In 1951, the high school science teacher told my mom she couldn't sign up for physics, because girls didn't need upper level science, because, "you're just going to get married and have babies." My mom had her sights on a Bachelor of Nursing program, an intensive year-round program, and she needed to take physics. Her mom showed up in the principal's office the next day, and Mom and another girl were allowed to enroll in the class. They both earned A's.
She started working in the hospital her freshman year. When her dad was diagnosed with polio and spent six months in an iron lung, she visited him after her shift and before studying. Every day. She was a slow but dogged reader, and her homework took her longer than most of her classmates, but she worked hard, learned a lot, and graduated in three years. She married my dad three days after passing her nursing boards. She got pregnant a month later.
She quit nursing to have her baby in 1955. In 1958 she had twins. She stayed home with her girls, and when she looked around one day and realized all her babies were grown, she had another one. The plan was for there to be a sibling for me, but when I was six months old, her heart started acting up, due to childhood rheumatic fever, and that changed their mind. In 1974, when I started kindergarten, she went back to school to renew her nursing license, and in 1975, after twenty years as a housewife (neither homemakers nor SAHMs had been invented yet), with a first grader and two high school students still at home, she went back to full time nursing.
My sisters and I have often told each other than mom must have had a particularly rough menopause. We remember explosive anger, usually but not always directed at us or our dad. It was never physically expressed, and usually mixed in self-pity and guilt trips with the criticism and anger. 90% of the time she was warm, loving, creative, nurturing, spontaneous, reflective, and fun. So that other 10% of the time, we figured as adults who had loving relationships with her, must have been hormones.
Just now it occurs to me--my God, the stress she was under. Working full time. Parenting. Still expecting herself to clean the house top to bottom. Every. Single. Week. She baked her own bread. She was our Campfire leader. We never ate fast food. She sewed the majority of our clothes, made matching outfits for my dolls and me for Christmas, packed school lunches. We had a little cabin at the beach--no really, a shack, not the Beach House friends had. It was two rooms, and was a mile from the ocean. The family joke was the only way to get Mom to relax was to go there. She would play solitaire, read, take naps, go for long walks. At home she rarely gave herself permission to be "unproductive" like that. We didn't own a TV, so there was no vegging out after the kids went to bed. No freaking WONDER she was cranky. My dad loved and supported her, and pulled his weight in all the ways expected of men raised in their days. But the housework and the parenting work were her responsibility, even if she delegated pieces to him and to my older sisters. And oh, that heart problem. That may have been challenging for her too.
And nursing, like my profession of teaching, is a job that takes an emotional toll. You are constantly at others' beck and call; you can't even set your own bathroom breaks. You pour yourself into people who may or may not choose to do what they should be doing to improve. It's kind of like parenting...then you go home and parent. How do you keep enough energy and enthusiasm for both?
When I was 11, my sisters graduated from college. Mom continued working that year, and the money she earned went towards a trip to Germany for the three of us left at home, visiting my sisters who were spending a post-graduate year studying there. Then she quit, left nursing for good. The open heart surgery she'd had when I was 8 was only a temporary fix, and she couldn't take the physical strain of nursing any longer. Not surprisingly, although she maintained a fierce temper until the day she died 30 years later, the mean and scary mama largely disappeared. She spent her time making fabric art, and although she treated it as seriously as a job--still not allowing much down time in her daily schedule--at least it was a job she loved, a creative job, a job where nobody was giving her attitude, or dying, or barking orders at her. She had a stroke following her second open heart surgery in 1986. She regained her physical abilities (walked a marathon at age 68, for example), but struggled with word loss that left her feeling shy and shut out at times.
My sisters all left home during the worst of her behavior towards us. I spent my teenaged years with a mom who wasn't as stressed out. We were close, and in my 20's, I continued to use my parents' home as my place of return, allowing me to do things like join the Peace Corps and then go to graduate school. As a result, my adult relationship with her was always much easier than my sisters'.
When I rage at my kids, when I find myself relieved that I remember to call for my husband to come take over before I do something horrible, I remember that scary Mom. Part of me resents her for leaving me that model, and for being so scary that I learned to squelch my own anger--right up until the day I had small, powerless people living in my house. And I know that my sense that the should JUST FUCKING OBEY ME comes directly from my mom's attitude, minus the f-word. I find it particularly messed up that because I have such an aversion to yelling, I don't yell at my kids, but instead I find myself wanting to smack them. Mom spanked me maybe two or three times, but otherwise never laid an angry hand on me.
But lately, my parenting struggles have actually given me more empathy for her. Coming home exhausted from a 12 hour shift, and the kitchen is a mess, and she just loses it. Of course she does. What the hell are the other five people in the house doing, anyway? And when the five year old, frightened by her yelling, bursts into tears, and she blames it on the others instead of on her yelling--again, of course she does. There is so much riding on her, she can't afford to be the one making mistakes. She can't apologize (like I now know I can), because she can't be wrong, because she is fucking doing it all, so it has to be right. The same determination that propelled her into a class she was denied access to makes her bulldoze right over the people she loves.
I wish I could tell her.