Dar mucho, pedir poco. “Give much, ask for little.” This is the motto of the “motherhood medallion,” created in 1969 here in Spain to acknowledge the many sacrifices involved in being a mother. This small gold medal, to be worn on a chain or as a pin, features an engraving of a smiling woman holding a child, and is still available in some jewelry stores.
Today’s generation of mothers, however, is more likely to receive flowers or perfume on Mother’s Day, and the medal’s motto no longer holds the same appeal. But for women of the postwar generation, like my mother-in-law Feli, the words are more apt than ever. Here “postwar” refers to the Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939. Like any civil war, it was particularly devastating to the country, and its aftermath and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco brought hardship to many families. Feli’s family was no exception.
Her father was killed in the fighting in Madrid in 1937, when Feli was just three. She and her younger brother grew up in a small village in Segovia, in a house with dirt floors and no running water. Their diet consisted mainly of what they could produce themselves, mostly potatoes, chick peas, wheat, pork products, and the occasional fruit, vegetable, or dairy product. Since her mother was infirm, Feli was responsible for most of the physical work around the house and in the fields. She describes those years as grueling, but an old photograph shows a happier side: she is smiling, with friends, dressed in the regional costume for the traditional folk dances that formed part of the local town fiestas.
Eventually, she married a young man from the next village and they moved to Barcelona, where he had emigrated to find work in a slaughterhouse. Soon after, Feli became pregnant with the first of two sons, but she continued to work at her post as a concierge in an apartment building. Although many women had to work during the dictatorship, which lasted until Franco’s death in 1975, their mission and highest calling was to produce and raise children, the more the better. Awards were given to women who had particularly large families, some with as many as 18 offspring. Birth control was illegal, so my in-laws, already financially strapped, had to resort to buying condoms on the black market down at the docks to avoid becoming a familia numerosa.
Nowadays, the birth rate has dropped dramatically (Spain’s is one of the lowest in Europe) and the standard of living has risen, but life presents a different set of challenges. While in the States, members of the “sandwich generation” are generally at midlife, here they are more likely to be women like my mother-in-law, now 70. Feli’s husband died of cancer eight years ago, but her other adult son still lives at home, and she takes care of his laundry as well as doing all the cooking and cleaning and other household tasks. This is fairly typical, as many young people choose not to leave the family home until they get married or are finally able to buy their own apartments in this volatile housing market. Feli’s brother and his wife just got their first taste of the empty nest this year, in their mid-sixties, as the last of their three children finally moved out.
Additionally, since nursing homes are scarce and expensive, as well as not being well looked upon in general, many older women find themselves also responsible for their elderly parents. Feli and her brother have been alternating care on a monthly basis for their now 94-year-old mother for the past 20 years.
Then there is the phenomenon known as the “kangaroo grandmother” (here babysitters are referred to colloquially as “kangaroos.”) While many, if not most, of today’s young mothers work, childcare options are limited, and many couples look to their parents to provide this service. Although I am not working outside the home, Feli often makes the trip here to visit and spend time with her grandson during the months when she isn’t taking care of her mother. Now that I have entered the third trimester of my pregnancy, and am having more trouble than ever keeping up with Hurricane Pedro, her help is even more appreciated — in fact, I am dreading her departure in a few days, just in time for my eighth month. From her mornings taking him to the park, she already knows more people than I do — yesterday she learned some Tai Chi from a Chinese woman, settled several playground disputes, and even met a mother from England whose child is about the same age as Pedro and is also bilingual. (I just wish she had taken down a phone number!)
Of course, it also makes me feel like a bit of a wimp, letting her sweep in and take over while I rest on my pregnant butt. After all, she raised two children while working fairly strenuous jobs outside the home and still managed to run her own household with virtually no help from her husband — and certainly no help from her mother or mother-in-law. But despite Feli’s example, I am not eager to embrace the slogan of “give much, ask for little.” Sure, I want my children to succeed, and I want to help them do it. But Pedro is going to learn to cook, run the dishwasher (actually he’s got a pretty good start on that one) and iron his own shirts — no free ride here at Hotel Mom! I love being a mother, but I am still a person, too, with dreams for myself as well as for my children.
So forget about jewelry, perfume, or flowers — next Mother’s Day, I would like my husband to give me a book of coupons redeemable for some “me-time” — the chance to get out and take an exercise class, see a movie, or even just sit in a café and write in my journal, with someone else responsible for the kids for awhile. Is that asking too much? No matter what the previous generation may say, I don’t think so.