As a small child, I celebrated Mother’s Day like everyone else. But starting in junior high, things got complicated.
When I was nine, my parents split up. It was a dramatic blow up, and two years later, after being stalked by my dad, my mother moved from Colorado to California. She pretty much abandoned my brother and me, leaving us in our father’s custody. About a year after she left, I got a postcard saying that Myra had gotten remarried.
About a year after she left, I got a postcard saying that Myra had gotten remarried. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been invited to the wedding. And I really couldn’t get over it.
I didn’t reconnect with Myra, my biological mother, until after college. We eventually became friends. A couple years ago, after Myra’s death, when we were dealing her affairs, I asked my brother Gene if he was feeling grief. His answer: “I miss her, but it’s not like she was MOM or anything.”
Because of those experiences, and also because I later chose not to have any children of my own, I have had to struggle with Mother’s Day. Hallmark’s images don’t resonate with my experience.
During my early teens, I didn’t have a mother. My surviving those years – the onset of puberty, my father’s violence and being bullied at school – owes a great deal to the tending and befriending I got from people other than my mother.
Psychologists have documented two different human responses to stress: the “fight-or-flight “response we all know about, and the “tend and befriend” response. Although evolutionary psychology theorizes that the tend-and-befriend strategy evolved as the typical female response to stress, while “fight or flight” is typically male, neither behavior is completely gender-defined. In other words, mothering behavior isn’t limited just to biological moms, or even just to females. It’s a coping response that helps both our young, and the human species, survive and evolve.
During my early teen years, as the child of an absent mother and an abusive father, I could have been called at “at risk” kid, had that term been invented then. My brother and I once ran away in sub-zero weather, and I often considered going to the Littleton courthouse and asking a judge to find some other family to adopt me.
During those hard times, my seventh-grade art teacher, Mrs. Anderson, offered me solo after-school art lessons, providing much more than clay and glaze. I planned suicide that year, but called it off at the last minute mostly because of my relationship with my art teacher, and because I didn’t want to leave my cat alone with my father. I don’t know if Mrs. Anderson ever knew how important her kindness, her willingness to listen and her encouragement were to me. But I’m here today to testify to that.
Later, I was befriended my stepmother, Elena. When I talk about “mom”, it’s usually Elena I’m not talking about, not my biological mother.
In my life, mothering has been less about a biological fact than a relational act.
When I was 11, Elena was one of my father’s multiple girlfriends. She phoned my father, Dick, one night when he was out on a date with another girlfriend – one that my brother and I didn’t particularly like. I tried to tactfully explain that Dick “wasn’t home” without saying why, but Elena quickly figured out the scenario. She rapidly interpreted the emotion in my voice and asked if I was scared.
At that time, Gene and I lived with my father in a somewhat rundown area of Littleton, near downtown. Once before, a prowler had tried to break into the house while we were alone. I scared the burglar off by turning the stereo up so loud that it was probably heard five blocks away. After that, we didn’t feel safe alone at night.
So when Elena offered to come get us, to take my brother and I out for a “date”, we didn’t say no.
She took us to the Top of the Rockies, and then to an art show at the Universalist Church in Denver. That was the start of a life-long relationship – two actually, if you count the church.
Later, Elena became my stepmother – and my true mom.
It was Elena who set my moral compass to true North, Elena who spent hours discussing with me how my behavior and decisions affect others and who got me involved with the UU youth group. It was Elena who modeled deep listening, kindness, and respect. Elena who served up special birthday dinners, encouraged my art and helped me find my voice. Some of that must also have stuck, because younger friends come to me asking for advice, and neighborhood kids have even adopted this old lady as a surrogate grandmother.
Listening, kindness, respect. Tending and befriending. That’s what mothering is about. You don’t have to be a mother to serve it up. You don’t even have to be female.
So happy Mothering Day to every teacher, doctor, psychologist, minister, camp counselor and sympathetic neighbor who has helped a child – and by extension human species – along the path to maturity and wholeness.
This piece was part of a Mother’s Day service at Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church on May 14, 2017.