Tuesday, May 16, 2006

When Mother Is Superwoman

On Sunday afternoon, I went to a low-key poetry reading honoring a local poet and friend who passed away last February. Mel was a keen wit and could rhyme almost any word in the English language. I knew she had lived in Japan for a time while her husband, a professor of history at both Stanford and Cal, was doing research while on sabbatical. I didn't know she had been born in Calcutta, spoke fluent French as well as Japanese, taught several different subjects (including English and Philosophy) both at the high school and college levels, sang in different choirs, and acted in community theater.

I knew she had two children--we discussed our experiences of motherhood--and grandchildren she absolutely doted on. I also knew that she nursed her husband through Alzheimer's until nearly the bitter end.

She refused "to go gently into that good night," driving herself to writing workshops and living independently until the end, though her health was rapidly failing. In fact, she entered a poem in the Poets' Dinner Contest in January. You must be present at the dinner--held in April this year--to win. When the winning Third Place poem was announced, someone realized it was Mel's. After a hurried conference at the head table, an exception was made and Mel's poem was awarded the prize.

Mel did not hand out her praise lightly. So when she told me that she particularly enjoyed one of my poems at an open reading or that she thought I should consider publishing a chapbook (which means I had enough decent poetry for a 50 page book), I felt that maybe I wasn't quite the hack I often think I am.

At the poetry memorial, I met Mel's daughter. I confessed to her how often I felt in awe of everything her mother knew and how important her mother's praise was to me. And that I wished I had half Mel's knowledge, wit, and ability.

"Imagine what it's like being her daughter!" her daughter replied.

It must be intimidating to have such a talented mother. Mel often downplayed her abilities. "It's nothing," she'd say. For a daughter, though, it's something. And sometimes too much.

My own mother is a Superwoman herself, though not in writing poetry. Her talent is in keeping her sanity while raising six kids and sending us through Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, and college without losing her sense of herself or her sanity. She was, at various times, president of the parish Women's Guild, a Girl Scout leader, a Den Mother, the school librarian, the office coordinator for the CCD program, the 8th Grade CCD teacher, room mother. She made time to take a class on the Documents of Vatican II. She took a couple of college courses. She had been a secretary and a bookkeeper before I was born--when she went back to work, she made the transistion from a manual to an electric typewriter and then to a word processor and, finally, to a computer. She's made the transition from wife and mother to grandmother and widow.

I am better educated, better off materially, and have fewer kids to cope with than my mother did, and I feel like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, running ever faster just to stay in place. There's no way I can be as competent as my mother is!

And then DD#1 or DD#2 (who hasn't quite knocked me off my pedestal) will say something and I wonder: do they consider me Superwoman? What standards are they setting for themselves based on my example?

Do we ever get out of this cycle?