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Friday, March 14, 2008

The influence of mothers

Regular readers of Creative Ink will periodically get a glimpse of my three sons here. Those who know me well, however, know that they are more than just a periodic thought in my head. I am crazy about them, I mean really, truly in love with them.

When my younger sister was pregnant with her first child, I remember trying to explain to her the rush of love you feel for your children. A scary feeling because you suddenly realize how vulnerable you are to loss and devastation should anything happen to them. I try not to be morose, instead choosing to enjoy them—their humor, laughter, arguments, stubbornness, intelligence, sloppiness, athleticism and worldview.

Whenever I arrive home from a trip and I'm excited to tell them about what I've learned or the conversations I've had, the conversation quickly turns from anything I may have to share with them to the wonderful things they want to share with me. Who is going out with whom, the injustices of a basketball game at recess, the latest antics of a teacher or friend, what kind of homework help they need. Sometimes I get angry and hurt when they don't listen. People I meet on my trips actually want to hear what I have to say, I tell them. They look at me blankly in response because I am only mom right now, nothing else.

As they get older, however, I can see my influence on them in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Ryan is keenly aware of injustices in this world and he is not content to just let them pass. Patrick is an old soul, a compassionate person, who tends to withdraw into himself when he's feeling overwhelmed. And Mikey is so fiery in his passion that it can overwhelm everyone around him.

I'm not sure of much in this world, but I do know that I'm a good mother to my boys. It's the best and, frankly, the most natural thing I do. We were at a gathering once and someone was saying, "Just wait, when they're teenagers they will stop talking to you," as if this were something to look forward to. Later my mom told me that she doubted that would happen because my boys and I have always been crazy about each other. She didn't expect them to suddenly shut down.

For the most part, they do still talk to me. At 15, Ryan is very open to both me and my husband. Patrick, at 13, is a little less s0, but you have to get him one-on-one. He won't try to compete to be heard with his older and younger brother around. And Mikey is 9 and tells us that when he's grown up he will have a house big enough for mom and dad to live with him.

Mothers and sons and fathers and daughters. Most of the successful women I've interviewed have always talked about the influential role of their fathers in their lives. Maybe they draw a direct link, but more often it's a subtle connection. Maybe it was just the sense that their fathers gave them permission (verbally or nonverbally) to be anything. The same is true of mothers and sons, though I suspect men have a harder time articulating publicly the influence of their mothers. The sting of the "Mama's Boy" label must still pinch well into adulthood.

Despite the difficulty as a journalist of uncovering that influence, I am always fascinated by the ways in which a mother shapes a son's decisions and values, both good and bad. The New York Times today has an interesting feature story and multimedia segment on Sen. Barack Obama's mother and her influence on him. She died in 1995 so we don't see her standing on the dais with him and his family. There are no extended interviews with Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, so we're left to learn about the woman who raised a presidential contender from others. We don't know what her aspirations were for him, the very values she hoped he would carry on, but rather we must rely on the filtering of others for tiny glimpses.
“She felt that somehow, wandering through uncharted territory, we might stumble upon something that will, in an instant, seem to represent who we are at the core,” said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister. “That was very much her philosophy of life — to not be limited by fear or narrow definitions, to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places.”
Obama would not be interviewed for this article, but evidence of his mother's influence is seen by his most prized keepsake: "a photograph of the cliffs of the South Shore of Oahu in Hawaii where his mother’s ashes were scattered." Maybe he is protective of her, even in death, as are many sons of single mothers. Maybe he feels it's too personal or even painful to discuss publicly. Or maybe those are just thoughts he chooses to keep for himself. Who can blame him?

She is described as a big thinker, someone not afraid to speak truth to power, an idealist, hardheaded, intense. "A weaver in college, she was fascinated with what Ms. Soetoro-Ng calls 'life’s gorgeous minutiae.' "

“She loved living in Java,” said Dr. Dewey, who recalled accompanying Ms. Soetoro to a metalworking village. “People said: ‘Hi! How are you?’ She said: ‘How’s your wife? Did your daughter have the baby?’ They were friends. Then she’d whip out her notebook and she’d say: ‘How many of you have electricity? Are you having trouble getting iron?’ ”

She became a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development on setting up a village credit program, then a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta specializing in women’s work. Later, she was a consultant in Pakistan, then joined Indonesia’s oldest bank to work on what is described as the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program, creating services like credit and savings for the poor.

She wanted to be remembered for her life of service. And perhaps that's her lasting legacy on her son. I'm sure he will someday take the time to explain or write about what his mother means to him. Maybe it's something that comes easier with age and perspective.

Yesterday, I received a copy of former President Jimmy Carter's memoir, "A Remarkable Mother," about the incomparable matriarch Miss Lillian Carter. She is described in the book flap as "a registered nurse, pecan grower, university housemother, Peace Corps volunteer, public speaker and renowned raconteur."

I look forward to reading it.

My Gram always told me that you can tell a lot about a man by how he treats his mother. When I'm gone from this world, I certainly hope my boys will look back and say, "She was everything to us, but she was more than just our mother. She was adventurous, intelligent, passionate, generous and keenly interested in others. We didn't always hear her when she needed us to listen. But without much fuss, she would set aside her own needs for the betterment of ours. She was always there."

Last is first
"The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put in first." — T.S. Eliot

Word of the day

prodigious: exciting amazement or wonder

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