Do women assume their mothers are insecure and jealous? I am beginning to wonder, after the same question comes up at every reading or Other Mother book soiree. A hand goes up and someone will ask, almost apologetically, if my real mother was ever jealous of Byrne Miller – the other mother of my memoir’s title. I’ve stopped being surprised by the question, even though in truth it never occurred to me before I wrote the book. I loved both mothers without comparison and assumed the inverse was true. Because my mother was a coach and therefore an other mother to many gymnasts, I never even wondered if she’d mind about Byrne. I knew, with the lucky certainty of the truly loved, that she always wanted the best for me and never declared a monopoly on what the best was.
Last week dear friends in Charleston threw a soiree for the book and for the first time, the discussion quickly moved into deeper, fascinating territory. I was prepared for the jealousy question and I could see by the smiles in Andrea and John’s elegant sitting room that my “no, I think she was relieved” answer met with agreement, and approval. These were confident women, some of them mothers, some them daughters of other mothers. The questions quickly moved on to all the other juicy topics in the book, like Byrne’s insistence that all contracts in life – including identity and marriage – can be rewritten.
As I was signing books, the conversation bubbled over champagne and macaroons and I overheard young women showing off cell-phone photos of their other mothers and older women discovering that they’re considered other mothers. Othermothering works like that; I can’t pinpoint the moment I knew Byrne was my other mother any more precisely than when I became aware of my own name. You know it when you feel it.
The next morning, over breakfast, an artist who’d been at the soiree articulated what’s been gnawing at me. Every time the jealousy question comes up, a little part of me wondered if I am just incredibly insensitive. I never even asked my mother if my relationship with Byrne hurt her feelings. But Donna made me think of it in a new light. We turn to other mothers for new perspectives and because they are not genetically tied to our identity they offer us radical, fresh opinions. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would never broach a subject with my mother that would result in Byrne’s favorite womenism:
But perhaps we are open to the advice of other mothers because we assume too much about our mothers. Just as we think they judge us, we judge them to be too insecure, too old-fashioned, too un-hip, to stay-at-home to understand our careers or love lives and conflicts. We’ve stopped seeing the complexity, the changing nature of the mothers we’ve known since birth. We can all point to the time our mother freaked out – over a hair color, or a boyfriend, or girlfriend for that matter. But do we hold onto those moments, those confirmations of conflict so tightly we refuse to acknowledge that mothers change too?
Because of the book, I researched and found proof that both Byrne’s mothering and othermothering evolved over time. By the time I came along she was much better at it than she had been with earlier “collected” children – the memoir documents other relationships more forced than forged. With me she was burlesque – intriguing rather than intimidating. She drew me into our dance together and only now am I realizing how much she needed me as well.
There are a million benefits to being an other mother. There is no age limit and no experience is required. It’s not a forever commitment. Other mothers are not expected to pay for college tuition. And they don’t have to switch off the nurturing gene when their own nest is empty. But perhaps most importantly, other mothers have a chance to redefine themselves. With their collected daughters they can flirt with unexplored wisdoms and unpracticed reactions.
Byrne always said “You can never be everything to a man, to try is beyond valiant. It’s stupid.” But maybe the same is true of mothers and daughters.