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My mother lives in Utah. I live in Oregon. We haven’t been in the same room for nearly two years. Most of our communication is over the phone.
I don’t think my mother has ever really understood my passion for writing. Before I moved to Minnesota for an MFA in creative writing, her first question was, “What are you going to do with that?”
I’d been asked that a few times already from other people, and never really knew how to answer it, so I said, “Become homeless.”
When she didn’t laugh, I said, “With that kind of education I will be the king of the homeless. Does that make you feel better?”
“No. Not really,” she said.
It was at that point I tried to comfort her by talking about all the practical things I could do with a degree in creative writing. However, the list was short, and most of the jobs were in education, which my mother assumes doesn't pay well. I now work in education, and I know that she was right.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that I took a huge gamble uprooting my family of four from our home in Utah, and landing us in Minnesota, where we lived on a pitiful graduate stipend ($9,000 a year) and student loans to chase my passions.
My mother is too practical to understand something like that. She’s a republican, who understands the value of money. After my father left, she lived in near poverty for several years as a single mother. She knows what it means to be poor, and I think that’s what she was afraid of. She couldn’t understand why I would willingly take out student debt to learn how to become an author, a terribly unmarketable skill.
This gamble still hasn’t really paid off.
Sometimes I wonder if my mother was right.
I’m still in terrible debt, and I haven’t made much money on my writing. Until this year, my only publications had been in university literary journals with a circulation of about 500 that no had heard of outside of literary snobs.
So when I was first published in The Huffington Post, a publication with a large circulation and name recognition, I felt that maybe, just maybe this was a sign that things were starting to work out.
So I called my mother.
The conversation went like this.
“I’m going to be published in The Huffington Post,” I said.
“Hmmm…” my mother replied. “What’s that?”
My mother is in her early sixties. When she replied with a question, I thought about the time I tried to teach her how to use Facebook, and she got so frustrated that she started crying. She’s held a job at the power company for years, and she can answer emails, but surfing the web was not something she is in to, so being published in an online only news source didn’t really hit her over the head as significant. There was also the fact that my mother only reads local newspapers. She’d probably have been ecstatic if I’d been published in some local daily that was delivered to her home. She’s kind of a small town gal when it comes to her news.
I explained to her what The Huffington Post was, and she responded with, “Hmmm… how much are they paying you.”
“Nothing,” I said. “They don’t pay contributors. But they do have a lot of readers and I’m just really excited to have my work get out there.”
“Yeah…” she said. “That’s something.”
We talked for a minute more, but that was it. The whole conversation was really a let down.
It wasn’t until I was published in The New York Times that her ears seemed to perk a little. She asked me again if they pay, and I told her that they did. However, I didn’t tell her how much because it really wasn’t that much money. Then she said, “I don’t read The New York Times,” she said. “What day will it be out, and where can I get a copy?”
“It won’t be in print,” I said. “It will only be online.”
“Hmmm…” she said. “Was it not good enough for print, or something?”
I didn’t really know how to respond to that question, so I just said, “Yeah… probably.”
I’ve published a lot this year. More than any year before. Every time it’s something significant, I call my mother, tell her the news, and the reaction is always less then stellar. When my list of things I wanted my daughters to know about marriage was on The Washington Post main page, she said, “Now what is this place called again? Washington what?”
I feel like the majority of my life has been spent in an attempt to impress my mother, and failing miserably at it. Now I see this same longing for praise in my children. Every time I come home from work, Norah (my four year old) shows me a scribble or two on a slip of paper, tells me it’s a dog or a kitty, and expects me to be thrilled with her artistic ability. Like most parents, I throw down some fake enthusiasm, but ultimately, I am not all that impressed. When I compare my reaction to Norah’s scribbles to my mother’s reaction to me being published in the largest newspaper in the United States, I can see a striking resemblance.
I don’t know why I have never grown out of wanting my mother’s praise. Maybe this is a normal thing that all kids deal with, or perhaps it’s because I have almost never received it. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve never gotten her praise in the way I’ve wanted it. I suppose what I’ve always wanted was for my mother to simply say, “I’m proud of you.” However, most of her praise comes in code. I often have to read between the lines to find it.
I can only think of a few times she has used the words, “I’m proud of you.” Once when I got a job cutting grass at the parks department. And once more when I got a job working for the power company. Both were low wage, temporary jobs, but I think they were jobs she understood. My mother never went to college. She’s worked at the city utilities for several decades. When I told her I wanted to go to college at age 21, she said, “You’ve never been too good at school. How about you get a good job with the city.”
When I think about stuff like this, it feels like the two of us are from different worlds and need a translator.
Two weeks ago, that translation happened. I got a call from my mother early one morning. I was in my office.
“What was the name of that place you were published in last week?” she said.
“The Washington Post,” I said.
“Hold on,” she replied. I could hear her talking to someone in the distance, and I assumed it was one of her co-workers. “It was the Washington Post place,” she said.
“Wow,” the co-worker said in the distance. “That’s huge.”
“Yeah…” Mom said, “I hear it is. I’m really proud of him.”
Mom got back on for a moment, asked me some questions about my daughter’s upcoming birthday, and that was it.
I hung up the phone, beaming.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley