The Flip Side of Othermothering

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If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a Rememoir,” you already know what I got out of having Byrne Miller as my other mother. But the flip side is what the other mother gets out of the relationship.

Parents don’t get security from their kids. Caregiving, according to the Ericksonian theory, is the primary role in mid-life. But what about those of us who don’t have kids or whose children are older? We still have nurturing qualities that could come out in lots of other relationships.

Being an other mother is a healthy way to express that caregiving role. It can make you feel like you’ve contributed something incredibly important, perhaps the most important thing of all.

On a very personal side – I think othermothering can make us better mothers too. I really think it did with Byrne. Alison – her oldest biological daughter – suffered from schizophrenia.


Before Byrne started “collecting” daughters, she wanted so much to have Alison follow in her footsteps. To dance, to say the right things, meet the right people. But she was able to let Alison be the most independent person she could be because she could transfer some of those ambitions and expectations to “collected” daughters – like me.

She wasn’t a perfect mother — no woman is — and being an othermother gave her a do-over. It was her chance to apply the things she’d learned earlier in life and break out of the bounds she’d set for herself. Don’t we all owe ourselves a do-over once in a while?

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.

Describing the Unspeakable

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     I just took a break from the Byrne book for a week, trying to let the contents of my most recent chapter settle in my heart. I’m trying not to recount stories Byrne told me on our porch in Beaufort, but rather to put myself in her shoes and feel what she felt. It’s difficult, and most of the time I’m loving it, except for the truly sad parts. Like when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child. The doctors wanted to institutionalize Alison but Byrne refused. The only treatment at the time was shock therapy.
     Not ever having had a child, it’s hard for me to grasp what that news must have felt like. I wonder if any readers might be willing to share any emotional insights with me – not necessarily about shock treatments but what it feels like to hear devastating news about your child’s health — either in the comments or just by email if its too painful.
     Sylvia Plath, one of my favorites, described shock therapy like this: “I shut my eyes. There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath. Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. ‘I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.”
     When I think about how Byrne must have felt when the doctors ordered shock therapy for Alison, a dance image comes to mind, as if she walked into the doctor’s office straight from rehearsal.
     “She sweeps into the hospital examination room with a walk that leads from angry hips. The doctor speaks, but his words are crashing cymbals in a discordant orchestra. The noise hits her in her stomach and she is momentarily off balance. She struggles not to fall, grips her bare feet in second position parallel, knees in demi-plié. Her core is in contraction, breath exhaled, hands flexed at the end of hyper extended arms. She is pushing the doctor away, the palms of her hands telling him no, he cannot take away her wounded daughter.”
     Like I said, I’m still wrestling with this part, and I welcome any suggestions from my sisters-by-Byrne, friends and readers. Thanks!

Monogamy is overrated. Honesty is imperative.

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          I had a boyfriend once who claimed that serial monogamy is the best humans could hope for. It didn’t sit well with me, in my twenties and rebounding from a disastrous relationship. I wanted this new man to want me so much that he would forsake all others forever. A proposal would be “proof” of my self-worth – not exactly the stuff ideal marriages are built upon, but did I mention I was in my 20’s?

          Of course, I asked Byrne about it. I knew that she and Duncan had been married for almost sixty years, and that not a day of that had passed without him watching her dress and tell her she was marvelous. I also knew that each of them had had affairs. Which was a contradiction I intended to resolve on a drive out to the beach. I was mad at her again, by proxy. Just like I had been when her philosophies on jealousy had backfired when I copied them, without being honest. This time I was mad because the boyfriend she had nicknamed my “Rolling Stone” had dumped me and my if-you-love-me-then-propose-already baggage.

          We drove across the swing bridge  over the Beaufort River and headed toward Hunting Island. There was no oncoming traffic, tomato season was still months away. I passed the turnoff to the road with the tree that an earlier boyfriend had aimed for, with me in the passenger seat. It was a mile marker of trials I thought had made me stronger but obviously hadn’t. The smell of marsh sulfur mingled with the salty sea air.

         “I’ve told you Duncan and I had an open marriage,” Byrne began. “But it was nothing like this serial monogamy nonsense.  The reason we began to take other lovers was to protect our own love from the stress of Alison.”

          Alison was her real daughter, not an adopted one, like me. She had some form of schizophrenia since childhood, back in the days when doctors blamed such conditions on mothers. I didn’t ask for details of the sexual arrangement she and Duncan reached in these troubled times, and Byrne offered none.

           “Neither one of us kept count. It wasn’t a game or a punishment,” she said. “It was just a way of getting away from it all, like going to a costume ball. Our various partners weren’t obliged to know the strain of what we ourselves could not escape. It was a physical release that kept us from wearing each other down. It saved our love.”

           This was not the image of a devoted Duncan I preferred, the pure romance that I wanted to think possible. It was not the image of a martyr mother, undyingly devoted to her damaged daughter. But there was a truth in what Byrne said that settled like a curtain coming down.  What matters, above everything, is honesty.