A strong and passionate mythology surrounds motherhood: one that alternately glorifies the institution in sentiment and song, and at the same time pins our culture’s ills onto the failure of mothers to get their jobs done well enough. Incidentally, that job is both thankless and supremely rewarding – a dichotomy that no woman expects when she signs on. It comes with no guidebook, no training, no license or credential, and there’s no guarantee that mothering will be doable at all.
Why would any woman enter into this sacred contract to nurture a new being into adulthood in the first place? Women don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, but they do know something: For most women – and certainly, not all – there is that creative impulse to love a child. There is the curious imperative to sacrifice one’s singularity on behalf of someone new and helpless.
When Marilyn MacClellan turned 40, she’d been on the job as a nuclear engineer for 18 years. “I always wanted to be a mom, but I’d focused on college and then on my career, working swing shift at the power plant; I had no social life. A friend who asked me out to lunch told me that her sister just got approved to adopt a baby from China. She got my attention at that point. I had already looked into adopting in the State of Florida, but as an unmarried woman, I knew that the likelihood was slim and none. How could I ever adopt internationally? I talked with the sister, who told me about the agency they were using: Chinese Children’s Adoption Agency International. I didn’t overthink it, thank God. I went through the process, which took about a year to complete the dossier.
“You know, when you’re raising a kid, you become aware that the decisions you make can change everything. I’ve always said to my daughter Kiana that if I didn’t have lunch with my friend that day, we wouldn’t be here. None of this would be happening. I filled out the paperwork on April 1, and by August, I was in China bringing my little girl home. It wasn’t that I’d always dreamed of going to China. It was a country that would entrust an older American woman with one of their treasures.”
“I had a baby shower given by all men; I was the only female in my department. The other significant thing was that I literally came home from China and, within a short period of time, I quit my job – sold everything we had and moved to study Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Kind of a whim, but I always felt it was sort of divine intervention. And I wanted to spend time with her. It was a big change.”
Marilyn had a big family and was around kids all her life. “I thought I knew exactly how to be a mom: not a big deal. I was one of those people who’d think, ‘What do you mean your kid doesn’t like broccoli? What do you mean your kid doesn’t want to go to bed? Like, what are you doing wrong?’ I was very opinionated, though I kept it to myself. It was a rude awakening for me when Kiana was about 3 and she didn’t like anything I bought her to wear. I learned to pick my battles. I think the benefit of being 40 was that I’d already done my partying and had my night life. I just really wanted to be a mom. But raising a kid is a lot different than you think it’s gonna be.”
When asked if she was ready for Kiana to leave home and be on her own, she says, “You don’t think you’re going to be that empty-nester, but you totally are. What happens is: Your whole schedule revolves around your children. Then there’s no transition from that to them going away to college. It was a gut punch, but at the same time, I knew I couldn’t sabotage my kid’s future. I had to suck it up and support her.”
They talk on the phone every day now, but Marilyn says that she had to switch from being the mother to listening to her daughter. “We think we know better. We’re wiser; we’ve been through it all. But I knew, too, that her coming home and talking to me was optional. If I wanted to hear from her and be a part of her life, I needed to let her drive that.”
Kiana is now a 22-year-old college graduate. She and her mother recently went to China to visit her birthplace. Marilyn was aware that, no matter how well-adjusted and happy her daughter was, there would always be this question: “What happened?” “I never wanted her to not love China or feel like it wasn’t a great country. This trip back, I had hoped that she would find what she needed; but the reality was that she would not come away with knowing who her parents were. I wanted her to see what a wonderful country it is, and how wonderful the people are. Just like we’re not our government, they are not the Communist government.”
Kiana talks about her experience. “I was 13 months old when I was adopted. She never kept it from me. We read a book, Tell Me Again about the Night I Was Born, by Jamie Lee Curtis. I always knew I was adopted, but I also knew that my mom went through a lot to get me. Everybody goes through their preteens when everything is crashing down and your world is ending and hormones are kicking in and you’re questioning everything. I don’t think my experience was anything apart from the normal teenage angst.
“I don’t think I acted particularly bad compared to some of my friends, and compared to what I could have done. But we moved from Virginia to New York when I was going through it, and I really didn’t like my mom then, because she made me move as a freshman in high school. That’s your world. It’s everything you know.
“I think our relationship got stronger when I moved out. Our relationship had time to breathe; I was more of an independent adult. She had to get used to me not being around the house. And I had to get used to not having my mom know what I was supposed to be doing and having that order in my life. I call her every single day. I’ve gained a lot more respect for her, and for adult life, because it all hit me at once. Moving out was great, because we got to miss each other. And I have to remind myself every day that she’s human.”
The journey to the land of her birth came when the Chinese government hosted a heritage tour for Chinese children who have been adopted out of the country. A group of adoptees and their parents was able to travel around and visit the orphanages where they’d lived. “I was the oldest person on the trip,” says Kiana, “and I was glad I was old enough to soak in more of what I was seeing and understand the culture I would have been living in, had I not been adopted. I didn’t have any expectations; I didn’t frame it in that way. It might be a little cynical, but I always thought of things like: lower expectations so that you’re pleasantly surprised. I got to meet one of my nannies who took care of me a long time ago. Going into it from neutral ground, you can only go up from there.”
She seems wise beyond her years. She says that she’s probably even more thankful to her mom for adopting her now. She lives in New York City: a very different scene from what she briefly witnessed in China. “I think I appreciate Western culture a little bit more, and all the advantages of living in the City.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, a 60+-year relationship between a mother and son is longer than most marriages. By the time they’re both officially seniors, their caring for each other takes on a reciprocal quality. Paul Leone meets his mother, Dorothy, for lunch once a week. They toast each other and sip a favorite cocktail, and talk about plans for another car trip to the coast of Maine or somewhere within easy driving distance. In his photos of Dorothy sitting in one of their favorite haunts, smiling over a plate of clams, she looks pleased to be alive and spending time with her beloved son. It’s sweet.
You know it hasn’t always been this pleasant. Sons and daughters have a way of choosing their own paths in life, often leading in a direction that causes a mother to worry. Dorothy was a single parent; Paul never lived with his father. “I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and went to NYU after high school. At that time, Dorothy was living in Southbury with my grandmother.
“I came out very young. I just marched into my high school and said, ‘I’m gay.’ This created a firestorm; other parents called my mother to complain about it. I could see that my mother was furious, but she actually told everybody off. She said, ‘He’s just being honest. He’s talking about who he is.’ She defended me to everyone. It was her own struggle; it was 1970.
“My grandmother worked at the Dictaphone factory in Bridgeport, and one of her bosses had moved up to Vermont and bought a farm in the 1950s. We’d go up and stay there. We were a lower-middle-class family and couldn’t afford any big vacations. We had a station wagon, and we’d take car trips everywhere. My mother was an industrial nurse at the time, also working at a factory.”
Dorothy mentions taking Paul to California, to Disneyland. “That was a big trip!” he says. “I was 10 years old, and we did fly. It was really exciting. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and rented a big Impala to drive up the coast to San Francisco. It was really fantastic. I remember being incredibly fascinated by all the hippies.”
Later, when Paul and his then-partner rented a place in Woodstock, his mother visited and fell in love with the town. “She was always included. My mother always accepted all my partners and became great friends with them. Impulsively, she bought a house here. As close and loving as we are now, we have gone to battle – like everything else, there’s good and there’s bad. All of it ironed out about six years ago. She said, ‘You are my cane, you are my memory. And thank you.’ We are both appreciative. It used to be a pain in the ass to hang out with her, and it isn’t anymore.”
Dorothy still drives herself to hair appointments. “She has me ride with her about once every two weeks and she asks, ‘How am I doing?’ Usually, I drive her in her car. I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘You can’t drive anymore.’ I’d rather just say, ‘I’ll be your chauffeur; whenever you want to go, we’ll go.’ Since I work freelance, I can work anywhere, anytime.
“The driving thing – it’s going to be an issue at some point. But she still drives. Her independence is what is keeping her alive. For instance, she won’t let me go shopping for her. I’ll take her to the store, and she’ll be holding on to her cart and will tell me, ‘Go get your own things. I’ll meet you out at the Beetle.’ I have to keep reminding myself that these are the good times, even though I’m watching as her mobility and memory are crumbling. But these are the good times. They are.”
Paul checks in with Dorothy every evening. In this act, the caring role is reversed. He rings his mother at an agreed-upon time so that he can rest assured that she’s okay. If she doesn’t answer right away or call him back soon, he knows that something’s up. Thus far, the system hasn’t set off any alarms. They both know, however, that their time together shortens with the passing of each day.
This makes them the lucky ones – lucky to be aware of the precious thing they have, lucky to have been born and thrown together in this incarnation with but one mission: to know love in its most elemental manifestation. Mother love.