I choose to honor my mother’s terrible experience with marriage and motherhood by not repeating it.
Every year, when my mother sends a birthday card to my partner, Z, she signs it “Mrs. Ryan.” Once I complained about her coldness, when I called from our home in Berlin to check in with her.
“It was kind of weird that you signed the card ‘Mrs. Ryan,’” I told her.
“When he puts a ring on your finger,” she said, “he can call me whatever he wants.”
Years before, when my then-boyfriend and I were a new couple, she had told me to stop by the Catholic church near my place in northern Virginia and get married. She didn’t have to be there.
“It’s obvious that you’re traveling around together…” she said, her voice tailing off in disgust.
What was obvious to whom? And why would these anonymous people bother having a response to my relationship?
To my mother it was “obvious” that Z and I were having sex. And, I guess, somehow the world could see we weren’t married. (When at 17 I acquired a hickey at a party, my mother told me I should be ashamed to leave the house.)
When, after decades of declaring herself “not the marrying type,” one of my older sisters announced her engagement at the age of 52 to the man she’d been living with, my mother was delighted and relieved. “I’ve been praying every night to Padre Pio,” she admitted when L called her up with the news.
So it didn’t have to do with childbearing, apparently, and nothing to do with pregnancy fears. It had nothing to do with old-fashioned ideas about a woman needing a man to support her either, since my sister had long been a high-earning insurance executive who was worth a good deal more than her intended. It had to do with a middle-aged woman having sex.
My sister had spent most of her adulthood unattached, going near-decades between relationships—as I did, too—but something tells me our mother never prayed to Padre Pio about that. To my gratitude actually, my mother never perceived being a singleton as bad or bought into the idea that a woman without a man is less than. If anything, her unspoken feeling was the opposite. She actively encouraged her daughters to go through life unmarried—assuming we would not be “with” a man. But her fallback position was always pro-marriage; if you are having sex with a man, period, you should be married. Otherwise what you’re doing is shameful and sinful.
I do appreciate the push to be independent, but her feeling did not come from a healthy place; it grew out of her bitterness at having choices stripped away and responsibilities heaped on her that she wasn’t ready for or truly capable of meeting.
My father was a devout Catholic who apparently didn’t favor using condoms, for the most part. I loved my father, but it’s impossible not to conclude that, in the full expression of his needs, he ruled my mother’s life and even in some ways ruined it.
It wasn’t even really his fault—that’s how society worked in those days. My mother had a high school education and was, she would say, a darn good secretary. Still, pile on a few children circa 1950, and being qualified as a good secretary (a job she had to quit when the children came) wouldn’t get you very far. Plus, my mother was stubborn—she never would’ve faced the humiliation of moving back to her parents’ home with a clutch of small children.
My grandmother, the one who called the shots in her own marriage, was exasperated at her daughter’s seemingly hapless life. After my mother bore her third child in four years, she said to my father’s mother, “If she has any more children, I think I’ll jump off the roof.” To which my father’s mother replied, “My son will have as many children as God sends him.”
In recent years, I’ve heard my mother revisit the shame she says she felt at fitting the stereotype of the large Irish-Catholic brood. And it wasn’t only a superficial fear of what others thought; she was drowning in responsibilities even the most well-adjusted young woman would balk at. Add in that she was not especially strong emotionally, and that she had relatively few sources of social support.
Then her fourth child in five years, named for my father, was born profoundly retarded. (According to the term of the day.) He learned late to walk and run, but never spoke. When he wasn’t sedated he might run out into the road. He’d stick his hand in the hot frying pan to grab a potato—over and over. He once grabbed a pet turtle from the terrarium and took a bite out of it. And he had a severe form of epilepsy, which my mother addressed by making him leather helmets and putting foam on the walls of the den, where he was confined. His life ended horribly when he was 16. I was only 2, so I have no memory of his dying, but I cannot imagine how my parents bore it.
I cannot imagine either how they kept having children—four more—after they knew what was wrong with their first son, and how they would have to arrange their lives in every way around the object of keeping him alive, of caring for a child who would never show the slightest recognition of them or even offer a smile. My mother calls him her angel.
But the story of J has largely been buried along with him, and had little traceable effect on me when I was growing up. It is something about which I have no direct knowledge. What I do know is how miserable my mother was, how resentful and acidic, long after J’s death. She kept up a policy of not speaking to my father unless some major event compelled it.
She often complained to me of him, though I sometimes tried to stop her. He was far from a monster but he was a difficult man, supremely critical and quick to anger over petty mishaps—literally, spilling your milk would send him off. All seven of us surviving children grew up thinking—if not knowing—we were not good enough, judging every small move we’d make. Or worse, not making any moves because they might be the wrong ones.
And my mother’s lesson was that everything is just too hard. Resign yourself. That’s what she did.
But she did develop a romantic notion about how wonderful it is—or for her, would have been—to be alone. This treasured myth grew directly from her being married for sixty years, having eight children, and little life of her own. Every Monday she would reach in and find the bills my father left for her in the top drawer of his dresser to buy the food to keep the family going for another week. She had no money of her own. She tried to swallow down her bile, and often did not succeed. She was not a great mother to most of the children. It’s a wonder she did as well as she did.
I choose to honor her experience by not repeating it. So my partner, Z, will have to be okay with the birthday cards signed by Mrs. Ryan.
Marian Ryan is a writer and editor living in Berlin. Her work has appeared in Slate, Quick Fiction, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @marianryanese.