Making Peace with Mother

April 9, 2004 | 6 comments
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Being identified as the mother of Nate for the past two weeks has set me thinking about mothers—having one, being one. My own mother died several years ago. I still work at making my peace with her. It’s not been easy to admit my likeness to her. Her circle for life seemed so tiny as I was growing up in a very small village in southeastern Idaho. Nate knew my Mom. She probably had better luck teaching him to do needle work than she did me. Recently I’ve been typing my Mom’s autobiography and her journals onto the computer, so I can make them available to her extended family. And I can honestly say at this point: I do hope I’m my mother’s daughter. (And my aunt’s niece.) How unique is my experience?

I’ve been struck by how much of my mom’s life story–and her sister’s–was structured in response to their mother’s story. My mother’s mother married a dashing young farmer in the Salt Lake Temple. His story became a familiar one in the area where I grew up—the Jack Mormon. My mother’s father took up smoking which kept him away from church. My mother’s mother was so dependent on him that his life story constrained her own, in the church and elsewhere. She never learned to drive and so depended on him to take her everywhere. Mostly she stayed at home, on the farm.

My mom learned to drive horses and the car when little more than a girl so she could drive her mother. My mom and her sister were always very close to each other, and they were very close to their mother. But both sisters became fiercely independent in their own ways—very much because of the mother they loved.

They didn’t want to be like her. Both went away to two years of college (unheard of for most men, let alone women in that time and place), both became school teachers , both taught full time when their own children were still little and in school. As I look back now, I see with increasing pride the independence they won in response to their mom’s helplessness. I can also see that it was this same independence led them down two divergent paths when it came to the church. My mom was sad that her mother’s dependence kept her so many times on the periphery of things in the church. So my mom was always absolutely faithful, in the center, no matter where her family was. Her sister was the converse version of independence– the thrice-married, loving, earthy, outrageous Jack Mormon.

Nate offered one version of how he’s made peace with me in a blog he still links to in his Times and Seasons bio: “My mother is a fine and gentle Mormon apostate. As near as I can tell, she long ago lost the faith of her childhood, but the marks of Mormonism are still heavy upon her. Any bitterness she may have once harbored about the Church long ago disappeared, and now she is merely interested. Much of post-Mormon intellectualdom seems to be engaged in a perpetual apologetic for their apostasy. I can understand why they do it, but I find it a bit boring. However, I think that there are a lot of ex-Mormons who fall into my mother’s category. They are informed (if I can use such a loaded word on this blog…), often interesting, and ultimately harmless.”

For the most part, I can make my peace with this (though as I’ve discussed in my blogs here on Times and Seasons, I do feel a continuity with my Mormonism that isn’t captured in terms such as “post-Mormon” or “ex-Mormon”). I kind of like “apostate”–it’s both extreme and affectionate.

I do, however, pause over these phrases: “merely interested” and “ultimately harmless.” I definitely wouldn’t want these on my tombstone. Happily, Nathan and I can continue our conversations—which as you imagine can be exciting (and excited) ones. But I do think that discussions about the church that happen across that perceived divide of within/without too often are conceived in terms of danger and harm–I’ve blogged about this on Times and Seasons as well. (Perhaps I should just take it as a complement that I do no harm.)

My daughter Sarah always insists that Nate and I are much more alike than she and I are. Could that possibly be true? And how much of these autobiographical ramblings (both mine and Nate’s) are about something you recognize?

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6 Responses to Making Peace with Mother

  1. Julie in Austin on April 9, 2004 at 1:13 am

    It is a depressing thought, given our penchant for free agency or whatever we’re calling it these days, but it almost seems that people are more living their lives in reaction to others than on their own terms. It makes me wonder how much I do this; and is it ever obvious to oneself or only to succeeding generations.

    I was mystified in college to meet an (LDS) woman who was so, so, so terribly concerned about being feminine and meek and submisive and all of those others things that make me cringe. I just couldn’t figure her out. Then I found out that her mother was a high-ranking military something-or-other. Click.

  2. Susan on April 9, 2004 at 2:40 am

    Julie,
    I think we probably react instinctively at times to those things we are acting against. It often takes longer, harder thought to find the similarities, the continuities. For good as well as for ill. There is such a premium on being distinctive, original, different.

  3. Kristine on April 9, 2004 at 9:15 am

    I think it’s interesting how much more complicated the always-complex parent-child relationship becomes when the relationship with church gets mixed in. My own mother converted from Catholicism to Mormonism in her early twenties, and felt that the church had rescued her from her grief over her father’s death when she was 7, and her horrible relationship with her mother. She clings to her faith and to the institution with a ferocity that makes my questions, doubts, and minor enmities with the church very painful to her. My father, whose membership in the church was always a 5-generations-settled question, doesn’t take my doubts as a personal affront. I think I might, in any case, be temperamentally much more like my father, and more likely to be close to him, but there’s no question that our various relationships with the church heighten that tendency.

    Also, I find it very very very difficult to work out my own pattern of being a mother over and against the Patty Perfect model that I grew up hearing about at church (though not seeing at home, really). It has taken me a LONG time to admit that I *like* cooking, I *want* to learn to can produce from my garden, I *enjoy* knitting. It’s even more difficult to admit that, as hard as it is, I love being home with my kids while they’re little, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be trying to get tenure when I had toddlers at home. It’s so much easier to blame that choice on the oppressive patriarchal culture, than to just own it and grieve the losses that choice entails (if I may stoop to the grossest pop-psychobabble for a moment–sheesh!).

    Anyway, Susan, thanks for such a personal meditation–it’s a generous gift.

  4. Jim F. on April 9, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Susan, thanks for such a personal reflection. It has made me think about my relation to my children as well as that to my parents. I think I have good relations with them. Nevertheless I often find myself feeling guilty about my shortcomings as a father. (That is one of the few things I feel any real guilt about.) However, that feeling of remorse has, at the same time, made me feel closer to and more understanding of my father, whom I always felt was remote. I now think that his remoteness stemmed from his own worry about his shortcomings and his inability to know how to deal with someone as different from him in some ways as I am. The fact that, for reasons beyond his or my control, I didn’t live at home much after my 15th birthday, exacerbated that distance between us. Neither of us really knew the other, but each of us assumed that we did.

  5. Nate Oman on April 9, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    Mom: Thanks for this. I will make sure that “harmless” and “merely interested” do not appear on your tombstone ;->. On the other hand, the point I was trying to make with those particular labels was to say that I don’t see our discussions across the divide that you mention as being danger filled events. For what it is worth, Heather — my speech therapist wife — has repeatedly noted that you and Sarah have the same speech habits.

  6. Ethesis on April 9, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    I had a (non-LDS) friend who noticed one day that engaged Baptists are often called “Big” Baptists. Devout Catholics. Observant Jews. Active Mormons.

    The unengaged also have different names. For some it is the same whether they are heretical, apostate or lapsed. For others, the names are different. There is a difference between a Jack Mormon, an inactive member and some of the other categories.

    Rather than getting into taxomony, it hit me that much of what a mission is about is engaging those serving missions to deal with the varieties.

    A good mission should expose the missionary to a few basics.

    The need to get investigators to pray and read. If they pray and read, they often join. If they won’t, they don’t get the spiritual feedback they need.

    The chance to observe spiritual transformation and rebirth of investigators. In many ways, seeing it happen teaches someone more than going through it.

    The understanding that God works through the Church in spite of the foibles of the people, rather than because they are really perfect.

    A mission that has those elements seems to make a real difference in later activity and belief.

    My two bits. I love my mom, even if she isn’t that colorful and I love my relatives, active or lapsed.