“When Did I Become the Mother and the Mother Become the Child?” by housewife, mother, and author Erma Bombeck (1927-1996), from her 1971 book If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?
A nuclear physicist once figured out that if a woman has a baby when she is twenty years old, she is (about) twenty times as old as that baby. When the baby is twenty years of age and the mother is forty, she is only twice as old as the child. When the baby is sixty and the mother is eighty, she is only one-and-a-third times as old as the child. When will the baby catch up with the mother? When indeed.
Does it begin the night when you are asleep and your mother is having a restless night and you go into her room and tuck the blanket around her bare arms? Does it appear one afternoon when, in a moment of irritation, you snap, “How can I give you a permanent in your hair if you won’t sit still? If you don’t care how you look, I do!” (My God, is that an echo?) Or did it come the rainy afternoon when you were driving home from the store and you slammed on your brakes and your arms sprang protectively between her and the windshield, and your eyes met with a knowing, sad look? (NOTE: This was written in 1971. Not many people bothered to wear seat belts back then, so on sudden stops, parents would have to put out their arm to prevent their child (who was standing on the front seat) from going through the windshield.)
The transition comes slowly, as it began between her and her mother. The changing of power. The transferring of responsibility. The passing down of duty. Suddenly you are spewing out the familiar phrases learned at the knee of your mother.
“Of course you’re sick. Don’t you think I know when you’re not feeling well? I’ll be over to pick you up and take you to the doctor around eleven. And be ready!”
“So where’s your sweater? You know how cold the stores get with the air conditioning. The last thing you need is a cold.”
“You look nice today. Didn’t I tell you you’d like that dress? The other one made you look too old. No sense looking old before you have to.”
“Do you have to go to the bathroom before we go? You know what a big deal it is at the doctor’s, asking for the key and walking all the way down that long corridor. Why don’t you just go anyway… just to get it over with.”
“If you’re not too tired, we’ll shop. Did you take your nap this morning? When you get tired, tell me and I’ll take you home. You know I can’t shop when you get so tired.”
Then the rebellion. “I can make my own decisions, missy. I know when I am tired, and when I have the good sense to go to bed. Stop treating me like a child!” She is not yet ready to step down.
But slowly and insidiously and certainly the years give way and there is no one else to turn to.
“Where are my glasses? I can never find them… Did I fall asleep in the movie again? What was it all about?… Dial that number for me. You know how I always get the wrong one… Where’s my flight number and the times of my planes? You always type it out for me and put it in the airline ticket pocket. I can’t read those little numbers.”
Then your rebellion. “Mother really, you are not that old. You can do things for yourself. Surely you can still see to thread your own needle… And you certainly aren’t too tired to call up Florence and say hello. She’s called you fifteen times and you never call her back. Why don’t you have lunch with her sometimes. It would do you good to get out of the house… What do you mean you are overdrawn? Can’t you remember to record your checks when you write them?”
The daughter isn’t ready yet to carry the burden. But the course is set.
There is that first year you celebrate Thanksgiving at your house, and you roast the turkey and your mother sets the table.
The first time you subconsciously turn to her in a movie and say, “Shhh!”
The first time you rush to grab her arm when she walks over a patch of ice…
As your own children grow strong and independent, the mother becomes more childlike.
“Mother, I did not take your TV Guide off the TV set.”
“I saw your father last night and he said he would be late.”
“You did not see Dad last night. He’s dead, Mother.”
“Why would you say a thing like that? You’re a terrible child.” (Your mother used to tell you there was no such thing as your imaginary friend, Mr. Ripple, and that always mad you so mad.)
“You never want to visit with me. You fiddle with those children too much. They don’t even need you.” (You used to wonder why your mother couldn’t read you stories instead of playing bridge.)
“For goodness sake, Mom, don’t mention Fred’s hairpiece. We all know he has one, and having you mention it all the time doesn’t help.” (“Mind your manners, little girl, and don’t speak unless you are spoken to.”)
The daughter contemplates, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. All the years I was bathed, dressed, fed, advised, disciplined, ordered, cared for, and had every need anticipated, I wanted my turn when I could be in command. Now that it’s here, why am I so sad?”
You bathe and pat dry the body that once housed you. You spoon feed the lips that kissed your cuts and bruises and made them well. You comb the hair that used to playfully cascade over you to make you laugh. You arrange the covers over the legs that once carried you along.
Her naps are frequent as yours used to be. You accompany her to the bathroom and wait to return her to bed. You get someone to sit with her so you can go out. You never thought it would be like this.
While riding with your daughter one day, she slams on her brakes and her arm flies out instinctively in front of you between the windshield and your body.
My God! So soon.
Deuteronomy 5:16 — Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
I Timothy 5:3-4 — Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
O Lord God, whose will it is that, next to yourself, we should hold our parents in highest honor; it is not the least of our duties to pray for your goodness towards them. Preserve, I pray, my parents in the love of religion, and in health of body and mind. Grant that through me no sorrow may befall them; and finally, as they are kind to me, so may you be to them, O supreme Father of all. Amen.
–Erasmus; Dutch priest, theologian, and teacher (1466-1536)