The Original Other Mother

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This May 11th  marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day in the United States, a holiday responsible for $16 billion dollars worth of flowers, chocolate, spa treatments and restaurant dinners spent on moms each year by grateful children.

But the woman who started the holiday a century ago, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own, making her what I consider the quintessential other mother.

I wrote in “The Other Mother: a rememoir” that I couldn’t have pinpointed the exact time when Byrne became my other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. You just know what an other mother is when you’re lucky enough have one. She’s that special aunt, coach or older friend who doesn’t have any genetic ties so you can talk to her about things you’d never tell the woman who changed your diapers.

All I know for sure is that the term other-mothering dates back long my book or Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day campaign.

“You have to remember nuclear families are pretty new in all of human history,” says Dr. Hedman, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin. “We can’t be everything to everyone. Having other mothers helps relieve the tension and make parents happier.”

I think he’s onto something. I met my other mother when I was 22 and she was 82. My biological mother lived across the continent and was grateful that another wise, caring woman was there to offer me advice and love.

She’s be the first one to agree with the opening of the flap copy of  my book: “Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we were meant to be.”

I remember every Mother’s Day I spent with my other mother. The florist in Beaufort, South Carolina – Bitty’s Flowers — could barely keep up with bouquets for Byrne Miller.  They came from her collected children around the country:   proof of how we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.

byrne's toast







Listen To Your Mother

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If you had to fill out an application for motherhood – like it was a job that paid an appropriate salary – I doubt Byrne Miller would have made it to the interview stage. She was more tart than apple-pie – under previous employment she would have listed burlesque dancer on Vaudeville. In fact, in just about every category associated with motherhood, she would have defiantly checked “other.”

tart womenism tb

So it makes sense that she became the “other mother” to hundreds of dancers, students and reporters around the world she called her “collected children.” One of them was me. I didn’t set out to find an other mother and never dreamed I’d write a memoir of our relationship.  I didn’t even realize that I had a mother other than the one who gave birth to me until Byrne Miller was in the emergency room with a life-threatening blood clot. She was an 82-year-old widow and I was a 22-year-old reporter in Beaufort, South Carolina.

“Are you family?” a doctor asked me, flipping through a chart when I arrived. “Yes,” I answered, without hesitation, and in that moment I knew that I had made a choice. Somewhere in the years of knowing Byrne, she had become my other mother, fearless and larger than life. I couldn’t have explained to the doctor or anyone when or how it happened any more than I could pinpoint the first time I became aware of my own name.

The amazing thing to me is that Byrne found it in her heart to be an Other Mother in the first place. Motherhood – the traditional kind — hadn’t exactly been easy for her.  Her daughter Alison was only four when Byrne realized that she heard voices. Not the harmless, “good imagination” kind. But the kind that makes a little girl hold her hands over her ears and beg her mommy to make them go away. It was 1943.

The word schizophrenia comes from the Greeks,” the doctors explained. “Phrenia meaning brain. Splitting of the brain. Most likely inherited from a schizophrenogenic mother.” Byrne watched as her little girl was strapped to a gurney, two metal plates pressed on either side of her shaved head. “Electroconvulsive therapy,”  Bellevue hospital called it, but Byrne knew it as shock treatment.

“She won’t remember anything,” the doctors assured Byrne. She wasn’t allowed to watch the treatment; bone fractures often resulted from  violent spasms thrashing through little bodies. Byrne didn’t need to watch. Her own muscles trembled and contracted, twitching with the guilt and rage of a blamed mother. Alison emerged a shaken, vague, disoriented girl and Byrne a woman who felt she had betrayed her child.  

Eventually, the doctors recommended institutionalization. They were asking her to relinquish motherhood itself and Byrne Miller refused.

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

 Byrne swept back into Bellevue with a dancer’s walk led from angry hips. “Speak again of taking my child away from me,” she threatened, a cobra about to strike, “and I will attach these wires to your testicles.”

So what did this fiercest of all mothers do instead? She gave up her dance career and moved the family to an isolated farmstead in Connecticut, where she and Duncan transformed a tree house into a bedroom for the girls. It was going great, until Alison told her mother that she danced with the tree.

A dancing tree resurrected images of gurneys, head braces and wires that bucked and thrashed through her conscience. It portended relapse, the undoing of a glued-together mind that might not quite have dried. “Why don’t I sleep up here with you tonight?” Byrne asked, cloaking her worry.

Byrne stretched out, face up, atop the coiled rag rug and adjusted her pelvis so that the small of her back was supported. She unfurled her fists so that every bone in her hands made contact.

“It is like dancing,” she muttered as the wind through the tree made barely perceptible adjustments to her position. What had seemed delusional was instead a revelation. Alison had found a partner her mother simply hadn’t seen.

 photograph by Gary Geboy
photograph by Gary Geboy

Byrne never did “cure” her daughter. But Alison lived into her 70s, independently, in part because Byrne found a way to let go: othermotherhood. She didn’t define herself by Alison’s successes or failures and Alison was free to choreograph the steps of her own life.

It was just as freeing for me.  Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we are meant to be. Byrne Miller had no vested interest in my identity so she saw right through me, to me.  Someday I will pay it forward and become someone’s cherished other mother. There is no biological clock for othermotherhood and I won’t need to fill out an application.  I already know what it will feel like.

Byrne was certain that the sun could never cast another shadow. She had swallowed it whole.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Unless you can’t write.

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Parents often ask me if it’s “worth” sending their kids to art school. I cleverly read between the lines and realize they’re actually wondering if their child — and his/her paint brushes, pottery wheels, tripods and assortment of laptops — will ever move out of the house and be able to make a living as an artist.

The answer is yes, IF. And this particular IF is non-negotiable. But before I explain, I should give my tepid qualifications to respond in the first place.

I assume these parents consider writing an art or they’d never ask me in the first place. And while I’m not likely to get rich off my first book, my writing skills are valuable far beyond the tiny bubble of memoir. Every job I’ve had – from newspapers to broadcast, public relations and freelance video – I got because I can write.

I moved up the management ranks at Ogilvy PR Worldwide because I can write. And in that capacity, I hired art-school grads. So I know they can be employable.

So the question isn’t really where an artist gets his/her degree, it’s IF that program also emphasizes writing. Check SCAD’s course descriptions. Beyond the actual degrees they offer in writing,  SCAD students can choose from almost 100 courses with the words writing in the title.

SCAD administrators don’t offer all those classes out of some sense of liberal arts legacy. They do it because most artists also work in other fields. In the waking hours when artists are not creating art they teach, they promote, they design, they code, they raise money, they publicize, they report, they research. That part isn’t new.

What has changed is that all artists today have to be entrepreneurs, even those in the purest, classic art forms.  You want to paint landscapes for a living? You’re going to have to describe that work in order to sell it. Want to teach studio arts? You’re going to have to write a fabulous application essay for grad school. Want to exhibit your work? Try getting a grant without solid writing skills. Want to open your own photography studio? Someone’s got to post blogs and write press releases to submit to local media. Fancy yourself a gallery owner one day? You’ll be writing everything from content for your website to articles about openings. Want crowd source funding for your aboriginal sculpture research? Those clever You-Tube documentaries have scripts. With words that somebody wrote. Want to collaborate with other artists on a big project? You’ll have to write a creative brief and project summaries.

No one will know your work better than you. No one will be able to convey your passion more articulately than you.  No one is going to do your marketing and messaging for you (at least not for free). The key is realizing that all working artists are their own brands. And you can’t build a brand if you can’t write.

So my advice to parents (and students) considering a degree in the arts is yes, IF. Do take the plunge IF the program also teaches you practical writing.  As an artist, writing skills will give you the self-sufficiency to build an audience, reach investors and communicate your vision. And even if you end up choosing not to make a living as an artist, you’ll have a skill set that transfers to almost every field connected to the arts.

What not to ask a college student at Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a tricky trip home for college age family members. They’re getting free food and use of a washing machine and that’s welcomed. But the minute they lift a forkful of mashed potatoes to their lips some uncle or grandmother is going to ask what they’re going to do when they graduate. This blog posting is a plea to cut them some slack.

I was reminded of just how stressed out college students are when I talked to students at a leadership conference sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Higdon Student Leadership Center. There’s no way I would have said no when a student who watched my TEDx talk liked it so much she lobbied for me to be the keynote speaker. They even themed the conference after my talk: The Wisdom in Quitting. Still, I was nervous. I had an hour to fill and I wasn’t sure that College of Charleston and Citadel cadets would really “get” Byrne Miller’s words of wisdom.

It turned out they wanted mine. Not because they all want to be writers, or dancers. But because they could relate to the fear I had of disappointing my parents when I had to quit my Olympic quest. I make no secret of how much I hated competing — now. But I’d been raised never to quit and back then I felt like my parents, my coaches, my college – hell even my country was depending on me to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. It seems ridiculously pompous and self-absorbed but that’s how successful kids are raised – when you are the center of your parents’ universe you think their happiness depends on you.

I was terrified to quit anything… from a boring book to an abusive boyfriend… because being perfect was my entire identity.  It took the wisdom of my Other Mother to choreograph the steps of my own life.

So back to the talk at the College of Charleston. I’m used to smaller audiences, where it’s easy to make eye contact and get a read on the room. The students were polite, but I couldn’t tell if I was getting through. I offered to take questions but the organizer interrupted and asked if I would meet with students one-on-one after the conference. As it turns out, he knew that the silence during the talk was actually the sound of brains churning. I ended up talking to Citadel and College of Charleston students for 45 minutes and it hurtled me back to my broken back and the days when I had no idea who I was supposed to be. They told me of being the only person in their family to go to college. How they were finding out that they didn’t want to be the doctors or lawyers their parents expected. One African American cadet in her impressive Citadel uniform asked me how to tell her proud family that she wants to walk into another room – and not into the military.

Suddenly Byrne’s sassy womenisms didn’t seem appropriate. I didn’t want these vulnerable students to think that there’s an easy answer for one of life’s most difficult transitions – the one from following our parents dreams to speaking up for our own. I told them that they were way ahead of where I was at their age – it took a broken back for me to even begin to think of quitting what wasn’t right for me. And I told them that change doesn’t have to be instant. Researching, exploring and planning alternatives before taking a major step isn’t the same thing as procrastination or indecision in the same way that quitting isn’t the same as failing.

We took some pictures, had some hugs and they were off – bravely plunging into the confusion and pressure of lives still on the threshold. And of course, I thought of the advice I should have given too late – on the long drive back to Beaufort. So this is for any of them reading this blog – or any 20-something at your Thanksgiving table. It’s one of Byrne’s wisest womenisms: “There is not a contract on earth that cannot be rewritten.”

I take great comfort in the truth of this — even now. It gives me the courage to trust my instincts instead of pre-judging every step I take. After all, identity is just a contract we make with ourselves.





Get Thee to an Other Mother!

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I can’t pinpoint when I became aware I had an other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. I remember when I met her, sure. I was a floundering 22-year-old from the backwoods of Oregon and she was an 82-year-old former burlesque dancer from New York who said things like “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence.”

Seven days from now the whole world will meet my other mother: Byrne Miller. November 5th is the national launch of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” and the date her collected children, including me, will have to start sharing her with readers everywhere. What I’ve learned since the fabulous local kickoff of the book in Beaufort, SC is that women of all ages instinctively “get it:” we’ve all needed and cherished the love of other mothers even if we’ve never put our finger on it until this book came along.

Moveable Feast reading at Kimbel's on Wachesaw Plantation
Moveable Feast reading at Kimbel’s on Wachesaw Plantation

What I’ve also learned is that there are many different reasons why. Othermothering isn’t the sappy happy apple pie fantasy of nuclear families. It’s real world and defies stereotypes. After I spoke to 65 avid readers Friday at Litchfield Book’s Moveable Feast in Murrell’s Inlet, one grandmother raised her hand. I thought she might ask the question I often get: “Was your real mother ever jealous of your Other Mother?”

But instead she said she bought her ticket to the luncheon the minute she saw the book cover and title. “I figured since my daughter and I don’t always seem well matched this might be just the solution.” The whole crowd laughed right along with her and Litchfield Books sold out of my book within the hour. Most told me it was gift for themselves, and some had Christmas presents for their mothers and other mothers in mind. But when I was signing books after the talk, two different women asked me to inscribe their copies to their daughters. “Can you write something like Dear Jane, have you thought about finding an other mother?”

It reminded me that daughters aren’t always the sweet dears we like to think we are. It dawned on me why I never got the feeling that my own mother was jealous of Byrne. She was probably sick and tired of my twenty-something know-it-all self and relieved that another woman was willing to guide me into another phase of life. Hmmm…. Come to think of it one of my many nicknames growing up was Miss Information.

Byrne -- in her 60s, photo taken in Santa Fe
Byrne — in her 60s, photo taken in Santa Fe
My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of "My Fair Lady"
My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of “My Fair Lady”

My TED talk — “The Wisdom in Quitting: Lessons from my Other Mother.”

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my ted talk2


A tiny microphone floated on a wire curved around my face to rest an inch from my lips – like a little moon orbiting my planet. The tag inside my new dress scratched against my sweaty skin and I wondered how long the coat of mascara expertly lacquered to my eyelashes would stay dry and put. I paced behind a slit in a heavy black curtain for a charismatic emcee to finish his introduction of me.

I haven’t been “on-deck,” ready to go out and perform a routine since I was an 18-year-old rhythmic gymnast trying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. I quit competing a lifetime ago when I broke my back and yet there I was, as nervous as if I was about to take the floor in front of a panel of judges.  That was when I laughed – and thought of my “other mother:” Byrne Miller.

This TEDx talk wasn’t about me trying to score a perfect 10 – it was a chance to share her story with people who didn’t have the luck of knowing her in person. I could practically feel Byrne’s presence – not like a guardian angel hovering protectively, but in the front row, reveling in the attention and beaming.  She once told me her secret dream was to rent out Lincoln Center and have her favorite modern dance company perform just for her but I couldn’t help thinking she would have loved this even more.

The TEDx 2013 Charleston theme was reinvention, and I was the kickoff speaker. There’s something about the story of a burlesque dancer who believes that, to build confidence, all women should have at least one affair that wakes up an audience. I talked about how I’d always been afraid to quit anything before I met her. I was afraid because I equated quitting with failing and I was raised to be a perfect daughter: an Olympic gymnast. Never mind that I hated competing and loved to dance more than anything. Quitting, especially when I was ranked 4th in the U.S. and the top 3 were going to the Olympics, was out of the question.  It took breaking my back before I felt like I could quit without being a quitter and I was still trying to be the person my parents expected me to be when I met Byrne Miller.

I was drawn to Byrne because she seemed the opposite of a quitter. But in the course of researching her life for the memoir I realized she just called quitting something different: walking into another room. She reinvented herself continually and she wanted all of her collected daughters to have the confidence to do the same.

All of that, and so much more, is about to be published in the book. But I’ve never spoken to any group of strangers about this part of my life, and how it intersected with hers. I wondered if the message would resonate with a TED crowd. I wasn’t talking about a cure for cancer, or how to change the world. But it turns out that my very personal experience is actually universal.

Men came up to shake my hand and say how they tweeted Byrne’s “womenisms” throughout my talk. One dad told me he was going to talk to his kids that night and make sure they understood that even though he’s proud of them that they have the right to determine their own identity. A woman in her late 50s said she’s quitting her six-figure career of 30 years and my story gave her the reassurance that it’s okay – not crazy – to redefine herself. I gave her a card with a snapshot of Byrne and one of her favorite sayings: “Love is more disarming than logic.”

I would have been dancing on air if those were the only three people who talked to me throughout the day. But my favorite new sister-by-Byrne was a woman whose husband just got a job at the Citadel. She towered above me, as gloriously tall as Byrne once was, and said that she always thought she was too big to be a dancer. Now she leads a weekend dance “church” open to all women and children who just want to move.

At the reception I met a woman my age who had also been an elite gymnast and trapeze artist. She broke her back not once but twice before she listened to her own heart and became a clothing designer. I met not one but three daughters of immigrant parents who knew exactly how hard it is to quit anything when you’re supposed to be perfect.

I felt like everyone in that audience was already dancing with Byrne. Being a quitter never felt so victorious.

You'll be able to watch videos of all these speakers in a few weeks on You-Tube
You’ll be able to watch videos of all these speakers in a few weeks on You-Tube


Mother’s Day for Other Mothers

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The title of the memoir about my relationship with Byrne Miller is called “The Other Mother” so my publisher is offering a free download of the first chapter on Mother’s Day

My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of "My Fair Lady"
My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of “My Fair Lady”
My "other mother" -- Byrne Miller, in a 1940s publicity photo
My “other mother” — Byrne Miller, in a 1940s publicity photo
















You would think, based on these photos, that both of my “mothers” were dancers. But my mother’s dreams of dance stopped after high school, when she met my father and started having children. Byrne had a different concept of parenting. Instead of carpooling her two daughters from activity to activity, as my mother did, Byrne reversed the steps. Alison and Jane tagged along wherever Byrne lived and danced around the world. When they did not follow in her dancing footsteps, Byrne collected “dancer daughters” and formed her own company, which is how I met her in Beaufort long ago.

I was in my 20s and Byrne was in her 80s at the time. I love my mother, but I needed the kind of encouragement Byrne’s example provided. I became one of her “collected children” and she became my “Other Mother.”

I am certainly not the first woman to have lucked into such a relationship. I’m not talking about favorite aunts, coaches or mentors. “Other Mothers” are not related or responsible for you in any way. They don’t have a vested interest in your identity. They don’t judge themselves by your successes or failures. That’s why they’re free to offer alternative lifestyles, philosophies, religions or, in my case, the confidence to take risks.

You don’t have to be a modern dance pioneer to become an “Other Mother.” Byrne simply had a way of attracting followers to her exuberant positivity. She spoke in colorful anecdotes and analogies I call “womenisms” in the book, things I couldn’t have heard from anyone but an “other mother.” Who really wants to listen to their actual mother talk about sex, for example? But Byrne could entertain her collected daughters for hours with stories of men she knew and loved and what she learned from each of them. “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence,” she told us. And “No woman should try to be everything to a man. It’s beyond valiant. It’s stupid.”

Looking back, I think the best mother’s day present I ever gave my mother was having an “other mother.” Byrne’s presence in my life freed my mother. She knew I had someone to pick up where she left off. She could focus on her own life and goals after years of, in a sense, living through me and my sister. She also knew that being a mother didn’t have to stop when we left home and moved far away. She still has lessons and wisdom to share – and I’m sure that there are young women in Mexico (where she lives) who would be lucky to have her as an “other mother.”

I hope, through the memoir, I’m offering another kind of motherhood to celebrate this Mother’s Day.
2013-05-04 Other Mother 6x9 cover 300dpi

Public Speaking Butterflies

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Georgia Southern professor Tiffany Russell was nervous yesterday. Really nervous. It was the first run-through for speakers at the first-ever TED Talks in Charleston, SC and we were being graded by volunteers with clipboards and score sheets. And filmed.

Tiffany’s run-through was right after mine and we had a chance to whisper, in the front row, about nerves. Specifically why, even when you speak publically all the time, they don’t go away. She talks to college students everyday; I used to be on TV every night and I talk about Byrne Miller every chance I get. You’d think this would be a breeze for people like us but it isn’t.

My method of coping with nerves has always been to rehearse so much that my worry switches to whether my presentation still feels natural. Once I’ve got my talk memorized, about half of my nerves disappear. It’s not a theory I claim to have invented. It was drilled into me in my previous life as a U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics team member. I trained six hours a day, six days a week. The music my routines were set to became worse than earworms; I heard my ball, hoop, clubs and ribbon music in my dreams.   

But practicing in a gym isn’t the same as walking out onto the mat in a huge stadium, with television cameras, a live audience, a panel of judges and your Olympic career on the line. All you can hope for is that muscle memory kicks in and you can lose yourself in that music.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday. I didn’t have to use my notes but I got lost in the story I was telling. So until I see the tape I have no idea if I left anything important out. Tiffany was certain that she did leave some parts out. And it made her even more nervous.

But it occurred to me, as we commiserated, that there is a flip side to being nervous. I told her that if we ever get so blasé about our topics that we aren’t nervous, then we have a problem. Being nervous just means we care so much about the content that we want to get it right. We want the audience to lean forward, light up and remember.  

Probably because my TED talk is about my “Other Mother,” I’ve been thinking about all the mothers I know. How they never stop being nervous about their kids. Whether they’re giving them the right advice, how much they should push or hold back, when to intervene in life’s everyday little battles. Much more is at stake than a TED talk for them. There is no script to memorize. There will very likely be no applause, even if they get it perfectly right. They are nervous because they care so much. It’s a sign of how much they love their kids. It puts it all in perspective for me.

So bring on the butterflies – I’m fine with a few dancing in my stomach.