To me, the definition of motherhood is someone who nurtures. Yes, carrying a child in your womb for months and then giving birth creates a lifelong bond that cannot be broken, even by separation. However, it's the nurturing of a child throughout life that, to me, represents motherhood.
Many children face significant challenges as they navigate their early years. Some children face severe challenges.
Even so, if a child knows that there is someone he or she can count on during difficult times, as well as someone to share the wonderful times with, their development will be enhanced. This nurturing presence is symbolized by motherhood, whether that nurturing is provided by the birth mother, an adoptive parent, a grandmother, an aunt or a father.
Mothers who could not (or would not) nurture
While many of us are mothers, all of us are someone's child.
If we had a mother who was neglectful or abusive, it affects us for life. The cause for this neglect or abuse may stem from mental illness, emotional scars from the woman's own childhood abuse or a self-centeredness that is intrinsic to her personality. If the children of these women are fortunate, they may find a more appropriate mother figure in a grandmother, an aunt or even the mother of a friend. If they are not so fortunate, they may struggle throughout life to learn what it is to love and be loved.
We need to understand that no mother is perfect and no human will make the right call for their child's well-being every time. Forgiveness by the child toward the less-than-perfect parent is essential to having a mutually beneficial relationship.
Caring for our aging mothers
By the time we become middle aged, our mother or mother figure may show signs of needing assistance. This change in our relationship with our mother can be confusing for even the most tenderly raised adult child. For the adult child who was neglected or abused, this change can be tormenting. Significant challenges arise when adult children are faced with caring for narcissistic parents.
So, how much do we owe our mothers?
If our mothers were nurturing, do we owe them constant care, our financial welfare, our marriage or own children's welfare? I don't believe so. What we "owe" our parents is respect, if they've earned it and, except for the most egregious situation, some respect for their place in society, even if their parenting wasn't exemplary.
I've gathered from reading questions written by caregiving sons and daughters that there is frequently an inverse relationship between how nurturing the mother was during the adult child's youth and how much care the mother expects once she ages. This is, I must stress, entirely unscientific and simply an observation on my part, based on reading a multitude of questions and comments from other caregivers.
Yet, it does seem to me that women who have nurtured their children into adulthood and then find themselves needing more help with the increasing issues of age generally don't want their children to completely give up their own lives in order to provide care. Conversely, many mothers who were especially selfish and demanding as they raised their children—and thus were not good nurturers—are often selfish and demanding aging parents who expect great sacrifice from their grown children.
It seems that because of their innate selfishness, their mental instability or their scars from their own childhood of abuse, these women continue their attempts to control the adult child. This is where the adult child needs to set boundaries.
Providing some type of care for our aging parents is generally good. Turning over one's life and future to our parents rarely is. The challenge is finding a balance that allows us to appropriately care for our parents while we maintain healthy relationships with our spouse, our own children and others who are important to us.
Do we ever become our mother's mother?
I frequently stress that we never become our parent's parent. Caring for parents versus caring for children are two very different endeavors.
We may feed our mother pureed food, change her diapers and handle her money during her last years. Doing so may often make us feel like we have become her mother and she our child. Having spent two decades caring for different combinations of multiple elders, I can relate to that feeling.
However, feeling like we are performing the chores for our elders that we once did for our babies still doesn't change the basic fact that this person is still our elder. Remembering that this person has a legacy of years lived, challenges faced, and pain suffered, as well as triumphs and failures, helps us keep our relationship in perspective.
Our mother—or mother figure—remains so, even after her body and mind betray her. Her place in our history does not change.
Who is our mother?
In the end, we all have to make our own decisions about what motherhood is and to whom we owe our allegiance. After that, we need to remember that we also owe our children, our spouse and ourselves time, love and patience. Juggling these emotional and practical demands is an ongoing challenge.
I believe that we are honoring the legacy of true motherhood when we strive to do our best to nurture those who need nurturing.
We learn from our mother's mistakes and our own. We "mother" those who need mothering—whether they are children, elders, ill spouses or others whom we love. We also allow independence and respect to all generations, appropriate to their needs. True motherhood means nurturing ourselves, as well. A true, nurturing mother would want her offspring to practice self-care, even if our mother figure is now unable to communicate those feelings.