I didn’t learn about motherhood from watching my mom. I was an only child, and for whatever reason, it’s hard to observe the act of mothering when you are the one being mothered. What my mom did model for me, however, was a relentless work ethic.
Mom grew up in a house with a bare plank-wood floor and she never went to college, but she did know how to sweat. One sunny summer in the Okanagan, she and her brother got jobs picking beans at a local farm. They were in the fields before dawn painted warm-red hues over the peach orchards and the blossoming vineyards that formed curving lines over the rolling British Columbia terrain.
They picked beans until their young backs broke and their fingertips glowed green. By the end of summer, their skin was gold and freckled. Then, when payday came, the farmer was gone. My mother and uncle were never compensated for the tons of beans that locals and tourists bought from wooden crates on the side of the road. It was a defining lesson.
Mom started work as the mail girl at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce — but quickly rose through the ranks. From picking beans to delivering mail, she was determined. When she retired from CIBC thirty years later, the title on her door read, "Vice President".
Another important female figure in my life was my childhood nanny, Rose. We bonded over chicken-fried rice and the TV show Perfect Strangers. When Mom was away on business, Rose filled in the gaps. I loved Rose like family, but she was not a model of motherhood either. She was another working woman, doing what she needed to do for those she loved. Every month, Rose transferred the bulk of her paycheck to her family in the Philippines.
Role Models of Motherhood
Growing up with these female role models, it is no wonder that my first job was at the age of eight. I picked apples from our stout tree that shaded the yard of our suburban home. Crushed and jarred, I walked door to door pushing my wares in our red wheelbarrow, selling applesauce to my neighbors. This venture proved profitable and I was hooked. My next ventures included renting my movies to the kids next door, starting a gift basket company marketed with flyers I designed on our lagging '90s desktop computer, and showing movies and selling popcorn in a vacant shop in the strip mall beside the 7-Eleven.
On rare occasions, Mom would bring me along on her work trips. I would sit at the table with the grown-ups and listen. Given the opportunity, I was quick to speak up. Adults didn’t frighten me. Being an only child, I was comfortable looking up.
Mom’s work trips took her as far as London, England. My most vivid memory of accompanying Mom on that trip was the day I was alone in the apartment where we were hosted by an associate. It had tall bay windows, a couch littered in leaves from an indoor plant, patterned blankets, and abundant pillows. The apartment felt exotic, very adult. I popped the Spice Girls album into my yellow tape player, dawned my headphones, and jogged around London, humming, “So, tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” I was in seventh grade. The independence was bliss.
Those trips, plus the countless hours I doodled in Mom’s office as she finished "just one more phone call," taught me that hard work pays off. It earns you experiences, friendships, and travel. It means you don’t need to check menu prices before sitting down in a restaurant. When your roof needs fixing, someone in your network knows the right repair person for the job. It means supporting your family and sleeping well at night. Hard work garners recognition, a stepping stone to wherever you want to go.
It’s no wonder that motherhood shocked me senseless.
How I Learned to Be a Mother
When my first child, Hannah, was born, my plan was to succeed at mothering her, like I had excelled at school and life as an artist and writer. I learned from Mom and Rose to decide what I wanted, then go get it: goal, action, pay-off. It was a logical progression. Motherhood, I discovered, was more emotional than logical.
I decided to breastfeed while being a working mom. My plan was to embrace the best of both worlds and continue pursuing my passions from home. I envisioned my baby, and eventually toddler, playing on the floor beside me as I worked. People would see me as Superwoman, endlessly patient and miraculously productive.
I was delusional.
Breastfeeding was a challenge. Newborn Hannah was hungry, but together we couldn’t master the latch. She gnawed me till I bled. I was not sleeping, nor were my husband and mother, who coached me till their ideas ran dry and all they could do was rock Hannah beside the washing machine, churning one measly hand towel for the comforting hum the machine afforded.
I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. Why would my baby not eat? Her weight plummeted. So did my self-esteem. Before this experience, I imagined nursing in public; proud, confident, in control. The reality was my constant need to hide away from people as I breastfed, wincing in pain. When we eventually discovered that Hannah was lactose intolerant, and switched her to soy milk, we all had our first night of rest.
My experience of motherhood — eight years and three additional children later — has affirmed that I cannot measure success as a mother in the same ways I do the other areas of my life. True, I did not have traditional role models, but I suspect that I would have experienced the same highs and lows either way; every birth, child, and stress level being vastly different. While I didn’t observe Mom and Rose change diapers or be blissfully patient with a screaming toddler, I did watch their work ethics. They never gave up. In the end, they were the most helpful role models a new mom could ask for, and they are women I hope to emulate as I mother my own children.
This essay was written by Alexis Marie Chute, author of the award-winning, best-selling memoir Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing and Pregnancy After Loss ($11.52, Amazon) and Above the Star: The 8th Island Trilogy ($16.95, Amazon). She is also a distinguished artist, photographer, and filmmaker. Learn more at www.AlexisMarieChute.com.