what it takes: an inventory of the heart
a woman i have come to love dearly, a woman as close to human sunshine as might be, birthed an idea a few months back, to gather women on the eve of mothering day, for a special mothers’ mass at the lovely little catholic church in the leafy little town where we live. she asked if i’d write something, and then tiptoe to the altar and read the words, something of a reflection at the end of mass. i said yes, of course.
a handful of the lovely women who were there asked if i would please, please, please give them a copy of what i wrote, because they wanted to give the words to women they loved for mother’s day. of course i said i would, so here they are.
Long, long ago, so long ago now I can barely remember, but back in the day before there was anyone on the planet who called me his mama, before I was the first one anyone thought to call in the deep dark of the night or the soul, before I was the one who two humans were certain would know where to find any lost object under the sun, get them out of any imaginable jam or tight-spot or pickle, before I was the one who pinch-hit as therapist, philosopher-in-chief, laundress, driver, nursemaid, human alarm clock, short-order chef, in-house theologian, and occasional dispenser of wisdom or knowledge or simply Advil and band-aids, I had no clue how clueless I was in the mothering department.
I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight and the popcorn disaster and the mess in the bathtub that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed.
And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, your turn to haul in the groceries, hold the keys to the car, give up your window seat on the airplane, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching — for the next 20 years. And then some.
Nope, no one could have truly clued us in, into this life-leap that catapulted us into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.
Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than two sacks of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain DCFS — or your mother-in-law — might be called, and you’d be revealed as not-yet-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department).
Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or dozens of times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?
After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d plotted it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a Post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”
But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn-baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again.
You felt that hot streak of motherlove rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul. And there is no turning back.
No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best, best friend that you really blew it this time.
No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were actually proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.
No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.
Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year.
You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray.
You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens to hear before your heart pounded through your chest — until the click finally comes.
You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever.
No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces.
To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — one that unspools from inception, and knows no pause.
Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.
Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, just after the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, lying on the Green Bay Trail, bloodied and banged up, thrown from his bike, after you’d raced to the ER, prayed every prayer under the sun and the moon and the night stars, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes, you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Seuss and 101 Dumb Baseball Jokes till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign finally came, you dropped to your knees and swore to God you would never, for an instant, take for granted the messy kid who could not, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.
And then, too soon, comes the day when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — from that college quad or that airport terminal — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.
And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.
And you ask yourself — how in the world did you do it?
And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, this mother you’ve become, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.
You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him.
And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering.
And it is for the strong of heart. And it is all of us. Every blessed one of us.
So help us, Mother God. Amen.
and so, on the eve of this next round of Mothering Day, blessings to all who mother in all forms of the life-giving verb. especially to my very own Original Mother Nature, and my very own “other mother,” my mother-in-heart, who happens to be mother to the man i love for life….to everyone for whom this day comes with crushing heartache. and for every someone who has found deep inside herself capacities and wonders she’d never have imagined. may we all be blessed. this old world desperately needs a whole lot of mothering. xoxox
tell us your signature tale of motherlove: who taught you, and what were her most lasting lessons?
p.s. photos up above are, left to right, my mama shielding me from raindrops (and everything else) the day we brought sweet Will home from the hospital, and — eight years later — the day sweet Will shielded me from raindrops the day we brought sweet Teddy home from the hospital.
p.s.s. a few years ago, at the mothers’ mass at old st. pat’s, our little church downtown, i gave a version of these very remarks; my sunshine friend asked me to give the same reflection, but of course i tweaked for this week’s mass. because writing, like mothering, is an endless exercise in revision.