On Mother's Day 2022
Photo Credit: Dr. T. A. McGavin
It was the the 1950s. I didn’t want to be a mother. As the fifth child of seven, I watched my mom work tirelessly and joylessly. My dad was an obstetrician and so worked all hours and when he wasn’t working he was volunteering at clinics, at the church, the Salvation Army or with Kiwanis. With seven kids, my mom just didn’t seem to be having any fun. I had big dreams. I wanted to be Carol Channing or Carol Burnett. Those women seemed to be having a lot of fun. I wanted to choose a life of fun, not drudgery.
It was the 70s and then the 80s. Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. Birth control gave women choices they never had before. Women were exercising choices over their own bodies and reaching for choices in how they lived their lives. They could plan how many children to have and when to have them. They could reach for careers, not just jobs. I was right there. I wanted it all.
But then in my early 30s I suddenly found myself yearning for children. I can’t explain it. It just happened. And in due time, there I was with a child, a gorgeous baby girl and two years later a gorgeous baby boy.
Being a mom is, truth be told, not an easy job. And yet, it is, truth be told, the best job I have ever had. It is absolutely exhausting, doesn’t pay anything and demands full attention and abilities I doubted I had. It taught me what a great job my own parents did and ways that they might have done better, even when they thought they were doing their best. Sadly, there is no user manual for raising a child. At the hospital they teach you how to hold a baby, change a diaper and what sort of car seat you must have. But that’s the technical stuff. The really hard part is learning 99.9% of everything else all of a sudden - right now while keeping your sanity and sense of humor! Not easy.
In my case, I had to learn how to know that my daughter’s snoring meant that she had a massive tumor - hemangioma - growing rapidly in her chest and then all the 10,000 things I needed to know and do once I had that news. Happily, with some luck and great medical care, she is a perfectly healthy, beautiful and wonderful adult. I also needed to find the determination, faith and energy to have another child even though my first one’s first year was so terrifying. And my little boy honored that faith by being healthy, beautiful and a wonderful adult with the great good luck that his first year was not terrifying.
I grew up in the suburbs with miles of forests behind my house as my playground. I knew the streams and each fallen tree and what sorts of creatures shared my paths and what plants bled orange when you picked them and which ones gave a rash and how to scramble over rock faces and watch out for poisonous snakes. And all of this was heaven to me.
And as I raised my two children in New York City, I felt sad that they didn’t know the forests and rocks and trees of my childhood and wondered at the poverty of that life of no forests. I worried that they would never know the abandon of running through the forests, imagining the bears and deer, ghosts of Indian tribes and soldiers and their presence lingering under the dense forest canopy, snagged on briars and broken branches. But they flourished in the City’s splendor of museums and faces of every shape and color and its wide rivers and parks and noises. New York’s Battery Park City was their forest. The Statue of Liberty greeted them out their bedroom window in the morning and they ate their breakfasts with the World Trade Center across the street, casting a morning shadow over their table. All of the splendors of museums and people and rivers and parks and noises of New York expanded their forest. We stayed in that forest through the bombing of the Trade Center in 1993 and left after 9/11. In the end, the love for each other was our forest, our home, our sanctuary.
Love is all about faith, risk and in the end, joy. Children stumble, scrape their knees, get their hearts broken, ask you questions you can’t answer and more often than not provide you with answers to your own imponderables. Embarking on motherhood is taking that risk of loving someone for whom you would gladly give your own life and knowing that that someone will inevitably get bruised, and perhaps, broken along the way. And yet, it is the most joyful of human endeavors. Truth be told, that love for a child, even laced and weary with sadness and scraped knees and broken hearts, is an incomparably rich deep velvety joy that once experienced, would never be foresworn or regretted.
And on this particular Mother’s Day, 2022, I need to add that I am so grateful that I was able to plan when I would have my children. The likely ending of Roe by the Supreme Court will end women’s autonomy over their own lives and will cause heartache, death, and poverty for thousands of women and children in America. It will not add to the joy of motherhood nor will it add joy to the children born into families ill prepared to care for them. Parents burdened by too many children and not enough support may love their children but be too exhausted to share any of that deep and transcendent joy. Would I have experienced the same sort of joy as a mother had I not had the opportunity to choose when to have children or would I have felt the sort of burden I saw in my mother? Even though I believe she wanted and chose to have a large family, the burdens were high. She was a brilliant creative woman, exhausted and burned out even though she chose us. On the other hand, this was the 50s and when one got pregnant there were few choices to be made. She may not have intended to have so many children, and may have felt quite burdened by the enormity of her responsibilities. I imagine myself being exhausted and trying to take care of seven children and I wonder if instead of joy, I might have felt resentment. Had I been forced to bear an unexpected child, say in my early 20s, would I have been able to summon the determination and energy required with her sort of medical needs and would I have had the faith that my next child would be a joyful event and not just another burden? All children should start their lives in love and joy, not resentment and worry over the burden of added responsibility. Life is hard. People get sick, families break up, there are disasters man made and natural. Parents need the stamina and reserves not just for the ordinary day to day stressors of getting homework done and food on the table, but for the really hard times as well. Raising a child is perhaps the most important job we will do and, truth be told, one that requires all the love, patience and wisdom we can muster. When we decide to have a child, we choose to take the risk that we will have what it takes to love and care for that child. Without choice, we are not accepting the risk, rather the risk is forced upon us and, truth be told, joy is elusive and children suffer. It is my hope that we will continue to be able to choose joy.