I used to think the mother in me was born when I had my first child. My first thought waking up after her birth was, “I’m a mother now.” My next thought was, “where is my baby?!” When we assume responsibility for raising a child, the ignition of strong emotions such as alarm, joy, anticipation, and apprehension all serve to signal something significant is underfoot. Our attention becomes preoccupied, if not hijacked, by all matters related to caretaking. Despite the feelings of caring and responsibility that sink deeply into us, it is not our child’s arrival that gives birth to the mother in us.
You might think that finding out one is pregnant or deciding to adopt a child is the birthplace of motherhood. While we may make a commitment to have a child, it is not here where we first discover mothering. And for those who were robbed of holding their babies through miscarriage or illness, the instincts to mother did not disappear with these losses either.
The capacity to mother – to care, protect, nourish, guide, and to cherish someone are first revealed in the hours we spent in play as a child. It is here where we practiced protecting our babies, animals, younger siblings, insects, to inanimate objects. It was in our play where we experimented with what it means to be responsible and to step into a caretaker role. It was in our pretend world, created from our imagination and emotion, that we took our first steps towards revealing the mother in us.
Despite the parenting we may have received, it was in play where our instincts and emotions to care for another were preserved and nurtured. It is in play where we were free to make mistakes, to get frustrated, and to walk away from it all. Play provided a rehearsal space where no one was really hurt or ever worried if we got it right. No one was really judging our actions and nor did we believe knowledge was required to take care of something. In play our caretaking was innate, instinctive, and lacked words or insight – it was just in us.
In play the mother in us was drawn to the surface but when a ‘live’ or ‘real’ child was handed to us, this play stopped and the work of mothering began. The ability to make mistakes became too costly as did one’s ‘take it or leave it’ stance. But as we turned ourselves over to the work of mothering, we somehow became disconnected from the instincts and emotions that guided us once so freely in play.
Perhaps it is because giving ourself over to motherhood has the power to strike fear into our hearts and stir up feelings that we are not good enough, or that we don’t know enough, or are not ready for it all, or we feel at loss for answers. Perhaps it is because being a mother feels all too real sometimes. Just ask the mother worried about her child being bullied at school, or the mother of a child who is sick and needs care, or the mother who watches her adult child leave home to venture out on their own. It sometimes feels too much when you have had little sleep, have outside work responsibilities to ‘balance’ with home, or when your child is having a tantrum when you want one of your own.
When we played at mothering it was okay to perform and to take for granted that things would work out. In play we never had to commit and it never felt so raw or real. What mothering requires us to do is to claim our rightful place in our child’s life with pride, confidence, and vulnerability.
The good news is that the mothers in us were born long ago and the instincts and emotions that guided us in play can lead us today. What our children need is already inside of us to give. It is in the transition from ‘mothering play’ to ‘mothering reality’ that allows the caretaker in us to arrive in solid form. It is when we accept the emotions that come with being a caretaker that our shape solidifies and our identity is transformed in the process.
Being a mother is not about the performance we give but something that should come deep from within us. We cannot find the mother in us by following someone else’s directions, mantras, or pretending that we are in the lead. All the time we look to the external world to steer us, we do not find what is already within. While the mother in us was born in play, it is with our children that we become the caretaker they need. Mothering must rise up in us, not be scripted onto us.
We are made into mothers when we vulnerably accept the emotions and feelings that come with this role. There will be frustration to joy, apprehension to exuberance. It is these feelings that will wash over us, turn us upside down, inside out, and that share at their core, the power to transform us into the mothers that only our children can make us.
To all the mothers that feel the weight of the reality that comes with this role, this is not a mistake in you nor does it mean you are doing it wrong. When mothering isn’t a mask or a performance you put on, you will feel much and it can feel messy. But it is from these instincts and emotions where your children will be nourished from the deepest of wells. Yes, you will be tired, and yes, it will feel too much sometimes, but what I know about ‘mothering wells’ is this – somehow you find a way to dig a little deeper.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and is the Director of the Kid’s Best, Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre.