Posted on 05/12/2017 at 12:00 AM by Dena Boelter
I’m not a mother, the way society defines it. And that used to be a fact that I felt I needed to explain, or apologize for, or elaborate on in order for others to understand and not judge. I used to think that being childless defined me, even limited me. I used to think not having children would always be a source of regret, that I would stare at the frames on my desk at work and long to have pictures of my own children filling those square spaces. There are a lot of beliefs I used to hold. But now I can see the facts as they are, and live in that place.
I haven’t birthed a child, haven’t experienced weird food cravings during pregnancy, and haven’t struggled through sleepless nights holding a baby. I haven’t agonized over school district enrollment, or kissed skinned knees, or mailed family Christmas cards. But, I have chosen baby names, like every middle school girl dreaming of her white picket future does at some point. Autumn for a girl, and Jesse for a boy. And I have imagined what Gunnar and I’s children would look like...they would be tall, and have his eyes and my nose, and hopefully not inherit my tendency to worry too much. We would go camping as a family every summer. I can picture it...I’m watching as Gunnar shows them how to bait a hook and cast. They are giggling, the setting sun shining off their hair, and they turn and look at me, and call me mom.
Those imaginings will always be just that, and I’ve found peace with that reality. I used to think that not having children made me somehow less than as a woman. I worried that I was not allowing my parents the gift of being grandparents. And I was sure that every time I held a friend’s baby I would feel a void and an ache deep inside of what would never be for me. What I’ve come to realize though, and with a joyful conviction, is that I am a mother.
Motherhood, as I’ve been told, requires sacrifice. It’s a place of being that allows you the strength to do things you didn’t think you could do before. For me, it was the ability to, without hesitation, taste my dog Rocky’s pee. No, this wasn’t out of some strange curiosity or a dare. Rocky, our greyhound, had been peeing a lot, and it was mentioned by a friend that it may be a sign of diabetes. If his pee tasted sweet, he needed to go to the vet. I remember not being alarmed by this suggestion, or disgusted, which is surprising for me, who puts a stop to any conversation that veers into the “bodily output” category. But, here I was, kneeling in the grass, by Rocky’s fresh pee puddle, dipping my finger and tasting, praying it wouldn’t be sweet. Thankfully, he didn’t turn out to be diabetic; he just liked the treats I gave him as a reward for going potty outside, and he had learned how to manipulate the system. I guess what became clear is that I didn’t falter when it came to taking care of my boy. With no thought to my own discomfort, I did what I had to do to for him. I am a mother.
Motherhood also means you put your children and their needs above your own. I am a teacher at Metro, the alternative high school in Cedar Rapids. I work with at-risk youth who come to us for all kinds of reasons, but every one of them arrive on our stoop with baggage. It could be poverty, being bullied at their previous school, family trauma, homelessness, anxiety, depression, the stresses of being a teen parent, substance abuse, truancy, or just needing a new start. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of being a mother to many, many students who needed one, or sometimes needed another (their own mother, and a surrogate).
I just returned from a week-long hiking and camping trip in Arkansas and Missouri with Metro students as part of our outdoor education program. Several of these students hadn’t ever been out of Iowa, and so this trip was a comfort zone pusher, to say the least. One night, when it was rainy and cold, a couple of the girls refused to go into their tents and insisted on spending the night in the van. It took not only me, but their own mothers back home via phone to convince them to go in their tents and that everything would be fine. During the week, I gave out dry socks, essential oils, lip balm, and Tylenol. I bandaged cuts, and hugged tears away. I listened to stories of their lives and gave advice when asked. I ate last, to make sure there was enough food for everyone else. I endured the dreaded, “Are we there yet?” question while traveling and answered with, “Can’t be much longer now. Just around the corner.” I might have also uttered, “Don’t make me turn this van around!” Crawling into my tent at the end of each day, worry kept me up: “Will they be warm enough? Is Kenzie too homesick? Will Travis sleep better tonight?” I think this is what moms do.
Motherhood is also about offering stability. It’s about being a consistent, stable adult in a child’s life. I remember picking up former student Dawn and her daughter for school frequently. Dawn was faced with very adult responsibilities at a young age, and didn’t have much family support. She lived with an alcoholic mother and a boyfriend who was never eager to help out. In my rearview mirror, I can still see her carrying Jen and the car seat, one on each hip, so much to balance. I remember thinking of all the experiences she had that I just couldn’t relate to fully. At 17 she was learning how to be a mom, and I was learning how to be a mom to her, in the best way I could. So, it came in the form of rides. I looked forward to our time in the car together. Jen in the backseat, kicking her legs happily, sippy cup in her chubby little hand, and Dawn, who depended on that time in the car, a chance for her to be quiet, or to talk about whatever was on her mind. I am a mother.
More than anything though, motherhood requires emotional strength and resilience. When it was time to say goodbye to our greyhounds, Rocky and Apollo, to old age, I was there with each of them. I cradled their heads, told them how much I loved them, how special they were, and how beautiful, how much joy they brought into our lives. Dogs communicate through energy. They sense emotion and react. Knowing that, I stayed calm, and as they drifted away, only then did I allow myself to cry. This strength, I know with certainty, is a mother’s heart, and I am a mother.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. Motherhood is a broad definition, and I hope you celebrate all the mothering you’ve received, in all its forms.
Photo: Mary and her godson Cole and Apollo