My Mother, Yitta, and Myrna Loy

When a woman fantasizes about her baby, she also fantasizes about how she will be as a mother, the two dreams mingle.”
Sheila Kitzinger, Ourselves as Mothers

My mother was five-years old when Father Knows Best graduated from radio to her black and white television set. At ten, she added Leave it to Beaver to her diet. But it was the pinnacle of family happiness Cheaper By the Dozen that aired in her living room one evening that set the tone for the rest of her life. She was sold. She wanted a dozen kids then and there. She would raise them on a farm, and wear pearls as she went about the household activities creating the perfect habitat for her own twelve cherubs.

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

18 thoughts on “My Mother, Yitta, and Myrna Loy

  1. I’ll take the cook, butler and maid. Maybe if I could afford those I could also afford snazy dress and a strand of pearls…hmm..

  2. A friend recently told me that she’d like to hire some help as I have this past year, to take up the slack. ‘I know I only have 3 children’ she said, as an apology. Her mother had 5,her mother-in-law, 14. Her sisters-in-law have up to 6. They don’t hire help. I’m sorry we apologize for any kind of help we need. I found myself coming undone with one child, just as I do with 5, perhaps for different reasons. Mothering is hard. It’s better and worse than I had ever imagined. Was mothering just as hard for our grandmothers—or is it just a different sort of hard today?

  3. This is a helpful post. I can’t say that I absolutely love being a mother, but I do find meaning in being a mother.

    All of the female parts on those tv shows you mentioned were written by men. Men with a very flawed view of what it is/was to be a mother. I’m grateful that I don’t have to pretend to be those perfect 1950s tv moms and that I’m not foolish enough to think that those were real people I could actually emulate.

  4. A friend of mine grew up in a home where her mother paid someone else to get up in the night with her babies, and paid someone else to attend to her children’s physical needs. As a result, she felt her mother missed out on the opportunities to meet emotional needs because she wasn’t there to meet any physical needs. It’s an interesting observation.

    I’ve considered hiring help, and have had help during a couple of periods in my adult life, but all in all, I prefer my own mess to someone else’s effort in my home. But a lot of it has to do with my efforts to let go of a lot of garbage in my expectations!

  5. Sometimes I wish it really was as easy as the actress in the modern day “Cheaper by the dozen” movie makes it look. And I only have three kids!

  6. I loved this from Snakerivermama:

    “It’s better and worse than I had ever imagined.”

    Too true. I think I grew up with my own idealistic images and dreams of motherhood, adulthood, wifehood. They’ve been systematically shattered for sure. But that’s not necessarily bad. I never could have known the joys of family life without some of the sorrows. The blessings have been sweeter than I could have fantasized about as a young adult, and the heartaches have been more soul-stretchingly worthwhile than my ideal would ever have allowed for.

    However, I think the idealism may play an important role at times. I remember as a new missionary wondering why no one ever told me what a mission was REALLY like. By the end of it I realized that the joys so outweighed the trials, that the picture of bliss painted in many a homecoming talk wasn’t necessarily a sugar coating, but a representation of the sum of many experiences. The good outweighed the bad.

    And so it may be with motherhood. While some TV show characters may just be the fruits of misogynistic daydreaming, real women before us have often painted a rosy picture of motherhood themselves. Were they duping us, or simply stepping back from the individual brushstrokes of pain and disappointment and seeing the masterpiece as a whole?

  7. Sunny, I was writing a comment, but I just deleted it–

    Because your last paragraph says so much of what I was going to say,
    only so much better.
    Beautiful.

  8. Sunny-that was beautiful. I also was surprised by the reality of my mission, even though my brother had warned me. Experience is the teacher. There is no way to truly portray what is gained only by actually experiencing something. That’s why we had to be here on this mortal journey.

    Just yesterday I was basking in the glow of finally feeling that my two teenage boys were progressing. My sixteen yr. old had taken us on a hike where he runs. I felt like he was including us in his life. My 13 yr. old taught a heartfelt Family Home Evening lesson for the first time.

    Then today I found myself mumbling under my breath how hard it was to be their mother!

    I’ll try to keep perspective. And reread Sunny’s comment.

  9. Motherhood sucks the energy, money, patience and wisdom right out of my marrow usually.And it has sucked my heart right out of my chest and put it in two bony, chubby, cheeky, smart and frustrating boys that happen to be my sons.

    Of all the possible Mums I could look to to emulate, it’s weird that I only care that I’m a different, better Mum than my Mum. (And different/better than the Mum in Flowers in the Attic…)

  10. Sometimes I can’t believe how rapidly I can fluctuate between marveling at my beautiful children and feeling deeply grateful that they’re really mine, and minutes later, while trying to get them to stop harassing each other or do some chore, feeling utterly exasperated and wishing they would PLEASE just leave me in peace. I’m also astonished at how my wish to have babies so far is undiminished by the reality of how much work it already is to try to care of the five I’ve already got.

    Although Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes do have their light side, for me they always had some depth to them, too. Maybe that’s because I remember the movie making my mom cry. (I’m one of nine kids.) It’s true that Mrs. Galbraith was an amazing woman whose energy and serenity I’ll never emulate, but I’m sure it was still a great challenge for her to learn her husband’s trade and take over his business after his untimely death. (The books were based on a true story, written by two of the kids.) I love the book’s dedication: “To our father, who only had twelve children, and to our mother, who had twelve only children.”

  11. Sunny, love your imagery. I find myself many days cross-eyed from starting at the brush strokes before I remember to adjust my focus and look at the whole painting. Selwyn, ditto on focusing to be a different mom than my own was.

    Ideals are everywhere, and I believe Satan delights in our tendency to buy into them. What can an ideal possibly instill but discouragement? The two books that helped me most in my transition from single/couple life to motherhood were these, The Mask of Motherhood, and, This Isn’t What I Expected. How are those for titles? They were no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is books, and I appreciated that more than anything. What I have learned is that whether I’m dealing with marriage issues, the best way to lose weight or being the best mom I can be, what is normal for someone else is not meant to be normal for me. It actually bugs me to see movies or commercials or whatever it may be trying to send us messages that are unrealistic. Those old movies and family shows are fun to watch, but really? Our poor moms had a lot to live up to. It makes me feel bad for them. :(

    I am grateful to live in a time when we can be more open about our struggles and help each other without any stigma. I believe that Heavenly Father meant for this to happen. In order to raise the rising generation, we needed the tools to make it happen, and he continues to provide information for us. It takes a different kind of parenting to raise these valiant spirits, and we are the parents who were chosen to do the job. This gives me courage to move forward and not succumb to unrealistic ideals. You all are doing a marvelous job! Don’t forget it. :D

  12. Jennie,

    Ha ha ha! Too true! My parents had 7 kids. We have four. I think having one more would put us in modern day league with my parents. Four is still on the cusp of normal. Five is just crazy Catholic or Mormon. :)

    Side note: My parents started out Catholic and, with five kids at the time, I think Mormon was the only other religion that would accept them. :)

  13. The idealistic stereotypes have changed, but they are still there, telling us what we should be.
    I think most of us grow-up with some ideal in our heads of what we want to be as a mother, and so often fall short.
    I’m kind of going through that right now, finally realizing that what I expect is just not humanly possible. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but in the end a happy reconciliation.

  14. At this time in the world’s history we are being told that women can do it all, that we should have it all, and want it all. That is a huge lie to me. We can’t have it all, because of the limits on our time, capacity, and sanity we have to choose. There is no perfection in motherhood or anything else in this life.

    As a mother, I feel that the constraints on my time force me to choose, and in that choosing I show who I truly am. When I receive the consequences of those choices I evaluate and change to get better results.

    An example of what I’m talking about – Today I decided to go to lunch with my husband and little girl. Consequence- when I got home from the lunch the house hadn’t been cleaned. Bummer. But I forced myself to realize that I chose to build relationships over cleaning the house. For those few hours that was the right choice for me. Now, my choice to be on the internet instead of cleaning is up for debate.

    These moments make up our lives. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over the unfinished laundry when we took time to nap or go for a walk with our children. We can’t do it all, so choosing what is most important is right. For me the nap and the walk with the kids usually wins out over laundry. That could be why everyone’s complaining that they have no clean socks though ;)

  15. I came to grips a few years ago with the fact that I will not have the 6 children I wanted. I may not even have one. I’m 35, very single, and facing the reality that every woman in my family had a hysterectomy by the time they were my age. I’m fine with one baby. I’m fine with no babies. This is the life that I essentially chose by not crawling back to my ex fiance or encouraging men I didn’t like. I’m fine with it. I no longer have dreams about being a perfect mother–I just want to be a mother. Someday.

  16. Sunny, “Four is still on the cusp of normal. Five is just crazy.” Ha. That is a great way to describe how I felt transitioning from four to five.

    I think ideals can be good and motivational as long as we celebrate the fleeting moments when we attain some aspect of them, instead of being discouraged by the times we don’t. I guess I’m glad for books, movies, and life experiences that contributed to my desire for a family.

    I also agree that some of our ocntemporary ideals can be just as impossible to live up to. Yes, “having it all” is one (being a perfect mom AND a perfect career woman) and so are things like that we should keep our kids perfectly safe at all times (helmets! seat belts! car seats! never ever leave them unattended!) but also not helicopter-parent, or that we should provide every educational and recreational resource but also simplify, etc. etc. etc.

  17. Another perspective to consider – I’ve heard a lot recently from parent’s who expect nothing but ‘just showing up’. They don’t expect their kid to actually try or work hard or accomplish anything. They tend to be the voice that complains if there are winners at soccer games, and insists that every child get a ribbon just for showing up.

    Reflexively, I recoil at that paradigm. And I don’t want to live by it either, by applauding myself just for being alive and birthing children. I want to push myself, I want to accomplish something – even if it’s small.

    I certainly don’t think anyone in this discussion is advocating that, but I find it more and more in popular culture – applied not only to our children, but to ourselves. And as a result, I see more and more women who think themselves incapable of anything significant, and yet seek for congratulations for merely getting out of bed in the morning.

    I don’t think we need to conquer the world in high heels, but I do think we should try to push ourselves to excellence – whatever that means for each individual woman.

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