Thursday, January 15, 2009

I am 29. (Don't laugh.)

Today is my birthday. And I am 29.

Don't laugh -- and don't mistake me for one of those incredibly vain women who compulsively lies about her age. I am a different kind of 29. I was barely 29 the day my mother died. So even though that was well over a decade ago, there is a part of me that forever remains 29. (Unfortunately that part is not my stomach or my hips.)

In the years since I turned 29, I've had some incredible growth experiences, learned some amazing things, cried an ocean or two of tears, and laughed a herd of hyenas right out of business. There's no question that I've lived, loved, and moved forward since that day. And yet there's a part of me that refuses to grow or progress without my mother.

I saw a hilarious typographical error on the marquis outside an elementary school today: "Parent Maturation Night". I'm pretty sure that's not quite what they meant. And yet, what parent doesn't need to mature just a little bit more? And how great would it be if it could happen all in one night?

Actually, I "matured" (perhaps a better term is transitioned) from Oldest Sister to Surrogate Mother in one night – one really bittersweet night, when I was 29. Sometimes we have to grow up too fast. And sometimes that growing-up process takes no prisoners. But other times it holds a part of us hostage. And I think that's what happened to my heart.

I don't think I can put my finger on EXACTLY which part of me refuses to move beyond 29, or EXACTLY what it is that's keeping me there, but I have some ideas. In her book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes,
"Sometimes when a [daughter]...has to take on responsibility very quickly, she has to advance rapidly in her development. At the same time, she may continue to identify with her earlier stage as a way to maintain a relationship with her mother and deny the finality of the death. The result is an adult who retains some characteristics of an earlier developmental time, one who feels as if a piece of her is still "stuck" [there]. To this daughter, "growing up" feels like not only a mystery but a practical impossibility."

A few pages later she continues: "The twenties are the years most women pinpoint as the time they first realized their mothers had qualities – empathy, wisdom, experience – they would value in a friend. To lose a mother at this time, just at the point when one seems to have found her again, feels like a cruel trick."
All of that is true of my experience. I feel like I'm still in the beginning stages of learning to parent, just as I was at 29, and yet my oldest child is approaching adulthood. I'm still occasionally caught in that tug-of-war between career and motherhood, just as I was at 29. I sometimes have a hang-up about doing housework by myself, almost digging in my heels until someone comes to work by my side -- As if my mom's somehow going to swoop down and help me clean my room. (Whatever. That's not even 29. That's more like nine.)

Ironically, my mother is also "stuck" in my mind's eye at a perpetual 54. So young. 54. Less than a decade from where I am now. While she suffered immeasurably with cancer and the toll its treatments took, she never grew old. I don't know what my mother would have looked like, or felt like, at 70, 80, 90...and I have no idea what to expect when I age. Sometimes I am terrified of outliving her.

I often feel a deep yearning to fill that void in my life by surrounding myself with wonderful women – friends, guardians, mentors – and God has answered that need with the most astonishing assortment of amazing role models for me, literally placing them in my path: dear friends, women at church, neighbors, trailmates, colleagues, siblings, in-laws, a Jewish therapist, and, yes, a community of bloggers. I learn from all of you. Most of the time you probably don't even realize you're teaching me. But heaven knows SOMEBODY has to lead me over that threshold and help me grow up! I promise I'm doing it...just sometimes in baby steps.

--In the meantime, please don't judge me if I act a little immature. After all, I'm only 29!

p.s. Somebody at the Bloggers Annex just put up one of my posts as a birthday surprise. Go check it out.


Marie said...

Bravo and well said, as usual. Oh, and btw - A very Happy Birthday today! I love you,


Kazzy said...

I sent you a text right when I woke up today wishing you a happy birthday! I know your mother's absence has been a defining thing for you, but I am sure she would be so proud of you and your kids. And, you are the one who nurtures and inspires people around you. You are astounding, and I love you a ton.

Heather of the EO said...

Happy Birthday, friend!

I want to say a bunch of sappy stuff, but maybe I'll just email you so I don't freak anyone out :)

Love this post, Happy Happy day to you. 29 is beautiful at any age.

Dedee said...

Is it weird to say that I understand you much better this morning than I did yesterday? Hope not, cuz it's true.

Happy Birthday and I hope you have a gazillion more.

Oh, and that paragraph about the housework, that could have been written out of my own head. Every sentence of it!

Cari said...

If you're 29, then I'm 26--still younger than you ;D

Happy Wonderful Beautiful Glorious Laughing Birthday, mi hermana!

Luisa Perkins said...

Lovely and insightful, as always. Happy Birthday!

Kimberly said...

Oh heck...why wasn't there a kleenex warning on this one? I nearly lost my mum two years ago, and the close call that one still lingers...this hits so close to home because of that. Because I remember sitting by her hospital bed trying to imagine how life would be...if it possibly COULD be, without her.

I'm grateful to you mum for the incredible woman she raised. For how your make all our lives better by being in it. ~hugs~

Happy Birthday, sweet friend.

Mrs4444 said...

Well done, my friend. You know, you could just be like most people and morph into your mother; go from 29 to 50-something. Something tells me, you already have in terms of her best qualities.

Happy Birthday. I've got it on my calendar now, so next year, I'll remember :)

I read that book many years ago (I have no idea why, since obviously, my mom is alive and well. I found it filled with perfect insights. I'm glad you found it, too.

Mrs4444 said...

P.S. Left you an AWARD on my blog tonight :) And please come by Monday for my BIG 444th post giveaway!

Brillig said...

How do you even manage to make BIRTHDAY POSTS gorgeous??? You're wonderful. Sorry it took me so long to come over here. Hope your birthday was fantastic. Missing you...

Luisa Perkins said...

I tagged you for another meme today!

Elle said...

Beautiful post. Thank you for your vulnerability.

Heidi Ashworth said...

How in the world did I miss this post? I am going to have to have a word with blogger. Being just about your age with a living mother and five older sisters, my situation is so different. I'm so sorry that you have missed out on so much and carry so much of the burden alone. I'm guessing you are the oldest sister--even with my mom still here, my oldest sister has such a burden to carry. It's interesting. It must be even harder for you! My grandfather died at age 54 (he was run over by a train. Yeah. I know) and I totally sensed that my dad had a trippy birthday that year. Or maybe it was the year after. I think it was definitely hard for him but as the years went by, it was kind of freeing. He was free to be just who he was, not who his father was. Not that there was anything wrong with his father, of course, but the idea that you are terrified to grow older than her b/c you don't know what she would have been has a flip side--and it's the freedom part. At least, that's what I'm guessing.

Heidi Ashworth said...

Oh, and Happy Belated Birthday! How did I miss that! It wasn't even on a Tuesday! (sorry)

Melanie J said...

You know, I read this when you posted it and I didn't comment. I didn't know what to say. I guess it's because I still need a little more time to put things in perspective. I think maybe I'll keep coming back to the age of 31 for many reasons. But I guess the main thing I should say is...I understand. I really, really do.