“I want you to name for me some of the reasons why you need a mother.”
I looked back at my therapist. I shifted in my seat, rotating my pregnant belly to a new position. My mind was blank. I could hear the sounds of my toddler playing in another part of the house. Nothing came to mind.
Need a mother? A mother was not something I have ever thought of needing; a mother was a thing to be survived. For me, “mother” played the role of antagonist in my nightmares; she was someone I could not escape even in my sleep.
A mother could not be trusted.
A mother didn’t mind breaking her child’s heart.
A mother was someone to hide from in times of vulnerability.
A mother was someone who kept score against you before you were even born.
For most of my young adult life I’d blush to hear myself thinking, “what a relief it must be to be motherless.”
I didn’t need a mother; I needed to recover from having one, which was the whole reason I was in counseling. I looked at my therapist, then away again, wanting to give up on the exercise. Describe a mother as a good thing? He might as well have asked me to make up a mythological creature.
“It’s good to have a mother because—“ I started haltingly, and my therapist interrupted me.
“No, I want you to say, ‘I need a mother.’”
I nearly choked on the words. I had made it to where I was in spite of my mother, not because of her.
“Look at your daughter playing. Think of her for a moment; think of the baby you’re about to have. Why do they need a mother?” He paused. “Now look back at yourself. And you? Why do you need a mother?”
I thought of the mother I want to be to my two daughters: one trying to break into the pantry for a bite of chocolate, the other tickling my hip from inside the womb. I thought of all the love and tenderness I want to pour upon them in our life together. And as I looked, I realized my children were handing me the lens I needed in order to see and name my losses, my motherless-ness. Imagining the love I wanted to give to my girls was the only way for me to understand the love I needed to receive.
So I began to name that love:
“I need a mother because I need someone who cares when I am hurting.”
“I need a mother because I need an older woman in my life who will take me seriously.
“I need a mother who will celebrate and mourn alongside me.”
“I need a mother so I can learn how to be a mother.”
“I need a mother because I need to know that it is good to be a woman, and that women are strong.”
“I need a mother because I need help.”
When I began, the sentences felt wooden, as if my daughter’s alphabet blocks were spilling out of my mouth and onto the floor. These were needs I’d never before let myself acknowledge; they were longings I had suppressed. I realized I didn’t even know how to receive a mother’s love.
And as I haltingly named this mother-love I wished I had known, the mother-love I wanted to give my daughters, a face came to mind, and then another. And as I thought of these faces, I realized, “I’ve been adopted.”
I had been adopted, several times over, by women who went out of their way to choose me.
There is my Bible study leader from junior high, who never misses a thing I post online and always has an encouraging word.
There is the woman who fed our family countless meals in the first month after my daughter’s birth, who came to the hospital with me when I thought I was hemorrhaging.
There is the mother who found my blog and started keeping in touch, who sent our family a huge Christmas package, before we’d even met, just because.
There is the widow who held my newborn baby for several hours while I rushed to the hospital for a postpartum emergency.
There is the mum who said, “can I help you?” (When she heard my answer, she got on a plane, took the baby when she reached my door, and sent me to bed with paracetamol.)
These women continually reach out to me in a dozen different ways, asking, “Help me to understand your life.”
In the days since that painful counseling session, I have came to understand that I was chosen by these women, and I’ve stepped out further to let myself be embraced. And in so doing, I realized that being mothered is not about biology. Motherhood is about women who choose to love, without condition. None of these women know each other, but they have one thing in common: they all go out of their way to be in touch with me just to say, “I love what you are doing. Keep going.”
I once was motherless, but that is no longer true. I have many mothers.
If there is one thing these women have taught me, it’s that I don’t want my girls to look at me as their only mother.
I know there are other women who have great gifts to give to my daughters, women who have things to offer that I do not. I already know they need a cool let’s-make-crafts mom, because I am more of the let’s-eat-cookies kind of mom, and I am not so hot with the paper and glue. I pray they will find women who share their passions and encourage them to be more passionate about the right things. I want to be there for every milestone of their lives, but even more than that, I wish for them to know the love of other women who want to be there, too.
Throughout my childhood and into early adulthood, my relationship with my mom was a thing to be endured. In my story, “mother” was just another term for an abuser. The language of motherhood that I knew was a weaponized language of shame and death, and I wanted nothing of it. It wasn’t till I spoke with my counselor that I realized I had not been taught the language of motherhood, but of motherless-ness.
That long-ago session with my counselor was not only a chance to name my losses. It was an introductory language course—it could have been entitled “The Language of Love 101: Motherhood.” And as I learned this new vocabulary of motherhood, I’ve learned to hear the sound of other women speaking this language. And as I’ve become more fluent, I’ve come to know that these mothers can be trusted.
I can’t turn back time and speak the true language of motherhood to my younger self. But I can practice it today and speak it to my daughters:
“Girls, may you know the joy of having more than one home where you can lounge in the kitchen with a cup of tea while supper is cooking. May you know more than one home where the guest bedroom is actually just known as your room. May you know the comfort of having more than one mom who will drop everything to answer your texts on a bad day. May you be counted as one of theirs, too. And when you’re gathered around their dinner table, may your heart stretch as you hear them say, ‘isn’t it great when the kids are all here?’
To be loved by a mother is a good thing.
To be loved by many is even better.
May you have many mothers.”
This guest post is written by an anonymous guest writer. For Ann, and for all the others who showed me motherhood—that is, love.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.