If you come within a certain radius of me, I will mother you. Let this serve as your warning. It’s what I do. Some of us are just born caregivers. We take care. Maybe it is some deep seeded flaw on our part that makes us not feel complete until we are caring for others. Or maybe we just have an extra gene for love. Either way, it can’t be changed. For years I resisted being defined by my motherhood only. I am, of course, many other things. I am woman, friend, daughter, partner, student, writer, worker, political activist and damn lots of fun to boot! It seemed somehow politically incorrect to let motherhood be the majority of my identity.
The word mother, for me, conjures up images of a June Cleaver type woman, clad in pearls and heels, meeting her tired family at the door at the end of hard day with a plate of warm fresh baked cookies. Yet, how many of us have ever met such a creature? In spite of that, how many of us believed at one point that this image was something we should aspire to, and in fact, felt bad about ourselves when we did not?
In 2011 the family looks considerably different than it did in the 1950s and 60s TV Series. Whether there ever really were a majority of families who fit this model is a sociological argument for another day. In reality, the 1950s and 60s moms who had the luxury of not having to work outside the home were most likely socially, emotionally and intellectually unsatisfied, secretly envying their husbands for being able to leave the house every day and pursue interests that did not involve household appliances.
This was the image that I had in mind when I first became a mother, almost 27 years ago. Or maybe it was more like Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch of the 1970s. Either way, motherhood appeared effortless and always lots of fun. Every problem could be solved in a half an hour, including time for commercial breaks. The house was always spotless, the children well behaved. Then, I didn’t really have a lot of real life experience to go by. I was an only child, raised by a single divorced mother. I never had a chance to learn about sibling relationships first hand. It was just the two of us. . My mother had neither the desire nor the time to regularly bake anything. So, my dream was to create that giant perfect family. I accomplished this by having four children in eight years. If that wasn’t enough, I went on to mother several other children who came into my heart and into my home as well. Turns out none of it was anything like the Brady Bunch.
What motherhood is has absolutely nothing to do with fresh baked goods and spotless houses. In fact, it has nothing to do with the act of giving birth. It’s about everything you do every minute afterwards. There are many women out there who have given birth but never been a mother. There are many amazing mothers who did not give birth to the children in their care and in today’s world there are many men out there who, in the absence of a female in their family, have mothered their children in a way very much deserving of a holiday that is all their own!
The best bit of advice I ever got about motherhood came from my own mother who told me “you have one job as a parent, to teach your children to take care of themselves when you are no longer there. If you haven’t done that one thing, then you haven’t done your job.” At the time, I was still wishing she had baked more cookies but as I grew as a mother, and as a woman, I came to understand the incredible wisdom in this advice. You have one job, not to raise children, but to raise healthy independent adults.
Motherhood is a balancing act. You balance between giving as much of your heart as you can possibly spare, and keeping a little bit for yourself. It is a balance between caring for your children in a way that meets their needs while also teaching them the necessary skills to care for themselves. It is also about modeling for them someone who cares for the world as a whole as well. Motherhood is not about being a martyr. It is not about living up to some fictional standard of cooking and housekeeping. It is about teaching them what is really important; living a satisfying life, loving other people, and hopefully leaving this planet and the people on it a little better than you found it.
It is a balance between lovingly home cooked meals and ordering a pizza now and again so you have time to play in the park. I bet of all the times I worked to make a meal wholesome and healthy, one of the most memorable meals for my children would be the time my best friend and I let our total of seven children have ice cream sundaes for dinner. We had spent the entire day with them stranded in the house during an ice storm, a kitchen full of paper and crayons and yarn, doing hours worth of crafts. Maybe that meal was not as nutritious for their bodies as others but I hope it fed their souls.
So if the standard is being able to raise healthy independent adults, I would consider myself a success. I have raised an amazingly self-reliant, intelligent, successful group of twenty-somethings. However, what I am most proud of as a mother is not the fact that my adult children can take care of themselves but the fact that while they are doing so they also take care of other people. Whether they have served in the military, served in Americorps or served meals at the local shelter, they spend time serving. They spend time helping the world at large! They take care. They care for their friends and they care for their family. As a mom, nothing could make me more proud, not even their diplomas and degrees, not their fabulous cooking skills, or even their need to have spotless floors! While none of them has yet gone on to become a parent, they are all, without a doubt, fabulous at mothering!