisdom, and advice. We imagine generations colliding over a frothy bassinet eager to hold a newborn. These are the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who want to return often to help mama and baby; maybe they will move in for awhile until the new mother feels confident enough to manage alone. But American motherhood is a lonely experience when you’re dislocated from family. I was particularly aware of my solitude that day in the nursery.
Back in the 1940’s, great-grandmother was there when my own mother was born on the farm. My great-grandmother helped my grandmother with her daughters. One day, my grandfather broke his back out in the field. He recovered, but our farm was rented out and my family relocated to town. Grandmother went to work for a teacher’s salary and grandfather spent his days sweeping and cleaning cages at a small chicken hatchery. And then something uncommon happened: grandmother went through a religious transformation listening to a radio preacher. She lost her sensibilities and that was the end of any mother-daughter wisdom sharing. The fracture shook the next three generations. I imagine that my pioneer ancestors – the immigrants and the Yankee settlers who arrived on the high plains in the 1870’s – thought their descendants would live out there forever. Their dreams for us never predicted that a radio evangelist would scatter us to the wind.
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My baby was born in the year 2000. On that day in the nursery, I was anticipating 12 weeks of time-off, collecting half my paycheck. I knew I’d have to go back to work because we needed the income and health insurance. Even though I wanted to stay home with the baby, there was nothing that could be done. At the 12-week mark, the tyke ended up in a commercial day care until I found a lady who took babies in her home. Leaving him in the care of another was like cutting my heart out with a soup spoon. I told myself that it was good for him to attach to other adults and that working on my administrative assistant “career” was “good for me.”
One very special relationship grew from my return to the workplace. My mother-in-law arranged her own work schedule to make the three-hour drive every week to babysit. She was eager to bond with her first-born grandchild. It gave me peace of mind knowing that he was in the loving care of a competent and fun grandmother. She made this trip for four years and she has a permanent place in my heart and her grandson’s heart too. I like to think that what my mother-in-law did for us was similar to what my great-grandmother did for my grandmother; she showed up faithfully and took care of her grandchildren.
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I’ve visited the family farm where my mother and the generations before her were born. It’s near a family cemetery and 10 minutes from town. That town used to have a couple of clothing stores, grocery stores, a movie theater, and a hat shop. Now it’s a collection of old, vacant storefronts, some houses, a church, and a grain elevator beside a railway-line. My relatives who remained on their land are quiet around me when I visit. These people who stayed take care of the church and graveyards. They greet us cautiously when we arrive for events like funerals or Memorial Day observances. They make us Maid Rites, macaroni salads, and Watergate salad. I wonder if they carry on mother-daughter traditions that my branch of the family lost when grandmother had her religious breakdown.
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When I was a child, I squeezed between my mother’s cousins in the backseat of a two-door Dodge Dart. We were on the big farm where my grandfather had been born. The big farm has a four-square house built by my great-great grandparents. It looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting; a tired farmhouse surrounded by a vacant yard and wind-torn Norwegian pines. There are some oak trees and, everything beyond the trees, is corn.
On the day I was in the Dodge Dart, it was my grandfather’s mother’s funeral: my other great-grandmother. Whoever she was, I knew I loved her because she mailed me Holly Hobby comics from the newspaper and enclosed a half-stick of Double Mint chewing gum. In the backseat of this car, squashed between these big ladies who smelled of plastic purses, cigarettes, and Charlie perfume, I was handed a half-stick of gum. Two, grand clouds of dust rose up behind the trunk – like wedding veils in wind – as we barreled over the gravel road into town.
The church was modern, and the grownups were awkward with each other. Nobody cried, but it felt like something legendary was happening. It felt like we were holding onto something so big it could break at any moment. The plate-glass windows by the door were clad in chrome; these things contained us. We drove to a desolate and small graveyard surrounded by cornfields and gravel. I was car sick. I got another half-stick from one of the big ladies.
And then we are back at the big farmhouse in fresh air and blue sky and wind and tall trees. My cousins are showing me where they found great-grandma when she died. Their eyes are wide and solemn. The adults whisper about “the one” who found grandma. Finding her is sacred. Finding her is something awesome.
We chew our half-sticks and go to be near trees. The prairie wind comforts; it cools my cheeks and funnels through pine branches like an ocean. Shushhh Shushhh. We kids watch these branches sway back and forth; resisting and resilient. Back and forth. We watch currents coil through satin cornfields, twisting green corn leaves so they flash sunlight back into the sky. What we held back inside the church was breaking all around us and becoming something new. Without our great-grandmother, we were becoming new people.
It’s always a time for mothering. Happy Mothering Day to everyone who shows up faithfully and shows up lovingly for our younger generations.
Sara June Jo-Sæbo is the author of an upcoming volume of history and story telling from 1800’s Virginia and Wisconsin and is curator for the Midwest History Project.