Love that does not have humility as its mother and holy awe as its father is orphaned from all goodness.
~Mechtild of Magdeburg
I don’t find it easy to write about motherhood, probably because the independent, creative self wants to be free of all duty (and motherhood, although a blessing, is indeed a duty). But the above quote struck me as true. No matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant, successful, etc., motherhood and the type of humbling love that accompanies it can knock you on your ear.
A couple of weeks ago I posted two pictures of myself side by side on facebook: the one on the left was taken of me when I was newly married before motherhood; in it I have long model hair, a tan, and I’m smiling like the world is my oyster. The one on the right is of me as of my twins’ third birthday: I’ve gained weight, have bags under my eyes, wrinkles across my forehead, and I look exhausted.
Motherhood takes its toll; you get gray hairs and no longer have visible abs; you are often at that place of Wit’s End, but as a friend once advised me, that’s how you know you are doing it right. Love that does not include the hard part isn’t love at all. And what is the hard part exactly? Compassion. Putting another first, caring for them first, satisfying their needs before your own.
The women of my generation went to school and got jobs; we knew how to put ourselves first. When we wanted a new dress, we bought it. When we wanted dinner and drinks, we called a friend. We lived independently from our parents and followed our passions even if they failed us. My mother’s generation never complained so much about motherhood (no one ever told me it was going to be this hard, we always say when we’ve found a confidante); they went from their father’s house to their husband’s where they assumed the role of caretaker and that was that.
This is why motherhood is more of an adjustment for my generation. The education, thinking skills, and experience we got serving ourselves translate to valuable wisdom for maneuvering our own kids through the world. We use these skills to try and strike a balance between a life for ourselves and a life for our family, but that just isn’t easy in today’s society. This often leaves us frustrated and it can get the best of us.
When I was pregnant with the twins, I remember observing a gull with its baby, a speckled bird bigger than its demure white and gray mother. The baby followed the mother along the edge of the water, crying and squawking incessantly. The mother gull walked ahead, ignoring her baby, and then she suddenly took flight across the bay and the baby hurried after her. Yep, I thought. That’s a part of mothering, too, wanting to fly away.
I take my dog for a walk every morning and when my son sees me put my jacket on, he importunes, “Where are you going, Mommy? Huh? Stay here, Mommy. Sit down right here on the couch.” My daughter confronts me every time I fetch my purse and keys, “You’re going to come back, right?” What do I do that makes them question if I will come back? Is my restlessness that visible?
I remember how frustrated my father used to get when my brother and I started acting up, so much that he would voice this frustration and threaten to leave. And he did take off, for weekends at a time, to go hunting in upstate New York, to be free for a little while and blow off some steam. But my father always came back. And this is what a humbling love does: it brings you back to the people who need you most.
I try to see the world though my children’s eyes. My daughter is delighted by dandelions, pill bugs, and worms. She likes to carry them around. She tells me she loves them, that they are the most beautiful things to her. My son notices every truck and construction vehicle we drive by. He moves his matchbox car over the sofa and observes how the wheels rotate in unison. My children are enthralled by the world, by snowflakes, spring blooms, tidal pools, and I can reach back, back and recall this feeling of the “gift of life” of a sacred wonder, where everything was new and precious. For me, it was the fiesta colored azaleas with their silk thread stamens and the rainbows in the hose water, the peonies with their ant sentinels patrolling each bud, and the feel of the cool grass between my toes at twilight. I was safe. My parents were home and my parents were everything.
And that holy regard one has for one’s parent does not go away, no matter how old you are. A couple of weeks ago I was giving a public lecture at North Shore Community College and my mother walked into the room. Something inside me cracked open and I wanted to sob. She’s here. She’s come. My mother.
So I remember what it’s like to need a mother, to love a mother and I need to be mindful of this-- in my rush to be this and my desire to do that-- because to be anything less than a mother would bring suffering to my kids and that, to me, is unthinkable.
Regarding those two photos, the motherless me and the mother me, well, here’s a secret: pound for pound, I’m happier being the mother, despite its physical and emotional drawbacks. I have lost the existential angst that used to plague me during my younger years and I wouldn’t want that back for all the model hair in the world. This humbling love is hard, and it has taken everything I’ve got, but it has meaning and purpose, a deep soul kind of meaning and purpose that confirms, no matter how nuts I get, that I am on the right track.