There are distinct stages of motherhood as we age. There is the stage of conception (puberty), the stage of mothering (roughly our teens through our forties), the stage of being an “empty-nester”, the stage of grandmothering, and finally, the stage of what I call “meta-mothering”.
Some of these are biologically marked and some are culturally driven. The biologic has differing effects on women. When we are able to conceive, many of us have little or no idea of what it means to “mother”. Thus, many teen-age pregnancies result in both mother and child growing up together. At the other end of the biologic clock is menopause. For some women, this is a particularly emotional time as their capacity to create life diminishes and then ceases. For others, this is a time of liberation, where they are no longer worried about getting pregnant.
The cultural stages of motherhood bear little resemblance to the biologic. Some children end up being “mothers” to their siblings because of an absent mother or a mother who is incapable of providing the nurturing necessary. I have worked with many women over the years who experienced this. Their feelings about motherhood often contained resentments because they had not had a childhood of their own.
Other children experienced mothering in intense ways that left them feeling ill-prepared for life on their own. These include the so-called “helicopter Moms” and “soccer Moms” who fill every waking moment of their child’s life with activities.
Other mothers who have struggled with substance use, mental illness, physical and emotional abuse, as well as economic challenges, may not been available to their children, and so the children have either raised themselves, or sought guidance outside the family.
My chosen profession has not helped matters. From its earliest days, the founding fathers of psychology (note the gender!) have found mothers inadequate to the tasks. In the past, we assigned the cause of schizophrenia to frigid parenting, and since Moms were the only parent that mattered (except for discipline, of course), Moms were at fault.
What has been little studied is how the role of being a mother changes with different circumstances. This happens is several ways. One way is that the child grows up, leaves home, and creates a life of his or her own outside of what we used to call the nuclear family. This is more of a Boomer Concept. Think of Leave it to Beaver.
In the Leave it To Beaver scenario, once Beave and Wally had kids of their own, June became “grandma”. This is considered a natural progression, and while there may be challenges in deciding whether you want to be called nana, granny, or grandmother, most mothers slip easily into this role.
More and more, however, children leave home and then return and possibly leave again and return again. Each time the child returns, there is a tendency to fall back into former parent/child relationships, even though the need for mothering has changed. Moms must re-negotiate this relationship that used to have a shelf-life, but now seems never ending. Children (now adults) resent being told who is the boss and following rules. Nobody is happy.
Yet another circumstance is when the child dies before the mother. This is a particularly challenging situation. We don”t even have a word for it. A wife becomes a “widow”, but there is no word for a mother who has lost her child. How do we fill the void when there is no one to mother?
Another shift is when Mom gets older and needs help. Depending on how healthy Mom is, help may be in the form of doing chores around the house, or taking Mom to appointments, helping her shop, or even finding different housing. Many older Moms enjoy their independence, and resist receiving help, even when it is obvious to the children that it is necessary. Here the children begin to shift roles, and have to negotiate the pathways of making sure Mom is safe while being respectful and supportive.
I have been very lucky in my life to have had a Mother who nurtured me well while I was young, gave me my freedom (not without some struggle) when I was an adult, and who became a loving companion as she aged. This is not to say we did not have our moments. We did. In those moments, I found solace in women who I called my East Coast Mom and my West Coast Mom.
These women were meta-mothers to me. I gave them greater leeway to provide guidance and call me on my stuff, and idolized them in a way I never could with my mother. In turn, they mothered me through career changes, bad choices in relationships, and shared joys in celebrating my achievements and loves. When my mother began to fail, they stood by me and offered me solace and a safe haven to express my anger, sadness, resentment, and finally acceptance of who my mother was.
I firmly believe that none of us get the mother we want, but all of us get the mother we need. I also believe we are hard-wired to seek out mothering that will nurture us, no matter what our age and no matter who mothered us in our childhood. In turn, as we age and gain experience, no matter if we conceived a child and birthed one, or never had one, as women, we have the capacity to mother one another.
Our roles may change, but the need to be mothered does not. We are helpless creatures for much longer than any other species. Our vulnerabilities are protected by nurturing, feeding, being held, gazed on adoringly, and encouraged to try new things. Not all women have the capacity to deliver these in the quantities needed by a child. Some of us are better at it than others.
As we age, looking back on how we were mothered, how we mothered our own children (or those we cared for, regardless of biologic connection), and how we would have preferred to have been mothered are all fruit for re-casting ourselves as meta-mothers.
The world is in need of meta-mothers. Whether it is caring for animals, the earth, preserving traditions within a family, community or culture, or healing the dark legacies within a family, each woman can function as a mother in sharing love, encouragement, kindness, and open-hearted ness.
Happy Mother”s Day.