It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Musings on Motherhood

This is my contribution to the Blog Collaboration organized by Kara. In my several drafts of this, I was aiming for light and funny with a message. However, in each and every attempt, what appeared was an essay, so, with my deadline looming and “light and funny” nowhere in sight, I bowed to the inevitable. Hereafter follows some of my musings on motherhood – hope you enjoy them!

My job, for the last ten or more years, has been mothering other people’s children. I am a mother, noun, and I mother, verb, professionally. Being as how I mother both inside and outside of my personal motherhood, and have “co-mothered” dozens of children with very different women, each with their own style, I’ve done a fair bit of musing on the notion of ‘mother’.

What makes a mother? The most obvious answer is “your child”, but that scarcely satisfies. Too simplistic! “Anyone can have a child” we say, dismissively, though that statement in itself is too simplistic: As anyone who’s ever struggled with infertility knows, this is simply not true. Regardless of how a child enters your life, though, it is not simply the mere fact of the child that makes a parent. That’s too passive, too facile; it misses the layers of interaction and angst, emotions and bonding of the relationship.

When asked what I do for a living, I sometimes describe myself as “a back-up mom”. It’s as good a description as any, I think. Part teacher, part nurse, part psychologist, part coach, part cheerleader, part maid – that’s all me in my job. It is also, of course, any mother.

Note that the description is not substitute mom. The difference may not be immediately apparent, but it’s critical, I think. The child’s mom is always the mom, whether she’s with the child, sleeping in a room down the hall, or in an office across town. I do not replace mom, I supplement her. (Like vitamins!)

Sometimes the mothers worry about this, worry about being replaced, about being less than central to their tot’s life, but it is needless. Yes, I am attached to your child, and your child is attached to me – this is what we want, for your peace of mind and the child’s emotional health – but I am never going to replace the mom. Your child knows the difference: there is only one Mommy.

So what does make a mother? The possibilities are many: childbirth, adoption, instinct, an effort of will, a decision, a pivotal event or crisis, a dawning awareness, a gradual morphing. We adults can – and do! – muse on the nature and definition of this most significant relationship. The child doesn’t muse. Whatever it is that makes a mom, the child knows.

I have never seen any indication that the child’s relationship with me detracts, impedes, or even impinges upon his/her relationship with Mom. I nourish, I comfort, I challenge, I teach, I soothe. I blow raspberries on fat tummies and push little bottoms in swings. I declare “I just love you to bits!” while raining kisses on peach-soft cheeks, and yet still they know. “This is the ‘not-mom’ who loves me.”

Before the child is born, when we consider becoming a parent, our focus is on our own desires, our intentions, our hopes. The child is the focus of all these things, and yet oddly peripheral to them at the same time. Because we are not yet parents, the reality of the child, its distinction from us, its existence as a person in its own right, has not yet hit home with us. In many ways, we only learn this gradually, as the child is born, grows, matures and establishes him/herself over the years. In the very early stages, it is easy to see the child as a passive recipient of all it experiences.

And yet… It is not long into its life that the child knows its parents. A child is born with the capacity for relationship, and the first relationships formed are with mother and father. The child knows mommy as distinct from all the millions of not-mommies. Whatever process you as a woman need to become your child’s mother, your child needs no such process. From the moment of his/her dawning conscious awareness, “mom” is you, and no other. You and your child, together, are complicit in creating you as ‘mother’.

Perhaps what makes you a mother is, after all, your child.

May 6, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | 13 Comments