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.
“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.” — Chapter 42 “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
I may never remember the exact moment I found an Other Mother in Byrne Miller, but I will always remember the moment I realized that all women, instinctively, get it. It happened last night, at the first ever “Other Mother Soirée.”
My friend and fellow writer Barbara Kelly had the idea to combine a celebration of my memoir about Byrne and a tribute to the other mothers in all our lives.
Her soirée invite list started with her own Other Mother – Betty Tenare. In the same way Byrne added me to her collection of daughters, Betty befriended Barbara when she first arrived in Beaufort and folded the nervous newcomer into a circle of support.
Betty sat just to my right as I read this passage from “The Other Mother: a rememoir” and I could literally feel how proud she is of Barbara and of being an Other Mother. Just as Byrne was.
“I didn’t have to ask what Lillian meant by collected daughters. I was beginning to know the silky feel of Byrne’s favor, the web she wove that made me feel more charming, witty and talented than I did with anyone else.”
—Chapter 14 “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
When we weren’t feasting on chef Jamie Darby’s creations, we raised glasses of wine and shared toasts and stories of Other Mothers. Some were literally shared. Like Casey Chucta’s story of how she used to be jealous of all the people “adopted” by her charismatic, theatrical parents Bob and Roxie. But then, when so many people paid tribute to her father at his funeral, she realized how lucky she was to have inherited an extended family. All because her father was an Other Father and her mother a generous, loving Other Mother.
As a writer, it doesn’t get better than witnessing the way a book can connect people. Last night was my first chance since the Beaufort launch to sit back and revel in the power of othermothering. But there will be more opportunities. Two other dear friends, Andrea in Charleston and Audrey in Washington, D.C., are hosting Other Mother Soirées for me at their homes in November. And my TEDx talk in Charleston, on lessons from my Other Mother, keeps getting more views and likes as the national book release gets closer. Who knows, I may be collecting a few daughters of my own as this dance continues.