"A mother's affection cannot be weaned from her child,
because the mother-love includes purity and constancy,
both of which are immortal.
Therefore maternal affection lives on under whatever difficulties."
- Mary Baker Eddy
My niece was two when her mother, my younger sister, decided that she needed a break from the harsh realities and constant demands of single motherhood. My husband and I were relative newlyweds and had just moved to a large city where we worked long hours at jobs we loved. Although I was only in my early thirties I was already concerned that my opportunities for becoming a mother were decreasing exponentially with every passing day.
When my sister called to ask if my husband and I would be willing to parent her daughter while she took some time off from motherhood, to travel with a musical group she was managing, I was privately thrilled. I had long wondered what she could have possibly been thinking in becoming pregnant without much hope that the baby's father would suddenly become a responsible and loving partner in parenting his child. My feelings, from the very outset, about her new role as a mother had ranged from admiration for her courage, to jealousy that I hadn't had the opportunity to become pregnant when I was younger (when becoming pregnant would have been more biologically feasible), to harsh criticism for what I sometimes perceived as a lack of maturity, on her part, in making responsible decisions for she and her daughter.
When my niece landed on the doorstep of our brownstone with her little suitcase in hand, I had some distorted 1940s black-and-white image in my mind of an orphan coming to her new home...our home. It was a dream come true for me, and as I drew my niece into our foyer, and my arms, that day, I felt as if I could protect her from what I imagined was all the hurt and sadness I assumed she must be feeling.
The weeks passed, we enrolled her in a wonderful preschool, set up a bedroom, found a new rhythm and settled in. My sister would call and because I loved her I was encouraging, supportive and interested in the details of her adventure, but when she would ask to speak to her daughter I was not eager to hand over the phone. Each time I would put my hand over the receiver and ask my niece if she would like to talk to mommy...if she said, "Yes" (an answer which decreased in frequency as time went on) I would hand the phone to her. If she said "No", I would tell my sister that it wasn't a good time. I could tell that it was breaking my sister's heart, but there was a part of me that hoped that the less they talked the more I would become my niece's "mom".
One Monday after a long weekend in which we, with our happy little girl, had visited my mom (her grandmother who lived nearby and shared in her care) on the seashore and had all enjoyed a wonderful family dinner around a boisterous table of aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, something shifted for me that would change my perspective forever.
My sister called to speak to her daughter and when I put my hand over the receiver and asked her if she wanted to talk with mommy, I whispered (before she could answer), "You don't have to if you don't want to". My niece shook her head, "no" and skipped out of the room looking for our dog, Winnie, to play with. I told my sister that it wasn't a good time and we chatted for a while before ending our call. But this experience left me feeling empty and unsettled instead of triumphant and secure in my role as "mom" in my niece's life.
I was very familiar with the statement by Mary Baker Eddy quoted above, but hadn't really given it much thought in the weeks leading up to that call. But suddenly it was all I could think about. It asserted itself so forcibly in my thoughts that while making dinner that evening I had to stop, turn off the stove and sit down to give it unchallenged attention. In prayer, I started to see that since God is Father-Mother of us all, and that each of us is the full expression, reflection of His Allness, that even my niece had the right to express those qualities of motherhood that were so divinely inherent to every man, woman, child... of God. I could no more deprive her of the right and privilege of "mothering" her mom, than I could interfere with her right to think, to be self-aware, to love.
I got up from the chair and called her to the kitchen and asked her if she would like to call her mommy back and hear all about her adventures. I suggested that maybe she could be the "mommy" today and ask about what mommy was doing, just like her uncle and I did each night at the dinner table when we asked about her preschool activities that day. She seemed to like the idea and we placed the call. It was one of the last calls we made to her mom. Before the end of the week my sister had returned to pick up her daughter and they have been best friends, confidantes and cheerleaders in eachothers' lives for the last 20 years. My sister eventually married a wonderful man who adopted her daughter and they recently enjoyed a long visit with my niece in Paris where she was finishing up her college studies. My sister is one of the best moms I know. Her love and care for her daughter has been devoted and fierce over the ensuing years as they both have grown into remarkable women of substance and impact in the world.
This experience was also the beginning of my adventures in adoption and parenting. In fact, it was during that last week of her visit that my husband and I were asked to adopt the son that we were to nurture and cherish during his mother's pregnancy and for the first weeks of his life before she realized that she really did want to parent him and we returned him to her arms... for he had never left her heart.
Our first daughter was born the following year and after her adoption we enjoyed 17 years of her moment by moment laughter and affection, joys and trials, triumphs and successes, before she was invited to return to South Africa this past summer to meet her birthmother who I had maintained an open relationship with throughout our daughter's childhood.
You know, we don't wonder if it is possible for a mother to love more than one child (my mother had eight)...why do we think that a child can only love one mother (or father)....there is love enough in each child's heart to transform lives, to resurrect hopes, to nurture dreams, to cherish the best in us, we "moms" and "dads" who are blessed to have them in our lives...for a week, a month, seventeen years, or a lifetime. Instead of thinking that there are, or ever could be, unfortunate children that come from parents who are... in prison, broken homes, workaholic suburbanites, drug-addicted teens, overachieving soccer moms, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, depressed, battered, abused or those living in homeless shelters...why don't we think that there are moms and dads everywhere whose best is brought out each day by the purity and innocence of the children they have been blessed to be parented by... with their hope, joy, honesty, compassion...their persistent and enduring love.
A Mother's love cannot be weaned from her child....God's love cannot be weaned, or taken, from us...we have the right...at whatever age....to express those qualities of motherhood and fatherhood to, and with, the children around us...the children of God...whether they are infants, toddlers, eight or eighty year old "children" whose hearts naturally leap at a mother's touch, a father's joy...a child's care.
Today I am so grateful for all the ways that my daughters have loved, cherished and nurtured the best in me this year. One of the songs, "In My Daughter's Eyes" by Martina McBride (some of the lyrics appear below) would keep me company in the dark while I ran nightly. I listened on headphones as I jogged the course I ran during the months when I was reaching out to God for direction and guidance. This song spoke of the kind of love and encouragement to "be better" I felt from my daughters ....it helped me find the courage to begin to live with more integrity...and hopefully... with more grace. Thank you Emma, Hannah and Clara for your affection and faith. You have helped me find my way, resurrect my hope, be (or even just start to become) the woman I am, and always hope to be "in your eyes".
" In my daughters' eyes everyone is equal
Darkness turns to light and the
world is at peace
This miracle God gave to me
gives me strength when I am weak
I find reason to believe
In my daughters' eyes.
And when she wraps her hand around my finger
Oh it puts a smile in my heart
Everything becomes a little clearer
I realize what life is all about
It's hangin' on when your heart
Is had enough
It's givin' more when you feel like givin' up
I've seen the light
It's in my daughter's eyes
In my daughters' eyes I can see the future
A reflection of who I am and what will be
Though she'll grow and someday leave
Maybe raise a family
When I'm gone I hope you see how happy
she made me
For I'll be there
In my daughters' eyes."
- Martina McBride