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Mothering Ourselves

momngirls“Motherhood has a very humanizing effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials.” -Meryl Streep


If you haven’t yet seen the replay of Kevin Durant dedicating his MVP award to his mother, I urge you to look for this rare, heartfelt tribute to mothering. The selflessness that this NBA star demonstrates for those who have held him up is a direct testament to the loving embrace in which his mother held him. This is the kind of mother’s love that Abraham Lincoln referred to when he said, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.” Truly, a mother’s love is the first love we know and unlike any other relationship we ever have. Those who are born into such a love walk through life differently than the rest of us. The ground under their feet is somehow more solid and the inevitable injuries of life don’t stick in quite the same way. People well loved by their mothers approach relationships differently too, they have more of themselves to give and need less.

Sadly, we are not all blessed with this kind of mother love. The birth of every child does not in fact create the birth of a mother, and I know I am far from alone carrying the heavy burden of growing up without this early defining love. Tragically, children interpret this lack of love as a direct reflection of one’s worth. Filling the gap left by a mother’s inattention is like a genetic reconstruction of mistaken unworthiness, which can go on for decades, defining and restricting one’s capacity to relate. Over the years, as I have come to know some incredible mothers of my friends, I worked hard to control my envy for the support and attention that they continued to bask in, long beyond their childhoods. I remember viscerally, the recognition in my early freshman days at college that things never really even up, as I expected everyone would be on the same grounds after leaving home. A mother’s love never leaves the golden child who has it.

There are many memoirs, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed whose primary struggle focuses on the early loss of her deeply devoted mother. Stories of losing this precious relationship have irked me, because to me it seems like having had a mother who loved me even for a short time would have been an incredible gift. I couldn’t grasp why she was so stuck on the loss of that love, rather than on the gratitude that she had it at all. This is the other piece that one who has never had a mother’s love misses- even among my friends whose mothers pass in their 90’s. It is always too soon to lose a mother’s love.

I have been working with this issue throughout my lifetime to understand how one lives with never having it. On my last visit to my mother’s home, I was most struck by the total absence of any trace of us: not a single photo of me, my siblings, her grand kids; nothing.  It confirmed the worst that I had felt as a child, that in some deep ways I didn’t exist for her, I took up no space.

Learning to become the mother I didn’t have has been my healing journey.

Raising my own four children has given me ample time to dive deep into the experience of mothering that I have longed for all of my life. Giving a mother’s love is how I have learned to receive it. All the years of viscerally experiencing the aches of my children’s pain and disappointment, sitting on the edge of my seat during their games and performances has slowly filled the hollow spaces of disconnection that took root throughout my childhood. But the work was not complete with mothering my children.

The real healing came when I gave myself permission to mother myself. I am still not very good at this- many times it feels like a fake, a cheap replication of what it would feel like coming from outside of me, from someone other than me who treasured me.  But actually, what I have come to understand is that this is the very gift that an abiding mother’s love transmits to her children- this permission to love and care for ourselves. This mothering wound for me, for many of us, is one that requires continual tending; but, I can attest to this, hearts do heal and we all have a little mothering inside to give.