Thursday, May 05, 2011

Know When to Hold 'Em

"Know when to walk away, know when to run."

"A time for silence, and a time to speak."

One's Kenny Rogers and the other is King Solomon, but they were saying the same thing. Sometimes you have to speak up, but sometimes you do say it best when you say nothing at all. As a mom, I constantly struggle with this balance, especially having been blessed with a daughter who came from the womb convinced that every time is a time to speak.

Just ask my mom, though - Mary came by it honestly.

Some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother sew. In my recollection, I had a great view of the sewing machine and my mother's hands. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered why my image of this activity wasn't from the vantage point of a little chair beside the sewing table, which is where my kids sit when they watch me sew. According to my mother, she sat on the front half of her chair and allowed me to stand on the back half of it, leaning over her shoulder watching her hands working the fabric and the machine, all the while chattering directly into her ear.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think I'd be able to do that with my kids for, oh, about THREE SECONDS. I simply can't imagine letting a kid quite literally hang over my shoulder while I worked, and my mother deserves a medal (or perhaps some nice chocolate truffles) for letting me do it. I remember talking to her while she baked bread, while she folded laundry, while she drove, while she did just about everything - my little voice had so much to say, and if I remember talking that much before my little sister was big enough to be a target for my long-winded discourses on stuffed animals and the neighbors' dogs and who knows what else, then my mother was probably the one listening.

She was good at it, too. She listened through middle school as I told her about the books I read, the classes I was taking, the teachers I loved and loathed. She let me tell her the same stories over and over (as I am still prone to do, if I don't catch myself), and listened every time. She listened to my high school woes of friendships and crushes and missing assignments, and listened to them again.

By the time I got to college, the listening had to be done over the phone, and I wasn't as good at checking in as I probably should have been. But she listened then, too - to the roommate disasters of my early college years, the hopeless crushes (still), the highs and lows of boyfriend issues (finally!), the missing assignments (some things didn't change much in college), and the endless discussion of what color of bridesmaid dresses I wanted.

Time went on, and she listened as I struggled to lose weight, hoped for a baby (MANY hours of patient listening on this subject), and told her about my piano students in my new and much-loved job as a piano teacher. She listened for hours about my frustrations with a musical group I was in, and listened again when I made the difficult decision to leave it. She listened even more when I was nearly keeling over with sleep deprivation when my children were babies, and if my lack of sleep made me incomprehensible, she politely didn't mention it.

There were years when I talked less than I should have, but I still knew she was there to listen. There were years when I talked far more than I should have, and still she listened. Now, don't get me wrong - she talked, too. We both talked, sometimes loudly and in frustration, sometimes joyfully, about everything from feminism to favorite authors to the best way to deal with a particularly tricky bit of sewing. (Her advice - read the instructions and take it slowly and carefully. My advice - sew really fast, and then backstitch all over it to hold it in place. My mother, needless to say, has neater corners on her clothing than I do.) Sometimes we talked at the same time, and when my sister was around, it wasn't unheard of for us all to talk at once - like Mom's sister explains, we get so much more said that way!

Mothering is full of trial and error, and all training is on the job. Mom seemed to know from the beginning, though, that one of the things children need is simply to be heard. To have someone say, "Yes. I see you. Your voice is heard, even when no one else can hear you, when the rest of the world is too loud and too fast and too busy, your little voice comes to my ears and I hear you." She knew, she knows, that simply listening can answer some questions better than talking, and that an open phone line and an email she checks every day can be a lighthouse in the dark.

I'm trying to talk more to her about things that matter, and less about things that don't. She listened to me for all of the thirty-seven years that it took for me to start figuring out that balance, though, and I'm doing my best to do the same. I listen now to stories about what my daughter thinks the cat is thinking, and about my son's elaborate plans to make a trap for moths out of Legos. (Don't ask.) And, wonder of wonders, I listen to my mom too.

Even with all this personal growth and soul-searching and maturing as a parent, though, I have my limits ... if Mom asks to stand on the back of my chair when I sew, she's outta luck.