The elevator doors parted and I stepped into the longest hallway of my life.
As I walked into that room, I could feel the last remnants of my childhood innocence dissolve. There lay my mom: unconscious, intubated, and nearly unrecognizable.
My senses were heightened by the rhythmic sound of oxygen, the hum of machines, and the drip of tubes. A memory flashed of my mom sitting at the end of my twin bed, and now here I was sitting at the end of hers. I felt lost in an unfamiliar netherworld, somewhere between a parent and child. In the last 24 hours I had been whisked from my routine of enforcing rules, wiping noses, and teaching kindness, to a sterile room of white coats and medical terms. I was a 40-year-old mother of two who longed for my own mother’s comfort and advice at a time it had never been less available.
Days passed as my mom lay heavily sedated in that ICU bed. I used my newfound “free time” to reflect on the ins and outs of a mother-daughter relationship, and how ours had changed over the years. It dawned on me that now that I was a mother myself, there were so many things I understood about my mom that I couldn’t possibly have known prior to having my boys.
So, while I waited for her to wake, I told her all the things I now know:
I put you through hell.
I never knew a mother’s love could render such pain! I’m six years into parenthood and I don’t know how I’ll survive this intricate labyrinth of competing emotions. One minute I’m running behind a bicycle, encouraging him to “just keep pedaling.” The next minute I’m left in the dust as he rides off into the sunset. When I think of the various stages of my own life and how my attitudes, decisions, and actions must’ve hurt you, I can only stand in solidarity as I experience the same torturous mom-pain from loving my own kids with all my heart.
Motherhood should not erase you.
As a kid, I never felt as though your life revolved around us. I’m sure it did in many ways, but you also put yourself first sometimes. You had shopping days with your sister, went out with your girlfriends, played softball, and had various other facets of your life that were just for you. I never thought twice about it until I began navigating parenthood in the age of social media and mom-shaming. You always knew you had to put on your oxygen mask first. You’re the O.G. of self-care, and you’ve given me the gift of growing up with a mom who understands you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Kids need to create their own path.
One thing your grandchildren have made clear is they are not mini versions of me or their Dad. They’re them, and at 4 and 6 they’ve already taught us to abandon any preconceived notions about who they will become. Like all moms, I’m trying my best to raise healthy, happy, and grateful children without projecting my own egocentric desires on their upbringing. I’ve played out some extreme scenarios about their future occupations, family choices, sexual orientations, etc. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t feel emotionally tethered to any expectations for my boys’ futures except their happiness. Likewise, you never pressured me to conform to any singular version of success. You let me experiment, explore, stumble, and fail, and I’d venture to say you weren’t always comfortable with my decisions. But you were always there.
I now understand how hard it is.
IMO, no one is prepared for parenthood. There’s no way to truly understand the level of sacrifice, wear and tear, and patience that’s involved until you’re there. But now I’m in on the secret, Mom. I can appreciate the lengths you went to, the sleepless nights, and your unconditional love in a way that wasn’t possible until I had kids of my own. I understand that sometimes being a mom requires you to dig deep to uncover the level of selflessness and endurance required to raise good humans. Now I get it.
Finally, after five days in the ICU, my mom squeezed my hand and opened her eyes upon hearing my voice. It was an intense mother-daughter moment and a beautiful blurring of the line between lead and follow. She needed me in a way I’d never been needed before, and somehow navigating her health crisis made me feel like I’d graduated to the next season of motherhood.
Before I flew back home to Chicago, my mom told me she was proud of the way I had showed up for her. And just like that, she reclaimed her role as the parent, and I the child. As it should be.
On the flight home I thought about the fact that, whether she realizes it or not, my mom spent much of my life preparing me for this experience. She always finds a swelling of strength with every challenge she faces, and I’m learning that I have it in me to do the same. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there for her on her road to recovery.
When I got home I was greeted with giant hugs and warm smiles. I wondered if my boys would sense my newfound prestige and wisdom, but I was promptly put in my place with a potty joke and a request to wipe a butt.
Maybe one day they will also understand.