I am not a mother — or at least I am not in any literal sense of the word. At the age of 53, I have never had children. Nor have I adopted any. And no matter how much I joke about my dog being my “child with fur”, I know that she really doesn’t count.
And yet, I have spent much of my adult life caring for children and young people in one way or another, as a child life specialist, a teacher, an honorary aunt and fairy godmother. I have also devoted the past 14 years of my career to teaching and advising others about how to best meet the needs of developing children. Sometimes I even feel a sense of deep maternal care and investment in my adult students, many of whom are millennials young enough to be my children.
But I am not a mother. So what does this mean when Mother’s Day rolls around? It means that I am deluged by a multitude of feelings – some pleasant and some not so much. I am at first profoundly grateful for the presence of my own mother in my life, for her friendship and steadfast love. Then, I experience an adrenaline rush of regret at having missed the boat of motherhood myself. Damn! I’ve lost something I can never get back! Then the self pity and bereavement start in like baying hounds.
To circumvent the onslaught, I like to picture all the children and young people who have touched my life, and there are so many. From the hospitalized children I worked with as a child life specialist, to the children in my therapeutic pre-K classroom. Children of friends, cousins, and alum. The three girls who spent many summer weeks in our home, and the young adults who lived with us for a stint on their way to independence. Each and every one of them has pulled at my heart strings and helped me to grow. They have engendered feelings of deep love and at times – anger. And they have all made me feel as if I am leaving something behind, something good. The environment can affect how DNA works, and these changes can be heritable. Perhaps there is a little piece of me that will live on in them and their offspring.
A dear friend of mine, someone in her 80’s who lived without regrets, was not a mother either. Impatient with my tears one day she said, “Never think that you aren’t a mother, Deb. You are a mother to the world. And the world needs all the mothers it can get.” I find myself coming back to her words again and again. She lives on in me. Huh.