Listen to Your Mother is a national event that celebrates motherhood in all its gutsy glory. I was one of the lucky fourteen who performed an original essay before a live audience at the 2013 inaugural Listen To Your Mother event at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Here are the four directors on the night of the show. Click to see the video of me reading the essay. You can also read the essay below.
My Mother Myself
My mother is not what you’d call a “nurturing” person. Growing up there was no hugging, no kissing, no “I love you.” She was a yeller. And a hitter…with her hand, a belt, a wooden spoon. She came from the “tough love” school of mothering. Her standard line was “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I was 11 when my parents divorced. My mother moved with the younger kids to California and I stayed in Minnesota with my dad. For a long time my mother and I didn’t speak. Eventually, we reached a frosty détente.
When I got pregnant at age 34, I vowed not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. When I told my mother I was pregnant she offered to come to Minnesota for a week after the baby was born to help.
‘Oh no,” I said. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know I don’t have to do it,” she said. “I want to.”
“But…” I quickly tried to think of some excuse to keep her away.
“I’m coming,” she said firmly. “And believe-you-me, you’re gonna’ need the help.”
After a 36-hour labor, my husband Michael and I climbed the front steps of our house with a newborn daughter named Cleome (clay-oh-mee). My mother opened the front door. How much help could she really be, I wondered? This woman who had once broken a wooden spoon over my brother’s butt because she was spanking him so hard?
I spent the first two days struggling with bleeding nipples and latch-on problems. I didn’t bother asking my mother for help since she’d bottle-fed all four of her kids. Things were mostly going OK except for one little thing–I could not get Cleome to burp. I put her on my shoulder and patted her on the back just like the nurses had showed me in the hospital…but nothing ever happened. By day three, she still hadn’t burped and she started crying and would not stop. My mother had gone shopping and Michael was at work. I did everything I could think of, but Cleome just kept wailing. Really hard.
When my mother walked into the kitchen holding two bags of groceries, Cleome was howling in my arms and I was exhausted and near panic.
“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.
“I don’t know!”
“Oh sweetie,” my mother says to Cleome. “What’s wrong? Did you miss your Grandma?”
I wanted to kill her.
“It’s gas.” My mother says. “Did she have a burp after you nursed her?”
“I tried, but she won’t burp!”
“Show me how you’re doing it.”
“Fine.” I say, and I show her. Cleome just screamed louder.
“Let me try,” my mother says.
No! I immediately flash back to memories of her hitting me. But Cleome was bucking in my arms and I started feeling something besides panic. Something…dangerous. I felt a rush of adrenaline and a terrible urge to fling this howling creature across the room. Alarms went off in my brain and I thrust Cleome out to my mother.
“Fine, take her!” I said.
Take this screaming, writhing, pinched-faced thing. You two deserve each other, I was thinking.
“Oh you poor thing,” my mom says to Cleome. “Let’s get all that nasty air out of your tummy.”
My mom sat and perched Cleome sideways on her lap. She gripped Cleome’s chin and cheeks with one hand, and began thumping her hard on the back with the other.
Cleome looked like some helpless storybook imp being tortured by the mean old, baby-eating witch.
It was too much for me. I stepped in to snatch Cleome away when all of a sudden my squirming, squalling, sour-faced bundle of joy let loose a huge and very unladylike BELCH!!!. She immediately stopped crying and looked around with a pleasantly startled expression on her face–a little milk-tinged drool slipping down her chin.
“There.” My mother said. “Feeling better sweet girl?”
My mom gave her a couple more thumps, stood up, gave Cleome a wet smack on the cheek and handed her back to me.
“You’d never burp on my shoulder either,” she said.
I couldn’t believe how relieved I felt. I watched my mom unpack groceries and something in me melted a little.
And then my mother said, “All right Mom, take your daughter and both of you go lay down and take a nap. Grandma’s gonna’ wash the kitchen floor. It’s filthy!”
That’s all it took. Not only did she offer to wash my kitchen floor, but she called me Mom. And she called herself Grandma. It took her saying these words out loud for me to suddenly understand that it was true. It didn’t have to be about me and my mother anymore. It could be about Cleome, this tiny new life we both loved. I didn’t need a not-so-great mother in my life. But Cleome needed a pretty-good Grandmother in hers.
“Go on,” my mom said. “Go lie down and then take a shower. You look like hell.”
Obviously my mother wasn’t going to change magically into Glinda the Good Witch. But she was there to help. She had just offered to clean my filthy kitchen floor! And believe-you-me…I let her.