Sheila Kitzinger, Ourselves as Mothers
Yitta grew up in a Satmar Hassidic community, was subject to the Holocaust but lived to tell her story in her native Hungarian. Eighteen babies crowned from her body. She died at 93 with over 200 grandchildren and a good 2000 descendants. Part of me wants to grow up to be a Mormon Yitti–the matriarch who attends all the weddings, baby blessings, and baptisms of posterity as numerous as the sands of the sea; to die old, surrounded by loved ones that I have nurtured with both young and healthy and then old and feeble hands, my heart worn out by the love I‘ve given them.
I grew up as the oldest of my mother’s dream come true, twelve children. I was a small girl when she locked herself in her bedroom crying. There were numerous days like those, too many for my sisters and I to count.
It was a cool morning in sixth-grade when I paused on the way up the basement stairs. My mother stood in the adjacent laundry room, piles of not-yet-sorted dirty clothes at her feet. “Do you want to stay home from school and help me today?” Despair was common on my mother’s face, ‘Overwhelmed’ deeply etching circles under her eyes. Some days the sorrow sunk forever. She was the mother of nine children then. She was not Myrna Loy, the glowing actress who portrayed the mother of the Cheaper By the Dozen brood in 1950. And a dozen was not cheaper–not financially, not physically, and not emotionally.
In *Maternal Desire, Daphne de Marneffe writes, “Whatever our personal reaction, the available cultural images of motherhood rarely help us to plumb its complexity…Certainly, questions of ultimate meaning tend not to be part of polite conversation, especially in an arena as fraught as motherhood. Perhaps, to face our feelings fully would force us to confront choices that feel too difficult to make.”
My own vision of perfected sanctified motherhood has failed me. I grapple with the realities of being a mortal mother, limited in both physical and mental capacity to care for my children. I find myself torn by the desire for more children, clashing against the forces of everyday life; teeth brushing, meal preparation, home cleaning and homework–the mundane tasks that are so essential to my family’s well being. I wonder if someday I will find that godhood is simply the ability to love, unfettered by the reality of an aging physical body, unbound by time, unlimited in ability–creating sparks of light into bursts of life.
My mother watched her own mother go to work part-time each day in the fifties and then sixties, unlike those mothers on TV. My grandmother, the mother of six, is grateful for the day an early hysterectomy took her childbearing years away.
My mother tells me Myrna Loy’s character had a cook, a butler, a maid. I laugh. She did not struggle with postpartum depression, financial woes, ordinary, nor extraordinary disappointments in her happily-ever-after. It makes me wonder why my mother liked the book. Yitti lost two children in the Holocaust. I find her story far more interesting.
*Maternal Desire, Daphne de Marneffe p 113