The tension in the car was as thick as the fog obscuring the Chicago skyline before us. My older sister, who had voluntarily retired from navigational duties many miles back, sat silently in the passenger seat beside me. My mother was in the back seat, straining forward so she could continue reading aloud the traffic signs I could read perfectly well from the driver's seat. "I really think you've missed your turn," she said again. Tears gathered in my eyes.
Great, I thought, recalling some of our other mother-daughter clashes. I'm twenty-three, I have a wonderful job, I've lived in this area for two years, and my mother's still treating me like I'm five. Doesn't she trust me to drive us into the city? When is she ever going to realize I'm an adult?
My auntMom's sistersat silently in the back seat, no doubt thanking God she'd had two sons instead of two daughters, like Mom.
After a few tears, frustrated words, and U-turns, we finally made it downtown to take in some of the sights my mom, aunt, and sister had hoped to hit during their visit with me. And thankfully, the rest of their three-day stay went more smoothlypacked full of sightseeing, shopping, and eating out (things our family does best!).
But behind the hugs and laughter, I could sense the change. One afternoon, my aunt asked where we should eat lunch. There was an awkward pause as my mom, who usually decides such things in our family, realized she didn't know the restaurants in the area. It took me a moment to recognize that this was now my time and place to call the shots. We were on my turf.
Somehow, in those past three years, I'd developed a life of my own two whole states away from my parents. I had a job, car payments, appliances, a dentist, a roommate, favorite restaurants, a retirement plan, and church committee work of my own. I'd become an adulta fact my mom seemed reluctant to accept.
Yet as I watched my mom and her sister crawl into bed one nighta mattress on the living room floor of my apartmentchatting and giggling like school girls, it suddenly dawned on me: Mom wasn't my infallible parent, or the woman who didn't understand my independence, or a fifty-something teacher who had life all figured out. She was a human being with a sister and jokes and dreams and frailties all her own. It was a scary yet refreshing realization. I was beginning to view her not just as my mother, but as a woman.
Of course, these changes in viewpoint didn't happen overnight. A few months after their visit, on a trip back home, Mom wouldn't let me drive to meet Dad for lunch one day because of the ice on the roads. Two days ago I could have been driving across the state in a blizzard and she wouldn't have known, and now she's telling me not to drive eight miles on a little ice, I thought with irritation. Yet instead of doing lunch with Dad, I enjoyed a couple hours of good girl-talk with Mom. She really listened as I shared some dating frustrations. I felt heard and valued and some how relieved.
During another visit, I found myself getting irked when Mom tried to show me a "better way" to do something in the kitchen. Then, back in my own kitchen a few weeks later, I was on the phone, cookbook in hand, asking her what it means to broast something. The see-saw of emotions was making us both a little weary.
"What's happening to us?" I asked via another phone call, nervously broaching the topic of our shifting relationship.
"What do you mean?" Mom responded.
"You know, all the little power struggles we've been having lately. We used to get along so well." After recounting some of our recent "episodes," I asked, "Mom, you do realize I'm an adult now, don't you? I mean, I pay bills and taxes, deal with coworkers and deadlines, cook and clean just like you."
"Yes I know," she said. "I'm so proud of who you've become. But you do know you'll always be my baby, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess I do," I replied.
We'd just named the paradox that was our relationship. I was both adult and baby. Was it possible to be both?
In the months that followed, Mom began asking me more about my job and my new hobby of furniture refinishing. I began digging deeper into the rich resource of her fifty-plus years of living. Swallowing my pride, I asked her which brand of vacuum cleaner she thought was best, when to leave a volunteer ministry for another opportunity, and the mother-of-all-questions, how do I know if he's Mr. Right? As we began meeting each other in the middle, acting more like peers, a wonderful friendship emerged.
True to how he usually works in my life, God threw in a few object lessons. The first occurred when I overheard a coworker lamenting her daughter's upcoming departure for college. I'd heard this coworker lovingly discuss the details of her daughter's life over the past few yearsmusic lessons, fashion risks, braces, and school dancesand now her pain of letting this daughter go was obvious. The thought hit me, That's what my mom went through with me.
That night I called her. When I told her about the conversation, she recalled her own grief. "When you first left for school, I'd be driving across town, perfectly fine, then all of a sudden I'd start crying," she said. As tears stung my own eyes, I apologized for the necessary yet painful parts of my growing-up process. And I thanked her for graciously letting me go.
Many weeks later I called my parents' house again, in tears. My dad answered the phone. Hearing my sobs, he asked if I was okay and should he get Mom. At my meager "uh-huh," he went off in search of Dr. Mom.
"Honey? What's wrong?" Before I could get a word out, I burst into tears. Just hearing the sound of her voicethe same voice that had read my favorite bookAndrew Henry's Meadowto me five hundred and twelve times when I was a child, taught me how to make Snickerdoodles and Rice Krispy Treats, scolded me when I broke a window during a family vacation by throwing rocks, cheered me on during high-school drill team performances, and sang heartily next to me in churchmelted me to tears. Such history. Such comfort. Such love.
When I was finally able to speak, I told her about the breakup that had just taken place, knowing her love would help carry me through this crisis.
Months later, on yet another trip "home," I visited my mom's second-grade classroom. The students' respect and admiration for my mother was obvious. At story time, she expertly shepherded them to one corner of the classroom, all the while admiring Jill's clean desk, reminding John to tie his shoes, asking Max to keep his hands to himself. Once settled, she opened the book and began reading and leading the students in the accompanying arm motions. As they all clapped, snapped, and patted their laps, I laughed at Mom's animated face, voice, and gesturesmy heart filling with pride for this caring teacher, my mother.
"You're a lot like your mom," my roommate told me after joining me on a recent trip home.
"Really?" I inquired, intrigued.
"You know, your gestures and mannerismsthe way you're both so animated when you talk. The way you both try to make sure everyone's happy and doing okay. And you both take forever when deciding whether or not to buy something."
I laughed, thinking of all these characteristics embodied in the woman I knew as Mom that had somehow rubbed off on me. But I wasn't terribly surprised by all the similarities. After all, I am her baby.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.