I am every kind of mother — a step-mother, a biological mother, an adoptive mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother. And I am blessed in all those close loving relationships.
But I’m also a daughter, and on Mother’s Day, that’s where my heart goes. My mom hated Mother’s Day. She thought it was just Hallmark making up a phony event to sell cards. I would beg her to just let me thank her, just let me celebrate that I had the good fortune to have her for a mother. She could be prickly that way. Now she can’t complain, and my brother and I coo over the phone about our beloved mother, whom we’ve missed these last twenty years.
Motherhood is most definitely a practice. I suppose our kids might wish we would go practice on someone else and come back when we’re more skillful! But nature didn’t set it up that way. We are thrust into parenthood without much to qualify us for this huge and important task, and much of the time we feel we are failing. (I remember the intensive parenting classes we had to take to become adoptive parents, and I was horrified to think that as biological parents we had not had to take parenting classes. What other position of such responsibility comes with absolutely no training requirements?)
Mothers who are able to bring awareness into the moment through their practice of meditation have a much better chance of responding skillfully to whatever arises. Mothers who know how to stay fully present are able to savor all the little joys that make parenting such a delight. They can pace themselves better, they can really give their child full attention instead of focusing on some goal of getting the shopping done or any of numerous other practical requirements of their day that seem at the time so much more pressing. They can let go of comparative parenting, worrying about whether their child is keeping up with little Bobby in pre-school.
But let’s face it. No matter how well prepared we are, parenthood is impossible to perfect! In the first place, it’s a 24/7/365 job with very little down time! (I remember feeling I was much more skillful as a stepmother than a mother because I had all week to prepare myself for the weekend when our sons would come stay with us. I cleared the time for them, so I wasn’t distracted, didn’t have to run errands, talk on the phone or be two places at once. I came fresh to the task of entertaining two young boys. I devoted myself to making their time with us enjoyable. We went on fun outings, played lots of ball in the park, did art projects, and I taught them to cook. Now if they read this, they might remember it differently, because once their little brother and sister arrived, I became a different kind of stepmother, not wicked but certainly distracted! When the boys would arrive I was already exhausted, and the needs of the younger two took precedence because they were more dependent on me for everything. The older two probably felt that they had been replaced. Older children always feel that way. But they should also remember that because I was a full-time mother to the younger two, those two rarely got the best of me. While caring for them I also had to take care of the house, the bills, the errands, and when they got to be school age, I was a working mom, coming home tired, giving them much less of me than they really needed and feeling guilty as hell.)
Children, due to ongoing close proximity to their mothers, see us in all our various guises from fairy godmother to Satan incarnate. And we deal with remorse for not being the perfect mommy in every moment, even as we know that’s an impossible expectation.
So what does the Buddha say to mothers or about motherhood? Well, we know that he revered motherhood and encouraged meditators to practice “as a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child.” But all the Buddha’s teachings can be useful in mothering, because they help us to be skillful and balanced.
Parenting is a dharma practice in itself, requiring an unparalleled level of commitment and discipline. This is valuable to remember while we are in the process of raising our young, when sometimes the work involved can feel mind-numbing. Chop wood, carry water, raise baby. Allowing the mind to be spacious, to let go of the need to be mentally challenged in every moment, to let this be enough for now. These are the gifts of the practice.
And in this parenting practice we learn a good deal of dharma, develop intuitive understanding and an earthy wisdom. Like every transformative life experience, motherhood has its lessons. And like many of life’s transformative lessons, one of the major one’s is learning how to let go.
From the moment a woman gives birth she finds she is in a protracted state of letting go. Suddenly that little person who was so safely curled within her womb is now out and vulnerable and in need of her protection. But with each step toward independence, the mother must step back a little further. When the child can walk on his own, she doesn’t insist on supporting him, but she’s close at hand to catch him. When a child can dress or feed himself, she doesn’t insist on stuffing his sweet chubby arms into sleeves or continue to spoon pureed carrots into his mouth when he wants to do it himself, even though she knows he will make a mess of it at first. She lets go, bit by bit, and tunes herself to subtle and not so subtle cues that tell her she needs to let go more, or maybe, oops, she’s let go a little too much a little too soon.
The letting go reaches an often painful crescendo in adolescent years. The child slams doors against the mother, fiercely forcing her to step back further and further. This retreat is a challenging one, because of course the child is not independent, does not have perfect judgment, and may be doggedly pursuing a course sure to bring pain or worse. So finding that balance of support but release is a tightrope for the parent. It requires being fully present in this moment. Letting go of the past – almost impossible with a child you have known so intimately in all his stages – acknowledging that this person is at least to some degree new in every moment, rebirthing themselves, discovering themselves and making choices. Just as we do in meditation, we exert Right Effort to find that right balance, neither too much nor too little, firm but compassionate.
And then the child is an adult, and the definition of motherhood, parenthood, is revised totally. How to skillfully craft a relationship with this wondrous young person that acknowledges that the intense mothering period of the relationship is done. That is the challenge we face now. How far do we step back? What is skillful? How much buttoning and zipping of lips can we do without making the relationship inauthentic, a surface exchange of niceties that satisfy no one?
I remember when my mother and I were working to develop an adult friendship. She clearly felt she had the right to dictate my behavior and my appearance. Exhausted from our bickering battles, I finally asked her to stop before speaking and ask if she would say such a thing to a close friend. Eventually our relationship became truly a joyful friendship, but even then I recognized how much effort she had to exert to develop this new pattern of talking to me. And now I challenge myself to do the same with my adult children, and I am humbled again by her valiant effort and how much love she expressed in doing so.
Each of us faces our own challenges in relationships with our parents and our children, and we do the best we can. We mothers support each other as we deal with these challenges, and that has been true since our children were born. The sangha of motherhood is a strong one, and necessary for the survival of the species. A mother struggling alone needs to reach out to her friends.
For most of us who are mothers of adult children, the challenge is to let go enough so that our children know that we love them but don’t feel us breathing down their neck. My wonderful Aunt Frannie, mother to seven, six living, advises to be “distant but interested.” We do a disservice to our adult children’s development if we are a ready resource for funds. We cripple them if we short circuit their thinking through a problem and coming up with their own solution. And we cripple our relationship with them as well. A breast-feeding mother will sometimes feel like the only thing this little sucker wants her for is milk. We can re-enact that same relationship with adult children if we aren’t careful. Let support come in our willingness to listen and to express our pride in them, nourishing them in ways that promote their well being rather than their dependence on us.
Part of the art of not being overly involved in our adult children’s lives is discovering another passion equal to our ability to nurture it. If we are healthy and sufficiently secure, perhaps we come to this rich period with some sense of excitement about some long deferred focus we want to pursue, even if we haven’t named it quite yet.
We can take this lifetime of mothering experience, this earthy wisdom and natural ability to create and nurture into another arena. Perhaps this has been our lifework, or perhaps it is what we have been waiting to do until we had more time. Or perhaps its something we have yet to discover. But whatever it is, the skills we bring to this creative project, this worthy cause, or this exploration are of enormous value and can sustain us in whatever we do.