Mothers sentenced to strain while aunts get the glory

January 06, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

She went to bed, her heart heavy with the regret of an evening ending badly, and her exhausted brain replayed the day again and again as she looked for some clue to make tomorrow better.

It had not been an awful evening. It had just been a typical evening. The children had angered her with their general lack of cooperation, and she had angered herself because she had let them get to her. It was the same old pattern, and she had fallen into it yet again.

There was no shrieking or spanking. No tearful tantrums. None of that. It had just not been smooth, it had not been peaceful. The end of the day had seen two combatants, the mother and her children, going reluctantly to the neutral corner of sleep when the bell rang to end another round. Neither had been ready to disengage, but for different reasons. The kids wanted one more piece of her. She wanted one more chance to end the day with a good moment.

And so she lay sleepless, but exhausted, remorseful, angry and disappointed in herself. She had failed again to live up to the vision she had of herself.

"Why couldn't I just be their aunt," she thinks, "instead of their mother?"

That was it. That was the way to make it better. She would simply change the entire nature of her relationship with her children.

"Every night I would tell myself that tomorrow would be better. That I would make it better. And you know how long that lasts," she says. "So one night I decided that the next day I would be their aunt. I even had a picture in my head of how it would be."

She would be the aunt who instinctively and unconditionally loved them because of the love she held for their mother. She would have a limited amount of time with them, she told herself, just a couple of days. And so she could assume this air of loving detachment. A healthy disengagement. She would live in the moment with the children. She would forget that she was sentenced to this relationship for the rest of her life.

"I would let the little things slide. I would be so happy to see them, and I would be curious about them. I would like them for who they are."

She wouldn't worry if they brushed their teeth or said thank you or spent the required 20 minutes reading before bed. She would not be their mother, with all the duties and obligations that go with that job.

"As an aunt, I could let those things go. They would not be my responsibility. All the stuff that gets to me would just wash over me."

She would look at them in a new way. She would not get caught up in those old, contentious patterns of behavior that exist between mother and child. She would play games with them, talk to them, treasure the time she had with them.

And I knew just what she meant.

When William was born, the first grandchild for my parents, the first nephew for me, he threw a yoke of love around me, the single, self-absorbed career girl, that stunned me. I adored him instinctively, but without the burden of responsibility his mother must have felt.

As I rocked him, I whispered in his newborn ear, "Hello, William. This is your eclectic Aunt Susan. We are going to have great times together."

I made promises in my heart of trips to art museums and Broadway shows. I would send him books to read, and we would talk about them over the phone. I would take him with me to press boxes in stadiums in exotic cities. We would have long talks about life, and I would write him thoughtful letters that he wouldn't show his mother.

I would blow in and out of his life unexpectedly, for a precious day or two and make wild, spur-of-the-moment plans that would cause him to miss a day of school. He would know that I would never judge him, never make him brush his teeth, say thank you or read for 20 minutes before bed.

William never met that eclectic aunt. She had children of her own before he was old enough to take a train to New York for a Broadway show.

But my friend's children were luckier. Their aunt showed up. I never asked how long she stayed. Maybe her visit lasted only the morning. Maybe she left during the fight over what to have for lunch. I don't know. But they got a chance to meet, if only for a little while, this spontaneous, loving woman who thought they were dear and fun and who never once reminded them to say thank you.

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