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Sandra Martin (Andrew Norman/Andrew Norman for The Globe and Mail)
Sandra Martin (Andrew Norman/Andrew Norman for The Globe and Mail)

One-size-fits-all definitions of motherhood leave out women worth celebrating Add to ...

As a granny, I will have two generations feting me on Mother’s Day. What’s not to like about that? Plenty, if you dig below the saccharine commercialism of “cherishing” and “honouring” to think of the women who don’t fit the images on the roseate Mother’s Day cards.

I always think about my own mother, partly because her birthday on May 11 often meant that we celebrated her twice on the same day. She was already seriously ill by the time her first grandchildren were born and dead before the later ones arrived. Everybody missed out, the little ones most of all because they have no physical memories of her. Then there are the grandmothers who don’t get phone calls or cards on Mother’s Day because they are estranged from their grown children and have no access to their grandchildren.

Conversely, there are the grandmothers for whom every day is Mother’s Day – whether they like it or not – because there is no one else between them and the child-welfare system. They can’t wave goodbye and blow kisses after the cake has been cut, because death, addiction, mental illness, or abandonment has thrust them into full-time parenting roles for live-in grandchildren.

That’s the problem with one-size-fits-all definitions of motherhood. It concentrates on the good-luck stories and leaves out many of the women we should be celebrating. Retired magazine editor and journalism professor Lynn Cunningham, 67, is one of them.

Back in June, 1992, Cunningham was in her early 40s and married to Don Obe, a legendary magazine editor. She had no children, but he had a grown daughter, Kira, who had a serious drinking problem and was the mother of several children who had been removed from her care. After a warning call from a Children’s Aid worker that Kira’s youngest child was about to be apprehended, Cunningham rented a car, drove to the outskirts of Toronto, picked up Andrew, then 15 months, piled all his belongings into a plastic laundry basket and brought him to the small house she shared with Obe.

“We thought it would be temporary,” Cunningham told me in an interview. “Our hope was always that Kira would be able to pull her life together in a sustained way.”

Twenty-five years later, Cunningham and Andrew remain “an accidental team,” perpetually yoked by family, tragedy and affection. Chronologically, Andrew is 26, but he has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which impairs brain development in a fetus and is directly linked to women drinking alcohol while pregnant. Children with FAS tend to have reduced intelligence, greater impulsivity and aggression and trouble predicting the consequences of their actions.

Andrew’s mother died of what was probably an accidental overdose in 2002, and his grandfather of a heart attack in 2014. Cunningham is his only family, other than an older half-brother, who also has FAS.

Despite his problems, Andrew is a “success story,” Cunningham says. A special-education student since kindergarten, he graduated from high school and has completed a songwriting course at a community college. He plays “a really mean guitar,” writes and performs songs and “has never met a stage he doesn’t like,” she says proudly.

Coping with the incessant thumping and the brand practices in her living room sparked Cunningham to renovate the garden shed, transforming it from a storage area for garbage cans into a de facto practise studio. “That’s the best $10,000 I ever spent,” she says, noting that Andrew only comes into the house on some days to eat and sleep – leaving behind a trail of crumbs on the kitchen counter, clothes on the floor and tangled sheets from an unmade bed.

“He would really like to be able to live independently,” Cunningham says, but she knows he isn’t leaving home any time soon, or perhaps ever. At a time when many women her age are rejoicing that their grown children are “off the payroll,” as my husband likes to joke, Cunningham is a perpetual parent. That’s only one of the ways she is out of sync with her contemporaries. Unlike many women her age, she doesn’t want her “kid” to become a father and provide her with grandchildren. That might endanger another generation and tip the precarious balance of her life into chaos.

She worries about what will happen to Andrew after she dies, a prospect that “consumes” her as she drafts her will and tries to create provisions for his future without jeopardizing his disability allowance of about $1,100 a month.

What about your own future, I ask, admitting my own expectation that, much as I don’t want to be a burden to my children, I do assume they will take care of me if I need help. That possibility is “totally not” on her radar.

“It’s an event when he washes the dishes,” she says, dismissing the notion that he could “fetch her walker and get her to a doctor’s appointment” when she is in her dotage. Sometimes, the lack of family support “makes me not want to get up in the morning,” she says only half-joking.

Cunningham lauds the efforts of Cangrands, a national support organization, and the access that grandparents now have to Universal Child Care Benefits, but she thinks more needs to be done. Alcohol was the problem in her family, but the opioid crisis is forcing many other grandparents to take on similar parenting roles. She believes that all grandparents who are primary caregivers should be entitled to the same financial support as foster parents. Knowing how onerous it is to navigate government bureaucracies, she wonders how grandparents do it who don’t speak English or are in jobs that make it impossible to make phone calls during the day.

Cunningham’s emotional lexicon doesn’t seem to include self-pity. No matter how dire her middle-of-the-night anxieties, she never regrets opening her arms to Andrew. “I love him when he performs music,” she says. “He’s a funny kid, he says funny things and he’s my kid.” Inevitably, that’s what Mother’s Day should be about: belonging.

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