published Sunday, May 12th, 2013

Mothers do many more things than in the past while still performing traditional roles

Cherrie Susa holds her newborn son Bryson on Thursday in the neonatal intensive care unit of Erlanger hospital. Bryson and his brother Braydon were monoamniotic-monochorionic twins, which means they developed in the same amniotic sac, and Susa will be spending this Mothers' Day with them in the NICU.
Cherrie Susa holds her newborn son Bryson on Thursday in the neonatal intensive care unit of Erlanger hospital. Bryson and his brother Braydon were monoamniotic-monochorionic twins, which means they developed in the same amniotic sac, and Susa will be spending this Mothers' Day with them in the NICU.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

  • photo
    SOURCES: The National Center for Health Statistics, Pew Research Center, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    Illustration by Mary Helen Miller.

The statistics of motherhood are ever changing. We just don't think of mom the same way we once did, at home in an apron waiting for dad to come home from work, kids at the table ready to eat.

What was atypical 50 years ago is now commonplace.

Once children were born to young mothers, and those mothers stayed at home. Now women wait much longer to begin raising their babies. They are delaying marriage to finally finish their schooling or to find the sweet spot in their career and "Lean In" a little harder. They wait so long, sometimes, that doctors tell them they will have to have medical intervention to build their families.

More commonly, they are breadwinners or the more-educated partner. Many in Chattanooga are raising their children alone, some by choice.

Yet, so much about motherhood is timeless. That fine line between joy and terror at birth. That frantic and rewarding busy-ness that comes with school-age children. Those sometimes-gloomy but freedom-filled days of empty nesting.

And if you look around the city, you can glimpse the moments between mother and child unfolding everywhere. In the line at the grocery store where a child begs for a candy bar; at the doctor's office where runny noses are wiped; at the pickup line at school where drawings done in class are given as treasured gifts to a treasured mom.


Eyes in the back of her head

Her mother is watching as 5-year-old Jasmine runs with her cousin. As the children race on their bellies. As they construct a fort with a Disney princess blanket under a manicure table at the family salon.

The mother's eyes are ever on her daughter, even when they are not.

Jeanny Huynh, 26, sits at a woman's feet, scrubbing her soles. This is her posture almost every day at the salon where she, her husband and her in-laws work. Jasmine, a firecracker with jet-black hair, is always nearby, charming customers, demanding attention.

The children pull each other along the floor. They fight with toy swords.

"No. You have to die and lay that way," Jasmine commands the 3-year-old.

Customers step around them. No one seems to mind the chaos. Many have children at home and can understand Jeanny's careful dance between raising her child and supporting her family.

Jeanny gives the children a look. They scurry off to hide under the table of polish and files.

Soon, though, they emerge again. Jasmine has made her shirt into a cape. The toe separators used for pedicures are flying between the children. Everyone can sense the tension building. The sobbing that is about to ensue.

Jeanny, mid-brush-stroke on a big toe, catches them before a cry is uttered, before a mean word is said.

"Hey, stop," she says.

They freeze. "Say sorry."

Jeanny flashes a big grin to the customer as if to say she is sorry, too. That Jasmine is trouble, but it's her trouble.

Before she can look down at her work, they have run off again.

-- Joan McClane


Doing a little better

Tonya Armour is sitting on a bench in the Battle Academy lobby when a 6-year-old girl wearing a yellow polo, yellow ribbons and a white cardigan stops in front of her, and grins.

"How'd you do today?" Armour asks her daughter.

"Maybe I was talking a liiiiittle bit," says Jaysha Carter, twisting her body to and fro. "But I still got all green and purple!"

Usually, Jaysha only gets purple, and she's proud. For a first-grader, it's the best you can do.

As the two chat, Armour's other daughter whizzes behind them -- left to right, then right to left, then left to right again. Toshana Moore, 5, gets out of her pre-k class at 2:30. Jaysha and the rest of the first-graders get out 35 minutes later.

So in between, Armour waits with her youngest daughter, who reads books about animals or practices tap dancing, an art form she has taken to without any lessons. And the next morning, as they always do, the single mother and her three children will wake up in their Glass Street-area home at 4:30, hop on a CARTA bus at 6:50 and arrive at Battle Academy for breakfast at 7:35.

Then Armour will wait for her 13-year-old son to get on his bus bound for Tyner Middle, which starts at 9. About six hours later, she will return to Battle Academy and do it all over again.

"Well," Armour tells Jaysha, addressing her color switch of the day, "you got to try a little bit better, OK?"

Jaysha twists her torso and nods: "Yesssssss."

-- Tyler Jett


Just to hold them

Cherrie Susa wears a blue sterile smock as she cradles her son Bryson. Her finger keeps a feeding tube in his lips, and her gaze is locked on his face.

She thinks about how beautiful he is and how she can't wait for him to come home. Her husband, Aaron, holds Bryson's twin brother, Braydon, in a separate chair. They have to take turns holding their sons because of the feeding tubes.

This is how Cherrie will spend her Mother's Day, in the neonatal intensive care unit at Erlanger hospital.

Her twin boys were born prematurely after just 30 weeks of gestation.

The couple, who also have a 7-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son, was afraid the twins wouldn't make it. They counted the weeks as they went by and marked milestones. Twenty weeks. Twenty-five weeks.

Even after they were born, Bryson and Braydon were not out of the woods.

"It was very scary, seeing little bodies that can't take care of themselves," said Cherrie. The twins were so delicate at first that contact had to be limited. "We just had to sit and wait."

Each time they left them was difficult, but as it became clearer that they were past the critical point, leaving got a little easier. Today, the twins are no longer in incubators. Their parents get to hold and even feed them. They know parents of other babies in the NICU are not so lucky.

"We can't help but think about and pray for the other babies here," said Cherrie.

-- Doug Strickland


Not too late

As Candace Anderson skims through the fuzzy images on her cellphone, she explains just how her miracle has taken shape.

The first photo is just a tiny pinprick, stark against the black background. Next, a small white crescent comes into focus. Now the 4-inch figure boasts a tiny nose, a spine and fingers.

"It's just a miracle to me, that I get to experience this at my age," she says. "I have gotten to do so much. But now. ... Now I get to do this amazing thing."

Anderson, 40, always knew she wanted to be a mother. But she didn't feel the same haste that some women feel to get there. She wanted to get her degree. She wanted to launch a career. She wanted to feel her legs beneath her and know she could stand on her own.

But a cyst on her ovary and a visit to fertility doctor Rink Murray made her realize that maybe she had been independent for long enough.

Murray was blunt. He told Anderson and her fiance, Jason, that they had only a few years before pregnancy would become too risky -- or impossible.

"It all sank in," she says. "It made me want it. And it made me realize I didn't have much time."

When she found out last week that she was having a girl, she started seeing past the doctor's visits and the nursery color palettes, and began looking through the longer, more complicated scope of motherhood: high school. driving. dating. A rambunctious spirit that may even rival the one Anderson had as a teen.

The idea of tackling those years in her 50s can seem daunting at moments. Most of her friends already have kids in middle school.

But she leans back in her chair and softly smiles. Her love for this child already eclipses all the fears and expectations.

"I want her to be happy," she says, reaching for something to dab her eyes. "I want her to feel like she can be herself. And I want her to be happy."

-- Kate Harrison


Roles reverse

In the quiet, next to the patchwork quilt and the dusty family photos, Pam Willis strokes her mother's worn hand and talks gently to her like a child.

"Mom, can you hear me?" she asks.

Alicia Bowman opens one eye but looks off in the distance, eyes glazed.

"Yes," she mumbles.

It's been eight years since Pam and her sister moved their mother from Kentucky to Chattanooga, after she could no longer stay by herself in the town where she had lived for 84 years. At first her mom could take care of herself. Then she started to fall. Then forget little things.

The memory loss came quickly. Pam never thought she would see her once-vibrant mother, a former high school librarian who went back to school for her master's in her late 40s, begin to deteriorate.

Pam comes every three weeks from Nashville to the Manorhouse assisted living home in Red Bank to help her sister help their mom.

Pam brushes her mom's teeth. Paints her nails. Strokes light pink blush across her wrinkled cheeks to show off her natural beauty.

At this point in life, the roles are reversed. The daughter has become the caregiver.

Later in the afternoon, Pam will roll her mom outside. Let her sit in the courtyard and feel the sunshine on her face.

-- Joy Lukachick


Last chance

Nearly two years ago Hamilton County sheriff's deputies woke Danielle Ledford as she slept with her 4-year-old son Bryson. They put Ledford in a patrol car and took Bryson away.

When she made her first phone call from jail, her mother told her that Bryson was in state custody.

"My legs just kind of went out from under me," Ledford said.

The young mother had been using methamphetamine for a dozen years, nearly half her lifetime.

The first thing she asked jail officials was how she could get her son back.

Get off drugs.

Live by the halfway house rules.

Get a job.

Nine months later, she and Bryson reunited.

In 10 days she'll graduate from the Hamilton County Drug Court program.

She's been clean for two years.

Jail time forced her out of her drug world.

Drug court kept her on track.

Getting Bryson back probably saved her life.

"My biggest struggle was learning how to be a mom again," she said. "I feel like he's been cheated his whole life. I just want everything to be different for him."

-- Todd South


Tasmanian devil

They're almost lost without her.

"Have you seen Scottie?" one mom asks.

"That's who I'm looking for," another chimes in.

She finally bounces through the front door just minutes before the show begins. Carrying a box full of papers, gifts and cards, Scottie Summerlin starts assigning tasks the minute she arrives at Nolan Elementary School.

In the back hallways of the office, she gives a message to the assistant principal. Then the principal. She tucks her purse in her regular hiding place, hits the copy machine and prepares for the ceremony where she'll hand out awards to teachers and volunteers. This is the backstage part of the job.

Summerlin isn't paid to be here. But you wouldn't know it by the way she waltzes through the hallways and offices. She dresses in a sharp gray suit and red heels. And her stride is more of a jog as she wrangles staffers and parents and offers quick fixes to issues that never seem to stop popping up. She's like the school's pro-bono wedding planner.

Maybe that's why her husband compares her to the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character. Today was one of those days he called her "Taz" as she rushed out the door.

She will spend just about all of the 180 or so school days at Nolan this year -- the second in a three-year commitment -- fulfilling her role as PTA president. At night, she works as a full-time mom, overseeing homework for her third-grade twin boys, making sure they get to sleep on time.

But here, PTA is much more than bake sales. It's professional photographers, public relations and big fundraising. Dozens of parents lend a hand, and some even teach French and Spanish. Volunteers put in 11,000 volunteer hours this year. That was just what they counted.

"We tell the school, 'We are at your service,'" Summerlin said.

Later that night, she'll leave behind the nearly 700 children and focus in on the two most important students at Nolan Elementary, her twins.

All in a day's work.

-- Kevin Hardy

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