The last time I spoke to my mother was on an early fall day in 1999. I remember the conversation well. I'd been avoiding her calls since my son Isaac, then five weeks old, had been born in late September, but that day I picked up in a rush of guilt.
The week after Isaac was born, the four of us -- my husband and me plus our newborn and 2-year-old son Jacob -- had moved from Michigan to Minnesota to follow my husband's work. The move, combined with the new baby, had ramped up my mother's anxiety, which lately had been manifesting itself in paranoia about everything from ATM cards (mark of the beast!) to income taxes. More often than not, she'd been drinking heavily by the time she called.
Sometimes, our calls were wonderful: funny, warm and punctuated with sound motherly advice. Other times she was angry, abrasive, irrational and combative. You just never knew which Mom you were going to get.
But that day, though I picked up the phone with gritted teeth and the tense shoulders known by all adult children whose parents are going off the rails, I quickly relaxed. Mom was coherent and upbeat, and we talked for an hour about the new baby, Minnesota and our holiday plans. Mom told me that she had signed up with a direct sales company selling home products; she sounded optimistic and excited. I offered to set her up a website, and she gratefully agreed.
I shared that I had been writing a lot and trying to get some pieces published; she told me that when she was younger, she'd loved writing and had shown promise. I'd never known that about her. After an hour or so, the baby woke up and I reluctantly ended the call, knowing it could be quite some time before we'd share a warm, friendly chat like that again.
And as it turned out, it would never happen again. A few days later, I got a call from my sister, who'd gone to my mom's house and found her confused and manic. The paramedics thought she had carbon monoxide poisoning. By the time we made the 10-hour drive back to Michigan, she'd been sedated for hours, and we had a more accurate report of her condition: her organs were failing, one by one, due to cirrhosis of the liver. Ten days later she was dead, never having woken up.
Fourteen years later, it amazes me sometimes how much I have turned out to have common with my mother. Each of us gave birth to five children over a span of a decade or so. I enjoy the same kinds of books and movies and music she did, and her words and phrases slip out of my mouth so easily now that I have teenagers -- even though it's been many years since I heard her say them, they're hardwired into my brain somehow.
But one thing that has defined my existence as a mother, has acted as a lifeline and a source of income and opportunities, has connected me with women and mothers across the globe and has acted as a lifeline during some of the darkest points of my life -- including the time surrounding her death -- is something my mother never had: The Internet.
When my mom's third baby, Patrick, died of SIDS (then called "crib death"), my older brother and sister were just 4 and 2. My mother told me once, in one of her emotional moments trigged by a date with a jug of Ernest Gallo, that even as a Catholic, she had been embarrassed about being pregnant again so soon when she already had two small children.
She had a difficult birth, and confessed that she'd never thought Patrick was 'right' after it. She was exhausted for most of his early babyhood, and had never really enjoyed him, which caused her much guilt after his death. She also confessed that she had nobody to talk to after his death; that she came home from the funeral to find all his clothes and things packed away, that my father asked friends and relatives not to mention the baby -- at all -- to her. My sister, who was then 4 years old, remembers my mother trying to talk to her about Patrick, maybe because my dad wouldn't listen. Twenty years later, she was still talking about him every chance she got... my dad, almost never.
I'm not exactly sure when my mother's slow decline into alcoholism began, though it's safe to assume Patrick's death contributed immeasurably. Nobody talked about her drinking when I was growing up; not after my parents divorced, not even when the life she'd tenuously created for us began to crumble and fall apart. Not having been around for all those years leading up to my birth, it's hard to separate her underlying demons from the alcohol-soaked expression of them I came to know so well. Even when she was "good" Mom -- reasonably sober, productive, nurturing, quick-witted and funny -- my mother seemed to me to be profoundly sad most of the time, for as long as I can remember.
I never experienced motherhood without the Internet. When I became unexpectedly pregnant at the age of 19, I used the university's Internet service to research pregnancy and birth and baby care. By the time my son was a few months old in early 1998, we had a home dial-up connection and I spent naptimes and late nights chatting with mothers in forums, email lists and chat rooms. If I had a question, I always had someone to ask. If I was having a hard time, a listening ear was never more than a click away.
And as I raised my children, added more and struggled -- with finding my groove as a mom; with divorcing (and eventually, remarrying) my husband; with going from being an at-home parent to a working parent to a work-at-home parent; with an unplanned pregnancy... OK, several unplanned pregnancies; with losing first one parent and then the other; and with all the indignities that come with the whole process of becoming a mother -- those other parents were a lifeline for me. First the forums and email lists and chat rooms, later blogs, finally, Twitter and Facebook. And during that time, the Internet that had been a source of so much emotional and practical support also became a major source of financial support, as I built an online business as a blogger.
Almost a decade and a half after my mother's death, the memory of her worse moments have grown softer and fuzzier, and I have been able to focus on the good parts of her life and her legacy. And while I miss her still, and know that at 55, she was far too young to die, I mostly feel sad not for the fact that she died too soon, but for the way she lived. Because my mother was, in so many ways, an amazing person who deserved better, but was unable to pull herself out of the darkness.
The other day I sat in a darkened theatre as many of my colleagues and friends were recognized for their work in the first-ever industry award event dedicated to parent bloggers and online content creators: The Iris Awards. It was a surprisingly emotional experience, acknowledging not just the nominees and winners, but the entire community.
And as I watched fellow bloggers accept awards, I thought about how different my mother's life might have been if she had been born later.
What if, when faced with a rough postpartum experience and guilt over her difficult birth, she'd been able to reach out to Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress?
What if, when experiencing the unimaginable horror of losing her baby to SIDS, she had been able to connect with other parents who had experienced the loss of a child, like Heather and Mike Spohr?
What if, after my parents divorced, she'd been able to find the resources and support she needed from moms who'd been there, like Jessica Ashley's Single Mom Nation?
What if, when she found herself slipping into alcoholism, she had been able to read the words of Heather King at Extraordinary Ordinary and realized she was not alone and that she was strong enough to choose another path?
What if she'd found a place to laugh and connect with other women about the common experiences of motherhood at Liz Gumbinner's Mom 101? Or maybe, even found a place to share her own story via a series like "What I Want You To Know" at Kristen Howerton's Rage Against The Minivan?
Though my mother's sadness certainly stemmed, in part, from the loss she'd experienced, I believe there was something else going on beneath the surface. My mom was sad not only because she'd lost, but because she was lonely. She wanted so badly to be understood that she drove the people around her a little crazy and eventually -- as one by one, us kids left her home to move in with our dad -- away. She drank and played her Harry Chapin albums over and over, and cried alone and in public, and church-hopped, because she was desperate to feel a connection to something, to somebody, to God, to the human spirit, to herself.
Yes, my mom drank. But I think her brokenness, the root of the problem, really stemmed from feeling disconnected.
These days, parents take a lot of flak for being online too much. We're called everything from neglectful to egotistical for wanting to share our lives and our opinions and our struggles and our adorable Instagrams with the rest of the world. Parent bloggers are even more under the microscope: If we're writing about our families and lives as a hobby it's "selfish"; if we're doing it for money, it's "selling out."
Of course, as with anything, there is a darker side to the online parenting world. But when I think about my mom, I wonder what a difference these relationships with a variety of other women across the globe might have made in her life. In our lives, too, my brothers' and sister's and mine. I know that it's had an immeasurably positive impact on my life as a woman and a wife and a mother.
We all struggle. Most of us, at some point, fall down. But I truly believe that today, none of us need to feel disconnected.
Would the Internet have saved my mother? I can't say, but I believe it has helped to save others like her.
And while it won't bring Mom back, it gives me hope and confidence that what we're all doing here, together, matters. The silly parts and the serious parts, the advice and the cries for help. We're making a difference in each other's lives. We can all be heard, we can all be known and we can all, all of us, connect.