What does it mean to be a mother?
I think about this question a lot. I think about it because, of course, I gave birth to two tiny, crazy humans and they seem to look to me every single day to feed them and wipe their rear ends and find them a pair of shoes that match. It’s the season of life in which I find myself right now, and I struggle to make sense of what it all means.
Here’s the picture we have in our minds, when we think of a mother: It’s the lady in a minivan (unless you are little bit cooler- then it’s a big, black SUV). The lady packing school lunches. The one with spit-up or oatmeal still smushed into her yoga pants, shoving raisins in her kid’s mouth so she can hurry through the grocery store. The one on playdates, shuttling to sports practices and waiting in carpool lines. Overtired, underserved but for a good purpose, for the good of her family. That’s the illustration we harbor in our minds when we think of the word.
But, I’m starting to really hate that definition, that way in which we define our world. I hate it for two very different reasons. First, because I had someone who met those criteria- a pretty lady who drove a minivan and dragged three kids to school and the grocery store. She gave birth to me, but she was never a mother to me. And second, because there are a great many people who have never physically given birth to a child or even formally adopted one but who are mothers in every sense of the word. We have this innate reverence for those who we characterize as mothers, but I think it would do us some good to rethink what that word means to us.
As I watched my daughter play the other day, I had this thought: she was just born to be a mother. She watches over my son, shoves food into his mouth, scans the room nervously as he takes some of his first, wobbly steps, ready to catch him if he falls. She worries over him and protects him, takes responsibility for him. I had the thought again when, the other night, instead of me putting her to bed, she insisted that she tuck me in instead.
Despite my (weak) protests that I wasn’t quite ready to go to bed at 7 p.m., she wheeled her pink plastic grocery cart into my room full of all of the things she needed to take care of me. She coaxed me to lie down while she pulled the covers up to my neck. She covered me with another thick quilt that her great-grandmother made for her. She pulled out a Dr. Suess book along with a journal and a pen, and placed it on my bedside table. She handed “Hopper” to me, her stuffed bunny (except she calls him “Hawpuw” because, you know, the “r” sound is still hard for a 4-year-old.)
“Now, Mom, do you want your phone or your iPad to read in bed?” she asked me with authority.
“Uuhh, doesn’t matter. Whatever is fine.”
She wasn’t having it; she needed a definitive answer. She waited expectantly.
“Umm. Ok, I’ll take the iPad.”
“Okay,” she says, satisfied.
“Mom, how is your rash feeling tonight?” she asks.
(Allergic reaction. Long story.)
“It’s feeling better, I think.”
“Did you put the cream on it?”
“Yes, I put the cream on it, and I took my medicine.”
“Okay, call me if you need anything, okay Mom?”
“Okay, goodnight.” Kisses and hugges and she darted out of the room.
The whole scene just made me melt. Even though I was sweating under five pounds of quilt in the middle of summer, I stayed still for a while because I just felt all wrapped up in love.
And I thought, “that’s mothering.” It’s not about your station in life, the children you’ve birthed or how frazzled you’ve become with your responsibilities. It’s not about what it looks like on the outside at all. I had a biological mother, and she fit all of the outside criteria, but she didn’t love me. And I’ve had many women come and go in my life since then who somehow have also fallen short to provide what I needed to feel “mothered.”
Mothering, to me, means loving someone for no good reason at all except that you just do. It means providing the love and care and concern that a person needs just because you want to. If you do it because you’re supposed to or you have to or because you’re trying to fill your own emptiness and insecurities with meaning, you’ve got it all wrong, and you will end up empty-handed. Your days of driving carpool in minivans will end, and you’ll wonder who the hell you are now that your children are all grown up.
It also means that you don’t have to have given birth to anyone. Sometimes that word, motherhood, is a sharp knife that cuts to the core because in the strictest definition of the terms, you’re either in the club or you’re out. But if you’re someone who was born to be a mother, yet you haven’t yet been inducted into the club, you feel like you just can’t find your purpose in life. But, here’s the thing. You can love someone for no good reason at all, no matter who you are or where you find yourself in life. Look around. There are so many of us struggling to find our place, desperate to know that we matter, hungry for some kind of assurance that we are going to be okay. Someone needs to tell us that yes, that rash will get better, just keep putting the cream on it.
We all need to be mothered. We all need to be loved for no good reason at all. And instead of placing so much value on this shell we call motherhood- the minivans and playdates and carpool chaos- let’s instead place the value on anyone and everyone who is giving their lives up, offering up their love for those in need.
Let’s think bigger, open up and look around us. Reach out and offer concern for someone. Nurture something. Breathe life into that which is fading. Prop up those who are falling down. Love someone even when they have nothing to give back to you. There are lots of wonderful ways to be a mother, and I want to learn to celebrate each and every one.