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The Role of a Lifetime

by Christina Hamlett

For almost as long as I can remember, I've always been a magnet for other people's mothers. It's not that I have a big stamp across my forehead that says "HELP" or that I in any way resemble the poster waif from Les Miserables. I'm also pretty sure it has nothing to do with my attentiveness to their advice or the fact that I always write thank-you's for even the smallest gesture of kindness or hospitality. I attribute it instead to the quiet, inimitable wisdom known as Mother's Intuition, the inherent telepathy of special women who can recognize when someone has grown up without the warmth of a maternal bond.

It can't really be said that my own mother wasn't "ready" to be a parent. She had waited until she was in her 30's to have me, unfashionably late by the standards of her generation. Nor did either of my parents use the excuse that they wanted to be affluent enough to afford the best for what would be their only child. By any definition, I was born to privilege. Unfortunately, it also came with the expectation that I had to be as perfect as the designer furniture that graced their rooms full of white carpet and fine art.

To their credit, my parents opted to let me attend a public school rather than a private one. And it was there, for the first time, I was exposed to the concept of ordinary peers. Ordinary peers, that is, with extraordinary moms who knew how to do more than needlepoint, get their hair done, and play hostess at Tuesday teas where it would have been anathema to use the wrong fork. Why couldn't my own mother be more like them, I often wondered. Concurrently, I'd hear the same moms wish aloud that their own offspring could be more like me. I couldn't help but entertain the notion of speaking up on the spot and offering to trade places.

These were mothers who took the time teaching their children how to plant a row of carrots, letting them scoop excess frosting right of the mixing bowl, and tirelessly listening to 9,000 back-seat choruses of the same song. These were women who didn't look like Lana Turner but, more importantly, didn't really care. Whatever freckles, Roman noses, or unruly hair had come with them as part of the gene pool package were traits they wore as confidently as my mother wore her collection of Dior.

"How are your parents?" they'd always ask me when I came over on rainy afternoons to play Barbies with their daughters. It wasn't until I was an adult and looked back on these polite inquiries that it occurred to me that my mother hadn't been friends with any of them nor sought out any occasions to do things together at my school. Whether or not they envied her clothes or social status was superseded by their ongoing concern that her priorities were dangerously skewed, that somehow their neighborhood presence in my life had been called upon to fill a necessary void without my ever having to ask.

I found myself gravitating more and more to the houses of my friends as I grew up, delighting in the fact that their mothers were so willing to include me in whatever the rest of the family was doing. What was it they saw in me that compelled them to give me an extra hug, an extra brownie, an extra word of encouragement? Long after the age that most kids feel the impatience to cut the apron strings, I had discovered the security in being able to trust someone who was old enough to be my parent but young enough at heart to still be a buddy and occasionally act silly. We may not have been related to one another by blood, but the mother/daughter rapport that emerged from each one became a wellspring of emotional support and pleasant memory that would sustain me through many a challenge or broken heart.

The futility through high school of trying to forge a relationship with the person who gave birth to me was finally supplanted by a critical assessment of what, exactly, this precious form of trust was supposed to encompass and why neither of us had achieved it. Was I expecting too much from someone who was better suited to the duties of a Society Maven than a Home Room Helper? Was she remiss in assuming that all she had to do was show up now and again to earn my undying affection? Were we just mismatched at the hospital and somewhere in another part of Santa Barbara our counterparts were engaged in similar emotional battles?

The realization that I wasn't alone in this conundrum was a bittersweet blessing. From the Asian dental receptionist who lamented, "I just can't tell my mother anything" to the African American stranger on the Metro who was already dreading the obligatory Sunday with a difficult parent who always complained, we were all separately striving for an immutable bond that we believed should have come naturally with the territory of motherhood. The seemingly effortless bond our friends enjoyed with their moms was either a product of luck or hard work but by no means an iron-clad guarantee.

Fervently as we may wish our mothers to think or act differently than they do, the bottom line is that our hearts needn't go wanting when there are so many exceptional others willing to step into that role of being our moral barometers, our mentors, our beacons. It is the resiliency, I think, of women in general and mothers in specific that no matter how depleted the supply may seem‹whether it's hugs or spaghetti‹they possess an unfathomable talent for coming up with enough to include one more hungry guest at the table.

"It's not like they're your real family," an ex-boyfriend once pointed out in a snippy bit of cruelty to elevate his own importance.

"Define 'real'," I replied, for it is in the unrehearsed and unbidden tests of our mettle that the quietest of champions often emerge. No matter their age, race, or physical condition, they are the ones to rise to the occasion of not only dressing our wounds but dusting us off and sending us back into the thick of battle with the unselfish promise of leaving a light on for our return.

It was through the mothers of my friends that I discovered the value of unconditional love. No matter how badly I ever screwed up or made less-than-stellar decisions, there was‹and still remains‹a core of adopted moms I could count on to let me know that I was still special as a person. They were the ones who could relate "been there/done that" stories of lost romance without having it sound like a lecture. They allowed me to think out loud as I weighed the pros and cons of a job change instead of rushing in with sentences that began, "Well, if I were you, I'd..." The fact that they knew they weren't me or, more significantly, that I wasn't a vehicle through which they could live their own dreams vicariously, was what enabled me to take responsibility for my choices. The respect my mother could never accord me as an equal or a friend was returned a thousand-fold by women whose own mothers and female role models had encouraged them to grow at their own pace and enjoy the journey a day at a time.

They say that motherhood should come with its own tutorial, a step by step map for building and maintaining a quality bond with one's female progeny. If such a book is ever written, I can only hope that all of the mothers who have peopled my own life shall be the authors of it. For as many women as are miscast at the outset, there are just as many more who can step into the spotlight and make that role their own. We just need to keep our eyes open to recognizing them whenever and wherever they appear, angels on earth whose wingspan is wide enough to enfold all of the daughters who need them.

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 110 plays and musicals, 3 optioned films, and several hundred magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, history, health, humor, travel, and how-to's for new writers.

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