Motherhood may be well-charted territory, but the map is different to each woman and her child.
As Mother’s Day nears, four North Las Vegas mothers share their journeys answering to the name “Mom.”
SUNNY SIDE MOM
Missy Bender could be the poster child for accentuating the positives.
The North Las Vegas single parent is mother of three children with disabilities and lives with her own degenerative health issues.
“I’m happy to have it all – the good and bad,” she said.
Son Daniel, 13, and his twin Shelby were born at 23 weeks gestation. Shelby died at 18 hours old, but Daniel immediately began defying odds.
“He wasn’t supposed to live,” Bender said. “Out of fraternal twins, the doctors said girls are usually stronger, and the second born usually survive. Shelby was the second born. But Daniel was stubborn.”
Daniel is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy due to a brain bleed at birth. He’s nonverbal but thrives at adaptive activities and attends conventional classes alongside special education courses.
“He’s my motivation,” Bender said. “I think, ‘If Daniel can do it, I can do it.’ ”
Bender’s daughter Lisette, 7, gave her a lesson in advocacy.
Although Lisette was a young walker, her left leg remained stiff and straight with each step, Bender said.
“We used to call it the pirate walk,” she said.
Bender had one of Daniel’s doctors take a look at the toddler’s impaired gait. After a battery of tests, the doctors diagnosed Lisette with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
The journey to find treatment was difficult, as Nevada lacks a specialist for the juvenile form, Bender said. Lisette receives regular injections from one in California thanks to help from the Arthritis Foundation.
Lisette and her mom have been advocates for more juvenile support and health care reform, even participating in a documentary and appearances in front of legislators.
“She loves being an advocate,” Bender said. “We’re able to control (her arthritis), but I know it’s hard for her.”
Lisette loves to attend school, ride bikes and swim, her mom said.
Her younger brother also faced struggles early in life.
Bender’s pregnancy and delivery of son Parker were normal, she said. His first hearing test suggested that his infancy would be different.
“They did the newborn hearing screening, and he didn’t pass,” she said. “They went ahead and did the screening again, and then the technician took me aside.”
The screening technician winced and grew sad when she said Parker might be deaf.
“I looked at her, gave her a hug and said, ‘It’s OK! He’s alive; he’s healthy; we can deal with this,’ ” Bender said.
Parker, now 5, benefited from early intervention and cochlear implants.
“Now he’s a chatty 5-year-old,” his mom said.
Bender has a degenerative disorder in her spine and muscle weakness in her arms and legs. She is unable to work.
In addition to caring for her own healthy and three children, Bender also helps a neighbor with daily tasks.
“My friends say, ‘Wow, you’re Supermom,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘I’m just a mom, and I have my moments.’ Life is going to go on regardless if you’re happy or sad.”
As for Sunday, Bender calls Mother’s Day “the most amazing day of the year.”
“But I have my kids, and every day is Mother’s Day,” she added.
LATER IN LIFE MOM
In Paula Zimmerman-Tihista’s fairy tale, her character is far from the evil stepmother. At 49, she became “Mom Paula” when she married a widower and father of three adult children.
Two decades later, “These are my children,” says Zimmerman-Tihista – and so does the court of law.
When the children, Sheri, Teri and John Tihista, were in their late 30s, they and Zimmerman-Tihista completed the process for a legal adoption.
“She’s just this amazing woman who has so much love,” said Sheri Tihista-Gentile. “She asked if she could adopt us, and we said, ‘Of course you can.’ It was cute going to family court as adults. Now we’ve been adopted twice.”
The siblings were adopted as infants and lost their adoptive mother as preteens. Their father had a longtime companion, but she didn’t fill the mother role Zimmerman-Tihista eventually would, said Tihista-Gentile.
“(Paula) was never pushy about acting like our mom; she just embraced us,” she said.
Zimmerman-Tihista, now 75, met her husband John Sr. when the pair worked in a casino. They dated and lived apart until marrying at John Sr.’s children’s behest.
“It turned out to be the best thing,” Zimmerman-Tihista said.
John Sr. died in 2003, but the family’s bond remained strong, the women agreed.
Some balked at Zimmerman-Tihista’s decision to legally adopt her husband’s children, she said.
“The judge said, ‘You realize if you do this, they’ll have access to your assets,’ and I said, ‘That’s why I’m doing it,’ ” she said. “They’ve been such a relief to me and so devoted. They had already lost two mothers, and I wanted to arrange to be there for them.”
The family has rallied during times of strife and gathers regularly for holidays and monthly dinners.
“She’s my voice of reason,” Tihista-Gentile said. “It’s an amazing thing having her as a mom.”
About 350 children in 30 years have known her as their biological, foster, adoptive and exchange student mom.
This fall, Della Fisher, 54, will get to try the title of “Grandma” on for size.
But the baby’s impending birth may not change household dynamics much, she said.
“We’ve never had empty nest syndrome,” she said.
The North Las Vegas mom has 10 children – four biological adults, two recently adopted brothers and four siblings in the adoption process – and three unofficial sons as a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, and state educational surrogate parent.
Among the siblings and their spouses, three of Fisher’s children have the name Ashley Fisher.
“They all fight over who was the original,” she said.
The most united front among it all is possibly that of Fisher and her husband, Dennis.
On Monday, the couple will mark their 35th wedding anniversary.
“I have a wonderful husband always willing to help out,” she said. “It’s not beneath him to do the laundry, do the dishes or run a vacuum.”
The New York natives shared a love for children and welcomed several exchange students into their home as their biological children grew. Fisher estimates about 300 total students lived under their roof hailing from Germany, Brazil, Japan, Puerto Rico and Spain. The couple also welcomed children from Northern Ireland during wartime.
“We’ve had all cultures and ethnic backgrounds, newborns to 18-year-olds,” Fisher said.
Adoptive and foster parenthood didn’t enter the Fishers’ picture until they retired to North Las Vegas in 2003.
“They all come with strings and baggage; there is no perfect child in the foster system,” Fisher said. “Our biological kids encouraged us, and that’s when my husband and I decided to step up to the plate.”
Fisher also volunteers her time as an advocate and lends support to families and children in the Educational Surrogate Parent Program with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
Her duties range from helping her three honorary sons stay on track in school to shuttling them to events and assisting their aunt caregiver.
“Some days I feel like I live out of my car,” she said.
Those she is most devoted to propel her, Fisher said.
“I am a well-organized person; things have a place, purpose and being,” she said. “I enjoy staying busy. I’m going on 55, and I don’t feel 55. The kids keep me energetic.”
As Mother’s Day approaches, Fisher said she doesn’t want much doting. Her husband brings the kids shopping for gifts and makes breakfast in bed for her.
She plans to field calls and visits from her grown children and relish time with her young children.
“I think about how blessed I am,” she said. “It’s a lot of dedication, but I’m committed to this to the end.”
FROM THE BRINK
It has been a hard set of years for Saturnina Martinez, her husband, Ulises, and two children, Ulysses, 15, and Savannah, 9.
The family faced issues related to job loss, foreclosure, a family suicide, alcoholism and potential deportation.
Through it all, Martinez said she gets glimpses to keep going.
She landed a job with Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, and the family is set to move out from living with extended family. The children are on the honor roll, the family is active in two churches and, recently, Ulysses was named Youth of the Year at Montandon Boys & Girls Club, 2627 Donna St.
“When I see things happen like that, I feel like I’m doing something right,” the 32-year-old North Las Vegas resident said. “We try to keep things going to make a better life. They are the reason I am here.”
Martinez lost both of her parents as a teenager. She was forced to quit high school and help earn income to support her siblings.
She became a mother herself at 17.
“It wasn’t an easy life,” she said.
In the last three years, Martinez and her husband lost their jobs and home. They moved in with Ulises’ mother for a year while the couple tried to re-establish normalcy, Martinez said.
The couple, Mexico natives, also faced deportation when they were out of work. Sen. Harry Reid intervened and secured a permanent work permit for them.
The family started participating more in Bible study, church and the Montandon Boys & Girls Club to stay focused.
“It helped us get through the struggles,” she said.
Ulises is still looking for work, and money is tight, Martinez said. Despite the woes, she said they try to find special time as a family. They go to the park or out for ice cream on Sundays.
“It’s not easy to be a mom,” Martinez said. “I love my kids to death, but it’s a struggle to keep them going in the right direction.”
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Maggie Lillis at email@example.com or 477-3839.