Are You My Mother? – Musings on the meaning of Mother

When I was a child something amazing happened – I discovered books. I can’t remember the exact moment but I can recall the joy I felt of immersing myself in a story held within a simple object. At first it was through illustrations, beautiful images which came alive and which drew me into their universes. Then those weird little squiggles which went with the images began to be decipherable, and slowly I learned to read. The words were flat at first, then they formed doorways into other worlds.

There were certain books which became my home away from home. Places I returned to regularly to escape the confusing, sometimes boring, and often rather grim reality of the day to day.

One of those books was a very simple children’s story of a baby bird in search of its mother – Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman. The mother bird had left the egg alone in the nest while she went off to find some food and it had hatched while she was away. The little baby, distressed by the absence of a mother, decides to find the missing mother. After an adventure of mistaking other animals and objects for its mother, the baby bird is eventually reunited with its actual mother.

I don’t know why I liked this book so much. There was something in it which lured me back in time and again. I was looking for something within the tale, but what?

Years later one of my favourite cartoons on TV was a Japanese manga series – Genshi Shonen Ryu – about a boy living during a fanciful stone age where humans and dinosaurs shared the earth. Ryu is born different from others and is abandoned by his people because of his difference, he is adopted by a primate and grows up in the wild. Sort of like Tarzan. When he reaches adulthood his adoptive mother is killed and he decides to go off in search of his birth mother. At the end of almost every episode Ryu would yell ‘MOTHER!’ at the open road ahead of him. It was heart-wrenching.

So why did these stories appeal to me so much? I had parents. I had a mother. She often wasn’t around. I was left to be cared for by many different strangers. My attachment to those strangers annoyed my mother. I often tried to get away from my parents when I was forced to be in their company. This annoyed my mother too, but mainly because it embarrassed her. She had not noticed my absence and was made aware of it by a stranger who had found me and returned me.

My mother had mother issues. Her mother had died suddenly when my mother was a young teenager. My mother had not had a particularly close relationship with her mother, her mother was never around and my mother was farmed off to other relatives and boarding schools, but over the years after her mother’s death she rewrote the relationship into what it had not been.

My mother was always looking for a mother. She turned me into a surrogate mother. Her nickname for me was Mama. Her behaviour towards me was often that of a small and very needy child. When she wasn’t playing the part of my child, she would be playing the role of perfect parent. She had an obsession with being the perfect mother, and one of my jobs was giving her reassurance that she was more than perfect as a mother. Every gift I was given was done with the express purpose of proving to herself how wonderful she was, and it was always accompanied with words of that sort. Everything we did together had a similar theme. I was told by my mother that I was lucky to have a mother who treated me as an equal, respected me, took me to do grown up things, made me socialise with adults, and did not force me to be a child, socialise with children or do childish things. On and on she talked and talked, selling her greatest mother in the world self, hypnotising me into believing it so that she could believe it, and the only thing she asked of me was that I be grateful, and tell her again and again how grateful I was to have the most wonderful mother in the world.

The other day I started reading – When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. It is a book inspired by a gift giving to the author by her mother which she must not open until her mother’s death. In it the author describes her relationship with her mother. The warmth, the love, the deep bonding between child and mother. It is a beautiful read. At first I felt detached from the words because they were foreign to me, as though reading a language I could barely decipher about a culture I had never experienced. Then I had a twinge of yearning, a regretful longing to have had a relationship with my mother such as the one she described. However as I read more and more of the book, I began to feel less and less wishful for such a relationship. I felt a sense of being at peace with the mother I had. A feeling that we have the mother we have because that is the right mother for us even if that mother does not fulfill the role of a traditional mother figure. I began to feel relieved that I had had the relationship with my mother that I did. It had much heartache and misery, but it did give me one truly important gift, one which means more to me, to the person I am, than I can convey, it gave me freedom.

This realisation was always lurking within me, I just had never considered it consciously. Being typically human I was focusing on what I didn’t have rather than what I have. My mother being anything but a mother to me was the spur which drove me inwards to find my mother within myself. I had enough people in my early life who showed me affection and showed me a modicum of nurturing, from them I learned how to give myself those things. I mimicked them at first, and then found my own expression of those things. Those small doses of love helped to mitigate the effects of having a devouring mother, one who wanted to eat her child alive. The messages of life balanced the messages of death.

Over the years that I have searched for a mother, the nurturing, life giving spirit, I have learned to find it within myself and within the fabric of the planet. Mother Earth, Mother Ocean, Mother Sky, Mother Nature. I feel the deep nurturing which this place offers to its children, the heartbeat which thrums within every creature, creation and thing. I feel that which is outside of me within me. The energy flows into me in various forms, what I eat, what I drink, what I breathe, what my skin absorbs, and more. This great mother nurtures me, and as it does so I nurture myself, and as I do so I return that nurturing to her and all her children.

That sounds rather grand and fanciful perhaps… it is and it isn’t, there is a natural and deeply satisfying simplicity to it.

So I get it now, why those stories of a child on a quest to find its mother captured my young mind and held it. The quest for mother is a primal instinct, we are born from mother, she gives us life, she nurtures us and how she nurtures us teaches us what the energy of mother is, and that shapes how we experience Mother Earth. If our mother loves us, then the Earth loves us, if our mother wants to devour us, then so does the Earth. The quest for mother takes us through childhood and into adulthood, when we move away from our birth mother we look for mother in our friends and lovers, we seek life supporting nurturing from our relationships. We seek that nurturing from every person we meet, every place we go, and every thing with which we interact. We find mother everywhere and in everyone. The only mother we sometimes overlook, is the mother within. We know she is there, we know it in every atom of our being, but we sometimes don’t realise the full power of finding and connecting with the inner mother. Perhaps this is one of the gifts of parenthood, to show us the mother we have inside, to feel it and live the energy in a soulful way. The child offers to its parents the opportunity to connect deeply with their inner nurturing self by feeling that inner nurturing self giving life to a new being.

Just a musing on the meaning of mother.


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