The benefits of othermothering aren’t limited to older women like Byrne Miller, or to women whose children are all grown. I believe it can be a release valve for women without children too – call it my case for crowdsourcing motherhood.

Here’s how I got to this idea: I’m astonished by the social media frenzy around women freezing their eggs to give Mr. Right more time to show up, or those who choose single motherhood over co-parenting – not because I’m some Betty Crocker throwback but because I’m awed by the guts it takes to be a mother of any stripe these days. Let me “out” myself  – I’m a happily married writer and filmmaker without children. Can you blame me? Just think about the range of the modern stereotypes pre-judging almost every style of mothering.

tigermom

If you’re an ambitious “Tiger Mom,” then you might as well wear a scarlet letter “A” for child abuser. If you’re a hippy BFF mom then clearly you’re too needy to form adult friendships.

helicoptermom-mommaneedsabeer-blogspot-com1

 

If you’re a helicoptering, Baby Boomer mom then everyone knows your kids will fail to launch and will eat up your data plan photographing themselves instead of getting jobs. And speaking of jobs, let’s not forget you working moms – from “Lean In” corporate climbers to single moms for whom “stay at home” means sick days without pay. According to recent studies at least 50% of your neighbors think your kids are “disadvantaged” thanks to your non-traditional tendencies.

workingmom

Other mothers are held to a much more humane standard. We get no flack about our age or biological clock. Nobody expects us to consider it a full-time job. We don’t pay college tuition. And we are privy to secrets no-one would dream of telling their mom.

I’m sure that some people will interpret my decision to opt-out of full-time motherhood as selfish at best, or at worst question whether I’m really a woman. But my experience on the receiving end of othermothering gives me confidence that I have a way to pay it forward. More than just coveting my role as best-aunt-in-the-universe, I love that my younger sister relies on me to be an “Other Mother” to her three children and that one of my best friends welcomes my commitment to her non-verbal daughter. I am fine-tuning my emotional radar to young women I sense need impartial support and nurturing. Someday I will be a Byrne for one of them.

birthday in Chihuahua

 

 

 

 

 

 

One day I hope you’ll look up “rememoir” in Wikipedia and see the word credited to me, and “The Other Mother.” Right now each time I type it, Word underlines it red as a misspelling, like a red flag of warning. Something’s different here! Pay attention!

It would have been simpler just to call “The Other Mother” a memoir. But I invented the word rememoir because it’s the truth as I remember it. I am the only one who could tell this story – it’s about a relationship that defined me. The thoughts, dialog and emotions I write about come from my own recollection, from the stories Byrne shared with me, the womenisms she told her other collected daughters, quotes she gave to reporters (including me), letters she invited me to read and events she documented in her personal journal. I sifted through these memories and arranged them in a way that represents the truth to me.

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories -- this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories — this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

There will always be a place for the pure biography. At its best, it is research elevated to an art form. But in this age of instant access to worldwide “facts,” readers want something more than readily knowable facts when they buy a book.

I’m not frightened by this, as a writer I find it freeing. Truman Capote gave us the nonfiction novel, with every cold blooded detail recorded and reconstructed by his photographic memory. Not everyone can do that. So luckily there’s a whole genre out there of creative non-fiction, and now there is novelization, the art of imagining the story and thoughts behind a person already in the public eye, like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” but no longer an anonymous character.

Rememoir, a remembered memoir, is even more personal – it finds the story in a personal truth, told by the imperfect human being who experienced it.

Earlier this month, the Wall St. Journal had an article about baby boomers impatient to become grandparents. The irony, the article pointed out, was they themselves were the first generation to delay getting married and having kids. And now their grown children are waiting even longer – putting off motherhood until they’ve earned advanced degrees or the right work/life balance.

boomers-new-generation1

I call it the Granny Gap – it’s been something I’ve thought about since I started writing “The Other Mother: a rememoir”

I’m lucky enough to have a younger sister who had kids relatively young and took the heat off of me. I’m also lucky enough to have been both othermother and mothered and I contend it could be a practical solution for would-be moms and grandmothers to bide their time.

clock

The average American woman today waits four years longer to have her first child than her own mother did. Other than celebrities and trailblazing women having their first babies when they’re 45 or older, the overall U.S. birthrate has been on a steady decline since 2007. The average age a woman in the U.K starts a family is 30. They’re so freaked out by this across the pond that a pregnancy testing company runs ads of a photo-shopped, grey-haired hag in a Demi-Moore, bare belly pose to scare women into reproducing earlier.  The June 28th, 2013 edition of the Daily Mail informed readers that women with university degrees are bulging the belly curve even later by waiting until they turn 35 to make babies. The horror!

“If the phenomenon continues for another generation,” the article contends, “it means some grandparents will have to wait an extra 20 years, until the age of 70, to have their first grandchild.”

Woman-bathing-a-baby-1948-007

Let me clear my throat. If there is indeed an impending granny gap, othermothing is a low-tech way for women on both ends of it to meet their nurturing needs. Not to mention the chief beneficiaries of multiple mothers providing emotional support: the children both mothers and grandmothers cherish.

 

cookies

 

anna

This May 11th  marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day in the United States, a holiday responsible for $16 billion dollars worth of flowers, chocolate, spa treatments and restaurant dinners spent on moms each year by grateful children.

But the woman who started the holiday a century ago, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own, making her what I consider the quintessential other mother.

I wrote in “The Other Mother: a rememoir” that I couldn’t have pinpointed the exact time when Byrne became my other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. You just know what an other mother is when you’re lucky enough have one. She’s that special aunt, coach or older friend who doesn’t have any genetic ties so you can talk to her about things you’d never tell the woman who changed your diapers.

All I know for sure is that the term other-mothering dates back long my book or Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day campaign.

“You have to remember nuclear families are pretty new in all of human history,” says Dr. Hedman, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin. “We can’t be everything to everyone. Having other mothers helps relieve the tension and make parents happier.”

I think he’s onto something. I met my other mother when I was 22 and she was 82. My biological mother lived across the continent and was grateful that another wise, caring woman was there to offer me advice and love.

She’s be the first one to agree with the opening of the flap copy of  my book: “Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we were meant to be.”

I remember every Mother’s Day I spent with my other mother. The florist in Beaufort, South Carolina – Bitty’s Flowers — could barely keep up with bouquets for Byrne Miller.  They came from her collected children around the country:   proof of how we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.

byrne's toast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listening to the bee symphony

listening to the bee symphony

Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.

Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.

When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her.

Indecent, just like Byrne

think tutus and toe shoes

Byrne Miller liked to compare azaleas to the other spring flowers that grace Southern gardens. Take the camellia on her front bluff, overlooking the Beaufort River. “Pink Perfection” is no exaggeration. Its petals are demure, obedient. They present from the bud like a corps de ballet, each one in its place.

Not so the wild azalea. In Byrne’s world they are modern dance. Luscious, vivid, almost shocking when they burst upon the season. Each petal is almost see-through, scandalous, fluttering for attention in the breeze. The colors are crimson and fuchsia, all the better to entice the eye. Honey bees have room to wiggle, squirm, roll around inside.

So, of course, she loved them. Wouldn’t think of trimming or pruning any of the wild bushes that still surround her little house on the Beaufort River. “The azaleas I leave to their own devices,” she said. “They’re utterly indecent already. Show-offs, just like me.”

THE BEE SYMPHONY

Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.

Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.

When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her. http://ow.ly/i/58nuD

My Florida nieces and nephews call me Auntie Mermaid – (it’s explained in “The Other Mother: a rememoir and deep in the archives of this “womenisms” blog), but my sister calls me their Other Mother. Not so much because I have any sort of daily interactions with them, but more because she uses me as a sounding board on how to raise them.

 

Which isn’t really fair, when I drop in for a visit. I know so much more about their lives than they ever suspect. My go-to activity is always grilling them about whatever books they’re reading and visiting Weeki Wachee or Blue Springs State Park but they’re much more interested these days in showing me pictures of themselves on their I-Pods.

 

So I was pleasantly surprised when my two littlest, a 13-year-old nephew and a 9-year-old niece asked if we could play book club on my last overnight. I guess my sister must share some of our conversations with them – she’s up to speed on how much fun I’ve had meeting with book clubs reading “The Other Mother.”

 

“Sure,” I said, a little taken aback. “But grownup book clubs involved lots of wine and gossip. How do you play book club?”

 

They were inventing it on the spot.

 

“Let’s blow up the air mattress and just read, snuggled up next to you,” Marina said.

Camp Book Club

Camp Book Club

 

So we did. The rules became this. Read quietly to yourself for ten full minutes (an eternity in today’s non-screen-related attention span) and then take turns telling each other what we read.

 

“It’ll be like getting to read three books at once,” declared my 13-year-old nephew.

 

I learned all about a boy who saves his Florida school from a sinkhole and a babysitter so mean she’s almost worthy of a hit squad. When it was my turn, I gingerly danced around the subject of “Wild” – skipping the heroin-addicted protagonist’s casual sex drive and settling on “a girl who bravely hikes through California and Oregon even though her boots make her feet bleed.”

 

I was sure it was a one-time event: this book club/slumber party with Auntie Mermaid. Perhaps an attempt to stave off another visit to look for manatees or mermaids. They’d never stick to ready, I thought.  Afterall – devoted Other Mother that I am, I know that kids in Marina’s age group typically spend 6 hours a day in front of screens, not books. For Raiden’s age group it’s even worse – 9 hours of screen time a day.

 

The next weekend I got to drop in on them again, this time when my sister had rented a condo near St. Augustine. There were walks on the beach, turtles to point out, sofas to bounce on and a prized new DVD of “Frozen” to distract them. But guess what? They wanted another session of book club.

I remember when sassy was a bad word, as in “don’t you sass me young lady, I’m your mother.” It was only as an adult that “sassy” became a positive label – overused and cliché when used to describe Southern women – but still largely self-applied in a you-go-girl kind of way.

So when I heard of Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban the word bossy I was conflicted. I agree with the premise of her much denounced book – I’m not happy unless I’m leaning in. Any former almost-Olympian knows that lean in is a synonym for compete. With all you’ve got.

So I wanted to get on board with Sandberg’s clever, intentionally oversimplified plot to encourage young girls to lead. As the ban bossy website points out, between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys and they’re less likely to want to lead, even as adults. Ban Bossy is an ingenious PR campaign that keeps Sandberg’s feminist platform in the limelight and brings an important issue some warranted attention.

But I’m also a writer. We celebrate words, particularly those rich in nuance and connotation. Banning a word is as knee-jerk unthinkable to writers as burning a book. And I’m terrible at keeping up with political correctness. My nieces had to remind me for years that “stupid” is on the does-not-fly-anymore list. I get that kids can be cruel and hearing a bratty sub-teen turn the word stupid into a sibilant, drawn out insult makes me cringe. But so does substituting “ill-conceived” or “misguided” when I find myself describing things that are just plain stupid.

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I was still trying to find my inner Beyoncé or Jane Lynch (check out their video supporting the bossy ban) when I happened to meet two Thunderbirds at an airshow in Florida this weekend. Major Caroline Jensen is the fourth female pilot to fly with the Air Force’s premier flight team. And Tech Sgt Amanda Geray is the first female line chief in the team’s 61-year history.

Maj. Carolina Jensen

Maj. Caroline Jensen

 

Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray

Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it was because we were at an official reception and they were in full Air Force role model mode but neither of these two accomplished young women had heard of the Ban Bossy campaign.

“Ban the actual word bossy?” 30-year-old Geray asked. “You’ve go to be kidding. I am the boss. Just ask any of the mechanics on my line.” Maybe it’s because she was born and raised in North Pole, Alaska (for real, check out her bio) but Geray is utterly confident that her skills prove her equality. She’s proud to have been the girl in high school shop class, the girl who fixed cars, the girl who could hold her own.

Pilot Jensen had to think about it for a second. “The thing is, I’ve worked my whole life to be the boss. I love being called bossy. It’s how I got here. I wouldn’t want to be called anything else.”

That’s when it hit me. I’m no gender-barrier-breaking Thunderbird but I do direct mostly-male film crews. In corporate shoots overseas, I’ve been ignored by grips and gaffers who assumed that my husband was the boss. And I’ve enjoyed setting them straight – I’m not going to lie. When a crew in Latin American bought me a baseball cap that said “Director” – just so it was clear they knew who the jefé was – I laughed and said I wanted one that said “Dictator.” Just ask my younger sister. Deep down I’m bossy and proud of it.

What I realized when I heard the Thunderbirds say the same thing, in their own way, is that when you own a word, even celebrate it, you erase any derogatory intent.  Sassy, Gay, Feminist, Bossy whatever – if you appropriate the label you define it for yourself. Girls don’t need to be protected from words that might hurt their feelings. They need bossy role models and bigger dictionaries.

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the shout-out, Wordpress!

Teresa Bruce

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