Tell me about your experience of motherhood.
When my husband John and I met, I was teaching middle school, and I thought if I had children, the bell would never ring. We were both 24 when we got married, and we thought that was old. All my friends got married much younger. I’m from Clayton, North Carolina, and it was a very small town - 68 people in my graduating class. I grew up very differently from my husband who was from a military family. When we got married, it wasn’t that we didn’t like children. We just liked our freedom. We lived in Japan for two years, we travelled all over the Orient, and all our friends who had children couldn’t go on trips. We thought, why would we want to have kids? But then we turned 30 and we moved to Colorado, and we realized that there was more to life than travel and things. That’s when my daughter Jennifer came along.
What was it like to be a first time parent?
It was quite a shock to us because we weren’t used to having kids. My friend came over to the house, and our nursery had all Bassett furniture, everything was all perfect, and she told me, “You think you have everything under control…“ and she laughed at us. I just said, “How hard can it be? It’s just a baby.” Oh my goodness, Jennifer was the worst baby ever. She was three weeks premature, and she was tiny. She was colicky, and she was jaundiced. I had a notebook where I wrote down what she ate, and what she threw up. She never kept anything down. I still have that notebook. When I had my kids, I quit my job, and people asked me if I was going back to work. I told them, “Why would anyone have children and put them in daycare?” But that lasted about six months. My life changed so dramatically. As I look back I think she was really discontented. She wasn’t getting enough to eat, and breastfeeding just didn’t work. John and I really didn’t know what we were doing. I never babysat, and had never changed a diaper before. I was a career woman.
No one is really ready, are they? Even if they have a lot of experience?
I’ve often said that my daughter more than made up for it as an adult. She’s such a great adult and a wonderful friend. I don’t know what I would have done without her when my husband passed away. She’s so strong. It’s like our roles are reversing. I took care of her for so long, and I am in good health, and I have a wonderful life, but she always calls me every day. My son once asked me, “Mom, why does Jennifer call you every day?” And I say, “Maybe because she loves me and wants to know how I am?” It’s nice to know that someone wants to know how your day was. She’s always been such a loving person. As a child she would want to hug all the workers at K-mart, and we would have to tell her to not be so friendly to everyone. Very much the extrovert like my husband was.
How was your son as a baby?
When my sons came along, he was the total opposite of Jennifer. Full term baby, totally content. He was sleeping through the night by the time we brought him home. Although the only person who could make him laugh was Jennifer. She would get in front of him, and he just thought she was wonderful. They were born fairly close together. It was nice to see how different kids could be - I had one who was so demanding, and another who was so easy. If I had Johnnie first, I probably would have had lots of kids. You just don’t realize how tired you can get.
You said that you went back to work when your kids were six months?
A friend once asked me, how does it feel like to be reliant on your husband? I had never even thought about it, but I realized that I was. I just wanted to be home, and raise my own kids, just like my mom did. I wanted to recreate what I had. But then I realized all my friends were working, and I wanted to go back to work. I realized that I could do both.
How do you feel about the whole experience now?
I just turned 65, and as I reflect on my life, I’m so glad I had children. I can’t imagine being this age and not having children. I know people my age who don’t have kids. When we were young, those fertility treatments were not available. Now they’re in their 60s and they’ve worked all their lives, and they don’t have any kids to leave it all to. It’s sort of an empty feeling. Not that you have to be married or have children to be fulfilled.
To me, my husband was everything. Our marriage was way before the children. That's why his death hit me so hard. Both the kids had graduated college, all loans were paid off, they had good jobs, and now it was our time. He wasn’t even sick. We’re not sure if he had a heart attack. He was on a trip with his brother, snorkeling on a fishing trip in the Caribbean, and I got a call that he passed away. He was 57 years old. It’s not what was supposed to happen. I always thought I would be the first to go. My family doesn’t have longevity, but his family lives to their 90s. You know you tell your loved one, I can’t live without you? I used to tell him that all the time. He could probably live without me, but I didn’t think I could without him. John and I had an ideal marriage, and I felt that he woke up every day thinking, how can I make Jean happy, and I would do the same thing. It’s not a hard thing - sometimes it’s just taking a walk together - we loved sitting on our front porch drinking gin and tonics. It’s not necessarily the big things. I mean, he did do those things too - he took me to Paris on my birthday, but things that I miss the most is the day to day little things. My husband used to set the timer for the coffee maker every Saturday, and sometimes when I wake up on a Saturday morning, the whole house smells like coffee. I had a student one time that I told this to, and sometimes I forget that other people go through this grief too. The student told me that his dad died, and that they smell coffee all the time. Because you want it to be true. I’m waiting for the day that my loss is not the first thing I think about in the morning. It’s been seven years, but it’s still so hard. I think I sleep so well because I dream about John, and in my dreams everything is normal. Thats where Jennifer comes in. She’s so patient - she reminds me that I need to remember what I had. She knew how wonderful John was.
How does your motherhood relate to your experience with your mother?
Motherhood has been the hardest job for me personally. I had a great role model in my mother. I was born in the house that my dad built. My mom graduated from high school and became a secretary. She and my dad ended up running a big plumbing business together. They didn’t have any formal education, and they were so successful in their business. My mom was a saint. When I think about motherhood perfection, she always comes to mind. She was a good mother, and she worked. She was had so much patience, just a really good Christian woman. She was a fabulous cook.