The word "‘mother" denotes a biological relationship, a maternal branch on the family tree. Everybody has one, and everyone’s is unique. The word itself comes in many languages — mother, mater, madre, mère, mutter, mzazi — and breaks down into many nicknames — ma, mama, mom, mum, mami, marmee, mammy, mamacita, mutti — that express a hard-to-outgrow, childlike connection. It’s the rare mother who is on a first-name basis with her children. "Mother" is a word that can connote joy or terror, fondness or disdain, depending on who your mother is. Or was. But on this occasion of Mother’s Day, let's focus on the concept of mother as lesson.
Because our very first lessons come from our mother, on whom we depend initially for our physical survival, and then for our primal experience of love. When we are blessed with a mother who gives us the gift of unconditional love, we are formed in security to do the same for others. When we are not so blessed, the struggle with the lesson not learned can affect the course of the rest of our lives. From the beginning, a mother’s lessons are for better or for worse.
If you are an only child, you have your mother all to yourself. If you have siblings, you have to share your mother with them. You would think that the more kids a mother has, the less love each one would receive. But a mother is not a pizza. Her portions are not finite. A child born further down the line of children may not get the same amount or quality of attention as the first-born, but a mother’s love for all her children is unlimited. My grandmother, the mother of seven, used to say that “every child brings its own love into the world.” A mother falls in love with each newborn baby instantly, but her love for her older children is somehow not lessened. It’s a mystery. A mother’s heart, like her belly, can always stretch more. And both expansions leave marks.
Mothering is the least glamorous of careers, but the most influential on the future of a people. It is a path that is sometimes not chosen, but is still a calling. It is a job without hours, without a duty statement, without salary, without a union. The benefits are intangible. It is a series of urges: the urge to procreate, the urge to push, the urge to nurture, the urge to love, the urge to protect, the urge to urge. We urge a lot. We do a lot of urging.
Mother is a force to be reckoned with when we think of her as Mother Nature, Mother Earth, or the mother of God. The mother of anything is the first, the most powerful, the birther, the one who bestows life. But every mother knows this same mighty strength. We are there at the beginning, and we continue to guide and to teach, by word and example. We are living, breathing lessons, God help us, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Sometimes the most memorable lessons for our children are the ones we don’t realize we’re teaching. I once thanked my mother for a wise thing she’d told me that had consistently sustained me in difficult times. “I don’t think I ever said that,” she replied.
The lessons I learned from my mother were not always helpful, especially towards the end of her life. This sounds harsh, I know, especially on Mother’s Day. I miss my mother and I pray she now makes a joyful home among the angels. Nevertheless, as I age, I am mindful of not reteaching certain lessons to my own daughters. My mother complained about the gradual loss of her mobility, her memory, her mojo, but she did little about it. She hated feeling powerless, but resisted taking charge. I see that this negativity would be an easy trap for me to fall into if I were to take my mother’s lesson to heart. Instead, I disregard it. I hold onto the positive lessons my mother taught me over the years, her hospitality and her graciousness, her quick wit and her appetite for reading. I can only hope that my daughters in turn will be forgiving of my unhelpful lessons, and attentive to the ones I got right.
We go through life half our mother’s DNA, but wholly her student. Today is the day we reflect on the lessons learned from our mothers, as well as the day we mothers press on as lessons to our darlings. Whether we are freshly born or old as dirt, our mothers live in the hearts they have formed. What amazing grace.