This year I started a series on the blog about individuals who are really successful in one specific area of their lives. I believe that everyone has at least one component of their life that they’re really, really good at. The two I’ve written about so far are John Donovan and Eric Silverstein.
Today I’d like to add a third person to that list: My mother, Margot Stegmaier.
The metric for success I created when I started this series says that true success in a particular area of your life comes with an embodiment of the following traits:
I bet you look at your own mother and see a lot of the same traits too.
To write this entry, I enlisted the help of the three other people who have experienced my mother as closely as I have: my brother, sister, and father. I’ll share their perspective on my mom’s success as a mother and then get to mine
Mom had an early introduction to motherhood that began when she herself was a mere child. As the oldest girl in a large family, her own mom, as was the practice of the day, placed her in the roll of caring for younger siblings. This is roughly the equivalent of sentencing someone to ten years of confinement to a bedbug-and flea-infested mud hut. I speak from experience, because that is how Uncle Frank and I tried to make Aunt Anne feel whenever we were left in her charge.
Nonetheless, I recall observing Mom when I first knew her, during that time at Catholic University when she was still doing her best to avoid me, as she worked with a bunch of D.C. kids in a big brother/sister program. Most of the college students were clueless and the kids were out of control. Until Mom stepped in. She employed a masterful blend of firmness and soft touch to which the kids responded easily, and soon bedlam gave in to military precision.
Seeing how well Mom worked with kids was the second thing that really made her attractive to me. A few years later we were preparing for marriage and the question came up about children. Five sounded like a good number for us. Having come from families of eight and six kids, mom and I saw advantages and disadvantages of lots of kids, but I don’t recall the reasoning that led to the number five. Of course, the plan was subject to change.
Being good Catholics, we were always open to children, but nature has a way of rearranging lives. When Fr. Tom asked us, three years into our marriage, if we would be interested in adopting a child, the responsible thoughtfulness we attempted to display could barely cloak the thrill, anticipation, and excited anxiety we felt.
Mom tells the story of our waiting for Jamey better than I could, but I recall KNOWING that she both wanted children and would be a great mom, even as, in true mom fashion, she kept asking, “Are we sure we want to do this? Do we really know what we’re doing? What if we (fill in the blank with any parental failure)?” And the ever present “Are you really going to be there to help when I need you?” The questions, however, ultimately faded in the endless focus on preparing for the baby’s arrival.
When mom first held that baby in her arms, she stood a mile deep in an ocean of passion for motherhood. Where did that come from? Where do oceans come from? She could never again imagine a world without it.
Mom’s never-tiring love has been a part of my life since the earliest memories. I literally have no knowledge or experience of a time when I was without it–no matter how far away I travelled or whatever adventure I was immersed in. It was always something so beyond questioning or doubting that it didn’t really need to be thought about. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, its become more apparent to me what is involved in being a good mother–and how rare and attention-worthy excellent mothers like mine are.
For example, when you start living on your own in the “real world,” you realize exactly how much effort and sacrifice are required to prepare quality meals for yourself–much less for a family. Yet this has always been one of the unquestioned assumptions in our family–that we would all sit down, together, over something wholesome (and, with the exception of zuchinni, delicious) and share dinner. Making this happen day in, day out, was mom. Growing up, it didn’t seem at all unusual, because it was so constant. It was as if there was some super-human force standing behind it all, keeping us all together. The experience growing up in a household ordered by this super-human woman–and her love–provides a backdrop for my whole life, something that hovers behind and above me, all the time.
I am getting married in less than two months. I have a job that keeps me busy during the day, and sometimes in the evenings and on weekends. Mom and my fiance have therefore done much of the planning for it. Many people say that MOBs (mother-of-the-bride) either relive their weddings or redo their weddings when their daughters are engaged. Mom has done neither.
Her wedding was different than mine will be in many ways. She was 22 and kept things very simple: she did her own hair and makeup, had no special bouquet for her wedding portrait and did not send save-the-dates. (Did anyone send save-the-dates in 1977??) I also think her parents had enormous influence over the kind of reception she had. Frankly, I think Mom’s opinions about her reception were often overridden by her parents.
That said, Mom has thrown herself into planning a wedding FOR ME. She considers my opinions and listens to my preferences before she signs the florist contract or orders bubbles for the send-off.
Don’t get me wrong–if Mom could redo or relive her wedding I think she would be tempted. For example, a part of her might have wished she had altered her mom’s wedding gown for her wedding. I am wearing the same dress that she and my grandma wore, but, unlike me, my mom did not hire a seamstress to adapt the dress fit “her” style and tastes. What’s amazing about Mom is that she is really good at actively suppressing these desires to redo her wedding. This is selflessness in its purest form. I guess this is a mother’s love, although no one but Mom could love me like this.
I think the vast majority of the ways that mothers impact their children is simply by the way they run the house.
Whenever I go home to visit my parents as an adult, Mom will inevitably say, “I can’t believe I never taught you ____.” Almost always it’s something home related, like cooking or cleaning or sewing.
But the truth is, I know how to do all of those things. Mom does them better, so I yield to her when I’m home, but thanks to her, I’m completely comfortable in the kitchen. I arrived at college knowing how to do my laundry and repair clothes and make smart financial decisions.
Mom didn’t have to sit me down and hold an official lesson on how to cook, for example. Instead, she included my siblings and me whenever she cooked, and we learned by osmosis over time. I think this is one of the greatest gifts that Mom gave us.
It’s been really interesting to learn by my mother’s example as an adult. The lessons are different. They’re no longer about how to run a home (except when I’m at home). They’re about how to stay committed to someone for life. They’re about how to reach out to those you love even when they live thousands of miles away. They’re about making tough choices to improve yourself as a person and continue to grow.
Perhaps the most special long-distance lesson I’ve learned from my mother is the way that she interacts with her own mom, who is now 88. Grandma is physically healthy, but her mind wavers between sharp and forgetful.
Mom spends a lot of time and energy on Grandma. In a way, she has slipped out of the daughter role and into the mother role with her. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see how she takes care of Grandma. I can only hope that I am even half as compassionate and patient with my mom when she gets old as she is with her mother.
Mom, I hope you know the huge success you’ve achieved as a mother. Thank you for the lessons you meant to teach me and the ones you didn’t know you were teaching. Thank you for our weekly chats. Thank you for your endless support. Thank you for letting me go when I felt the need to go to college out of state, for going to all my soccer games growing up, for helping me learn Japanese when you didn’t know a thing about the language. Thank you for the cool hand on my forehead when I had migraines, and thank you for scheduling playdates for your introverted son. I needed that.
Most of all, thank you for choosing to be my mother. Motherhood is a choice, for biological kids like my brother and sister, and for non-biological kids like me. Thank you for giving me a life, a family, and many years of love.
Happy Mother’s Day.