Mothers and Other Strangers

My mom lived the wrong life, so I could live the right one

My mother on her wedding day.

I am childless; a mother of no one. It's not such an anomaly anymore, but back when I made that conscious choice in the '70s, it invited many questions, opinions and raised eyebrows. Ironically, one of my biggest cheerleaders for my childless life was my mother.

A newish girlfriend recently asked me over lunch why I never had children. I started to give her my trademark smartass retort, "Ohmigod! I forgot!" then I'd glance at my watch and sometimes jump up as if I had to go have my baby right now.

Instead, I told her, "I wanted a career. I never wanted children. Even as a child, my Barbie was always dressed in the one career outfit Mattel made, never the wedding gown. Trust me, if they'd made a stripper outfit for her, she would have been in it. My Barbie just used Ken for rides," I said snidely. I took a bite of my salad while my friend laughed. I continued, "Contrary to Gloria Steinem assuring us, 'We could have it all,' I just didn't want it all. Also, my mother talked me out of it."

"Your mother!?" she said, tilting her head back, trying to grasp what I'd just said.

I told my new friend that by the time I was a senior in college, I'd fallen madly in love with the theater, and decided to ask my mother if she thought it'd be a mistake to bypass marriage and family and go for a showbiz career. My whole family was out to dinner celebrating my parent's 25th wedding anniversary, which honestly was more like a wake than a celebration. After we ate, I sidled up to my mother, who was perched in a leather booth, and privately asked her, "Mom, if I decided to never have kids, would I be missing out on something fantastic? Would my life end up empty?"

"NO!" she barked.

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Her response didn't surprise me, I knew she wasn't happy, she drank every day, but it was still bittersweet to hear her say it. What surprised me was how quickly she spit it out, like she'd been mulling this over for 30 years; a wound-up Pez dispenser waiting for someone to pull back her head, so she could shoot out her sour-flavored opinions on life.

It wasn't even a nice no, but a big overacted one, fraught with resentment, sadness and a touch of dry vermouth. "It's highly overrated, Deborah. Anybody can have kids. But only you, Debbie, can chase your dreams," she continued, sipping her Manhattan. "Only you" she repeated intensely trying to transfer her passion to me.

I looked at my mother through the dim lighting of the restaurant and watched her eyes moisten, a monumental event for Shirley Kasper. There she sat, surrounded by her husband, whom she openly resented and her four children, whom now I knew she clearly secretly resented. We were but a hideous portrait of who she would never be, the abortion of her life expectations.

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I continued describing my mother to my friend, how she was one of those housewives and mothers from the '50s who had lost her joy, living a life she hadn't quite designed, but more fell into. And then, at this point, having missed all boats, forgetting even where the docks were, my mother started imbuing me, her only daughter with all her hope, rooting from the sidelines for me to reach out and be something. She was practically standing on the front porch with a bullhorn as I drove off to college,"Don't come back with a husband! Study, Debbie, study."

Shirley had graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she met my father, but I don't think I ever once asked her, "What would you have liked to have done with your life, Mom?"

When I look back, I can see how restless her existence had always been, her spirit eroded over the years by the vagaries of changing diapers, bagging lunches and endless laundry. She had aged before her time from a life that had let her down, living in a sort of quiet desperation. By the time she was 33, she'd given birth to and began to raise four rebellious kids. Her tired hair had turned fully gray by then to emphasize her struggle.

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She desperately tried to enrich her life while we were growing up, reading incessantly, playing bridge regularly with her educated girlfriends and always arguing politics with everyone. From as far back as I can remember, Mom was very involved with a hospital auxiliary, even chairing it many times, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. She was the Boy Scout den mother, the Girl Scout den mother, the cookie chairman and the real paperboy for all three of my brothers' routes. Then she became the president of the PTA for many years, following that stint with an afterschool language program she created and ran, which taught junior high kids Spanish, French and German. My mother tried desperately to matter and fill her empty hole, the rest she filled with bourbon.

I never knew exactly how she felt about her life before this night; she'd never mentioned it, never complained. Mom believed that complaining was like sex: something you did quietly behind closed doors because nobody really wanted to hear it. She died of lung cancer at 70 and barely took an aspirin for the pain.

After our lunch, my new girlfriend shook her head and said to me, "Your mother inspired your whole life! Maybe she had to live the wrong life, so you could live the right one."

I knew my mother had encouraged me, but I'd never thought of it like that and I began to tear up. I raised up my iced tea for a toast and said, "I do often wonder what my mother could have been, had she had the chance."