Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Nest, A Rock, A Bird

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We float weightless among the stars, waiting for our mother.

In her twenties, Emily can't picture becoming a mother. She doesn't want a life like her own mother's—to settle, or settle down. So many places to see. So many fish in the sea. She can't even imagine her future children, tiny tadpoles waiting to be born.

Our mother is a nest, warm and safe.

In her thirties, Emily falls in love and marries. When she becomes a mother to first one daughter, then a second, she weeps every time they suckle at her breasts. Who could have imagined this deep animal love? Days pass in a blur; she's exhausted, nothing else seems important. "Mommy, Mommy." They tug on her arms, her shirttails, climb into her bed at night, hot and sweaty, curl up in her lap during the day, follow her into the bathroom, won't leave her alone. She loves this and hates this.

Our mother is a rock that keeps us anchored.

Emily knows she has to be there. There's really no choice; they need her. She helps them with homework, cooks dinners on the nights that Mark doesn't, sings them to sleep, packs healthy lunches, gives them advice when they're bullied or their friends betray them, carpools, volunteers for field trips, hosts sleepovers. She tries to teach them self-reliance, bolster their self-esteem, show interest in their interests. She makes it to all the parent-teacher conferences and concerts, but thanks to her job misses soccer games and cross-country meets, fails to bake for bake sales. Is working full time a good thing? A bad thing? She takes off too much time from work, but she has to, doesn't she? Mark does his half at home, but there's so much to do, so much left undone. Emily feels guilty. Is she a bad mother?

Our mother is a rock that blocks our way.

Emily's in her forties when her younger daughter screams, "I hate you." Her older daughter hides secrets. And didn't Emily do that too when she was a teenager? She and her stay-at-home mother never got along and still don't. Now her younger daughter is repudiating Emily's choices. "Don't you get it? I don't want kids and some soul-sucking nine-to-five job." Emily empathizes with her rebellion, but never expected this. Parenting seems to be getting harder and harder.

Our mother is a bird, always hovering.

She pictures them covered with blood by wrecked cars on the highway, crouched in the bathroom with pregnancy tests, weeping into their pillows over some useless boy. When she sends her first off to college, a good student to a good college, Emily cries but feels relieved. Her second goes off to college, a not-so-good student, a fairly good college, and she cries but feels buoyant. She still hovers, asks too many questions on the phone. "Are you getting enough sleep?" But she feels like her job is done. She's been a good mother after all! She makes new friends who aren't parents of her daughters' friends. She becomes critical of her marriage with Mark, now that it's just the two of them. Counseling helps. Once a week they sit on a couch talking to a woman in jeans and Birkenstocks who's half their age.

My mother is a nest I've flown. My mother is a nest I've returned to.

Her job isn't done after all. When her younger daughter has a breakdown, drops out and comes home, Emily blames it on herself. A bad mother, did she put too much pressure on her? When her daughter returns to college, Emily worries about her constantly. "Are you sure you're okay?" When her older daughter finishes her MA and marries an overbearing asshole, Emily blames herself too. Should she have been more assertive with Mark, made fewer compromises to keep their marriage afloat? When her younger daughter finishes her BA with no job prospects, finds work as a bartender, and announces she'll never marry, Emily blames herself again. Is it just the times, or is it something about her job and her marriage to Mark? When her younger daughter quits bartending and moves back in with them, is it because she was a bad mother who failed to foster her child's independence, or is it just the cost of living? Suddenly, it seems, lots of her friends' kids are moving back in with their parents.

My mother is a bird who taught me how to fly.

Nest Painting #27 by Carlynne Hershberger. See more of Carlynne's work on her website

Her older daughter divorces the overbearing asshole and her younger daughter moves out and finally marries. In her fifties and sixties, Emily doesn't know what to think. They're leading their own lives is what Emily decides; they're grown and making their own successes and mistakes. There really is no predicting what will happen next, no chain of clear cause and effect beginning with how she mothered them as children and extending up to the present. The younger daughter's marriage seems okay; the older daughter has come out as a lesbian and has moved in with a partner she seems to love. They're doing fine. Maybe it's because Emily has been a good mother. Maybe not.

My mother is a boulder. My mother is a stone in my shoe. My mother is a lucky pebble in my pocket.

Later, her older daughter breaks up with her partner and Emily agonizes again. Is there any way at all she can help her? Will her worries never end? Emily waits for her seventies and grandmotherhood, an imagined time when she will feel neither self-aggrandizement nor self-reproach over the roles she's played in her children's lives. Let them sort that out with their therapists. Let them raise their own children. Or choose not to have children. She remembers her own reluctance. Despite the hard parts, her daughters have brought her such deep happiness. She wants them to be happy too. There's not much she can do about it, is there? It's not up to her. She loves that and hates that.

Jacqueline Doyle has stories and essays in Electric Literature, The Gettysburg Review, Superstition Review, Post Road, and Wigleaf, and a flash fiction collection, The Missing Girl, just out from Black Lawrence Press. She lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at Cal State East Bay.

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Carlynne Hershberger is a Charter and Signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America and is past president of the Florida chapter. Her artwork has won numerous awards and has been recognized at the CPSA Annual International Exhibition and the Cornell Museum exhibition Points of Color. Her work has been seen in The Artist's Magazine, Pastel Journal, American Artist Drawing, the North Light books Colored Pencil Explorations and Sketchbook Confidential 2. She is also co-author of Creative Colored Pencil Workshop. Whether the work is about painting nature, children or stories about adoption, Carlynne pours her heart and soul into whatever she's working on in that moment. "There's nothing like being in the zone, doing what you're called to do. For me that means making pictures about life and life is about nature, the people you meet and the stories you have to tell."

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