“Happy Mother’s Day,” the man said to the woman at the cash register.
“And to you!” she replied cheerfully. Then she chuckled and rolled her eyes at herself. “What AM I saying? You’re not a mother!”
Everyone smiled. The man left. The woman at the cash register shook her head and smiled.
“Actually, my daughter gives me a card on Father’s Day every year,” she said, “because her father…” she shook her head and trailed off meaningfully.
“Because you have been a mother and a father to her,” I said. “Yes,” she said. “That’s it!”
This exchange stayed with me for much of the day, and the day after, and so on, as I thought about the very many people I know — or know of — who do (or have done) the hard work of parenting, of mothering, of fathering, without ever having been called “mother” or “father.”
In her book Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, philosopher Sara Ruddick separates the physical work of bearing a child from the conscious choice to mother that child — and in her way of thinking, mothering is both distinct from fathering AND something that both men and women can do. Mothering, for Ruddick, fosters a ‘politics of peace’ because to understand human value as a mother does is to know the value, the weightiness, the uniqueness of human flesh, of human life.
God, in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is likened in many places to a mother — a laboring mother, a nursing mother, a loving mother — and Jesus likens himself to a mother, as does that supposed misogynist, the Apostle Paul. What is it about mothering that must be grasped as metaphor?
Last night at a nearby university hospital, I saw two things that made my breath catch in my throat. The first was a friend’s baby boy, who was born at 24 weeks. Every cliche is appropriate: he is so tiny and also so beautiful and so perfect and of course so fragile and so helpless.
The second was a family, a father and mother and perhaps an aunt or two and a grandmother or two, leaving the hospital with a newborn. All of them — except for the newborn — were crying, and they were not happy tears. I do not know why. I could not guess, only wonder.
Those two encounters, however brief, highlighted how fragile, and therefore, how precious, this life is. Mother’s Day and occasions like it rarely offer much depth to the astonishing strength that it takes to protect and bear up under the adversities of like. Love that deserves to be praised as motherly is never reducible to platitude.
It is not for me to issue any particular call in relation to Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day, except maybe to say that the fierce dedication for which we celebrate mothers on the second Sunday in May are present in many, many people who are never called ‘mom,’ and the love and devotion it takes to bear up under all that life brings do not easily fit into greeting cards —
and that love and devotion, that fierce protection and commitment, that extraordinary, ordinary heroism is not the stuff of holidays and flower arrangements. It’s there in the grocery store, in the waiting room, in the faces of the people on the street, if only we look more closely.