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Learning what “a mother’s love” really means

I love my mother. That’s why I’ve been in therapy for most of my adult life. I would show up at the therapist’s office wanting to talk about men, relationships, my career, but somehow the conversation always ended up circling back to my mother — Mamichka, as I called her in Russian.

Vintage photo of mother and child

Mamichka had a strong opinion about everything, and my therapist concluded we needed more separation. Separation was difficult, as we were always a close family — perhaps too close. Doors were opened without knocks, and mail was opened no matter whose name was on the envelope. I did have my own room and my own bed but often found myself coming into my parents’ room at night and sleeping in their bed with them. My therapist named it the double spoon: My father lay on his side, I spooned him, and my mother spooned me. It was warm and cozy but highly discouraged by my therapist. It was fine for a while, but by 23, it was time to make a change.

You have trouble breathing, right?

When I was a little girl, Mamichka always told me I was beautiful and smart and talented, that I could do anything I wanted in this world. I learned the caveat was that I was beautiful as long as I looked like she wanted me to and could do anything as long as she deemed it worthwhile. Nature had dealt Mamichka the card of beauty, but Mamichka, with the help of modern science, fashioned herself to her own liking. Viewing her daughter as an extension of herself, when I was 14, she dragged me to a doctor. Surprise! It was a plastic surgeon. “You have trouble breathing, right, sweetie?” She kicked me under the table. I sat dejected in the car on the way home. I was confused. I thought I was pretty. Mamichka always told me I was pretty. So why did she want to change my nose? With some courage and determination to stand my ground — and probably due to the insurance company rejecting the claim that I had trouble breathing — my nose remained untouched.

If only I had the right hair…

My hair was another story. Mamichka was (unnaturally) blond and had straight hair. I had a dark Jew-fro. Perhaps it was because of the scars of living in Russia, but Mamichka insisted on taming the wild mess. She dragged me around town to different hair stylists for jerry curls, hair relaxers or perms. Late-night infomercials provided a playground of potential products for her to rectify the offensive fro. To convince me of my potential beauty, she pasted photographs of my face on top of pictures of models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. If only I had the right hair…

Masha Sapron and her mother |

Clown school

As much as she had trouble accepting me with this crazy curly hair, she certainly would not accept any daughter of hers being a clown. In Russia, my parents were friends with many famous actors, directors and artists. I grew up loving poetry, art and theatre, acting, dancing, singing and painting my way through school. Instead of reading Dr. Seuss before bedtime, my mother read Pushkin, Anna Akhmotova, Tolstoy, Solzheniztin. She blamed herself, of course; she should have read me math books. Then I would have become a doctor or a lawyer instead of a — gasp! — a clown! Actually, I’m an actor. But Mamichka was only interested in when clown school would be over and when I was going to stop clowning.

Don’t become a spinster

However, her all-time favourite subject was worrying about my becoming a spinster, so she took matters into her own hands and, without my knowledge, set up a “G-Date” profile for me (with her Russian accent, the G and J are sometimes confused). She wrote to men, set up dates and encouraged me to go out with these men she found before I was too old and “nobody would take you.” (I was 25 at the time). She really wanted me to have a family. To experience the joy of having children. Just like I wasn’t interested in the nose job or being a lawyer, I thanked her for her… um… interest and continued on my path.

Wild and messy

Masha Sapron and her mother |

Years later, in the 3 a.m. darkness, in the bed I share with my husband (whom I did meet online but on my own), I wake to the thump of my daughter’s foot hitting my husband’s head in the middle of our double spoon. She’s only a year and a half old, but already the curls on her head are becoming unruly. I brush her hair before my mother comes over, trying to ward off the inevitable. “Why are you touching her hair?” my mother protests. “It’s beautiful wild and messy.” My mother puts her hand on the sprouting curls and messes them up more. My mother, who disowned me for a short time when I decided to pursue a career as a professional actress, insists that we find an agent for my daughter. She even takes her on auditions.

The irony and the love

I sigh at the irony and look at my mother, holding my daughter in her lap, reading her the numbers book she bought her, and think she was right. My mom was right about the joy of children. She couldn’t have explained it to me before in the same way you can’t explain the experience of chocolate to someone who’s never had it. It’s more than sweet, melting darkness. I look at my daughter, and the love I experience is beyond words that create poetry from the beating heart that struggles daily. What strikes me is how lucky I am. Yes, I have this crazy love for a little girl whose toothy smile makes my heart sing. Blah blah blah — we’ve all heard how love for a child is amazing. What amazes me is that there is someone out there in the world who loves me in this crazy way. That my smile and button nose and wild, crazy hair makes her heart sing. That she truly wants the best for me, wishes me well, is genuinely happy when I am happy. That I am the recipient of this indescribable gift: a mother’s love.

Photos courtesy of Masha Sapron

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