I don’t sentimentalize motherhood, and I don’t like it when others do. Virtually any biological female, human or non-human, can be a mother. There’s no particular moral achievement involved, as such, in becoming a mother, and, sometimes, there’s a distinct moral indifference to it.
The important thing about motherhood transcends the merely biological functions of conception, gestation, and birth. And it’s a very important thing.
Fortunately, a remarkable proportion of mothers do indeed become what Mother’s Day celebrates — loving, nurturing, self-sacrificing, patient, and virtually impossible to permanently disillusion (however much we, their children, seem to try). They become, in a remarkable degree, what Christianity (and, to a greater or lesser extent, all other religions) want believers to be, generally. They become, to that same degree, what Latter-day Saints believe God himself to be in these respects.
A popular hadith or tradition ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad declares that
” الجنة تحت اقدام الامهات ”
“Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.”
I saw a little e-card the other day bearing this caption: “Dearest Child, I’ve worried for you since before you were born. I’ll continue to worry ’til my last breath. Deal with it. Love, Mom.”
For better or worse, this really does capture the attitude of the vast majority of mothers. And I think it’s very much to the good. And so does every independent child, no matter of what age, who finds himself or herself suddenly alone, fearful, or seriously hurt. It’s good to have a mother who still cares. Who will always care.
Men — fathers — also care, of course. (Not all, obviously. There are far more delinquent and absentee fathers than there are neglectful mothers. Most fathers, though, care very much about their children.) But there tends to be something very different, far less judgmental and far more constant, about a mother’s love. I’m trying not to stereotype, but that has been very much my experience and my observation over the course of my now rather long life. Men are connected to their children, when they are, in a different way.
My mother died just slightly more than eight years ago. I acutely remember how, in the immediate aftermath of her passing, the old Negro spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” kept recurring to my mind. Over and over and over again. It might seem ridiculous for me, at my age, having lived hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from my mother for many decades, to feel that way. But I don’t think so. And, anyway, I did.
Though my mother was old and in very poor health when she died, the loss of her was still deeply painful. She had been a wonderful mother to me and my (half-)brother, whom she raised for many years alone, as a struggling widow; I had long thought that, on our birthdays, we should be celebrating her rather than permitting ourselves to be celebrated. Here is the tribute that I delivered — through abundant, very embarrassing, horrifically unmanly, and strictly un-Scandinavian tears — at my mother’s graveside service in 2005. I intend to post it at least once a year:
It’s nothing, really. But there’s not much I can do for her, or to honor her, at this point, and so I’m determined to do what little I can. Her grave marker bears the inscription “Family first.” That wasn’t, but could and should have been, her motto.
My mother-in-law passed away just slightly more than a month ago, on 6 April. She, too, was delivered from a lengthy illness — in her case, the horrifying slow death of Alzheimer’s. In her case too, though, the loss was still painful, even as it was mitigated by our belief that her death was her liberation. (Here’s the blog entry in which I noted her death; here is the newspaper column that I dedicated to her the following week.) My wife has struggled bravely over the past few weeks; she and her mother were very close. I wish I could absorb some of the grief and pain on her behalf. Today, I know, will be particularly hard for her.
Which brings me, as a matter of fact, to my wife:
Men often joke that they’ve “married up.” I think it’s often true; in my case, it most definitely is. My wife’s capacity for selfless service continually stuns me. (If anything, I’m more than usually deficient in that category.) She is immediately aware of the needs of others; I scarcely notice them. She cares deeply, passionately, for our children, for her parents, for brothers and sister, for neighbors, for anybody in her surroundings who needs help. When there’s service to be given, she’s often the first one on the scene. When there’s clean-up to be done, she’ll be the last one to leave. If it requires losing sleep, skipping a meal, or forgoing something she had been eagerly anticipating, so be it.
I love her, and I admire her beyond words. I’m pretty recalcitrant material, and I haven’t made much progress, but, to the depressingly limited extent that I’ve become a caring, less self-absorbed person over the past years, I owe that to her and to our children. (To my amazement, I even sometimes cry at sad scenes in movies now. What on earth is happening to me?)
We came back from Israel and New York late on Tuesday night. Thursday morning, she was off again, representing us at a family wedding out of state. When she’s gone, I don’t shave; I sleep odd hours; my life begins, ever more rapidly, to go off the rails. I would be lost without her. Almost a motherless child.
And she has been a devoted mother. My children may sometimes not appreciate it, as she worries even now about how they’re dressing, eating, and faring in general, but they know that they have someone behind them who is always rooting for them, to whom they can turn in difficulties and with problems, someone who will always love them and always accept them.
This is what I celebrate on Mother’s Day. I celebrate attributes to which I aspire, but that I’m blessed to have seen virtually every day as I’ve been passed from the care of one good woman to that of another. And my children are blessed to have had the grandmothers and the mother that they have had.