The first song that any of us learn to sing is for our mother, and is taught to us by our mother. It’s easy to understand, when you consider the sheer number of hours each day that we spend in physical contact with one another. At first, a child sees her mother as an extension of herself. The part of her that enables her movement through this world and brings to her the things she desires. The yin/yang of this is that, as a child grows and develops, the mother begins to experience the pride and the distance that accompany each tiny step her child takes in life that leads them away from her.
This is the first “song” my mother taught me: the drawing close—the intimate bond of mother and child.
For the first two years of my life, my mother and I were inseparable. I am her oldest child, and we, quite literally, spent every single day together. Not just every day, but nearly every hour of every day. Our bond was so strong that I became inconsolable, when she was hospitalized, for just two days, when my sister, Barb, was born. No one could comfort me. Not my father. Not my grandparents. I cried for hours—until I was exhausted. By the time Mom came home, I was so “homesick” for her that I was running a fever. Miraculously, every symptom was remedied by her return home!
I find it fascinating and sad that, even now, my mom feels she failed me during those first two years of my life, by not preparing me to be away from her. My mom, who devoted every day of her life to my needs, feels she let me down. She taught me to depend on her, to be confident in her love for me, to call out to her in my times of need—but she still regrets forgetting to teach me how to be apart from her.
And so, she began to teach me a new “song”: the act and the art of letting go—showing me the steps to achieving my independence from her.
I know the arrival of my siblings spurred this on. Within three more years, a brother and another sister would join our family—four children under the age of 5! As any mother knows, there are only so many hours in each day and so much that calls out for her attention, including her children.
And so, I learned to be her helper, to answer the cries for attention of my siblings, and to be a responsible big sister. Bit by bit, the dynamic of “the two of us” became “all four kids”. I learned to seek out their companionship to fill in the time she no longer had to lavish on me alone. In learning how to nurture from her, I was learning to bring other people into my life; the companionship she had used to draw me close became the way I learned to let go of her.
Drawing close—days of mirroring her mannerisms, her voice, and her loving care became decades of “that’s how Mom taught me to do it”.
Of course, when I became an adult—when I was so busy making my own way, my own marriage, my own family—I saw only the ways we were different. My eyes were fixed on the trivial things like music and clothing choices or movies that I loved and she hated. But, there were big differences, too. Our marriage experiences were like night and day. My relationship with my father was a constant source of pain for her. I struggled with spiritual issues, at times, and she seemed frustrated with my lackadaisical church attendance. I hid some of my life choices from her—out of fear and respect—fear of discussing our differences and respect for the fact that she might be disappointed in me.
That was a big mistake. When I buried our differences, I buried our opportunity to truly know each other. I avoided being myself with her. Years later, in my 30s and 40s, I wondered how my mother could know so little about who I was and about what truly mattered to me. Even today, there are times when our differences can seem so strong, but on other days, they almost disappear.
Letting go—our relationships and choices drew us apart from one another. Her desire to teach me how to be independent developed into my relentless need to separate myself from her and become my own person.
One thing I am certain of—my mother is the one person whose disappointment in me cuts the deepest. And, her favor and approval are something I continue to crave, even in my 50s.
For two years she was my world. And then, she helped me move out into the world.
And still today we practice the songs of drawing close.
And letting go.