I thought I needed an understudy. I used the term ‘family of choice’ to decide to hold auditions for stand-in mothers. I must have been out sick when they taught us that nobody is perfect, that sometimes you have to ask for what you need, that mothers are simply you and I plus twenty years. I seem to have missed the lesson detailing the ways in which all of us are perfectly imperfect. And so I walked through many years trying on new mothers for size.
There was Kristan, the therapist I saw when I was sixteen, whom I thought hung the moon. She was young and naive enough to try to save her motley crew of patients, even when we had no desire to be saved. She, as other helping professionals I’ve met throughout the years, had the ability to listen and empathize without the background noise that my mother carried – the fear of an illness she couldn’t cure, the pain of watching a daughter suffer, the sadness amassed while seeing dreams for her child pile up unfulfilled. Kristan ignored the boundaries of therapy and stepped into my life, showing up for me when I couldn’t see through the self-imposed blindfold that my own parents were right there reaching for my hand. At the time, I considered her unprofessional invitations to meet for coffee and offers for legal adoption proof that she really loved me, and didn’t just care in return for the check I handed her after our 50 minutes.
And so, when mother’s day rolled around, she got a heartfelt card as I attempted to snag her as my own, to convince her to love me more than just another difficult patient. Looking back with my own therapy degree, I see her not as a savior, but rather as an inexperienced counselor, armed with good intentions, but leaving more wreckage in her wake. And yet, as a teenager desperate for this unconditional love that I thought I lacked, I adored her with child eyes.
There was my 12th grade English teacher, Patty, who also took me under her wing, whether from pity or her own loneliness, I'm still not sure. Again, with nonexistent boundaries, she schlepped me to her house, took me out for vanilla diet cokes, and invited me to spend lunches in her classroom while we discussed writers, poets, and…her sex life…obviously, this adopting mothers with no clear vision of appropriateness is a pattern which only comes into focus in retrospect. But again, I mistook her favoritism for mothering, and I added her to the list of women I called on Mother’s Day.
There were professors, camp counselors, doctors, and family friends that I viewed with scholarly eyes, taking mental notes on how they walked, how they answered the phone, how they carried themselves as they traversed their lives. I stood at their feet and waiting to be enfolded in their motherly arms. I signed them up as role models, enrolling in their courses: How to be a Woman, How to be an Adult, How to love a Stranger, How to offer Care. At various points, they all made it on to the roster of Mother’s Day calls.
There is only one other woman who earned the silver medal, the title of Mother #2. Auntie Sandy is no understudy. She didn’t flit in for a season and then disappear. She didn’t stage a coup but rather stood behind her sister and caught me when I bypassed my mother’s arms. She knew me: knew the toddler who splashed in the tub, knew the kindergartener who rode her bike all the way to Auntie Sandy’s house around the corner, knew the Bat Mitzvah girl, and knew the adolescent who felt lost amidst the shuffle. She and my uncle Seymie opened their home to me when I came up against locked doors, ignoring whether I was the one slamming them shut. She loved my mother, her younger sister, and so, without question or requirements, she included me as her third daughter. She was and still is a certainty for me, a fact of love and support no matter how far I slide. She calls without agenda, sharing daily events and always asking how I am, what I need, offering her shoulder should I need a place to rest my head. And because I speak the language of family, I translate the spaces amidst her words, knowing the message is one of unquestionable support, unending love, and a willingness to find me should I get lost in dangerous neighborhoods. Out of the various women who wandered in and out of my life, Sandy is stands still, the reigning champion Mother #2.
So, I cast these other women and allowed them to take center stage, and all the while my mom stood by my side. She propped me up even when she must have felt wounded and threatened by these women I looked to for love. I collected a band of women who filled in the holes that ironically were made by my own hand. I was unable to reach that stage where we see our parents not as perfect Gods, impeccable figures sitting on a pedestal, but rather as human souls doing the best that they can with what they’ve got. I viewed the world through a black and white lens and diagnosed myself color blind. If my parents weren’t perfect, then they were not what I needed at all. If there details of love that I couldn’t find in my home, then I needed to go and find a new set of parents…preferably perfect parents.
Perfectionism, that impossible standard is a set up every time. I searched, I collected, I adopted these mothers, and one by one, they tumbled off the pedestal the closer I got to them. It was only then, surrounded by fragments and broken bones, that I realized it: the only one still standing by my side was the mother that had been there all along, patiently waiting for me to take off the blindfolds and identify the hand that I gripped was hers. Sure, there was that fall from grace, that eventual understanding that no one person, including my mother, can be my everything. That there will be crabby days and moments of frustration, that there’s a reason why we need an entire village to raise a child.
It took me a while to comprehend that we are all walking around with holes, that the perfect childhood doesn’t exist, and that we all seek out pseudo parents sometimes for an extra dose of parenting. It took me a while to know that the task of growing up involves a smashing of the pedestal as we try to prop up our parents on equal ground.
It took me a while to see in color, to insert the contact lens that depict what stood in front of me: this woman who loves me with an unmatched fervor, who ached to know where my holes were, who longed for a map of my wounds so that she might unwrap a fresh band-aid and kiss my skinned knees. It took me a while to understand that this woman was more of a mother than I realized, and that she is all the mother I need.