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What a Mug Made Me Realize About Motherhood

Close-up of a lady’s hands holding a coffee cup outdoors
Photo: Images By Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

The spacious rooms were filled with natural light from the walls of beachfront windows. After passing out the steaming mugs across the driftwood table, she sat opposite me. Taking her first sip from her pink mug, she asked, “Did I give you tea or coffee?” I took a discerning sip and replied, “I think it’s tea,” then smiled because I’d asked for coffee. She said, “Shoot, I have your coffee,” then explained that she’d pulled down the pink handmade mug from her cabinet for me, knowing I loved pink but while preparing our drinks — coffee for me, tea for her — she’d decided to keep the pink mug for herself to prevent her son’s disappointment should he come downstairs and see a guest using the mug he’d bought for her. We shared a laugh, me still uncertain whether I had tea or weak coffee.

This mug mix-up reminds me of another instance involving a thoughtful mother that prioritized her children, and a handmade coffee mug. Motherhood was my former mother-in-law’s only life goal. Her husband didn’t want children. At the start of their new marriage, determined to have a family, she gave him an ultimatum. He caved in and out came two children along with his role as a family man.

To provide for his small family, my ex-husband’s father worked 30 years in a large mill in a tiny North Carolina town. Every workday, he arose early, packed a lunchbox with a ham and cheese sandwich along with its constant companion — a pack of Cheese Nips — and carried it along with the day’s freshly brewed thermos of resentment into a dirty, tedious, and unfulfilling job.

A worker standing in front of an electric arc furnace in a steel mill
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He lacked authority and control in his blue-collar position and returned home each evening to recover both, clanging his lunchbox and gnawed-at bitterness on the kitchen counter, having worked another day at a job he hated to provide for a family he never wanted. His kids learned to walk on eggshells, afraid to cause any unnecessary disturbance that might annoy or disrupt their volatile, erratic father.

When physically present, he rarely invested quality time or engaged in his children’s activities. They yearned for his time and attention, yet he withheld affection offering little more of himself than an abrupt demand to “be quiet.” He was authoritarian, temperamental, impatient, and quick with a heavy hand, voice, and presence.

Their mother, by contrast, kept the family humming despite their father’s sinewy inflexibility. She was a cheerful, church-going, indulgent caretaker whose love rained constantly upon her children. As a stay-at-home mom, she catered to her family’s needs — budgeting her husband’s meager paycheck to purchase and prepare every meal. She cleaned every room, nursed every sickness and injury, and tended to every chore inside the home. She governed her childrens’ school, church, and home activities, sewed their clothing, planned/prepared/hosted every birthday/holiday/vacation, then shopped for, wrapped, and distributed every gift the kids received from their parents.

A mother and daughter in a supermarket watch as an empployee weighs their groceries
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Of these gifts, my ex-husband’s favorite is a handmade ceramic coffee mug chosen by his father.

“How is this possible?” I asked him. “What about all the years of gifts your mother picked out for you?” Upon hearing my insightful confusion, my then-husband agreed that his attachment to the mug made little sense considering his father is an unyielding and difficult man.

I envision his cold bristled father standing in a street market booth directed by his wife to “choose something for Tom’s birthday” and for a moment removing his focus from himself, glancing around the display of hand-turned mugs and picking up a brown one. Next, his wife purchased and placed the mug in a gift bag to give to their son. Wrapped in the awareness that his father chose this mug, it holds the honor of a most cherished possession.

A close-up of a coffee cup on a table
Photo: Ekky Pramana / EyeEm/Getty Images

A lifetime of gift-giving by an available mother can’t compare to one gift from an absent father.

This phenomenon is explained through psychology and economics. Human beings find value in scarcity. The scarcity of his father’s consideration made the attachment to the gift that much stronger. None of his mother’s mothering could hold a candle.

This also explains why for the first half of my life, every day that passed longing for my own father’s consideration, and not receiving it, made him that much more valuable to me. Though I had a loving mother, her daily presence could not make up for his absence. I’m 43 years old and finally understand the consequences that longing for what I didn’t have formed beliefs about myself that negatively impacted every decision I’ve made.

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