I am not a mother. I think this is important to note because I believe it is respectful to distinguish the difference between empathy and experience. I have a fairly unique understanding of motherhood based on an intimate involvement in the lives of many mothers, but I am not a mother.
Some people find this shocking. I explained to a friend recently that when you enter your thirties without having children, society (represented by our broad culture, by those we encounter directly, or even our own ideas) wraps you in an unspoken cloud of stigma, judgment, questioning, and awe. For the most part, I move through this area in my life emotionally unscathed by the cloud. I think this is because society showed its ass to me in my mid-twenties. I figured if society could not prepare me for the torpedo of my father’s first heart attack, then it had no right to make me feel any kind of way, except for how I wanted to feel, because my plan to be married with kids at age 25 was blown. While many women are fine not having children, there are millions of amazing women who think less of their life because they are not yet (or may not be) mothers in either the traditional or non-traditional sense. I write for us all today.
On the flip side, I also write for the mothers. Society enfolds these women in a special cloud of judgment. I think it gets extra stormy because it also carries illusion and the charge to bear the cloud while also negotiating relationships with partners and navigating the logistics of raising children. I feel like if society painted a picture of motherhood, it would be drawn on paper with crayons and include basic shapes with stick figures and smiles, m-shaped birds and a bright yellow sun. If I could paint a picture of what motherhood looks like to me, I’d use expensive paint. My canvas would be filled with majestic rugged mountains towering over a picturesque green valley. The sky behind the mountains would be full because I would paint the sun and the moon and create a brilliant new version of the sky that was simultaneously bright, sunny, dark, and stormy. At the bottom right hand corner, I would create a winding path to navigate the terrain. It would start and never end. Half of the path would look like concrete, like a smooth suburb sidewalk around a neighborhood park. The other half would look like the path that connects the national mall in Washington DC. From far away it looks like a straight lined grid, flat and even, and easy to walk or run. But when you step on it, you realize that on the ground level, the grid can breed both clarity and confusion. And, the smooth looking path is actually made of gravel that is both loose and solid. It forces you to use muscles with every step. It was built to bear the weight of thousands. I think motherhood deserves quality gravel, even in a fake abstract painting.
I guess for me it all boils down to the fact that I think it takes incredible courage to live as woman and not oversimplify the experience by carrying or inflicting labels on ourselves or each other. I am inspired by women, mothers and non-mothers alike, who seek to express the wellspring of love that is deeply feminine. That love is indeed the sun and the moon and allows us to care for each other, and the men and children in our lives. It is rich and textured and not constrained or determined by life circumstance or outcome.
The mother of our modern day “mother’s day” was a woman named Anna Jarvis. She was inspired by a prayer her mother once said that referenced a hope that there could be a memorial day to commemorate the service mother’s give to all humanity. After her mother’s death, Anna lobbied and wrote countless letters to lawmakers to create the day. She held two memorials to honor her mom that gained attention from philanthropists and lawmakers. Her efforts to create the national holiday were successful. What’s interesting, and rarely shared in our society is that she became disappointed by the commercialism that quickly took hold of the holiday. She hated cards, thought they were a lazy excuse for not writing a letter. She felt the commercial nature of the holiday trivialized the deep impact mother’s make, and did not represent the spirit of service that reflected her own mother’s life. Anna Jarvis was not a mother, and she spent her inheritance and the rest of her life fighting to make Mother’s Day reflect the spirit with which she intended when she fought to make it a national holiday. So even the real story behind the holiday is complicated and layered.
Ultimately, I hope that all who have the opportunity to read this also take a moment to breathe, particularly the women. If only for a moment, we should step past society’s ideas, illusions, statistics, and labels and know our presence here is invaluable. Our strength as a woman is deep, and real. Our power transcends logistics and day-to-day living. I think Anna Jarvis would appreciate our brief moment of realization and honor. I think she would encourage us to have more. If you are a mother, please honor how critical you are to the fabric of life. If you are not a mother, please honor how critical you are to the fabric of life. If you are a man, please honor how critical the women in your world are to the fabric of life. And then, keep going. It is some of the best advice I’ve heard, from a mother who was not my mother. Keep living. Keep going.