What is Mothers’ Day to me?

My mom's mom. My mom. My dad's mom.
Ouma van Wyk – Ma – Ouma du Toit.

I never aspired to be a mother. To me what was normal was this: Girls grow up, they start dating, they meet a guy, they fall in love, they get married, they have babies. My life started before The Pill and abortions were unheard of (except for the life-threatening back-street kind). It was way before Roe v Wade in another country. I had a great-aunt who ran a home for unwed mothers. The shame was all on the woman. For the man it was proof of his manhood. No-one ever talked about what it might mean to the ‘bastard’. (Oh my. Now there’s a word I’ve not heard in many a year, and the last few times I heard it it had everything to do with a man’s moral character and nothing to do with his mom’s marital status at the time of his birth.)

How things have shifted and changed. At 20 I married the boy I fell in love with when I was 13. Yes, we got our hands on that pill before we were married. Big secret back then. But went off the pill when I had Hep B. Drifted into first pregnancy shortly thereafter. We have two sons, four grandsons and two granddaughters. And several daughters-in-law. So, although I didn’t ever have intention FOR or AGAINST motherhood, I drifted into it (safely beyond the window where the start date of the pregnancy might prudishly be speculated upon) and the rest is history. I told my oldest grandson, when he turned 21, that I was too young to be a great-grandmother so please to continue to be careful. So far so good.

A powerful lesson I’ve learnt is that motherhood is a life mission.

When you work on having a baby you’re focused on the ‘baby’ aspect of it. And here I am with adult sons and their adult sons (and a few younger ‘uns hanging about). They have significantly shaped me to become the woman I am today. All the way from a toddler being fearful of his bathwater to the muscular athlete who shared the job with me of paddling a canoe down the rapids – a mini version of the African white water canoeing his dad and I shared many years ago. The young boy who thanked me for waking him so he was with us in the car when we met a pack of Cape hunting dogs in the early hours. The boy whose father discovered photography in that same place and is now a skilled and avid wild life photographer (among other things). The little girl who looks so much like my oldest sister that it hurts how much I miss my sisters.

I think of how I took family and family values for granted. Whatever they were, they were ‘normal’. Because of the close bond between my mother and her brothers we grew up with close bonds with our cousins. It was normal. They were in a friendship category beyond other friends. We shared history and genes. We all looked alike, to a degree. (My father once came into the kitchen where I was chattering and making pancakes with three of my cousins. He looked at us, bemused, and then addressed me as ‘miss’ because he couldn’t quite figure out which one I was.) And although my boys mostly grew up being ineptly and sometimes grumpily being single-parented by me, we came through it all and here I am, in business with one son and editing a manuscript for the other. We spent Christmas together. I love being an adult with my adult children. I may not have planned being a mother, but it sure was the right thing to do. I’d do it again.

And then my own mother: I thought she was great at parenting. I said so once, to my eldest sister. “You’ve got to be kidding! They were a pair of amateurs. They were clueless!” And so I arrived at one of my theories about family: The oldest child is always the teacher: they teach the parents how to parent and then the younger kids benefit from parents who know how to do the job. So I imagined that being the oldest child of the oldest child would be the hardest thing in the world. A comfortable self-serving thought for a youngest child: I thought my oldest son would have it easy, because I KNOW how to parent. Turns out it’s not as simple as that. It was frightening to be fully responsible for this poor helpless little human being. Not at all like having a dog or a cat. I got so much of it wrong. And yet, there he was with the sweetest nature and the loveliest cuddly little chuckle. And yes, he was way cuddlier than the cat.

It was easier with my second son, as my model predicted. I knew how to do the basic baby care thing. I knew what the real warning signs were. He was very different. A serious little chap. That same seriousness manifested when he wrote my mom a letter many years later, in which he thanked her for the family values that she had passed on to him, through me.

This is not the stuff you say in your resume or your corporate profile when you’re trying to drum up a new job or new business. It is invisible in that marketplace. However, here in my eighth decade, I find myself helping families resolve disagreements and mediating disputes, and this is the bank I draw from. What I’ve learnt from life for having been a mother for most of it. Of course you apply the skills and knowledge from your degrees and courses, the books you read and the jobs you’ve had, but I believe that there is a calmness (and hopefully the seeds of some wisdom) that comes from being solidly anchored in a connected loving family that makes it possible to help others overcome their relationship difficulties too.

My mom and my grandmothers anchored me, each in their own way. My mom’s mom taught me about independence and boundaries. BOY! She had some very strict boundaries and yet, she was her grandkids’ favourite because she was loving and full of fun too. Through her I learnt that there is great comfort in knowing what the boundaries are. And consequences. My dad’s mom: She was a real Victorian lady, although, ironically, she lost sisters and nephews in British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war, while Victoria was queen. She was an intellectual. She was dignified and thoughtful and meticulous. She was calm where my other gran was volatile. And then my mom: well, as the third offspring of her own mother, she passed on the rules of the game around discipline, boundaries and meticulous honesty, but never at the cost of politeness. She’s the best driver I’ve ever met and I developed my love of cars and road trips through her. She was an avid dog lover: there were always dogs in my life even from before I was born. Still are. And her knowledge of and interest in nature – from gardening to spotting napping lions under the thorn tree on the horizon or identifying a raspy bird call – that is also embedded in me.

And so I’m prone to bring my heritage to my work: I tend to bring nature analogies to my stories, I search for my clients’ boundaries and anchors: do they know what makes them tick? Moreover, if they aren’t naturally curious about what is going on in the life of the other persons they may be quarrelling with, I help them discover that so that we can find mutually beneficial solutions. Ironically, I started out on this blog early this morning, reflecting upon the meaning of Mothers’ Day – the commercialization thereof around the sale of candies, flowers and cards, the social pressure to be able to mention what gifts or calls you may have received, how I always would take the bus into downtown Johannesburg to buy my mom some of her favourite coconut ice candy from Dick’s Sweets for Mothers’ Day. And then it became a reflection on what these three women who are all present in my genes and my history contributed to me being who I am right now. I’m not laying any blame for my flaws – those are mine. But I am grateful to have had all three of in my life for as long as they were there.

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