The Magnitude of Motherhood

                                                              Artwork by Grade 1 Student

Mother’s Day weekend, always turns my attention to my mother and how I mother, and Charles Dickens1: “It was the best of times,  it was the worst of times, …”  The only thing more joyous or tough than being a kid, is being the kid’s mother.  There is a magnitude to the task of mothering.  Grand success is celebrated.  Mistakes will echo for a lifetime.  Frequently the definitions of both differ widely, depending on the person making the judgment.

One Mother’s Day, my five-year-old and his three-year-old sister arrived at my bedroom door carefully negotiating the ultimate treat, “breakfast in bed”.  My husband was away on business but proudly, the tray was placed on my lap with the folded napkin, handmade cards, juice and their favorite breakfast.

My daughter, Larkyn: “I wanted milk on the Cheerios.”

My son, Tyler: “I told Larkyn, it was just too big a risk.  The juice was enough.”

As mothers, the question is always:  What is too big a risk?  The quest to protect is hardwired with hormones and magnified with adoration of the tiny addition to our world.  My younger brother was killed in a car accident less than a year before our precious boy child was born.  En route home from the hospital with our son, I was overwhelmed with the task of protecting my baby.  The fear of the worst case scenario was palpable.  I wanted to protect every aspect of his life.

As a pre-schooler, Tyler was looking up at me with adoring eyes while we were reading Franklin in the Dark2.

“You’re not afraid of anything, are you Mommy?” Then after a brief pause, he continued with a quizzical brow. “Except underground parking lots.  You’re really afraid of underground parking lots.”

The conversation continued that although I was afraid of underground parking lots, I still went in them.  It was okay to be afraid, but if you never did anything that was a bit scary, life would be boring and you would never learn new things. The trick deciding what risks were worth it and taking precautions.

My father and step-mother were extremely fearful.  My father went through the war in Germany as a child, became a neurosurgeon and regularly dealt with serious head trauma.  My step-mother loved her routine and feared lots of things like dust, water and snakes.  One summer at our cabin, the wind came up while we were fishing and I couldn’t get the motor started.  My step-mother was terrified and I used every ounce of my ten-year-old muscle mass to row us to the safety of the dock.  Worst case scenario, we would have landed on the other side of the lake or on the rocks in the creek.  Life was filled with danger and the possibility of embarrassing yourself.  I was terrified to make mistakes.  That was one reason, I chose to live in British Columbia with my mother.

My mother was also fearful, but my Auntie Myrna was her counter balance.  She was my mother’s older sister and could make the rules.  As a little girl at the beach, Stanley Park and Tatlow Park, where my Grandpa was a caretaker after retirement, I remember her lifting me up big trees and rocks so I could climb up to where the big kids were.  My Auntie Myrna believed I could handle the risk and so I did.  My temperament and my need to keep up with my older sister, cousins, and kids in the neighbourhood meant I grew familiar with accepting a challenge.

My boy cousins on my Dad’s side were always filled with ideas that took me to risky places when we visited our grandparents in Abbotsford or camped as adults in Osoyoos.  My boy cousins could get me to try new things, break rules, and play hard.  Even as an adult, I would rise to the challenge.  One cousin managed to get me to swim across Osoyoos Lake to the American border and back.  Yet pride did not always require accomplishment.  My boy cousins still do a good imitation of me trying to say “One more time” with a mouth full of water as I tried repetitively to get up on one water ski.  I never did get up on one ski, but the story is told with admiration at how long and hard I tried.

As a mother, the challenge is to encourage our kids to try new things and support them for trying even in the face of disappointment.  The first time my daughter didn’t get, yet another DQ (disqualification), for her butterfly stroke at a swim competition, our family was wildly crazy with excitement and cheers.  The father beside me asked if I realized my kid didn’t win.  Just depends on your definition of what counts as a win.

It is heartbreaking to see our children experience injuries, failure or disappointment or sadness.  It is hard to teach them to accept an outcome they didn’t expect, to be hurt or to recognize their own mistakes without blame.  We can’t navigate the pathway for our children.  We can help them to take risks to learn new things and meet new people, problem solve when things don’t go as anticipated and accept responsibility for mistakes.  Resilience is required to find joy in life despite disappointment.

Upon her graduation from Queen’s University, Larkyn thanked me for never saying a degree in philosophy was a waste of time because she’d never get a job.  When pushed by a CBC reporter at The Quarry House Restaurant one Mother’s Day about what he loved about his mother, Tyler replied: “She has always supported me in whatever I wanted to do.”  The biggest gratitude I have for my mom is that she always believed in me, even when I didn’t.  Apparently, our task as mothers is encouraging our children in the challenges they choose, celebrating victories, supporting them as they cope with adversity, and believing in them.

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  1. Charles Dickens (1859). A Tale of Two Cities.
  2. Paulette Bourgeois (1986). Franklin in the Dark.
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One thought on “The Magnitude of Motherhood

  1. What an absolutely beautiful piece. Heartwarming, heart wrenching and honest to its core. I used to worry about my son dying — for no particular reason. I just worried because life was and is filled with danger. And, I could not imagine much worse that losing a child, except perhaps a child losing a parent when the child is young. Now, my relationship with my adult son is strained for many reasons, some valid and others not. But, as Mother’s Day approaches I know this: there really is no love like a mother’s for her child (or children). And, one hopes that as a parent, one gives one’s child both roots and wings as the saying goes. And, one more thought on Mother’s Day, for the children who don’t have mothers or have mothers who don’t care sufficiently or are psychologically absent: don’t despair. There may be no biological substitute but there are many of us more than willing to be “parents” or “mentors” or surrogate mothers if, as and when needed. That’s worth remembering too.

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