Mother’s Day is upon us. A day for homemade cards, flowers, and brunch cooked by someone who isn’t Mom.
A day for appreciation for our mothers. But who are our mothers? With so many different manners of mothers and mothering being demonstrated and embraced these days, it begs the question, what is a mother?
Is it a job? A role? A physical ability? A family position? Is it a commercial market? Is it gender-specific? Is it a anachronistic sentiment, desperate to be updated?
To tackle this thematic complexity, I invited a few colleagues to contribute their thoughts. I gave little direction, topics are all their own. What follows are nine lovely, thoughtful essays, vignettes, memories and even a poem.
People all wrote in their own voice, their own way, and yet I noticed similarities. Dushka Zapata and Andrew Watts focused on a mother’s unconditional love and the ongoing well of support from which we draw as adults. A mother’s sacrifice – and strength – comes up in Ellen Ludwig’s anthem of self, and Ajim Bagwan’s raw expression of gratitude. Joan Trapp-Bennett and Michael Vrana reflect that perhaps the word “mother” should be a broader, more inclusive term. Fear was brought up as well, deep fear, the kind that accompanies love, honestly explored by Anita Sanz and Clare Celea. And finally, Diana Enriquez looks on her own mother with appreciative, adult eyes and realizes that becoming like mom isn’t such a bad thing.
The more we try to define ‘the mother’ the more restrictive and the less accurate the word becomes. Perhaps we don’t need to define it, perhaps we just celebrate it. This person in our life. This person who leads. This person who gives, cares and nurtures. This person who loves and loves.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Like a Horse
by Dushka Zapata
It’s a recurring dream.
Or rather, a recurring interruption of whatever it is I’m dreaming. A presence somewhere over my shoulder, a nuzzling on my neck. Like a horse, its hot, moist breath, the brush of its velvet lips. Except that the smell is not animal-like. It’s more like warm bread, nutmeg, and bed linens. Then a stream of sound I can’t make out—a radio frequency?
This happens almost every night for as long as I can remember. I’ve grown so used to it that it doesn’t occur to me to wonder what it means.
It takes me seventeen years to finally understand. It’s a human voice, deep and lush, and it’s saying something. It’s words, and they are clear and eloquent, if somewhat redundant, like a mantra. And they are in English (I grew up in Mexico, so words in English can only mean one thing).
“You are the most precious, beautiful girl in the world,” the voice is saying. “There is nothing you can’t do. You are a miracle. You are here against all odds. You are here for a reason. You are going to change the world.”
The words begin to irritate me, because I’m so tired and they just keep coming. I feel exactly the way you do a few seconds before you gather the strength to finally reach out for the snooze button.
I tighten my eyes shut, crunch up my shoulder against my neck, hoping: It. Will. Go. Away.
It doesn’t. The fourth “There is nothing—nothing—you can’t do” finally does it. I’m now fully awake. I open my eyes and in the dark make out my mother’s figure, kneeling on the floor in her nightgown, her elbows on the edge of my bed, her mouth grazing my ear. I roll back, alarmed.
“Mom!” I say, “What are you doing?”
“I didn’t mean to wake you.” She says this kind of un-apologetically. ”I’m just whispering things in your ear.”
Like this is perfectly logical.
“What kind of things? I mean, you woke me up! I was sleeping, mom!”
“I say things to you while you sleep, so they will go directly into your subconscious.” Her tone is clinical, like when a doctor says, “I’m afraid this will require antibiotics.” “I didn’t mean to wake you. I guess I was talking a bit louder than I usually do.”
“What do you mean by ‘usually’?”
“Go back to sleep, honey,” she says and backs out of the room. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Dushka has been working in the communications industry for over 20 years. She teaches executives how to talk to media, improve their presentation skills, and refine their message. She lives in San Francisco, where her boyfriend makes her coffee every morning. She recently published How to Be Ferociously Happy, essays about love and life.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by Andrew Watts
I’m an artist. I have refined aesthetic sensibilities and judgment. What that really means is I’m a critic. Or rather… imagine the biggest critic you know, relentlessly judging—and improving—minute aspects of their surroundings day in and day out. That would be me.
If I find something I like, there is no end to my interest and adulation. On the other hand, if I find something off-putting, the rigorous condemnation can be unparalleled.
Now transfer this über–“Roger Ebert meets Larry David” to an eight-year-old’s body living in rural Pennsylvania.
That was me as a child.
I was often frustrated with the “because I said so” nature of being a kid. Grade school is full of highly controlled, adult-created artificial hoops designed for others to mindlessly jump through and run out the clock each day. I yearned for freedom and expressive control of my own, and if I did not perceive the value of a task, I would avoid it at all costs. (I often did not perceive the value of tasks.)
One year, the week before Christmas, my fellow students and I were tasked with making holiday ornaments. My mom was one of the moms who often volunteered to help in the classroom, and this day she not only volunteered, she led the craft.
I found this task exceedingly useless. Because it was a craft. I hated crafts. I hated the sound of Styrofoam scraping against any surface. I hated the cheap glue that leaves a weird filmy residue on things and gunks up the desks. I hated the children’s scissors for their shabby cutting ability. But most of all, I hated the bowls of glitter. Yes, bowls of glitter! Whose idea was it to give the messiest item on Earth to those with the poorest motor skills and greatest indifference for keeping their surroundings tidy?
Instead of cutting the festive holiday napkin into tiny squares and pasting these onto the ball with copious amounts of glue and glitter, I simply dabbed a few spots of glue on the intact napkin then dipped the apple-sized Styrofoam ball in one fell swoop.
My mother was in charge, and she could have easily expected me to be the one student who followed directions and played along, but instead of chiding me for not following her lead, she lauded my original approach. Amongst the bustle of twenty-five students buzzing around, she paused to genuinely evaluate what I had done. There was no sense of disappointment in her reaction, only acceptance and the recognition that what I decided to do was good because it was my way.
That was almost two decades ago. In the meantime, I have catapulted myself around the country pursuing my artistic dreams as a music composer (utilizing my refined sense of criticism for good). When I return home each Christmas, my mom saves this ornament for me to put on the tree. It is a small, somewhat tattered item, but the significance is not lost. It means something to her—and me.
Art is a great equalizer. Though my mom has substantial art skills and expertise, she never judges my “unorthodox” (to put it nicely) creative outlook. Instead, she continues to bring her brand of kindness and compassion, always meeting me where I stand regardless of how different our personalities or aesthetics might be.
Today, “craft” has a completely different meaning to me. I write in a nontraditional musical style and strive to expand on conventional modes of expression. My mother’s non-judgmental acceptance early on allowed me to develop a craft of my own. Now, as a teacher in my own right, I continuously look back at her example to nurture creativity in others
Andrew is a doctoral fellow at Stanford and a composer whose works are performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. He lives in California.
By Ellen Ludwig
I often hear from women that they don’t want to take away time from their family to spend on themselves. As women, we spend so much time taking care of others that we forget about taking care of ourselves.
To all those mothers out there who feel like this: you are important too, and you’ll be a better mother if you take care of yourself.
I’m a mom of two children (a six-and-a-half-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old), and I’m very much into my health and fitness. I have been an active person for the majority of my life, and exercising has always been a top priority. And, having kids didn’t change that. I exercised up until the day both of my kids were born and started back up as soon as I could.
I wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to get my workout in before the kids wake up to start the day with “me” time. Many times, my son wakes up when I do, but I don’t let that stop me, and he often comes down and just watches me. While they don’t work out with me, they are watching my every move, and they still see and know what I am doing. We talk about how eating healthy and working out makes you big and strong like mommy and daddy.
When I was growing up, my parents were active, and I wanted to be just like them. They set the example, and I followed their lead!
Next time you want to put off that workout or take time for yourself, think about who is watching you and what they are learning. I promise it will help give you motivation to start. Don’t let your kids be your excuse, let them be your reason!
Ellen is a mom, wife, CEO of her household, and CEO of her own business, More than Fitness. She’s passionate and living a healthy and fulfilling life through eating well and exercising daily. Her blog, More Than Fitness includes workout videos, healthy recipes, family happenings, and occasionally fashion.
by Ajim Bagwan
You must be wondering why I have sent you this handwritten letter when we have cellphones and Skype to call each other directly. You must think something’s wrong. But let me assure you that everything is fine.
In fact, everything has been fine in my life and in the life of my siblings, your children. Solely because you have been with us through all this time. Always. And you made great sacrifices for us, did unbearable things that took tremendous will of heart and patience.
Ma, it’s mother’s day this week, and it got me thinking that I never managed to tell you how I felt about what all we’ve been through. I never showed how much it all meant to me.
I’m trying to say this in the letter because I never learned to express myself properly. I don’t talk much. I can’t talk about things openly. Part of it is because of the childhood we had. Because we had to live apart for years. Because of my father. We were all quiet as kids. Shy, afraid, introverted. How father would shun down everything that would get said in the house! He’d get mad without any reason. We never could say anything because it was always about him, him and his drunken abuse, yelling, throwing of things, and disrupting everyone. But you’d still make time to try and understand our needs. You’d reassure us that things will get better. And they did, because of you.
You made the decision to keep us at our uncle’s, so we could focus on our education. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you, living apart from your own children, who you loved dearly.
I am reminded of the handwritten letters that you’d send as often as you could from the little remote villages you lived in. I think the letters are still in the attic somewhere with the rest of our childhood stuff. I’d love to read them again and rejoice in the love that you gave us. This letter is in memory of all of those letters you sent. And for recounting everything that you did for us.
You are the most important person in my life. And you always will be. I am sorry that I couldn’t manage to say any of this in front of you, but I think you understand. You always did. Even when I’m home and I don’t talk much, you understand my unruly, quiet behavior, and you cheerily explain to my younger siblings how I have always been like that. It all comforts me a great deal.
I have no words to express my gratitude. And even though I don’t show it as much as I’d like to, I really mean it when I say I love you.
Happy mother’s day and a happy birthday to you, Ma! See you soon.
Ajim lives in Pune, India, and works as a software engineer for a Swiss banking corporation. He grew up in many different locations because of his father’s frequent transfers. But soon, his family will be reunited for the long term in the same region of India.
Mima, Are You My Half Mommy?
By Joan Trapp-Bennett
When I was in my teens, I vowed to have my children in my early 20s, so I wouldn’t be an “old” mother.
By the time I was 25, I struggled to take care of myself, let alone be capable of raising a child.
By the time I was 35, I had figured out I couldn’t possibly “have it all.” I chose my relationship with my spouse and my challenging career over becoming a mother. Even knowing this was my healthiest decision, I still felt occasional pangs of guilt or loss for a role so many other women eagerly embrace.
When I was 55, I received the gift of a lifetime when Clara was born. My granddaughter via my beloved stepson’s marriage. My granddaughter shared generously by an overwhelmed mother and father, who needed some old-fashioned “village” support. Clara spent many nights and days with us from infancy through her kindergarten years.
Night feedings, diaper rash, high-fever panics, teething troubles, and endless heavenly hours of swinging in a bright yellow swing at the nearby schoolyard. First vaccinations, first steps, first potty success, first bike without training wheels, and first cartwheels. Losing stuffed companion, Bunny, facing death of first family pet, Kaleb, meeting first best friend, Emi, discovering first boy crush, Kayden. We have gratefully shared all of it with Clara and her family.
One night as we were brushing our teeth, Clara turned to me and asked, “Mima, are you my half Mommy?”
“Yes!” I answered joyfully. “Yes, I am.”
I will never know what it is to be pregnant, give birth, or be a mother, but I found my true calling as Half Mommy.
Joan lives in the Colorado foothills west of Denver where she enjoys biking and golf. Her other favorite past-times include writing, zentangles, watercolors and watching clouds drift overhead.
My Wife, A Mother?
By Michael Vrana
For over four years now, my wife and I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to have a child. The doctors tell us that we are for the most part healthy and just can’t figure this out, but they keep trying. This makes us the statistical anomaly that must exist. As a former consultant (my wife) and banker (me), we never thought that it would be us who failed the six sigma test.
Although I can’t wait to start a family, what upset me most are not the constant disappointment, the stress involved, or the scientific process (yes, it is a process) that have become our romance. What upsets me most is how it has caused my wife to doubt herself.
Am I really prepared to give all that is needed to be a loving, nurturing mother? Is it perhaps a good thing I can’t get pregnant because won’t I make the same mistakes that my parents made? I won’t mess up someone else’s life? How will I protect my child from… potentially myself? Perhaps it is only fair that this is happening…
As an introvert and someone who suffers from depression, my wife is rarely—if ever—fully seen by the outside world. As a writer (and as herself), she isn’t afraid of self-discovery but always protects people from her darkest parts. Because she is an expat a continent away from her closest family and friends, very few lay witness to my wife’s struggle of not only being herself but failing at becoming a mother.
So, who is my wife? Is this the person who has brought out the best in me (even when I didn’t see it myself) while showing me what it meant to love? Is this the person who has inspired countless others to realize their own demons and face them head-on? Is this the person whose very mention causes nieces and nephews to become more excited than when Santa is coming to town?
And what does it mean to be a mother? It’s more than just giving birth, patching up bruises, and preparing clothes for school every morning. It’s being an example to live by. It’s showing integrity and love while helping another person realize their own real potential. It’s combining laughter with firmness. It’s showing others what it means to be truly selfless and show love. In short, it’s the woman I married.
The Kid is Alright (And So Am I)
By Anita Sanz
I suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s a lingering gift from a particularly vicious bout of mononucleosis in college.
I had my first major relapse of CFS right after my daughter was born. I had no idea how to deal with a major illness while having to care for someone else. The effort of giving birth and the hormone surges wiped out my immune system. I had a great Chinese doctor, who helped patch me back together some, but it was rough. Then I had another major relapse when she was about three and another when she was eight.
Parenting through these episodes was hard, in ways I could never have predicted. It’s one thing to struggle for functionality when it’s just you trying to function. It’s a whole other thing when someone else’s well-being is at stake. I wasn’t a good mom.
Don’t get me wrong—my daughter was cared for and loved, but I couldn’t be my best for her because I wasn’t able to be my best for anyone, including myself.
During that early relapse when she was three, the way I was parenting actually became unacceptable to me. I was in constant pain, had no energy, and had a young child on my absolutely last nerve through no fault of her own. I had moments of yelling at her when I couldn’t cope.
I had grown up with a lot of yelling, and here I was, repeating it. I had become a “mean mommy.”
That’s when I realized I could not do this. I couldn’t be a person she was afraid of upsetting. I didn’t want my kid to be afraid of me, and she was starting to. I knew that my dark moods and yelling came from being completely wiped out and unable to meet the demands of parenting. But I also recognized these as explanations, not excuses.
I had to change. My best was just not good enough, and my daughter needed and deserved more.
I did many things. What helped me the most was reading a book by Harville Hendrix called Giving the Love That Heals. In it, Hendrix walks you back through how you were parented (which is how you will begin to parent under stress, unfortunately) and then teaches you how to do it completely differently.
Ironically, what both I and my daughter needed was more compassion, in active form. As a therapist, I knew how to use empathy, validation, and intentional dialogue with my clients, but Hendrix was suggesting I use them with a three-year-old! When my daughter was having a temper tantrum at the exact moment I couldn’t even cope myself!
Though I had no experience with this kind of parenting, when I tried it, it worked. I learned how to sit with her, become quiet and gentle instead of blowing up or going away so I wouldn’t blow up. I learned how to empathize with her feelings of helplessness, fear, or anger. I realized those were often the exact emotions I was also struggling with. I learned how not to solve problems for her, but to work with her so she could learn how to solve problems herself, mainly by teaching her how to listen to her own wisdom, voice, and experience.
My daughter (now sixteen) and I have an awesome relationship. Not perfect, of course, but it’s really cool. She’s an amazing person and always has been. And parenting differently, without being either authoritarian or passive (the parenting styles I had grown up with), has improved our relationship. I’ve viewed us as a team ever since I knew I needed to change, and we have done things differently, together, she and I. I learned that I don’t have to parent perfectly, just intentionally, with love, and do the absolute best that I can given the circumstances.
Even if my best isn’t always great, it’s usually good enough now. Sometimes, my best is even good.
Dr. Anita Sanz is a clinical psychologist who has a therapy practice in Florida with her husband, Don, and teaches at Stetson University.
Balance is Lost. Found.
By Clare Celea
We look for balance everywhere.
Everything depends on it.
So many people that need us, so many demands. So many plates to spin, and to break.
Child and child and partner and parent and work and world. And self.
A wind. A change. Balance shifting, new normal.
This isn’t right, can’t be right. Wobbling plates. No. NO!
Lying on the floor, looking up. All the plates still spinning.
What broke? Can’t work out…..
Heart, mind, body. Broke.
Stillness. Relaxing, to be broken. Not to run, not to spin. Still. Quiet.
Then there is child, and child and partner, and parent and work and world.
So many people support us, so many people love. All lifting. Fixing. Healing.
Everything depends on them.
We find balance everywhere.
Clare Celea lives in the UK with her partner and their son who has autism. She works as a volunteer manager in a hospice.
Mom the Explorer
By Diana Enriquez Schneider
My mother is an explorer.
Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.
A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.
We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.
She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”
I offered some notes on my study habits.
I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.
We explored truth together.
I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.
Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.
Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.
Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.
My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.
Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn.
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