"THE SHARING OUR STORIES PROJECT"
September’s story was written by Patty Johnston. Patty is a very smart and talented woman who knew early on that being a mother was the job she most wanted to have. Raised by a mother who was 41 when Patty was born, Patty dreamed of being a young mom who could relate perfectly to her children so she was delighted when she became a mother for the first time at only 23 years old. Mothering three children helped Patty see that motherhood can be both difficult and rewarding at any age. Patty’s very thoughtfully written story helps us really feel the challenges and joys of motherhood. It also helps us look deeply at the impact our mothering can have on our identity and the identity of our daughters.
Patty was born in Indiana, but has also lived in California, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri and is currently living in Ames, Iowa. She has been married to her husband, Judge, for 30 years and has worked a variety of jobs that allowed her to focus on her primary passion of raising their 3 children, Tyler(28), Kayla(24) & Taryn(20). Now that her children are grown, Patty is pursuing a career as a certified Life and Health Coach.
This was the message on the Mothers’ Day card I received from my youngest child this year. And you know what? She’s right! My kids are kind, loving, thoughtful, funny, generous, responsible and dedicated individuals who genuinely care about others. They are most definitely not assholes! In fact, I raised some downright awesome people! Until recently I would have had a hard time acknowledging that I played any kind of significant part in that. I would have joked that it was in spite of me or my parenting mistakes that my kids had turned out to be such wonderful human beings. I am always quick to see my own flaws and shortcomings and even quicker to downplay or invalidate my successes and strengths. Even though this is true in all areas of my life (I’m working on changing that!) I think the reason I’m hyper-critical of myself as a mother is because being a mom means so much to me. More accurately, being a good mom means everything to me. Knowing that I should become a mother was as certain to me as knowing the color of my own eyes or the shape of the birthmark on my left leg. It just always was a part of me.
When the time came for me to go to college, I did so because it was expected of me and because I was ready to be out from under my parents’ roof. I knew I needed to declare a major, but I struggled to find a career path that I felt excited or passionate about. I don’t think I was aware of the concept of going to college to get an ‘Mrs.’ degree, but subconsciously that was probably what I was doing. Obtaining a certificate of education merely meant I could start a career that I felt lukewarm about pursuing. A certificate of marriage meant far more to me, it meant I could start having babies! I realize that such a sentiment might feel somewhat cringeworthy to some women, possibly even my own daughters. But as much as some women want a career or independence, I wanted to be a mother, and in the house I grew up in, marriage was definitely a prerequisite to having babies! I changed my major several times in college because none of them felt quite right. I initially chose Social Work with the intention of advocating for children who maybe didn’t have a good mom or home life. Each new degree I tried on had some connection to children and I finally landed in Early Childhood Education. But before my degree was completed, my first child was born and I became a mother; a young mother, just like I’d planned.
My mom was 41 years old when she discovered that she was pregnant with me and just shy of 42 when I was born. Nowadays that isn’t so uncommon, but in 1969 my parents were counseled about the risks of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome or some other birth defect due to Mom’s ‘advanced’ age. I’ve been told that while my father questioned whether it was wise to have a baby with the risks involved, my mom was unwavering in her conviction to see the pregnancy through. Perhaps her motivation was due to her deep faith in God, her deep love for her children, or simply her deep desire to do the ‘right’ thing. Maybe her mind was made up to continue the pregnancy simply because the alternative was too disquieting for her to stomach. Regardless of her reasons, I’m thankful that she chose to have me. That gratitude was not fully developed or well expressed in my younger years. I was at times embarrassed by how old my parents were; by how out of touch and old fashioned they were.
My oldest sibling is 19 years older than I am and the closest sibling to me in age is 6 years older. Three of my five siblings were married before I completed grade school and my parents became grandparents when I was just 9 years old. I grew up hearing bits and pieces about how different parenting was for my brothers and sister than it was for Mom and Dad. Cloth vs disposable diapers, spanking vs talking or timeouts, stay at home moms vs stay at home dads etc. From my relative perspective things seemed to be changing pretty quickly and evolving steadily in the realm of parenting. According to my older siblings, my parents did become more lenient as the years went by, but I can attest that, by and large, they were still parenting much as they did nearly two decades before I came along. By the time I was in high school I had a broad disdain for many of their rules and ideologies that seemed so antiquated to me in comparison to those of my friends’ younger and cooler parents. By the time I reached my teens, my dad was traveling a lot for work which made Mom the default enforcer of all those old-school edicts. My siblings were all out of the house by then, too, so often it was just me and Mom. Just an adolescent girl and her menopausal mother! How could that possibly have gone well?!? We clashed on a lot of topics, which often led to arguments and tears. During those years our relationship was far from perfect, but it wasn’t all that bad, either. We had fun together, too! I blamed all of the negative aspects of our relationship on the big age gap between us, however, I may have underestimated the impact of all the wildly fluctuating hormones we both were experiencing! But underneath and in and around whatever hormonally charged interactions we had, I knew that she loved me in a boundless kind of way.
I loved her, too. She was my mom; the woman who held me to her breast and nourished me as an infant, who kissed my scraped knees and bandaged my stubbed toes; the one who comforted me when I was sick and showed me how to look for shapes in the clouds like the face of a dog or hands praying; she was the one who helped me with my homework and my heartaches, and the one who always believed in me and saw the good in me, even when it meant looking past my ugly mood, my crummy attitude, or my poor choices. Of course I loved her! But I also admired her. I wanted to emulate her. I kind of wanted to be just like her…only cooler.
“The best gift she has given me is the constancy of her belief. Whatever I become, she loves me. To her, I am enough.”
-Sue Monk Kidd Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story
You see, I genuinely believed that a lot of that fighting and clashing could be avoided if there was less of an age gap between us; and that belief was what led me to have such a strong desire to have my children while I was young. I had this beautiful example of how to love and nurture my children and I reasoned that if I was a young mom I wouldn’t be naive to what was current. I would understand my kids and the struggles they faced, I would be able to relate to them and they would respect and relate to me. However, now that I have three children of my own and a few more years under my belt, I see that my mom, after 20 plus years of parenting experience and 6 children, had the equivalent of a PhD in Motherhood. She might have been tired by the time I came along, but she knew a thing or two about parenting that transcended age gaps. But when I was smack in the middle of those conflict-filled years, I was determined to have a different experience with my own children.
As it turned out, my experience with motherhood was unexpectedly different from the very first moment. My first born, Tyler, was not the healthy bouncing baby boy that I had anticipated. Something was wrong. There was no robust cry when he came into the world, there was no real cry at all for months to come. Only small squeaks, whines and grunts. He was unable to cry because he had virtually no muscle tone; floppy baby syndrome was what they called it. His limbs hung like a rag-doll’s, and he lacked the strength necessary to suckle his nourishment; not through the special nipple on the tiny preemie bottles that the hospital provided and definitely not from my breast. He was given a feeding tube, and placed in an incubator to regulate his body temperature. Initially Down’s Syndrome was suspected due to some physical characteristics, but a genetic test disproved that. It appeared that he had all 46 chromosomes. On the second day of his life the Doctors at our local hospital had run out of ideas and Tyler was transferred to the NICU at the University of Iowa Hospital. He traveled via ambulance with a nurse by his side. My husband and I made the 2-hour trip in our pickup truck with me pressing a pillow to my cesarean incision to minimize the pain of each bump in the road.
By the time my husband and I arrived at UIHC, Tyler had already been admitted and given an initial exam. We were immediately taken to a small room and told in a thinly veiled way that our child might not live, or that if he did live, he might not have much of a real life.
I was terrified. I was 23 years old and I had only been married for a year and half. My husband was only able to stay with us for a few days and then returned home to go back to work. Fortunately, because they were retired, my (old) parents were able to stay with me until we were able to bring Tyler home from the hospital. Having my mom with me during that time helped me find the strength I needed to endure the emotional and stressful first few weeks of my son’s life. I watched the unwanted, but necessary parade of doctors take my newborn to run test after test. They returned him to his isolette with no answers, only more bruises on his tiny feet and hands from so many needle sticks. Looking back on it, I think my mom’s presence provided a special combination of support and inspiration that I desperately needed. I knew she was worried, too, but she put on a brave face and gave me more strength than she probably had to give. She prayed for us, too. At that point in time my mother had been talking to God daily about her children for over 40 years, and I have no doubt that he was listening. When my Mom prayed for me it always brought me comfort and meant so much but never as much as her prayers for my child at that time. This was the loving support she offered me. I felt the inspiration to be strong and to be there for my son like she was there for me, in part because of the example she had set for me, but also because of a desire to make her proud. To show her that I saw the value in her strength as a mother and that I, too, would do anything to ensure my child was safe and loved. About a year after Tyler was born, he received a diagnosis of Prader-Willi Syndrome; the result of a tiny chromosomal deletion that is not visible on a basic chromosome screening. He had many challenges to face in his life, but for as long as she lived, my mom was his biggest cheerleader. I believe God continues to answer the prayers for Tyler that my mom sent up from that NICU all those years ago. Tyler went on to experience so much more than laying silent in an isolette as that doctor had warned us he might.
My mom was there when my second child was born, too. My husband had strep throat, so he wasn’t allowed in the labor and delivery room until it was time for me to push. Mom stayed up all night with me as my labor progressed. I have such beautiful memories of my mom speaking soothing words and softly stroking my arm while she quietly encouraged me through my first experience with active labor. I felt so close to her in those wee hours of the night as my body prepared to deliver a new life just as hers had done when I was born. And then, even though she had been the one to see me through the thick of it, when my husband arrived, she selflessly stepped aside and let him be the one closest to me as our daughter made her way into the world. My mother was a pretty remarkable woman!
Due to my dad’s failing health, Mom wasn’t able to be there when my third and last child was born, but her presence was felt nonetheless. The threads that connect mother and child are far too intricately woven to ever separate. Even though it’s been over 10 years since mom passed away, I still feel a connection to her. I miss her and often instinctively think to call her when I’m feeling especially sad or especially happy before I remember that I can’t do that. I actually couldn’t really do that for a few years before my mom died because she developed dementia. I was so afraid for the day that she would forget who I was, and thankfully it never progressed to that point. But the dementia did change her enough that I felt like I lost my mom, or at least lost important parts of her, several years before she actually died.
My daughters were 10 and 14 when my mom died. There were so many times as they were growing up that I wished I could ask my mom for advice. There were probably an equal number of times that I wished I could apologize to my mom for the times that I hurt her feelings or made her sick with worry or just plain drove her crazy! Mostly, I wished I could tap into her wisdom. (The irony of that is not lost on me.) My girls, each in their own time and way, put up a wall between themselves and me. Asserting their autonomy I suppose. It caught me off guard, though and I was deeply wounded to feel them pull away from me both physically and emotionally. These were the years that I had chosen to become a young mother for, and quite honestly I had held pretty high hopes for how it would go. I wasn’t completely ignorant; I knew the teen years wouldn’t be all smooth sailing, but I had foreseen my daughters sharing their hearts with me. At the time when I most longed to know their hopes, dreams and innermost thoughts, I was shunned and ostracized from the inner workings of their hearts and minds. I became quickly aware that my desire to be privy to how they felt about themselves and life in general felt intrusive and uncomfortable to them. That was baffling to me because I had made a very conscious effort to maintain open communication as well as an open mind. The rejection stung but mostly I felt like I was at a parental disadvantage without that information. I wanted to lament to them,
“But, I’m young, I’m hip. We wear the same clothes and listen to the same music. I respect you as an individual and I really try to listen when you talk. I not only allow you to express your emotions, but I encourage you to! When your dad doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a teenage girl, I intervene on your behalf and lobby for more freedom or a later curfew! I talk openly with you about alcohol and sex…sure I tell you I’d prefer you not take part in either just yet, but I also tell you that I understand that you might and that you can talk to me about it! Why won’t you let me in?!” My daughter, Kayla will turn 25 this November and my daughter, Taryn will turn 21 later this month. They are coming back around. Hugs are given and received freely once again. They call me when they are really happy about something or really sad, and sometimes just to say hi.
“I realize I’m trying to work out the boundaries. How to love her without interfering.
How to step back and let her have her private world and yet still be an intimate part of it.”
-Sue Monk Kidd Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story
I know that I’ve made mistakes as a mom, but I also know that I did a lot of things right. I’m only now beginning to understand that just because being a mom feels difficult and challenging at times, that doesn’t mean I am bad at it. Just because my way of showing love isn’t perhaps the way my children best receive love, that doesn’t mean they don’t know that I love them endlessly. The fact that I question every day if I am somehow messing it up as a mom, doesn’t mean that I am in fact messing it up! I might be…a little bit, and some days maybe a lot, but I’m beginning to see that the awareness that I fall short as a mother is not evidence that proves I am a bad mom. Instead it confirms that I’m a good mom because I care enough to want to always give them my best. Maybe if I wasn’t so young when I became a mom I would have figured that out a little earlier in the game. I just hope that in the end my kids will recall the good bits, the times that I was the mom that they needed at the times that they needed her and they will feel inspired to do the same for their kids someday. And I hope when my children recall the rough parts, the times that I missed the mark and made them wish for things to be different or for me to be different in some way, they will be able to reframe those memories with forgiveness and grace because they know without a doubt that I loved them more than anything and was doing my best to keep them safe. This journey isn’t over, and I still have room and time to grow and learn how to be the parent that each of my adult children needs me to be for them as they too continue to grow and change. Being a good mom will always mean everything to me. It fills my heart with purpose and joy!
For those of you who find music a meaningful form of expression, I am including a link to a song I discovered a while back. The lyrics are a beautiful message from a daughter to her mother. I’d like to dedicate it to my mom and hope she can hear it in heaven.
For more information about Prader-Willi Syndrome visit PWSAUSA.ORG