How To Be The Mother You Never Knew You Could Be
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
May is a big month for me. May is the beginning of the warmer weather, where flowers bloom and Nature offers the invitation to join her in her spurts of vitality. People seem to emerge from a lethargy left over from the chill of winter, pointing their faces to the sun like the cats that sit on the open window bathing in the afternoon sunlight.
There are numerous birthdays in May too. My sister, my niece, some good friends and most especially my son all have May birthdays. He turns 22 years old.
Isn’t that a kind of turning point in a child’s life – no longer a child, headed into manhood and a future that promises nothing but the possibility of a life well lived? I wonder what will this young man do with his life and what role will I play if any.
Birthdays are like that. They call attention to whatever is incomplete in us.
May also reminds me of several losses in my life. My father died on May 8 while I was in college. That day is seared into my memory as the day the world, as I knew it, ended. All innocence was lost that day as I was forced to become an adult before I felt ready.
We moved my mother to a nursing home in May when the dementia exceeded my brother’s capacity to care for her. We knew we had to do it but the guilt was overwhelming. What would she say to me if she knew what was happening? What kind of daughter does this?
To be powerless over the decisions of her life is something she would abhor. To watch as she ebbs and flows over the years, to be present in her rambling conversations, has taught me deep compassion and presence. She has always been my guiding light, the love of my heart, and the keeper of my secrets shared only between us girls.
Like an exclamation point to the month of May is Mother’s Day.
I’m in the middle, between a son becoming a man and a mother becoming pure spirit.
It’s not that I feel tension. Actually I feel blessed to be able to observe this continuum of life, the beginning of one and the conclusion of another. I am both at the same time, becoming and ending, in my own journey. I experience this paradox not as a polarity but more like a mobius strip that folds into itself over and over again.
Unlike so many of my friends, I never disliked my mother or even argued much with her. I have to admit to having her on a pedestal. She showed me what it meant to be a loving mother. And even so, there was one lesson that she taught me that I have had to unlearn in order to grow beyond “mother” to a whole and authentic individual.
When my father died, Mina, my mother, was left alone in a country where she did not belong with three teenagers, all at different stages of rebellion. I was the oldest and because of my close relationship with her and my age we shared the burden of caring for my siblings and moving beyond the death of my father.
Despite not knowing English, she found a job and went to work, something my traditional father had not allowed her to do. She modeled courage, gravitas and self-sacrifice taking care of us and walking the tightrope between being too controlling and being too lenient as we all exercised our rights to independence even as we grieved our loss.
I emulate her courage and I’m pleased to say that I've been called a bad-ass once or twice. It’s in my genes, inherited from my mother who in Colombia was known as “berraca” (bad-ass in Spanish). And she was. She was fearless.
It’s the other lesson, the self-sacrificing lesson that I have had to unlearn.
As an adult woman reflecting back on when my mother was the age I am now I see how she gave up the potential of who she had the capacity to become. She was a flower in half bloom, with a longing for more but without the permission to allow herself the life she imagined.
Mina never knew her father. He died when she was a toddler. Her mother deserted her and her siblings when she was about thirteen. And then she died when my mother was fifteen. She had no role model for “mother”. She brought up her siblings as if she were the mother, never saving any of that nurturing and compassion for herself.
She knew how to distribute love. She did not know how to bring that back to self-love. She did not know she could indeed become her own nurturing mother.
I see this self-imposed self-sacrifice habit in so many of my female friends, whether they are mothers or not. As a gender we lack the ability to put ourselves first, to be the mother that holds and loves us, that pushes us when we feel self-pity and that kicks our butts when we knowingly do stupid things.
I’ve replaced the self-sacrifice habit with a self-care habit. It has taken a long time and a great deal of consciousness to be able to say yes to myself regardless of the pressure from others.
There are three things that have helped me do this consistently. They are simple but powerful practices.
1) Quiet time: This is the time that I pause late in my day to allow myself to feel my day, not just think about my day. I reflect on where my energy rises and when it feels heavy. What was I doing? Who was I with? Why was I there? This provides a barometer on making choices around what work I choose to do, who I want to be with and it keeps me focused on what matters most to me.
2) Self Observation Practice: During the course of my day I check in with myself as a practice so that it becomes an easily accessed resource during times of stress or conflict. I used to set an alarm on my phone that reminded me to practice observing myself. The question I ask myself is “What’s happening now, inside me and in my external world?” I get in touch with my body that way and begin to learn the language of sensations. I build my intuition through this practice by dropping from the rigidity and linear thinking of the mind to the more expansive and divergent orientation of intuition.
3) Energy Management: Energy follows attention. I notice where my attention is and shift it consciously to maximize my energy. I notice what distracts me and depletes me of energy and focus. I choose to diminish activities, and relationships, that deplete me and increase activities and relationships that inspire and contribute to my well-being.
These practices have taught me to be a mother to myself, to care for myself as I care for my dearest son. These practices have removed any guilt and need for self-sacrifice simply by honoring my needs and respecting my place in the world as a worthy human being and a loving person.
These simple practices have made me stronger and more capable of being at service to others from that place of strength and love.
This Mother’s Day hug your mother. Appreciate her for her love but not for her self-sacrifice. Look inward and find the mother waiting for you inside, the one that will hold you when you feel alone, the one that will tell you that you are strong and worthy. No one but your mother, the one inside, can do that for you. That is the true gift of Mother’s Day.