This is the piece I read for last night’s Listen To Your Mother show in San Francisco, which was a wonderful experience all around. I was so thrilled to have some of my kids’ Other Mothers in the audience, not to mention Mrs. Moretti’s daughter. Hope all you Other Mothers out there had a wonderful day yesterday!
People say “Other Woman” like it’s a bad thing. But I yearn to be the Other Woman. Because by Other Woman, I mean Other Mother.
Other Mothers are those people in a child’s life to whom the kid can go for a fresh perspective, a hot snack, a reminder that things aren’t always better on the other side of the cul de sac. Other Mothers don’t have to be women, and they don’t have to be mothers. They must only possess a sympathetic ear, a stocked pantry, and objectivity that can be hard to come by in the emotional fog that sometimes clouds interaction between actual mother and child.
I’ve always been close to my mom. I was her third child, the kid who rode around on her hip for years and had a permanent berth in the back seat while we drove around in the station wagon to drop off my older siblings to baseball practice and bowling. We didn’t clash much, even when I was a teenager.
Yet as much as I love my mom, my Other Mothers were instrumental in helping me make it to adulthood intact. My aunt Noonie, for one. My mom’s oldest sister, Noonie was the aunt with whom we got to stay on the rare weekends when Mom and Dad went out of town together. Her main areas of expertise? Astrology, Star Trek, and pie baking. She owned my mom in all those categories, and even now if I am back east for a visit, I pray that Noonie has made me a pie and will give me some insight into how the year ahead is going to unfold for us Tauruses. She also made it possible for my parents to have a little romance in their busy lives, which made the lives of their children all the sweeter.
There was the indomitable Mrs. Fitzsimmons next door, whose daughter Bethie was my very best childhood friend. If you added up all the time I spent at the Fitz’ house versus my own during the first ten years of my life, I’d guess it would be a 50/50 split. We had cable first, but they had Beatles albums and a top-of-the-line dress-up bin. The merry chaos of their large Irish Catholic family was always entertaining, but sent me back home with a new appreciation for the relative calm of my own house.
In high school my primary Other Mother was Mrs. Moretti, mom of my best friend Lisa. My mom was put-together and stylish, but didn’t give a fig for capital “F” Fashion. Mrs. Moretti, on the other hand, had three teenage fashion plate daughters, shopped the fancy stores in town, and read Vogue magazine, all of which conferred her authority with which I refused to credit my own mother.
So when I came home one day at seventeen with a Flock of Seagulls-style haircut, and my mother’s reaction was, “Please don’t go to that butcher again,” I naturally vowed to wear it like that forever.
Mrs. Moretti, on the other hand, was effusive with praise when she first saw my troubling hairstyle. But a few days later, as Lisa and I sat drinking Tab and eating pretzels in the kitchen, Mrs. M slid a page from a fashion magazine across the table to me. It pictured a wholesome, pretty girl with a shoulder-grazing bob, the same shade of blonde as mine. Mrs. Moretti said, “That might look nice on you,” then turned away to wash some dishes.
And that was the day I started growing out the Shorty Longsides Haircut, circumventing a lifetime of public embarrassment.
My mother didn’t resent these Other Mothers. If anything, she actively encouraged my relationships with them. As a mother of daughters who are twelve and fifteen year old now, I can see exactly why. Some days lay waste to the focus and emotional energy you can muster for a child. Now divide that energy by the number of siblings, and again by the times we have no idea what we are doing. If it weren’t for Other Mothers, we Actual Moms couldn’t catch a break.
Other Mothers are genius at ferretting out information that might go unmentioned to the actual parent, like the arrival of a new boyfriend on the scene, or how a kid really feels about playing a sport. If you agree ahead of time to exchange key morsels judiciously, like spies from allied nations, this backchannel information gathering can prove extremely useful.
They can also do the heavy lifting in areas where the actual mom has her limits. In a bit of history repeating itself, I found my look and stopped subscribing to fashion magazines in 1995. So when there’s a clothing question to be refereed, I tell the girls to ask their überstylish Other Mother, Andrea. “She’ll know,” I say, trusting that Andrea is as anti-booty-short and jeggings as I am.
And it is often the Other Mother who gives us solid proof that our kids are maturing into the people we hope they will be. I remind my children to use good manners when they are out in the world without me. But it’s not until I get positive confirmation of a good manners sighting from their Other Mother Maria, when they’re all at dinner without me, that I can truly believe the lessons have sunk in.
I shamelessly court Other Mother status for the kids in my children’s lives. All through middle school my older daughter’s best friend would come over to do homework on Mondays because I served her pistachios, a favorite snack that is off limits at home due to nut allergies in the household. I’ll whip up hot cocoa and popcorn at the drop of a hat, and when the kids in my daughter’s 9th grade math class needed a place to work on a class project, I bought all the supplies and heated up a pizza.
In part it’s because I genuinely like my daughters’ friends. But all those conversations I’m hearing from the next room as I slowly, slowly slice the pizza and stack the dishwasher give me insight into the world in which my children live and the people who surround them there.
And it’s the least I can do to pay back the Noonies, the Mrs. Fitz’s, and the Mrs. Moretti’s in my life.