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11 May

This Is a Love Song

Come Mother’s Day, there’s a lot of pressure to sing sweet songs of sunshine and daffodils, primroses and butterflies. To compose odes to our mothers, or to ourselves as mothers. To wax poetic on the joys and glories of being a mother, to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and capture in a word or two or more how achingly wonderful it is to be a mother, to have a mother, to miss our mothers, to be among mothers. To sing mother-love electric.

Which is what I’m going to do here, minus the primroses and butterflies. Because the truth about motherhood is that the greatest expression of our love for our children, the moment of deepest feeling, is not always going to come alive in a sunny meadow as we spin together, holding hands, the light breaking as it meets our twirling bodies. The truth about motherhood is, we feel love most deeply as an ache. It’s the pang in our hearts as we hunch over a crib in the dark hours before the dawn contemplating our once and future separation from this precious being, this adored child, who will one day leave us. It’s the cruel, deep wound exacted by loss, or by fear of loss. It’s anxiety. It’s sacrifice. It’s fear.

It’s knowing that this love, this greatest love, will always bring pain, cause pain, even as it offers the most dizzying joys. It’s an old refrain, but a true one: where there are no dark depths, there can be no dazzling heights. Where there is no dark, there can be no experience of light.

My mother, and my mother’s mother, my grandmother, knew those depths, that darkness. They knew loss, knew it keenly; long before I came along, they had lost babies, and they had given away babies. Their hearts had been broken, by love, by motherhoods given and taken away. But then came more babies, more children, more life, more light, more love. All I knew, as a child, of my mother and grandmother was love, unconditional love. Happy love.

This childhood was not so far behind me when, as a young woman, I discovered that I was pregnant. I did not want to be pregnant: I was on my own, I was young, and I was scared. I needed my mother. But this – this condition, and my unwillingness to be in this condition – would, I knew, break her heart. It would shatter her heart into a million tiny pieces that I would never be able to gather up and glue back together and stash onto the mantle of her soul and hide what I had done. I knew that there were ghosts, for her, and, once upon a time, for my grandmother, tiny ghosts that called out in the night. I knew that, for this reason, and for reasons related to her faith, to my lapsed faith, she would recoil at what I wanted to do.

I called out to her anyway. It was selfish – I could have avoided breaking her heart by keeping this a secret from her. I could have borne the weight of this, this terrible thing, in my own heart, in my own soul, and laboured with it, alone. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted my mother.

And so I did, I called to her, and she came, she brought me to her, and we cried together as our hearts broke together, as hers – so much the bigger and the more fragile for her ghosts, and for knowing that my heart would never finish breaking – bore the greater weight and suffered the greater cracks. And she gently talked me through what I felt I needed to do and told me that if I had to do this, I wouldn’t do it alone and swore her unyielding support and undying love and then she made me my favourite meal and after that we cried some more. Then, then, she made all arrangements and we made the long drive, together, to the place where I had to walk a terrible mile alone, but she was there, again, on the other side and that night we curled up together on a dusty bed in a motel together, somewhere some distance from home and cried and contemplated our ghosts.

The next day, she bought me pie – Tollhouse Cookie pie, the only detail that I remember apart from the scratchiness of the motel sheets and the smell of rubbing alcohol in the clinic – and then we drove home, mother and daughter, each holding the other’s fragile, fragile heart in hand.

This was her sacrifice for me: to expose her heart to terrible pain in order to protect mine against the full onslaught of such pain. To face her ghosts, and those of her mother, and of so many other mothers, so that I might not be destroyed by the creation of my own. It might be said, in certain quarters, that the greatest gift that she could have given me would have been to talk me out of it, to bring to bear all of her maternal influence, to use her love and my love to bring about a different ending to that story. To save me. But she couldn’t save me, nor should she have. I needed to make the decision – or not – to take that walk, that terrible walk, and I needed to make that decision on my own. This was my life, my future, my choice, the making of my own regret/unregret/memory/ghost. For all that she could give me, I was alone.

What she did give me was love. Unconditional, unquestioning love, to wrap around myself like the warmest blanket, the thickest armour. She had always promised to love me no matter what, and I – can one say, for better or for worse, when the word ‘better’ catches in one’s throat? – I gave her the opportunity to prove it. She proved it, and then some. This saved me. She saved me. My heart has cracks – deep, deep fissures and jagged hairline cuts – but it is intact: her armour shielded it – has long-shielded it – from the full impact of inevitable blows of pain.

I expect that, to some degree or another, our children inevitably give us opportunities to prove this, to prove the unconditionality of our love, to prove that we would, we will, sacrifice ourselves – our hearts, our souls, our peace of mind, our place in whatever heaven we’ve hoped to reach – for them. I didn’t understand the depth or breadth or weight of my mother’s sacrifice until I became a mother myself, and the ghosts gathered ’round me, and whispered to me of love and loss and regret and unregret and gripped my heart in their tiny hands and squeezed until I cried. I didn’t understand until I’d suffered a loss not of my own devising, until I’d prayed for the life of this child, this oh-so-badly-wanted child. I didn’t understand until I became a mother, for real, for aching-heartfelt-feargripped-real, just how great a thing she had done.

She had bared her heart for me, she held it out as a shield and – although I know, I know that she quaked with fear and sadness – she did not waver, she did not yield.

This is her greatness as a mother.

This is what I aspire to.

Real moms love their children fiercely and without condition. They are warriors with their hearts.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.


The above is confession, a story that I was originally going to post in some anonymous form in the Basement. Then I realized that it was so much more about the force that is my mother and the force of motherhood generally than it was about me. So it is my Mother’s Day card – so much better than flowers, no? – and my Real Mom Truth. And the picture is my Real Mom photograph: obviously, I didn’t take the original picture, but I did dig it out of a dusty old box and brush it off and prop it up and set up light deflectors and take a photograph of it so that I could keep it and tweak it and share it with the world. Barthes would say, in other words, that I am as much the author of this photograph as I am author of the story that I tell.

This, then, is my humble contribution to the Real Mom Truths event (which might yield a 4G iPod Nano and Chocolate gift set and a link on True Mom Confessions on Mother’s Day, although the gift set would promptly be delivered to my mother, who deserves much, much more than chocolate.) There’s still time for you to join in – you have until 10pm EST tonight.