What is a mother?

Mother’s Day: We think of a mother and young child – it’s a classic image; but of course it’s only one of many ways that we experience ‘mothers’ and motherhood. Here are just some of the mother figures I could come up with:

  • House Mother in a Boarding School
  • Step-mum
  • Mother-in-law (or Mother-Outlaw?)
  • Adoptive Mum
  • Birth or Biological Mother
  • A neighbourhood ‘adopted’ Mum
  • The ‘mum’ of the friendship group (the sensible one who has tissues in her bag, a shoulder to cry on and chicken soup at the ready)
  • Mother Earth
  • The mother-heart of God – who longs to gather us in, like chicks sheltered under their mother’s wing

The whole concept of ‘Motherhood’ can evoke strong emotions. It may be that you never knew the woman who carried you in her womb. There is a disconnect there: a cutting off, a dislocation, a rootlessness, even rejection. 

…the egg from which we developed was formed in our grandmother’s womb…

It is strange to think that the egg from which we developed was formed in our grandmother’s womb…growing in the unborn child that would become our mother. There is such a deep sense of connection running through – or sometimes we feel at least that there ought to be. 

‘Motherhood’ may sum up for you a host of hopes unfulfilled. Something you imagined would always ‘just happen’, and for one reason or another, it has not come to fruition. In fact, often times, it’s something that was very carefully avoided – even feared – until the ‘right time’. For people who haven’t experienced this emptiness it can be hard to comprehend the depths of grief it evokes. The complex bundle of relentlessly regular cycle of hope and disappointment; the sense of failure or even (self-)blame; the questioning of identity – if not a mother, then who am I?

What about ‘Mothering’? 

After all, this day was originally known as Mothering Sunday? “Stop mothering him! He’s got to learn to stand on his own two feet!” It can bring to mind the so-called helicopter parents; the idea of the apron strings being firmly tied on; or even the umbilical cord not yet cut! Perhaps the phrase is redolent of over-protectiveness, or even cultivating dependence. 

Can you be maternal without being a mother? 

Of course! I was always very maternal growing up – despite being a younger sister, the role of big cousin came very naturally when there was something of a baby boom in the wider family. In fact, I was always the ‘mum’ of our friendship group – and still friends from the school gate, who aren’t really that close, will confide in me their heartbreaking dilemmas and worries. Someone to listen. Someone who won’t judge, or preach. Someone to comfort and hold. Someone to gently guide, inform or advise; or someone just to sit alongside. 

Carrying a child is only a very small part of being a mother – as many friends who have struggled with infertility; have adopted; or who were given up for adoption; and many who got pregnant just fine, but found the reality of having a tiny person entirely dependent on them completely overwhelming (not to mention the pervasive post-natal depression that may strike at anyone, no matter how sunny their character or strong their faith). 

Perhaps we grieve a mother who has left this earth (lost too soon, or even at a ripe old age – as someone said to me last year, their elderly mum having had a stroke – it doesn’t matter how old you are, you still need your mum) Wheyher or not you agree with that sentiment, I think there are certainly times when we wish we had someone to hold us, love and comfort us, even simply reassure us – and often the shorthand name for that person is ‘mum’.

Sometimes it’s more the case that we feel too keenly the imperfections, or absence, of parents still alive. My hope is that each of us will find someone around us to be a mother-figure; or perhaps a collection of friends whose sum total represents the family we would wish we had had. 

The Hallmark profit-generating shindig that is Mother’s Day is largely an artifice – with saccharine pseudo-poetry gracing a £4.50 card adorned with flowers – and armfuls of teddies, fridge magnets and fresh flowers at the ready. Yes, it’s a good thing to take time to honour mothers – but not all those who are mothers to us, are ‘mothers’; and sadly not all mothers are kind or even loving. 

My parents aren’t perfect and my biggest learning on this journey we call adulthood has been to learn to accept them as they are – and not to dwell on who I might have wanted or even needed them to be. They are who they are – and acceptance is a powerful and ongoing gift. I won’t buy a card whose words I couldn’t, hand on heart, say face to face to someone. Words are important to me, as a linguist I suppose that should be no surprise.  So, I won’t be a hypocrite for the sake of a retail event. I do however look for those things for which I can be truly thankful, and do my best to show my appreciation accordingly.

As a mother of one son (we would that there had been more children – but that’s in God’s hands and his timing), I recognise that however hard I try, someday my son will be disappointed in me – it’s inevitable. We joke that we’ve already put money aside for his future therapy! We are all imperfect and we’re simply doing the best with the resources we have available to us at any given time. Of course, the trick to finding a healthy balance of being a mother / mothering / being maternal – biological or not – is to recognise when things could be improved and go out looking for more and better resources for ourselves (professional support, advice, training, information, peer support), to do an even better job at this role we call ‘mother’. There are some great, free parenting courses available out there for instance.

Parenting: one long obstacle course?

My boy gave me the most wonderful card this morning – I was absolutely touched, but my reaction was also to say to him and my husband, “If I live up to even half of these claims, I’ll be doing well!” – I hope he knows I’ll always love and accept him – through my mistakes and his.

When reflecting on this subject I thought about the most famous mothers (famous for that title rather than just happening to have offspring) – I came up with two – so who you think came to mind ?
Mother Theresa – never a biological mother, though arguably (and I recognise that not everyone agrees with this) ‘mothered’ thousands of people.

And Mary, Mother of Jesus (likeness according to Leonardo da Vinci):

Let’s remember that Mary never asked to become a mother at all! It looked at one stage like she might be a single mother; she had to give birth in a strange place, amongst the animals, and away from family and friends. Then they had to flee to another country as refugees.  And later still her son clearly prioritised his God-given calling over his family. 

At a time when Jesus was persecuted and falsely accused, His mother and brothers were concerned about His welfare. They came to the house where He was residing:

 “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:31–35, New Revised Standard Version).

 Although Jesus loved and respected His physical mother, brothers and sisters, His primary concern was for the spiritual family that followed His teaching.


Not quite the picture perfect nuclear family!

At the end of her famous (or at that time, more accurately ‘notorious’) son’s life, He looked down from the cross and called upon his best friend, John, to take His place, and become a son to Mary, and to take care of her as his own mother, 

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Jesus saw quite clearly that being a mother or son had less to do with biology, than it had to do with relationship, respect and honour; love, protection, acceptance and care (by the way, ‘woman’ was a term of endearment back then – just in case that jarred with you too?).

So a few thoughts to end. Perhaps this mothers day, as well as acknowledging the person in your life you call ‘Mum’…

  • take a look at the others around you who share in those attributes – honour them with thanks as well. 
  • look at who you know – could you offer some of these qualities, possibly as a mentor or even spiritual parent, to someone who needs care and guidance?
  • send a note of kindness to someone for whom this day is hard – either because of the loss of their mum, a great distance between them, or maybe the grief of their own motherhood denied.
  • lift up in prayer those who have lost children or unborn babies. A mother who loses a child, whether she has more or not, will always be a mother – forever changed by this monumentous experience. 
  • recognise those, known and unknown to us, who may be a biological mother, but lack the skills and role models to provide their child with the qualities we associate with motherhood. Rather than jump to judge, as we all too often do, look to offer a word of encouragement or solidarity. Parenting is a tough job, and judgment just makes it harder. 
  • if you are a mum, be kind to yourself. You may not feel like ‘Best Mum in the World’ or ‘Supermum’ whatever that shiny new mug might say, but remind yourself- ‘this is what it is right now’. Tomorrow can be different. If you’re feeling ‘under-resourced’ or drowning, help is out there. The first step is to acknowledge it, and reach out for help. 

If all that sounds too much like hard work, of course, feel free to make a cuppa, pop your slippered feet up on the sofa, and enjoy these flowers from me to you. 

Leave me your own thoughts below and in the meantime, have a…

Happy Mother’s Day

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