The other week, my mother came round to babysit E1 while I took E2 to a doctor’s appointment. It was a strangely warm day and so what did my mum do the whole three hours that we were gone? She played in the garden with her granddaughter. They gathered pine cones and seedpods for the bird feeder. They played on the swings. They marched around the garden and discussed the flowers and the trees and the sky and — from what I can gather — the whole of Life as it appears to a three-year-old…
I would never have done that. I am not that kind of mother. I am all about thinking ahead, keeping things safe, preparing for the worst while I go about teaching my daughters their independence and letting them show me what they want to learn. My mother’s take is, in so many ways, completely different from mine. She is all about being in the moment, experiencing every joy of parenthood (and grandparenthood), taking away pain, and leaping in to provide everything her charges might possibly need. She is always there, always available, and always doing everything she can think of to make life better for the people she loves.
And according to Janet Penley’s excellent book MotherStyles, that is a perfectly in line with both of our Myers-Briggs Personality types. As an INTP mother, my natural priorities are to foster independence and autonomy in my daughters, and it comes naturally to me to stay hands-off so my girls can learn through their own experiences. My mother is an ESFP — expressive, attentive, and focused on practical help and especially on fun. Even if all this Myers-Briggs mumbo-jumbo means nothing to you, it takes only a glance at our letters to see that my mum and I have very few of them in common. Except for that ‘P‘, we are polar opposites.
Growing up, I found that very difficult — oppressive, even — though I didn’t realise it at the time. Being a strong T (thinker), I don’t tend to be much ruled by my feelings — in fact, I don’t tend to delve into them much at all (with the anomalous exception of this blog) — and as an I (introvert), I’m not very comfortable sharing them even when I do. But as an E (extrovert) and a strong F (feeler), my mother pushed me all my life to share my feelings freely with her (and everything else too) — she has never understood why I feel so uncomfortable doing what comes so naturally to her. For many years — and especially after I began to develop more of my true self as an independent adult — she told me that I was wrong… that I was prickly… cold-hearted… even that I was a bad daughter for not being the way she had expected me to be. I was an enigma to her — and she to me — and the rest is our sorry history.
And as a grandmother, she has certainly done her fair share of things crazy-making. As sad as it is to say — and I hate that it’s the case — being so near to her has been one of the things I have struggled with the most about moving back to the US. And I have no doubt that she is slowly coming to the conclusion that she doesn’t actually like me much as a person — though I know that will never change the fact that she loves me completely as a daughter.
But when I got home that day from the doctor’s office and asked what they’d been up to while we’d been out, I was floored. I would never have had the patience — or, let’s be honest, the interest — to have spent that much time exploring the garden with my daughter. I would have done one quick turn before retiring to the porch-swing with a copy of the Economist, content for her to explore on her own and then to bring her millions of questions back to me as I rocked comfortably back and forth. But my mother never left her to herself, never tired — in a full three hours — of walking by her side and seeing the world through a three-year-old’s eyes. She was, as per her ESFP-type, the “totally there” mother — the stereotype in the best of all possible ways.
And though I don’t understand my mother and she doesn’t understand me, and though we struggle so awkwardly — so miserably — to get along, and though as mother and daughter we often simply don’t work at all, the real truth is that we complete each other in my daughters’ eyes. Together, we give them almost everything they need — both independence and total availability, calm rationality and expressive emotion, the foresight that keeps them safe and the ability to share in their joy of the moment. Without my mother to fill in my gaps, my own mothering would be incomplete. She does things that I simply can’t. She walks around the garden with them for hours. She helps them to feel every moment. She swoops in when they need attention. She is always, always there for my daughters.
She is everything that I will never be. That’s the kind of mother my mother is.