For most of us, Mother’s Day evokes complex feelings. As Sister Sharon Eubank once wrote, it is “an emotional and spiritual minefield.” For those of us who have never borne children, or had the number of children we hoped for, Mother’s Day can be a poignant reminder of what we are not, the emptiness of a significant dimension of a life never fulfilled. For those of us who have borne children, Mother’s Day can still be a poignant reminder of what we are not. No one knows better than we do what “ideal mothering” looks like in its countless dimensions — teaching, nurturing, homemaking, cooking, cleaning, creating, laughing, playing, healing — and how far we fall from the ideal picture.
We know that at some level we bear responsibility for the happiness, goodness and wholeness of our children, and though we have loved them, we know we have not always been what they needed. In the gap between where they are and where we yearn for them to be, or where we yearn for our relationship with them to be, we can’t help but resonate with author Ann Voskamp’s poignant question, “How do I hit rewind — rewind time and go back to being someone else, someone better, someone who can make them all be OK?” She speaks of us when she writes: “I have been the broken mama who punished when I needed to pray. Who hollered at kids when I needed to help. Who lunged forward when I should have fallen back on Jesus.” Looking back from a place of greater development and wisdom, we wonder, “If only there were time to go back for do-overs, say different things to the kids, only speaking words that make souls stronger, somehow live better, love realer …”
Voskamp identifies a truth: motherhood is breaking. When a baby is born to a mother, a relationship that has never before been comes into being. And with it, the possibility to know and to want to know in purity another soul. That is what it means to love. But love is not an easy thing. It is not just something that happens. As anthropologist Dorothy Lee wisely notes, to love is to choose effortful responsiveness to the being of another, demanding alertness, demanding that all of me be mobilized. Such openness to another demands change, and that means brokenness.
Voskamp explains, “When you let yourself love, you let parts of you die.” But what is “breaking and being lost is never the eternal, needed parts of you, but always the temporal, needless parts that were getting in the way of you becoming real …” In our effort to love, we are broken open to ourselves, exposing all that means, what we are, and what we are not. Michael Novak vulnerably captures what we all experience: “The raising of children … brings each of us breathtaking vistas of our inadequacy. … They force me to a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.”
Paradoxically, the “brokenness” and change that our desire to know, lead and love our children demands of us is actually what leads to growth, real relationships and real connection. Life depends on that truth. It is only through broken clouds that nourishing rain can fall, only in broken soil that grain can grow, only from broken grain that flour can be milled.
And so Brené Brown tells parents, “The real question should be: Are you engaged? Are you paying attention? If so, plan to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions.” The miracle of it all is that “imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time.” That vulnerability is, in Brown’s words, the key to what we desire as mothers, “our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning and love” with our children.
More than honoring any unreal ideal, that is the reality Mother’s Day honors. Whether defined by a relation of “blood and bone” or not, it is a celebration of the gift it is to “sacrifice so that others might thrive,” and in the process experience the brokenness of becoming truly real to another. It is a celebration of the gift that it is, in Voskamp’s words, “to peel back everything that distracts and cheapens and derails a life,” to “transcend this life by giving yourself for someone else.”
It is a celebration of the gift of an unparalleled level of connection with another soul — not a connection born of perfection, but a connection born of vulnerability, brokenness, love. That is a gift worth celebrating.