There is to me no doubt that mothers – good, bad, indifferent, absent, or surrogate – play a vital and life-shaping role in the physical and emotional development of us all.
To a baby, of course, mothers are little short of goddesses. It is primarily, though not solely, through mothers that children learn how to love (or how not to love, if their mothers have yet to heal wounds they suffered in their own childhood and lash out in pain).
When we are younger, we all need a mother figure – someone to look up to, learn from, and maybe even run to when we’re hurt or need someone to talk to. That is perhaps the greatest gift a mother can offer a child: a safe space to be, to grow, to open their hearts.
I am eternally grateful to my mother, and my appreciation has only increased as I have aged – and become a parent myself. Among my many fond memories is coming home from school, sitting down with her with a cup of tea and a wedge of cake fresh from the oven... and talking. I probably did most of the talking, but she was a good listener and would ask the occasional poignant question that would bring me back to earth, or encourage me to see things from another point of view. She allowed me the space to develop my relationship with life, but with a gentle, guiding nudge along the way.
Above all, she gave me her time and a non-judgmental ear – until it was time to put the dinner on.
The women who gave birth to us are, however, not necessarily the only mothers in our lives: many people have step-mothers, foster mothers, adopted mothers; friends’ mothers, older sisters, aunts, grandmothers; teachers also often fulfil that role, and youth and religious group leaders; as can older work colleagues or bosses, mentors and friends. Counsellors, too, may be treated like mother figures by their clients.
These days, my surrogate mother is in the spaces between moments as I rush from A to B: the waft of a flower catching me unawares on a city street, the flicker of sunlight between leaves, the glimpse of the moon soaking through fog, a splash of stars, a ripple of birdsong, a trickle of rain down the windscreen. When I’m hurting, I go to mother: a walk in the country (rain or shine) – nature’s cathedral – I find can be very healing.
Of course, we do also learn to love from other sources. I have already written about the power of children to teach parents how to love. I also read once about a woman with her dog meeting the Dalai Lama. She told him she had suffered an unhappy childhood and her dog had taught her how to love. The Dalai Lama bowed respectfully to the dog.
Tibetan Buddhists have an interesting concept: they believe that, because we have reincarnated an infinite number of times and taken the form of all manner of beings, all living beings were, at one time or another, our mothers. Therefore, all beings deserve our respect.
And reincarnation is not so hard to believe if you look at it scientifically. The atoms that are, for now, in us were once perhaps in a flower, or worm, a dinosaur or tree. As a tree is mother to a leaf, nourishing it, so a leaf is mother to the tree when it falls, rots into the soil and nourishes the tree – recycled and reborn.
So, with Mothering Sunday almost upon us, let’s celebrate all the mothers who nourish our lives.