I am not my mother.
When I was a teenager I wore that statement like a badge. Why I thought it was a crime to emulate the ways of the woman who gave me life, I’m not sure I’ll ever completely understand.
As a young adult I rejected the life my parents led. I thought it shallow and pretentious and I set out to arrange my existence in contradiction to theirs. (It would be many years before I realized that the person lacking the depth was me, and that the goal of being like my mother was in fact lofty and perhaps even beyond my reach.)
My mother’s house was immaculate. Not once during my childhood did we ever run out of toilet paper or toothpaste and no one ever had to go out at some ungodly hour to buy milk. Her organization was legendary. Every room was decorated to perfection and our home was a showcase of family photos and decorative art. I thought my mother’s obsessive list-making and clothes-folding and paper-filing was the key to understanding her generally anxious nature and I grew up believing that if I ignored details like those, I could relax.
It’s no revolutionary idea that when a woman has children she views her own mother through different eyes. What I remember now looks sharply different than the way it looked to me when I first left home. Her attention to detail that I once saw as incessant now looks like an undying will to provide a comfortable home. What once appeared to be obsession I now remember as commitment. Her need to get everything right and give everything a place provided my brother and I with a safe place where we always knew what to expect. Dinner was at the same time every night and there were always three courses and set tables. No one ever spent extra time looking for things because everything was always where it belonged. And both of my parents were always there to support me when I needed them.
To say that my house isn’t like hers isn’t even close to describing the situation. If I’ve figured out what’s for dinner by six o’clock, it’s been a good day. If we’re not ‘borrowing’ toilet paper from the neighbors (thanks Chris and Cyn) I declare victory. We spend far too many of our precious hours looking for things that were never put away (because they didn’t have a place to be put), and our clothes are always wrinkled. I’ve lived in this house for over eight years and I still have the paper shades on the windows that I put up for privacy when I moved in. My dishes don’t match and we don’t have towel racks in the bathroom. Dinnertime is a revolving door of boys. Some nights Jake is here, others he sleeps at Sean’s. Each morning when I wake, my first thought is—who slept here last night? I wonder what that must feel like for Quinn. I’ve accepted my divorce and take great pride in the true friendship that I maintain with Sean but I still mourn for Jake’s not having the family life that we wished for him. I know we are setting a good example and I believe that the more people who love him the better. But he still has to be away from one of his parents most of the time that he is with the other. I always got to have both of mine.
I know I’m not the first adult to realize that they’ve been influenced by a parent’s behavior to perform in the opposite way (there’s hope for my kids yet). But until recently I had taken pride in my laid-back brand of ‘housekeeping’. I felt that I was setting an example for my kids not to sweat the small stuff. I thought that I was focusing on filling other needs they had. But I was only partly right. While I do think I’ve managed to be more relaxed than my mother, I’ve surely not succeeded in avoiding anxiety. And though I think of my house as having a less than uptight atmosphere I’ve clearly not taught Jake how to be organized (Quinn is too young for me to have screwed up this part of his upbringing—yet). And while I’m teaching him the value of creating things with his own hands I’m not sure he has any understanding of how to respect his own things.
We are not very alike, my mother and me. I am calm where she gets tense. I prefer to be alone while she likes to be surrounded with friends. I like simple and plain and she tends towards frilly and pretty. I opt out where she participates. She doesn’t sit still and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. And all this is fine with me. What isn’t fine with me is that when it comes to how I run my house: I am not my mother.