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For every woman who's passed off store-bought cakes as her own at the school bake sale comes an honest look at motherhood.
In an ideal world, mothers would have time to hand-sew their kids' costumes for the school play, prepare all-organic meals, and volunteer in the classroom at the drop of a hat. In reality, most moms have to settle for plopping their little ones in front...
For every woman who's passed off store-bought cakes as her own at the school bake sale comes an honest look at motherhood.
In an ideal world, mothers would have time to hand-sew their kids' costumes for the school play, prepare all-organic meals, and volunteer in the classroom at the drop of a hat. In reality, most moms have to settle for plopping their little ones in front of SpongeBob so that they can prepare yet another chicken nugget-based dinner, guiltily convinced they're falling down on the job.
In Good-Enough Mother, René Syler shares how she learned to chuck perfection for practicality. She shows other women seeking to balance family, work, and some semblance of a personal life how to happily join the ranks of good-enough mothers who occasionally serve breakfast for dinner yet give their children plenty of what really matters — love, time, and support.
Whether it's dealing with annoying Super-Moms, bluffing through a third grader's math homework, or coping with the words that strike terror into every parent's heart ("Your son's teacher on line one"), the welcome empathy and sage advice of Good-Enough Mother will have every modern mom laughing in relief and recognition.
mothering my mother
One day when Cole was eight and being his usual charming self, I told him, "Hey, man, don't try pulling the wool over my eyes. I've been eight years old before and I know what it's like."
That worked for, oh, maybe a minute, and then it was back to more of the same. So I ended up saying the one thing to Cole that my mother used to always say that drove my sister and me crazy: "I do so much for you guys, the least you could do is..."
Omigod, I'm turning into my mother!
I suspect that nearly all moms think this from time to time. Okay, I bet that 100 percent of all moms know this is true. So much of the way we parent is learned from our own mothers — the good and the bad.
The good is that my mom's such an interesting character, part Iroquois Indian, beautiful and creative and independent. She'd never hesitate to get down on the floor and play cards with my sister and me. I always knew how much she loved me with a fierce, unconditional love. She believed in me and encouraged me to strive for the best I could be, and comforted me when I had a hard time being the school wallflower and late bloomer.
The bad was that toward the end of their marriage, Mom and Dad fought in front of us. A lot.
To be fair, of course, my mom had her hands full with me and my sassiness. When I was twelve and those hormones were starting to kick in, I decided that I was going to stay a tomboy since all things girly really got on my nerves. I loudly declared that I hated my first name, Michelle, and that I was going to change it to Mike. Well, Mom took all the helium out of my balloon when she told me to go right ahead, since her own deep, dark secret was that her real name was Florence (and yes, she will KILL me for putting that in print), and she never liked it so she used Anne instead. Crushed,
I went with my middle name, René, as an alternative — because I certainly wasn't going to stick with Mike if Mom gave it her blessing!
After the Mike incident, though, I don't think Mom ever quite figured out the force that she was up against.
Compounding my orneriness was the undeniable fact that my parents stayed married for twenty-four years, probably about four too many. When my mom ultimately decided that her marriage could no longer survive, my parents separated, and Dad moved out. Mom had to move to Southern California to revive her career in her midforties as a military reserve recruiter, and Tracy and I stayed put so we could finish our schooling.
Suddenly we were parentless. I was eighteen and Tracy was sixteen. I had started college, yet was weighted with the responsibilities of taking charge of my sister and managing the house. Trust me, I didn't want to be in charge.
Fortunately for both of us, Tracy soon went to stay with Mom. Unfortunately for both of us, Dad soon became very, very sick.
Actually, he hadn't been well for a long time. He'd already survived breast cancer, as one of the roughly fifteen hundred cases diagnosed in men each year. I remember very little about it, because I was only about twelve when he was diagnosed. I do remember that I was young enough to still be embarrassed by the word "breast."
For reasons unknown to me now, my father chose to have a radical mastectomy. Again, I remember little about the operation, but a lot more about his recovery. He had a horrific scar that stretched from under his armpit to his sternum. It made him look concave and lopsided.
I also remember my mother chiding him to do the exercises the doctor prescribed so he wouldn't have a limited range of motion on that side. Dad, as stubborn as he was, didn't do the exercises, and he could lift his arm only as high as his shoulder for the remainder of his life.
But there still are several things I do remember quite vividly about my dad. He was an excellent provider, but he suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. He recuperated from a mild stroke. By the time I was a teen, breast cancer was just another item to add to his long list of ailments.
Right before he died, Dad went to the hospital because he needed to change his medication, and it couldn't be done on an outpatient basis. While there, he took a turn for the worse, and the doctor told me that I had better call whatever family I had to be with him because it wasn't looking good.
I grabbed the phone to call Mom, and she was still so angry at him about everything that had gone wrong between them that she said she wasn't going to come see him. My blood started to boil. There I was at twenty-three, already stressed to the max with full-time studies and my exhausting job as a waitress, barely managing to make ends meet, with Dad nearing the end. So I told Mom in no uncertain terms that she had to come up to Sacramento and say good-bye.
She grudgingly came up with my sister and spent some time with Dad. Later that night he had a massive stoke, and he died a few weeks later. He was only fifty-nine.
Along with the grief I felt for the loss of my father, I also mourned the loss of innocence I'd had to endure because I'd had to so painfully mother my mother.
As any mother of a daughter knows, the mother-daughter relationship is incredibly complex. I believe it is also much more difficult to manage than a mother-son relationship. I love my mom to death, but there's a weird sort of dichotomy because she's never been one to embrace the changing of our relationship. To her I will always be her little-bitty girl. This was kind of hard to take when I was parenting my sister as a teen myself, or having to beg my mom to come as my dad lay dying. Back then this little-bitty girl was plenty dang pissed at her mom for acting like a little-bitty girl herself.
As I graduated from college and threw myself wholeheartedly into moving forward in my career, our relationship finally made a calm, natural progression. I didn't love my mom any less, but I needed her less. I was working, I could take care of my own bills (once I took them out of the shoe box in the closet and actually paid them), and basically I grew up and became fully self-actualized. At this point Mom tried to treat me like a grown-up — sort of. She didn't succeed, but I was able to let it go, and since we didn't spend huge chunks of time together, or live in the same city, we developed a smoother and less-charged bond.
When Casey was born, the first thing my mother said was, "This child is not calling me Grandma." In her mind Grandma was someone who sat in a rocking chair with a scowl on her face and her hair coiled in a little gray bun.
"My name is Meema," Mom declared.
In 1997, when I was three months pregnant with my son, I was in a blissful state of mind. My life was progressing swimmingly. I was the perfect mom to my daughter and the perfect daughter to my mom. (Note sarcasm.)
Then came the call.
It was late December and Mom was on the phone, sounding calm and unruffled even as she asked if I was sitting down. I told her I was. Then she dropped a lightning bolt from out of the blue. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Through my shock I asked myself, How could that be? Anne Syler, who was sixty-five at the time, and who had always been healthy, who ate a well-balanced diet before nutritionists chided us all to do the same (don't get me started on her penchant for aloe vera juice), and who exercised regularly before it was all the rage, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But, unfortunately, breast cancer can strike anyone, and my mom had become just another one of the more than two hundred thousand women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States.
Once again, breast cancer became an unwelcome member of my family.
Mom went on to tell me that it was a good news/bad news type of situation. The bad news was the breast cancer diagnosis. The good news was that it was caught very early, thanks to her regularly scheduled mammogram and an eagle-eyed radiologist. So it was a tiny stage-zero breast cancer. Frankly, if you're going to get cancer, this is the kind you want to get. Cancers at this stage are less than a centimeter in diameter, and the survival rate for stage-zero breast cancer is almost 100 percent.
I didn't know that yet. My mind was reeling. The thing about a cancer diagnosis is that once you hear about the
Big C, many times you don't hear anything else.
You are convinced that the Big C equals the Big D.
Which, thank goodness, is something I now know to be not true — with one notable caveat: The Big C must be detected early, as it had been with my mom. She could be the poster child for early detection and the vital importance of a regular, yearly mammogram.
After meeting with her doctors and doing a bit of her own research, Mom told me she was going to go for the lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of radiation. No way was I going to permit her to make this decision entirely on her own, so I insisted that I wanted to speak to her doctor and help her figure out what to do.
Off we went on this journey for which we had no road map — just feeling around in the dark. I became the wingman (wingwoman?) in my mom's dogfight. I'm what the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation people call a co-survivor.
For me the journey was fraught with anxiety, as I, the perfect daughter, was living and working in Dallas at the time, and Mom lived in San Antonio. So I immediately hauled my bloated carcass onto a plane to San Antonio, to be with her and to meet her doctor. It was then that I removed the crown of perfection and put on the news-gathering hat. And with my pen and paper in hand, I began to quiz the oncologist about my mom's cancer and her treatment options.
First we heard about the stages of breast cancer more advanced than my mom's: Stage-one breast cancer has a 95 percent five-year survival rate. Chances are extremely high that you're going to be all right.
Stage-two breast cancer shows a pretty big drop. The five-year survival rate is about 85 percent.
Stage-three breast cancer has some pretty grim statistics. The five-year survival rate is only about 50 percent — if you get the best possible care. It's almost always 100 percent fatal within five years without the most aggressive, progressive, and determined care.
Stage-four breast cancer has a 20 percent cure rate, so chances are slim that you will survive it.
I said a fervent thank-you prayer that Mom was still at stage zero and had two options: breast-conserving lumpectomy with radiation, or a mastectomy. Well, Mom was a young sixty-five at the time, attached to her breasts and they to her. She chose the lumpectomy. Along with that, she would need six weeks of radiation therapy, which she was less than enthusiastic about.
What threw her about the radiation was remembering her own mother's valiant but ultimately losing battle with lymphoma, and the radiation she'd had to endure. So Mom had this totally understandable fear of what radiation entailed, and she dragged her feet and vacillated. Maybe she would go through with it, maybe she wouldn't.
She was driving me crazy. I had several stern talks with her. The perfect daughter, newswoman par excellence, had now become...this! The nag-o-matic!
Oh yeah, I also had to bring out my pitchfork and tell her, "Yes, you will do what your doctor recommends — and you will do it now! Your doctor said you need the radiation; let's trust her and get going."
As this drama — which to my mind was wholly unnecessary — unfolded, I became more and more upset. Not just because my mom was digging in her heels, but because I was a pregnant mom who was actually in need of some mothering myself.
So instead of remaining calm and collected, when my mother would start her I'm-not-gonna-radiate routine, I'd fly off the handle, thinking, Why are you doing this? Don't hate me for loving you so much!
And then I'd tell her, "You listen to me. You're going to do everything that doctor says you're going to do, within reason. The doctor's not on crack. The doctor knows what she's talking about. And if she says you're going to go out there and eat a bale of hay every day, you better start munching now!"
I'd stop, take a deep breath, and screech, "Don't forget that you will have a positive attitude, because, as we know, that is integral to the outcome! And you will survive!"
I think she agreed to the radiation just to shut me up.
Mom had her surgery on a Thursday morning. I couldn't be there for her because I had to go back to work. I was racked with guilt, but you know what? In that time, the perfect daughter and newswoman par excellence had donned another hat.
Nurse! I made it down from Dallas several times during her recovery. And during that time, she talked; I listened. She cried. I hugged her. And through it all we celebrated. We gave thanks that she had caught her cancer so early.
We also gave thanks that she had good insurance and didn't have the additional worry about whether or not she'd be struggling to pay her medical bills.
And most of all we gave thanks for her perfect daughter.
Okay, so I'm sticking that in to make sure you're still with me!
Fast-forward nearly nine years.... I mark my mother's years of being cancer-free by looking at my son and remembering the tiny baby I was carrying when she was diagnosed. I no longer jump when I hear her voice on the phone, as she now
e-mails me the news after her yearly mammogram. Usually her e-mails are some tired jokes that have been around the Internet since it was first invented, or other downloads that mess up my computer, but her no-cancer-now e-mails are always welcome.
Good-enough mother that I am, I'd like to think that I had a hand in my mother's survival (although, to be blunt, I probably didn't!). And just like me, I'm sure there are many of you who've had to don the devil's horns to prompt loved ones into doing what they needed to do. For me, at least, I only did what came naturally, the only thing I really knew how to do. And when I joined other volunteers at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, I found kindred spirits who felt and acted exactly as I had — who totally understood what being a nag-o-matic meant!
Although my mom has mercifully been cancer-free for these nine years, I'm still in mothering-my-mother mode, and have accepted the fact that I will be till she passes on (which hopefully won't be for a very long time).
But it's really hard to be thrust into a role — any kind of role — when you haven't asked for it. I think it's a fair guess that most of the parents reading this book made a deliberate choice to become a parent. How many of us made a deliber-ate choice to mother our mothers?
I couldn't help thinking about this when my mom was diagnosed, and I realized that I was one of the few people in this country whose parents have both had breast cancer. It suddenly dawned on me that breast cancer would always be a part of my life.
Then it was my turn.
In September 2004, I went for my regular, routine mammogram, which I've been doing every year since my mother was diagnosed. This time the results were anything but regular and routine. Instead, I was thrust into a world that, until that point, I had only observed and reported on. After my first biopsy, I was diagnosed with a condition called hyperplasia with atypia, or a pre-pre-cancer. With this condition, cells are growing rapidly and dividing in a suspicious manner, but it's not yet cancer.
When I heard that, I heaved a sigh of relief. Until my doctor told me how close I had come to being diagnosed with cancer that day. (In fact, he told me he'd been almost certain it was cancer, thank you very much!) After my treatment — which consisted of nothing more difficult than watchful waiting — he told me bluntly that this condition raises a woman's chances, by up to five times, of developing breast cancer sometime in the near future. In fact, he was almost certain he was going to diagnose me with breast cancer at some point in my life, sooner rather than later.
As you can imagine, I was not exactly thrilled with this information. But it could have been much worse, of course. For now, the hyperplasia diagnosis means that I have to be closely monitored with regular mammograms, self-checks, doctor visits, and other tests for the rest of my life.
Statistics vary a bit, but between 1 and 5 percent of breast cancers have a genetic link. Since both of my parents had breast cancer, my doctors are very concerned, especially as male breast cancer tends to have a genetic component. In fact, they were worried enough about me to urge genetic testing to see whether or not I carry the breast cancer gene.
Even I, the take-charge get-your-radiation-now-Mom-or-else perfect daughter, was resistant to the idea of any testing for a long time, until I thought about my children. Who would do my daughter's hair or kiss my son's scraped knee if I weren't here? I refuse to let them grow up without their mommy. I also thought about the breast cancer figures. Of those more than two hundred thousand women diagnosed with breast cancer each year, forty thousand die as a result. And I knew it was important for me to have the test done so that I could be more informed and prepared.
So I bit the bullet and recently underwent genetic testing to see if I had the specific gene that is a marker for breast cancer. It involved a simple blood draw (and, unfortunately, a whopping payment of three thousand dollars not covered by insurance). It turns out that I do not have either gene linked to breast cancer.
I can remember, years ago, when I first began working with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, that I really wanted a platform from which to spread the word about breast cancer and early detection. Little did I know it would happen for me on national television. I decided to chronicle my experience of hyperplasia with atypia for viewers of The Early Show. After all, even with the Internet, television remains a powerful medium with a vast reach to people all over America. It was my hope that if viewers saw a relatively young woman in good health, who eats right, exercises, and doesn't drink too much, go through a breast cancer scare, then they would realize it could happen to anyone.
Another reason was more selfish.
As much as I like to talk, it was, quite frankly, difficult to open up to others about my own experience and to express my fears. Sure, I had had no trouble talking to the other Komen volunteers — many of whom have become friends — about my parents' cancers, but it was difficult for me to talk about my own situation. So it was paradoxically very cathartic for me to use the camera to tell my story, even though I had no idea, at first, whether or not the segment would strike a chord with viewers.
I can't begin to express how astonished and humbled I was by the response. Our Web site got twenty thousand hits in a week. I received countless e-mails, cards, and letters from people who said I made them late to work because they couldn't leave without finding out how my story ended. People who said they cried when I cried. I was particularly touched by the number of people who said they prayed for me. And I was thrilled by the many women who told me they'd scheduled mammograms because I got over my fears and shared my story with the millions of women who needed to hear it. Mammograms help detect breast cancer tumors before they can get bigger, I told them. Early detection and vigilance are that simple. I know my mom is still here today because of the mammogram that saved her life.
My case, however, is not so rosy. I already get regular mammograms and MRIs, and do monthly self-exams. A scant six months ago I had to have a deep needle biopsy when my doctor spotted some calcifications that were weirder than usual. This was an incredibly painful procedure, and I was a wreck waiting for the biopsy results — which, thank God, were negative.
And for as much grief as I sometimes give her, I do feel that my mother is the only one who truly understands what I go through whenever I have my mammograms and biopsies. She is the only one who, instead of offering empty assurances, breathes a deep sigh each time and utters two simple words: "I know."
There's something "I know" too. I sure am lucky to have Anne Syler as my mom.
Until someone calls her Grandma.
Copyright © 2007 by René Syler
Introduction: Welcome to My World
1. Casey and Cole: The Rose and the Thorn
2. In the Buff
3. I Don't Care
4. That'll Get You Ten to Twenty: Crimes and Punishments
5. Pinocchio's Pals
6. High-Def Is My Life
7. Please, May I Be Excused?
8. Chicken Nuggets Are a Food Group
9. All Roads Lead to Math
10. You're Not the Boss of Me!
11. No Sick Days for Mommy
12. But Can She Juggle? Hell, Yes!
13. Home Is Where the Heart Is
14. Breaking the (Piggy) Bank
15. Tough Enough
16. Of Super-Moms and Halloweenies
17. Another Note from Mrs. Henry
18. Flunking Out of PTA
19. Playdates, or We Don't Rip Eyes off Teddy Bears at Our House
20. Mommy Needs a Playdate
21. Mothering My Mother
22. The Boys vs. Girls Clothing Smackdown
23. The Birds and the Bees
24. Affluenza Season
25. Never Put Unleaded Gas in a Diesel Car
26. Pray for Forgiveness
27. The Untimely Demise of Night-Nite Bear
28. When Mom's Away, the Cat Will Play
29. Every Day Is Mother's Day
30. Double Whammy, or How to Lose Your Breasts and Your Job in Five Short Weeks
Epilogue: Pajama Time
Posted August 21, 2007
Posted July 1, 2007
I'm a big fan of CBS's weekday morning news show 'The Early Show',which Rene Syler used co-anchor with Harry Smith,Hannah Storm and Julie Chen. Although Julie Chen has always been my favorite co-anchor on The Early Show,Rene Syler gives some pretty good parenting advice with a great touch of humor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2011
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Posted August 5, 2011
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