(Note: We seem to have something of a glut of Mother’s Day posts. By all means, read Julie’s and Kristine’s before mine.)
Motherhood rose around me like a tide in the weeks after my daughter’s birth. Each night advanced toward me, implacable as a wave, my panic and dread rising like froth up a beach until the moment of submersion, when, wondrously, I found I could float. Few things in life have come to me as arduously as motherhood came, and nothing else has revealed itself as suddenly.
Two weeks after the birth, I retreated to my parents’ house, hoping that my mother would know how to make this infant eat, sleep, and stop crying. I was having a terribly difficult go of motherhood: I wasn’t sleeping, couldn’t eat, was losing weight precipitously, and felt, with each pound, that I was losing myself as well. My daughter was consuming me, literally, and I sincerely thought I might die. My mother’s eleven infants had not, unfortunately, prepared her for mine, and she had no miraculous corrective for the eating, sleeping or crying.
One night I was up late walking and nursing the child. My mother was up late, too, helping my thirteen-year-old brother with a school project in the kitchen. Things weren’t going well for anybody. Abraham had procrastinated this project, despite my mother’s persistent warnings, and 11:00 and then 11:30 brought swells of anxiety and frustration. Finally the end was in sight—until a crucial piece of poster board came up missing. My mother would have to run out to get another one. And she stood up at the table, walked out the door, drove to Sav-On. And to me it was a revelation.
This occasion of mothering did not call forth from the deep the twin forces of instinct and nature—and since my depths, plumbed, had been found to contain nothing of the sort, this was an unspeakable relief to me. Nor was it about summoning or conveying motherly emotion—again, as inexplicably absent from me as that posterboard from the kitchen. It was, simply and supremely, an act of will. My mother chose to rise from the table, chose not to lecture or recriminate, and probably chose what color posterboard to buy, too. In that series of choices, those small assertions of the will, I realized, she was mothering.
To parent is to engage in a kind of self-sacrifice: my mother teaches early-morning seminary, and late-night trip to Sav-On is costly. Tides rise and fall with the moon, and as my daughter waxed, yes, I would wane. But the series of choices I had witnessed, that instant of mothering, was no study in martyrology: stripped of romanticism, it bared the stuff of life and choice. This was not self-sacrifice as event or, worse, anecdote, but as method.
The episode was, to me, all the finer for its banality: the stakes were very low that night—at worst Abraham would turn in his project a day late—but my mother persisted. In the aggregate, the effect of a childhood’s worth of mothering choices is high, perhaps immeasurably high. But the effect of each occasion, individually, as it gathers itself and breaks, is fairly incidental. This is a mother’s daily grace, that in her failing she may not fail her child, but it is also her abiding test: even when the stakes are low, precisely because the stakes are low, she moves by volition among the moments of the day.
That was it. That was my revelation. The tide surged overhead, I gasped, then followed my mother out to sea.
The sea all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in ‘Will,’ add to thy ‘Will’
One will of mine, to make thy large ‘Will’ more.
Sonnet 135, William Shakespeare