Among the Kung of the Kalahari Desert, when a baby is born, the newborn is passed around the circle of women who attend the birth and each woman suckles the child for a moment, whether or not they are lactating, before the placenta is birthed, after which the baby is returned to her mother. As the evolutionary psychologist Sarah Hrdy in her book Mothers and Others points out this practice is not restricted to the !Kung but is ritualized in many indigenous cultures. Why is this? It turns out that “alt mothering” as this is known, is an evolutionary adaptation that we Homo sapiens first developed on the savannah when there was no guarantee that the birth mother would survive to be the sole parent to the child. (Sarah Hrdy Mother and Others, Harvard Univ Press: 2009)
Here in the West we take it for granted that only the birth mother can adequately suckle her baby, but in fact, as millennia of wet nurses have shown, this is not the case, and in fact, it is healthier for a child to be exposed to different mother’s milk over the long run, given the baby the natural antibodies of many mothers. Even in some matriarchal societies, fathers ritually suckle their new borns as an indication of their future role in protecting and raising a child. (Shelley Taylor The Tending Instinct Henry Holt Press: 2002)
When Hilary Clinton popularized the phrase, it takes a village to raise a child, this was, in effect what she was saying. Countless studies have shown that a baby is not a baby alone; there must be at least a parent, and preferably many “parents” to adequately raise a child into a community. It seems that it’s our individualism which has robbed us of this spiritual truth. When did we start to believe we could do this all our own? Heroizing or demonizing single mothers robs all of us of the opportunity to change the world in which we live.
I grew up in a nuclear family. And it was anything but ideal. My mother, bless her memory, did the best she could raise me and my rambunctious brother, with my father often away on long international trips. She cried often, and drank too much, and smoked two packs a day. Some mornings she couldn’t get up and I got my brother and me off to school. At age seven I was told to watch him by my mother and he fell into a swimming pool. He survived but I carried a lot of anger towards my children for years for my shattered sense of self. It would take a long time and a lot of therapy for me to be a good parent.
But as time when on, all this got better. In part because my father was home more, but more importantly because my mother found a larger group of friends, other women from our Unitarian Church who took turns taking care of all these boys. There was an unwritten rule: You are free to discipline as you see best and keep them alive by five. My mom had created a community of mothers all, who gave all of us alive and thriving. It is not so for many though. When I was a younger man, I thought I would be a great parent. Like my Dad. Until much later when I realized that he had his share of failings as well. I thought I would have eight kids, and we would have all the fun we could. Five or six kids later, I think I did a pretty good job, they are all alive anyway, most of them employed and a few even happy. And after all the late night scares, car accidents and financial disasters, I can say we did have a little fun.
Our LFD program is based on this shared principle, so is our preschool which is a cooperative, mothers and fathers united in raising all the children together. The mothering instinct is more than biological; it is social, perhaps even spiritual. That is what we saw last week in our COA service, mentors and parents raising spiritual kids into adulthood. That is what Ed will do next Sunday in our Youth Concert.
Parenthood is not a biological designation as much as it is a responsibility, and we fill it in more than one way. Roles can and should change with circumstances if not ease. Can you hear me?
Still. Life is fragile and sometimes short, trauma can occur and people can and, as more than a few of you know do, lose their children. It is a tragedy of soul crushing proportions.
We define family broadly as well we should; it takes all kinds of people to create a family. We are all parents, mothers all, fathers all, here, believe it or not. That said, we should always find the parent of a child before acting, but all of us are here today because of the mothers and fathers, biological or not that shaped us.
That said, I don’t want to ignore how hard being a mother or a father can be especially if we were damaged in our own upbringing. Mother’s Day is a complicated holidays. Beyond the sentimentality, I am well aware how some of us simply survived our parents and some of us had to find our parents elsewhere.
What does it mean to have your idealized image of yourself as a parent destroyed and rebuilt into something more flawed but authentic? It means your faith changes. You stop idealizing what could be and start to accept what you are; a sort of Buddhist practice of acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, it means working as best as you can with what you have. Parenthood, regardless of whether you are a parent or parenting your elder parents as they sunset through life, is about living with grace through the trials of life. Those who have had a baby pee all over you, or have changed a Depends on an infirm elder, must realize that we all come and go through life in all its messiness. We make mistakes, but rarely are they fatal. Kids, as I now know, have tremendous resilience. And often they will forgive you.
Parents – and all of us have parented in one way or another – are just people. We make mistakes, we fail, we get up and we try again. And life goes on. The hardest fall for those who are growing up is realizing that their parents are far from perfect. And yet still, most often, they are worthy of our love.
Someone related to me a story of a child who could not stop screaming in a McDonald’s restaurant until finally an old man, stood up and screamed at the top of his lungs to shut up! His wife embarrassed escorted him out, the child and most of the restaurant fell silent. Now your reaction to this story will depend a great deal on where you are in the parenting spectrum and what kind of child or childhood you had. Many will say, “darn tooting”, that child was out of control, and those parents should either control him or not take him out to eat. Some will recognize that all of us are uncomfortable with screaming children for many reasons, part evolutionary and part social. And some will feel sorry for the child, the parents and the old man. For all we know the child may have deep issues and this was a good day, for all we know the old man has early dementia and has lost his ability to filter emotions. Those who grow up with spirited children are often just doing the very best they can, and deserve our help not our judgment. I have seen this many times on airplanes; there are a few who are intolerant of children, a few who are very helpful and most who try to ignore the whole trip.
But for troubled children and their troubled parents I offer this: It’s no one’s fault. Children are not little adults and holding up a four year old to the same social standards as a 30 year old is mistaken. And many adults act more like children than the rational and compassionate people they are. Too often we measure others actions by our own standards and experience without trying to imagine what the other person is going through.
What I am trying to say is this: We are all mothers and fathers in one way or another. All children, even complete strangers, deserve our understanding as they attempt to navigate a world through young eyes. And parents deserve our compassion and help, starting with forgiving yourself for not being all that you dreamed you would be.
I often think of my own mother who died quite young 15 years ago at the age of 73. One of her favorite statues was the Pieta by Michelangelo, the powerful image of Mother Mary holding her son after he has been taken down from the cross. Her anguish is profound. The son she bore, raised, and had to let go so that he could fulfill his destiny, is dead. What could have been is gone. But my mother would remind me that Mary was not alone in her grief, because she had others around her, those women and Simon Peter who stayed to remove his lifeless body and place him tenderly in the tomb.
My beloveds, we are not alone either. No matter where you are in life, as the child of a mother, you are surrounded here by those who love you and care for you. And perhaps that is the most powerful testament to Mother’s Day, a day to remind ourselves that we are, and we are surrounded by mothers all in an ageless embrace.
Let me close with this reflection from Katie Lee Crane:
“Sadly, I don’t trust Hallmark to remember the feelings of the women who don’t fit Mother’s Day in quite the same wonderful way. There are no cards on the rack for the women who gave up children for adoption, never to see them again. No cards for the women who face the painful and difficult choice to end a pregnancy. No cards for women who desperately want to conceive and bear children and cannot. No cards for women who have lost children of any age or for the women whose children have abandoned them in anger. There is little consolation for them on a day so full of “motherhood and apple pie.” Every year when Mother’s Day rolls around I wish there were just a little less hype about traditional motherhood, and a little more acknowledgement of not -so- traditional “mothers” in our midst people who come in all colors, shapes, sizes, genders and ages. And more than anything, I wish there were a lot more empathy for those who suffer because mothers are being honored and they don’t fit in in quite the same wonderful way. Let us honor them all on this day. Women who conceived. Women who bore. Women who reared. Women who lost. Women who let go. Women who made different choices. And people of any gender who mother. Happy day. May each of you know your worth to all of us.”