all the mothers
After the birth of my second daughter I started a slow but earnest search for mothers. I wanted to read their accounts in literature, I wanted to see their perspiration in a painting, I wanted to study thick-legged women cradling their babies in statues of marble. I took 6 humanities classes in college and not once did I see some ancient homage to motherhood, or read an epic poem about the phases of childbirth. I was a young mother with two daughters and still felt like I was reeling from the whole undertaking. My identity had transformed and it felt revelatory, destined even, but my brain was fuzzy, my definitions now hazy, my heart, with all its stretching and scarring, was on fire. Where were the mothers describing this muddle of emotion and weight? So often I'd found repose in words and pictures and suddenly it felt as though an entire canon of mothers was missing.
There's not much written about the tunnel vision of early motherhood, you won't find famous labor stories in the history books, mostly because those experiencing it have little capacity to think beyond their duties. The time I spent with mothers was always fleeting, filled with unfinished sentences, interrupted thoughts, the untimely cry of a toddler tripping on the stairs. But I clung to those moments like a gift, clung to other women's wisdom and experience to help define my own. I saw women translated somehow. I had been surrounded by them my entire life and never knew the depths of their existence. Years earlier I was speechless the night my boss miscarried; six months pregnant and then nothing but an ache in her belly. I see her ashen-face and swollen eyes and me in her path with no words, trying to conjure the smallest understanding of her loss. I watched a teenager hand her baby over for adoption, she sobbed against the shirt of her mother, her hands squeezing the fabric into worn, wet, wrinkles. I thought of my neighbors still changing diapers in their seventies, carrying their daughter like a baby from her wheelchair to bed, singing Blue Moon in her ear and kissing her cheeks. Acquaintances became heroes, aunts became saints. I forgave my mother everything. I started seeing mothers everywhere. I saw them crying in the hallway after sending their last child to Kindergarten. I saw them humiliated in the grocery store. And when my daughter threw up all over me in a waiting room, they were there handing me wipes. I have seen great courage in checkout lines, on airplanes, in public swimming pools, at birthday parties. I've seen women lose themselves only to rise again new beings with unparalleled resilience and generous hearts. I've seen women boldly declare “mother” before profession and nationality.
These became my stories, my statues, my epic poems, written in the faces of women and mothers, and grandmothers, aunts, and sisters, with goldfish flooding their purses and spit up on their blouses; the first to offer a diaper, a blanket, the extra peanut butter sandwich they packed just in case someone forgot.