The dictionary definition of motherhood is spot-on (for once) and stunning in its profound simplicity; “to bring up a child with care and affection”. That’s all there is to it and yet, oh, how much is encompassed in those two words!
Care and affection. Care and affection. Care and affection.
It would seem, and my incredibly limited experience at being a mother would affirm, that there is a profound difference between being a mother (a role. a title.) and mothering (a literally lifelong calling – should you choose to recognize it as such. And, if you don’t choose to recognize it that way, you have misunderstood mothering).
Care for a child is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. “Care” is teaching every life skill from how to swallow sweet potatoes to the slow, laborious process of tracing the over-sized block letters that make up their name. Caring is the process of creating healthy fear – of busy roads, bears and stinging bees and modeling resilience in the face of disappointment, loss and the inevitable griefs that accompany living life with an open heart. Care is helping a tiny person who knows nothing about life, safety, their own physical needs, dreams, faith, boundaries or relationships learn every.single.thing they need to know to build a life. Hopefully, whatever occupation or education is pursued, it’s a life defined by holy surrender and unconditional love – both of which lead to true freedom.
Care is spending 72 hours of your limited time on earth teaching a small person that they cannot keep trying to put your glasses down the air conditioning vent. Three days. Three days (or way more) of your life that you will never get back helping a child begin to understand they can’t lick the garbage can.
That’s the un-glamorous, irrefutably important, courageous, behind-the-scenes, slowly transformative work of mothering that is the most innate part of the job description and that makes up significantly more of your day’s percentage of time then any Instagrammable moment.
And, all of that physical care doesn’t even fully touch on the emotional side. It doesn’t even cover the moments at night when you lay in bed, picturing them in their crib, and everything inside you wants to run and cradle them close to your chest. Because you know the moments are making days and the days are growing into months and the entire process of mothering and caring for her is going so fast it makes you want to break down and cry (which is also probably leftover pregnancy hormones because the physical process of balancing back out post-baby is a beast). It doesn’t cover the way your heart feels like it will explode with joy when she sees you coming down the hallway and falls over herself and her blocks trying to crawl to you as fast as she can because literally all she wants in the entire world is to be in your arms. It doesn’t cover the low moments – the sheer exhaustion when you haven’t slept more than two hours in a row for a week or are trying to recover from delivering a child from your body or welcoming a child into your home.
It seems that a mother’s ability to care for a child necessarily grows with the knowledge of who that child is.
When Evie was put in my arms I loved her as My Daughter. I loved what I knew of her – which was that we’d been counting the seconds to her arrival. Been staring at her sonogram wondering who she was, listening to her heartbeat, musing about her future. But I didn’t love her the way I do now and I don’t love her now in the same way that I’ll love her in the future.
After experiencing the last eight months with her I love her as Evie.
I love the way she sleeps on her belly with her bottom in the air. I love the little birthmark on her back. I love the way her tiny mouth puckers in to a perfect “O” when she is about to cry. I love that, out of her entire container of blocks, she’ll always pick up the white, circular one first ( I’m certain she hopes that it’s a large cheerio). I love the careful way one, exploratory finger will gently poke at each new things she finds. I love that she still falls asleep the fastest when she’s being held to my or her dad’s chest. I love the sheer joy that bubbles out of her when she sees Tom walk in the door at the end of the day. I love the scent of her – her milky, soapiness with a hint of heaven. I love her determination and desire to explore her world. A mother’s other job, affection, is just as significant.
Affection. Affection is transformative knowledge. The communicated belief that this small person is valuable. That their fears are valid, dreams worthy, purpose innate and life full of beauty. Regardless of appearance, race, sexual orientation, gender, disabilities or challenges. Affection is the foundation for a child’s confidence and ability to love. And, while no child is perfect (a truth they need to know as well) every child needs to know, HAS to know that they are loved and accepted as they are. As they are.
My heart aches deep inside at the knowledge that many children never experience care and affection from a mother. That’s another topic for another day – but it’s significant motivation to extend a mother’s heart to more than just my own children. Mothering skills can be a gift and a blessing to far more than just biological offspring.
Care and affection.
That, that is why mothering is (rightly) heralded as a high, hard calling. It’s the only “job” I know of that is so thoroughly unrelenting in its responsibilities and so binding in its contract. Someone else could care for Evie’s physical needs, sure, but no one else can mother her. It’s my scent she knows, my body she grew in, my breasts that feed her, my voice that calms her and my arms that comfort her. I am anything and everything she’ll associate with the word mama.
Mothering is transformative in a unique, permanent way. Giving yourself to the process of caring for and teaching affection to a child is a sacrifice. It seems that some choose it and, for others, it chooses them. Some accept it, some do not (though, that doesn’t negate their title of mother). Some come by it through a pregnancy, others through opening their hearts and homes through adoption. For some the process of trying to become a mother is the most painful and difficult journey they’ve ever walked while, others, seemingly don’t have to give it a second thought.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about mothering it’s that mothers need encouragement and support. While babies are born, mothers are made. Made through a thousand nights of looking for a pacifier in a darkened nursery after two hours of sleep. Made through the experience of a thousand fears and concerns over the course of ten months of pregnancy or countless months waiting for a biological mother to choose you for the task of mothering and for a child to be placed in your waiting home. Made through sacrificing your very skin for the sake of someone smaller. We can’t do it (and shouldn’t do it) alone.
There’s so much to mothering that it only makes sense for it to take a lifetime. I think to feel prepared for mothering is impossible – the complexity, nuances and time-consuming nature of mothering make it a journey you learn as you walk the road. Sometimes you fall in potholes, sometimes you sprain your ankle. Sometimes you skip along in the sunshine. One day at a time, imperfectly, persistently with breaks for sanity when you can and one-sentence prayers for patience and wisdom when you can’t. It’s on the road that you recognize the resiliency of children and bless their forgiving nature a thousand times over. It’s when you beg God for courage – should anything ever happen to your heart that beats outside your body, exposed to so much unpredictability, anger and pain in the world.
Motherhood is humbling.
You suddenly realize how very little you know and how very much there is to know. You also realize (sometimes not until a little later) that it’s ok not to know everything. Or rather, you realize you don’t and won’t know everything and you can either panic over it or be ok with it and move ahead as best you can. You realize that the wisest place is on your knees and that simple faithfulness is sometimes the best gift you can give your baby. You begin to realize, when some of the fog of sleep-deprivation lifts, that you are being transformed. That mothering has a higher, holier task than “just” raising a child. You thank God for choosing you to be a mother to this child, you beg Him for the wisdom and grace to be worthy of it.
You also realize, one day in late May when your teething daughter finally falls asleep for a nap, that you’ve been thinking about all these things for the past four months and, even though you’re tired too, you really need to write them down. So you do. And there they stand, a marker, a memorial stone, a testimony to where you are today on your own journey of mothering.