Mothering Without a Map

"The Meaning of Mother’s Day:
My unexpected journey"

Woman's Day
May 4, 2004

From the time I was 6 years old, the second Sunday of May stirred unrest and trepidation in my heart. My mother died on an April morning, while I sat in my first grade classroom. Mother’s Day fell soon after her funeral, and from then on the day held weight a child couldn’t bear. After my mother’s death, my father gave up on our family and left me to the care of my maternal grandparents. I don’t remember ever calling my grandmother anything but “Mom.” I’m not sure when that deception began, but I do know it helped fool me into thinking the hole had been filled.

Year after year, as Mother’s Day neared, I’d stand hunched in front of the greeting cards, trying to focus on all the mothers I had - my grandmother, aunts, mothers of friends - and not think of the one I longed for: the kind and funny one, or the one with the quirky intelligence and a romantic flair. Or maybe she was elegant, serene and pretty, and maybe I resembled her a bit. Whatever her specifics, she was that dear someone who delighted in every imperfect, growing part of me. The mother I imagined every daughter had, except me.

All that time I was only an observer, not a participant, in the hallowed land of “Mother’s Day” and felt profoundly out of step: no one’s daughter and no one’s mother. I stayed frozen in that limbo for so long I believed it was my destiny. Then, in the mysterious way of grace and the human psyche, my wounded and fearful heart opened to love again.

At age 39 I was newly divorced and childless. By 43 I was remarried and had borne two children.

Now I no longer buy Mother’s Day cards. I’m the matriarch of my family. I’m the happy recipient of handmade greetings bearing hearts, flowers and affection. I, who missed out on unfettered love as a child, am, wonder of wonders, awash in silly, sweet, passionate, ordinary, constant love. I find on my calendar a note in unsteady handwriting: “I love Mommy!!!!”

I want to be worthy of this love my children send me, and I want them to know, as surely as they know the sun will rise, that I love them.

Having lost my own mother so young has made me more deliberate, thankful. I try, always, to ask myself: “What does my child need from right now?” When hand-in-hand I walk my youngest son to school or when I sit at the kitchen table chatting with my oldest son while he does his homework, I think, “This is wonderful.” It’s these everyday, fleeting moments that I missed out on - the spontaneous hugs and private jokes - that I cherish most. “You are surrounded by love,” I whisper as I tuck them in at night.

Though nothing can give back what is lost in childhood, having a secure place in my family of husband and children has driven out the yearning that once defined my life. Now a mother myself, I feel closer to my own mother, whom I lost so long ago, and to my grandmother, who I know did her best. I am part of the club that they were always in. I understand the sacrifices they made and the depth of their love for their children. Becoming a mother has turned my attention away from my painful past and towards my children, their laughter and hurts, and the life we’re creating together. With grace, my heart opened, allowing me to give and receive the love available to us all. My past remains unchanged, but my present is rich.

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