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18 May 2012

Meditations on Motherhood

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, both in the US and in New Zealand.  I used to think that Mother’s Day was just a cheesy Hallmark holiday.  However, since becoming a mother, it has, of course, taken on new significance.  When we were in Guatemala waiting to take Kate home, Guatemala celebrated their version of Mother’s day and we were SO excited to finally be mothers that we participated in the apparent tradition of going out to eat at Compero Pollo (the Guatemalan version of KFC).  We then arrived home on the weekend of the US version of Mother’s Day and got to celebrate our new motherhood again. 

It’s wonderful to celebrate Motherhood.  Being a mother is the strangest, most wonderful trip I have ever experienced.  And yet, the concept of celebrating Mothers and Motherhood is fraught with difficulties.  During the years that we were trying to become Mothers, Laura and I experienced such a range of emotions including excitement, loss, pain, grief, joy, anger and fear.  It was a roller coaster that threatened to destroy us individually and as a couple.  Mother’s day for those who want desperately to be mothers is a very painful reminder of what they desperately want but cannot have.  I have also walked with friends through the deaths of their children and have found that, especially in the case of the loss of an only child, those women want to be acknowledged as mothers yet find, sadly, that people are uncomfortable wishing the mother of a dead baby “Happy Mother’s Day.”

To make matters even more complicated, many people have very complex and troubled relationships with their mothers.  I used to think I was one of those people but over time, I have discovered that compared to many, my relationship with my mother is actually quite ordinary, perhaps even HEALTHY!  At the very least, it is pleasant.  I enjoy spending time with my mother and value our conversations.  I perceive my mother to be less critical than she used to be.  I don’t know if that perception is based upon any change in HER behaviour (perhaps she just doesn’t tell me what she really thinks?) or if it is simply that I am not as sensitive as I used to be.  In any case, I am grateful.  And I am keenly aware that many people are not so fortunate.  I know Mother’s Day is very hard for those who have broken relationships with their mothers, those whose mothers have died and especially those whose relationships with their mothers were never healed prior to the death of their mothers. 

As the mother of an adopted child, I am also keenly aware of the complicating issues of unwanted pregnancy and the choices that face girls and women in that situation as well as the difficulties faced by children who have been given up by their mothers.  Kate will always wonder and imagine what her birth mother is like and why she “really” gave Kate up for adoption.  And, although she is blessed to have two mothers who love her dearly, she has endured a huge loss at a very basic level.  We can’t dismiss the importance of the bonding that occurs between the mother and baby in utero. 

But for those of us who are fortunate enough to be mothers when we’ve wanted to be and to have a happy relationship with our mothers, Mother’s Day is a good time to reflect on the many nuances of Motherhood. 

Being a mother is FUN.  

There is never a dull moment in our house.  Kate is always coming up with new things to do and new ways to do them.  It is amazing to see the world through the eyes of a child.  It’s a cliché but it’s so true.  When I stop what I’m doing and just watch her, I see her thinking, struggling, listening, and seeing in ways that I’d forgotten all about.  She never stops learning and, as a result, neither do I.

Being a mother is SCARY.

Terrifying, actually.  How many mothers have held a tiny baby and wondered, “What do I do now?”  How many mothers have had nightmares about horrible things that might befall their children?  I’d daresay the answer is somewhere between most and pretty much all of them.  I shiver sometimes to think of things like the time Geyser got stuck in the flooded culvert and Kate tried to rescue him while standing on the bank of the swollen creek with a stick in her hand.  We found them in the nick of time, nudged; I’m sure, by the still small voice of God calling us outside to check on them.  I spend a lot of time praying for God’s guardian angels to shield and protect Kate both physically and emotionally/spiritually but in spite of all that prayer, I am, still, often afraid.   John Irving in “The World According to Garp” coined the term “undertoad” to describe the feeling of impending danger.  Garp heard his mother say “Beware of the undertow” when swimming in the ocean.  He misheard “undertoad” and always imagined a very large toad under the water, waiting to sweep children away.  It’s a powerful image as most of us can readily imagine that there is just such an animal lurking unseen, waiting to snatch our precious children from us.  For those of us who struggled to become mothers, I think the fear might be somewhat greater.  We know better than to take this gift for granted.  All love involves the possibility of loss.  Motherhood is no different.

Being a mother is BAFFLING.

The truth is, I have NO idea what I’m doing.  None of us do.  I have learned that it is really important to not compare my insides with other people’s outsides.  Those mothers who seem to “have it all together” probably don’t.  I know this, in part, because, as a doctor, I am privy to the secrets of these women who seem to be supermoms.  I can’t reveal their confidences but I can speak in generalities and say that in many cases the perception of “Supermom” is a total illusion.  I don’t think it’s “shaudenfreude” to take some comfort in the revealed weaknesses of other mothers.  I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s misfortune.  But I do feel a bit better knowing that I’m not alone in my befuddlement.  I just wish mothers could be more honest about those feelings instead of perpetuating the illusion that we “have it all together.”  I certainly don’t have it all together.  I don’t have a CLUE.  I just pray that my daughter will grow up to be a reasonably capable adult, in spite of me. 

Being a mother is AMAZING.

By that, I mean, it fills me with amazement.  What a miracle, what a gift.  How did I get so lucky, so blessed?  It’s easy to forget all that it took to get here. It’s easy to get swept up in the day in day out work of parenting and forget what a gift it is.  But when I stop to consider that part of things, I AM amazed.  I always thought I wanted to be a mother, but I had NO idea how hard and how wonderful and how scary and heartbreaking it all would be. 

Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed

As I was thinking about this post, I found myself contemplating some examples of mothers that I’ve found interesting.  Many of these mothers are Biblical, some are fictitious or fabricated.  One in particular is the mother of the boy who shared his lunch with Jesus, who went on to multiply it into a feast for thousands.  I was reading an “Arch Book” version of the story to Kate once last week when this thought occurred to me.  The story was told from the perspective of the boy whose mother packed him a lunch so that he could go with a family friend to see this man they were calling The Messiah.  The boy tells her he won’t need a lunch because he believed Jesus would provide food for the masses.  The mother, however, insists that he’d better bring some food along, “just in case.”  It’s fascinating to view the story from this perspective.  This mother is a prime example of how our actions vis a vis our children will have huge ripples that we may never ever see.  This boy’s mother probably never thought that she would pack a lunch that would be turned into one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, and certainly one of his most famous.  Most likely, all she wanted was to make sure her boy had enough to eat and, perhaps, she wanted to make sure he learned to “pay his own way.”  It is also clear that this mother had instilled some very important values in her son.  She did not teach him to take what he had and hoard it.  He had obviously been taught to share what he had with others, no matter how little he thought he had.  He had clearly been taught to trust God to provide for all his needs.   It reminds me that, as a mother, it is vitally important to teach my child to trust God and to share with others. 

If I’m going to discuss Biblical mothers, of course, I would have to mention Mary, the mother of Jesus.  It turns out that the most prominent “Mary story” on my mind this week has been the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus famously turned water into wine.  This story is one of a couple of accounts of Jesus seeming to rebuke his mother in a way that could be seen as “dishonouring.”  In this story, Mary comes to Jesus for help and he tells her, “It’s not my time, yet.”  She ignores him, of course, and tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do.  Once again, it’s the mother behind the scenes that has a tremendous impact on the course of events.  What if Mary had not insisted?  This miracle was recorded by John as “the first sign” in Jesus’ ministry.  Once again, the faith and the faithfulness of the mother have monumental consequences in the course of history.  Now I realise this might sound hyperbolic, especially to my non-believing friends.  That’s ok.  The point is, MOTHERHOOD MATTERS. 

Then there are Mother Goose, Old Mother Hubbard, and the “Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe.”  I’m not sure what these mothers would add to the discussion of mothers but it seems appropriate to give them a shout out for Mother’s Day as well!

Overall, I think it’s important to acknowledge the blessings, the challenges and pitfalls of Mothering and Motherhood.  But while we consider these things, may we be sensitive to those who have less positive experiences around Mothering and Motherhood.  Mother’s Day is more than just a “Hallmark holiday.” It’s a time to consider all the joy, pain, sadness, and blessing that go with being a mother and being mothered.  

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