I hear it from supermarket cashiers and from my favorite person at the McDonald's drive-thru as she hands me my unsweetened iced tea.
It's just a reflexive greeting, I tell myself, feeling a stab of equally reflexive pain within.
But I don't show the pain. I just smile and say "Thank you! And Happy Mother's Day to you, too."
Mother's Day is always a bit melancholy for me. My only pregnancy ended in miscarriage 44 years ago. And my mother died 39 years ago, when I was only 35. I've spent a lot of Mother's Days feeling out of step with the world and reminded, with each cheery greeting, of my losses.
I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Not exactly. I'm just feeling wonder at the diversity of life experiences I see around me and times of wistfulness as I imagine roads not taken and loved ones taken too soon.
Many people have bittersweet feelings on Mother's Day for a variety of reasons.
There are people who have complicated relationships in their adult children and those who are actually estranged, for whom the silent phone and empty mailbox are stark reminders of their painful differences. There are parents who have experienced the unimaginable pain of losing a child they loved and nurtured well into childhood or adulthood. There are those who live far away from loved ones. And there are mothers who love their children immeasurably but still, in quiet moments, wonder what might have been.
Maybe it's simply human nature to wonder.
A friend I'll call Betty interrupted a successful career to have and to nurture her four children. And they're wondrous children -- now successful, kind and caring adults with children of their own. When I fantasize about the children I might have had, I imagine clones of these fabulous four. And yet, at least in part, they are who they are because of Betty's sacrifices.
Could I have made such a sacrifice? In truth? No. I saw my mother walk away from a career she loved to raise the three of us and, as much as she loved us, she had terrible regrets and much marital unhappiness. I vowed that my life would be different. And it is. But still I wonder at times about that road not taken.
So does Betty, as proud of and totally in love with her family as she is. What if she had been able to resume her career? By the time she was ready to go back to work, the opportunities simply weren't there for her. She wonders what life might have been like if she had completed her Ph.D. I did complete my Ph.D. And I find myself thinking that, at this stage of life, the love of a family means so much more than any collection of degrees or years at work.
Those of us who are not and have never been mothers find many ways to feel connected.
We delight in nieces and nephews, knowing that an aunt's love can mean so much. Every Mother's Day, I think back with love and gratitude to Aunt Molly, my father's younger sister, who was a a pivotal person in the lives of my brother, sister and me. And she was a professional writer, the best of mentors. She never married or had children of her own. But we claimed her as our own, feeling fierce and loving bonds with her. We used to call her our "third and best parent." And for years after our parents both died of heart attacks in 1980, we used to celebrate Aunt Molly on Mother's Day. She joked about feeling like an imposter as we took her out to brunch. But she wasn't an imposter. She was our love. After she died in early 2004, I found a picture I had never seen, framed and tucked away in her nightstand.
|Aunt Molly and me back in the day |
It was the first picture taken of us together. I was a fragile premature newborn -- tiny, with a full head of hair and she was a 28 year old unfamiliar with babies. We both looked uncomfortable but curious to know each other. We were fortunate enough to know and love each other for nearly sixty years. Now that photo sits on my desk -- where it makes me smile as I remember this very special person who blessed my life. And I try to relive these memories in visits with my very young niece and nephew today -- though Aunt Molly's shoes are truly impossible to fill.
|Niece Maggie, 9, and me in December 2018|
We celebrate our friends who are mothers-- and enjoy loving and cheering on the new generation and, in time, the generation after that. I deeply love some children of friends, get tremendous satisfaction watching their lives unfold with professional successes and personal happiness.
I recently celebrated with Mary Kate Schellhardt, the daughter of my dearest friend Tim, when she turned forty -- not with the dread some of us once felt at reaching that milestone, but with a sense of celebration of her maturity and life experiences and anticipation of wonderful adventures to come.
|Mary Kate and me celebrating|
And I'm thrilled to wish Carrie Goyette, the daughter of my treasured friend Sharon Hacker, a very happy first Mother's Day! Carrie has wanted to be a mom since she was a toddler. I used to watch with amazement as she played so seriously with her dolls. But Carrie waited a long time for her dream to come true -- a long time before she found true love in David, a longer time -- and a heartbreaking journey through miscarriage and infertility and exhausting IVF regimens -- before she held Hayden Hope Goyette in her arms. Her baby was born smiling. She knew, somehow, how lucky she was to have Carrie and David as parents.
|Carrie and Hayden Hope Goyette|
We have the time to reach out to children who need care and attention from a non-parental adult. Ryan Grady, my husband Bob's third Little Brother in the Big Brothers program, came into our lives when he was nine years old. He was smart, quirky, opinionated and fun. He enjoyed singing and dancing to original Broadway cast albums -- much as I had when I was a child. "I'm your kid!" he would say, wrapping his arms around me. "I wasn't born to you. But I'm yours!" As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to prepare for the oral licensing exam to become a psychotherapist. As he fired practice exam questions at me, he made the quiet decision to do this, too. And he has. Now 35 and a licensed clinical social worker, he is a successful therapist and agency administrator and, even though he is not our biological child, we couldn't ask for a better son. He calls several times a week. He asked Bob to be his Best Man at his wedding two years ago. We visit back and forth between his home in L.A. and our new place in Arizona. He just left a sweet message on my cell phone wishing me a happy Mother's Day and expressing his enduring love. And that means so very much!
|Bob and Ryan during Ryan's most recent visit to us in Arizona|
Yet I have moments of wistfulness as families come together to celebrate the day and the times when people talk so casually about "my daughter" or "my son." Or roll their eyes talking about their parents. And I want to remind them what a precious gift they have in family -- in their children, in their parents, in the time they have to enjoy, annoy and love each other through all the good times and the challenges every family experiences.
They're so blessed -- and so are we, those who have no children but are, nonetheless, surrounded by love. Some of us may live alone, some with a loving spouse and/or some splendid dogs or cats, enjoying nieces and nephews and the children of our hearts, bound to us by love if not biology-- as we celebrate loving connections of all kinds, not just today, but every day of our lives.