I didn’t plan to write about being a mother on Mother’s Day, since it seemed way too much of a cliche. But here I am anyway, adding my own limited perspective to what is probably one of the most emotionally charged, personal, yet universal experiences–being a parent. I clearly cannot write from personal experience about being a father. But I know many of them–my own father, the father of my children, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins and in-laws. While there are certainly important differences–the intense physical involvement of a mother in pregnancy, childbirth and nursing being the most obvious–at its most fundamental level, I believe the emotional aspects of being a parent are not ultimately gender specific.
There is no shortage of advice meant to prepare you for motherhood. While the old joke about babies not coming with a manual may be true in the specific, there is enough information out there to overload even the most skillful researcher. Ranging from professional “experts” to blogs from women and men on the front lines of parenthood there is no area of child rearing left unexplored. But all this information and advice seems flimsy and inadequate when a real child moves into your life.
I digress for a moment of humor about one of the most common experiences of early parenthood. SLEEP?? I have heard rumors that there are babies who sleep through the night before they are six months old. Neither of my children came with that option and I became president of Zombie Nation in a landslide election. Not only did neither of them sleep through the night for a very long time, but after the arrival of our second child, I think they conspired with each other to arrange the timing of their awakenings to guarantee that I would never experience more than three or four hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Prior to becoming a mother, I could have won an Olympic event in sleeping through thunder, television, traffic noise and even a minor earthquake. My husband was up at the slightest sound, probably responding to the DNA that requires men to be the protectors of their castle and family. So, was it not logical for me to assume that a baby’s wail at 2 AM would create a similar response?
Instead, my gold medal in sleeping was cruelly snatched away and given to him. He could now sleep through screeching, wailing and sobbing, while I snapped instantly awake–not at the screeching and wailing part, but when the child inhaled the breath that precedes it. Even after she learned to talk and would call out “Dada, DADA,” he just muttered “She means Mama.”
The biggest surprise that came with parenthood, however, was this one overwhelming reality. I am now emotionally bonded to another human being for the rest of my life. I became a mother through adoption and I remember well the judge asking “Do you understand that this is forever?” How quickly I replied that, of course, I knew it was forever. But knowing and understanding are not precisely the same. Understanding came often like a punch to the solar plexus, this realization that I would do anything in my power to nurture and protect these children that had been entrusted to me. The frightening truth that I would not or could not always protect them, that despite my best efforts I would fail them in ways that I often did not even understand.
At 70, I am still a mother. There is no retirement option, no two-week notice, no hiring someone else to take over. I still worry about them and wish I could protect them from all the hurts, fears and bad things that inevitably happen in the course of human life. There is no happiness in my own life that matches the feelings of joy when their lives are good and successful, or the sadness when they are not. As I grow older, my greatest sorrow is that I will not always be here to protect them, even though that protection is now mostly just loving them, listening to them when they want to talk about their lives, and, yes, praying that angels watch over them in the dark of night.
The judge was right. FOREVER.