Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, certain anniversaries, and other times of the year are often a mixed bag of emotions for us. Mother’s Day might be that, too. To be sure, not every family is remotely close to those on TV shows like Family Matters or Full House!
Every person reading this has a mother, but that label, “Mother,” will mean different things to every person.
When I think of the people in my little world, their relationships with their mothers range from super-close and cozy to distant, awkward, superficial. Some have good relationships with their mothers now, but the past was a different story…and vice versa. Some know that they can turn to their moms for hugs and advice and long conversations about everything and nothing, while others are more likely to turn to almost anyone else besides their mother (and the back story to this is often much more complicated than we’d imagine at first glance). Some have no problem finding the perfect Mother’s Day card; some have the hardest time finding one that is nice, not overly sentimental, vague enough to convey a message that still rings true for the giver of the card.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older, they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them.” Every once in a while, a book, a conversation, a podcast, or something else will help me gain more insights into who my parents were and why they were that way and why they did what they did. Sometimes I judge. Sometimes I forgive. Sometimes I accept. Sometimes I’m perplexed. Sometimes others’ concepts of “love” don’t hold much meaning for me; sometimes they do.
Sadly, there are mothers and fathers who simply aren’t kind people, who are overly critical or insensitive or neglectful or just plain mean. If I could, I would adopt all those children and overwhelm them with all the love they miss out on! How does a person find an appropriate Mother’s Day card for a mother like that? Is it okay to go no contact on Mother’s Day and also throughout the rest of the year? Or maybe just low contact? In the bigger picture: what are our obligations to our family members? What are the deal breakers? What about “family over everything” and “blood is thicker than water”? (Is it mostly BS?) There are books about precisely these “mother” issues, like “Mothers Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters” by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier Glynn. I used to believe that every person has at least a few saving graces and that if we “just try hard enough” or give enough chances, every relationship is redeemable. In the past several years, I’ve learned otherwise.
Every person reading this has a mother, but, of course, not every person is a mother.
There were only very brief, very rare moments when I pictured myself being a mother. I never felt any biological clock ticking and had that maternal instinct, not as a kid, not in my 20s, not now at age 38. As a kid, I played house if my friends or siblings insisted on it, but if it were up to me, I wanted to pretend I worked at a library or a grocery store or a church (I was a pretty good pastor or pianist!). In my late 20s, after getting out of a very unhealthy relationship and dealing with a few other big life events around the same time, it all just seemed too difficult, too uncertain, too pointless sometimes. And I cannot ignore the fact that, as much as I love my sister, being a sister to someone who has severe cognitive disabilities has opened my eyes to the many challenges involved in raising a kid, even a healthy kid. I can’t imagine going through this all again, but as a mother. Maybe the risks are small, but in my mind, they will always loom.
A co-worker recently questioned my decision to not have children. She assumed it was something I had not thought about, as if it were something I had just let slip by for the past 38 years. Oh, no — I have definitely thought about it! And she’s right, I think, about a few things. It’s true, I will maybe never know the immensity of love that a parent has for their child. I will never experience the joy, the excitement, the tenderness, the overwhelming love that a parent can have towards a child. But I’ve experienced so much love — given and received — in other relationships in my life. Maybe the full measure of that isn’t equal to what I’d have with a child, but that’s okay. I will also never know the fears, the sadness, the disappointments, the disheartenment, that often go hand in hand with parenthood. I know people who have kids who are prison, kids who died, kids who hold grudges for years. That cannot be easy. As with so many things in life, there are pros and cons to parenthood. Research shows that at the end of life, some people do regret not having children; but also, some people regret having children, either with a certain partner, or at a certain time (maybe earlier would’ve been better, maybe later would’ve been better), or just in general, period. When making decisions, whether big or small, I often ask myself: “At the end of my life, will I be content with how I handled this situation?” I think that one of the worst things at the end of one’s life would be to have regrets; when it comes to the subject of motherhood, I do not imagine I will have regrets.
When I think of motherhood, I think of a friend who became a mom almost five years ago, even though she’d sworn for most of her 20s and teens that she’d never have kids. I think of how motherhood has changed her: how she’s so playful with her kids and loves buying toys and clothes for them; the fact that she decorates her house for holidays and seasons (“Who has time for that?” she used to say); the new concerns and exhaustion and questions involved in this task of raising kids; how she said she cries more as a parent than she ever did before. I think of another friend, who emailed me a few weeks ago that she’d recently found out she was pregnant. I was ecstatic for her, but also worried, knowing what I know about some of her circumstances. Of course, just days after finding out about her pregnancy, I ordered a gift for the soon-to-be mom. I think of many people who said they’d never planned on having kids yet became pregnant accidentally and “it was the best mistake I ever made.” I think of the many wonderful women in my life who are mothers…or who aren’t mothers, but who take on mothering roles in some other capacity. I think of my niece and my nephews, and I wonder about their lives, how they’ll grow up and develop, what the world will be like for them, who I will be for them. They’re all still so tiny, but I think Winnie the Pooh is right: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
Of course, I understand that for many people, being childless is heartbreaking. I can see how that would leave a person feeling empty, crumbled, shattered, lost. I know the great lengths I would go to in order to fix the things in my life that make me extremely sad, and I also know that there’s nothing I can do to make the circumstances better except work on myself (which helps, but still, I’d like to be able to fix everything else, too!). So, for those people, Mother’s Day isn’t a happy occasion at all. I think of a friend who just had a miscarriage, and my heart breaks for her. A co-worker was, understandably, visibly upset when another woman announced that — guess what! — she was pregnant for the third time, while my co-worker wasn’t able to get pregnant once. And sometimes a very common question — “Do you have children?” — is answered slowly, heartbreakingly, “Well, I HAD three children….”
I think about the relationship between my mom and me and what that has looked like as time goes by. I think of how, over the past decade or so, we’ve slowly begun to find some common ground – and now, on her end, acceptance or something resembling it — when it comes to spiritual matters, despite the fact that we have very different belief systems. I think of how our relationship has changed since my dad passed away three years ago. I think of how certain misunderstandings were cleared up as time went on, of apologies and relapses and a willingness to keep trying. I think about planning our little road trip towards the end of May. I think about the laughs, the breakfasts out, her ability to find the perfect GIF for any occasion, the tears, the misunderstandings, the new adventures, the topics we over-discuss, the openness and honesty between us. I think of the hurts of the past — I try not to, but they still pop up sometimes — and I see the changes in her as she gets older. I dread the day when she’s no longer around, and I wonder who will know me and love me in the same way she does (I know that no one will). I think of a quote by Dorothy Canfield Fisher: “A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” I hope that when the day comes when my mom is no longer around, enough of her – her humour, her strength, her words of wisdom, her creativity — will have lodged itself into my mind that I can lean on all that to get me through.
The theme song of Full House includes the lines “Everywhere you look, everywhere you go/There’s a heart (there’s a heart), there’s a hand to hold onto…There’s a face (there’s a face) of somebody who needs you.” Maybe when we’re out in the real world, we can expand our ideas of family and mothering and love and all those good things. After all, “[f]amily isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.” Certainly, you can buy Mother’s Day flowers for someone you’re close to, even if that person isn’t your own mother. Or find a gift for a kid and donate it to Mamas for Mamas (there’s a donation box at the Toys’R’Us here in Kelowna, by the way!). Offer a word of encouragement or sympathy to someone who needs it, especially on a holiday that’s hard to face alone. Look for new ways to reach out to other people; they won’t be the only one who benefit from your kindness — you will, too. And it’s never too late to try to become the kind of parent that you never had when you were growing up. I’m sure you won’t regret it.