On an overcast December morning, my friend and I are sitting in a small coffee shop, warm mugs moulded to our hands. Catching up after months apart, we cling to one topic we’ve often explored together: motherhood.
We’ve learned that it’s not unidirectional. As we raise our children, we raise ourselves, allowing mothering to expand past the expected boundaries and infuse life beyond actual parenting.
Definitions need not apply
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there are 66 synonyms for mothering. One of them is “caregiving.” Indeed, mothering is a journey of caring, no matter how it starts or when.
There are birth moms, adoptive moms, surrogate moms, and stepmoms; there are pet moms; there are also mothering figures among us who never had their own children. A common denominator is the ability to move mountains, when mothering takes you there, to let go, to grieve and be transformed.
One plus one makes two … and sometimes more
Few of us imagine motherhood as a thoroughly positive affair or a straightforward one. Mothering is joyful, but it can also be overwhelming and exhausting, and a meandering journey at times.
“Motherhood changes you for the better and enhances your capacity to love,” says Robyn Hines, mom, stepmom, and grandmother. “You realize that your children have more to teach you than you can teach them.”
Stepmotherhood transforms you in myriad ways if you’re open to it. “Your love goes farthest when you offer your authentic self to your stepchildren, leaving room for saying sorry,” Hines says. Mothering is vulnerability and strength in a perfectly imperfect package.
Mothering through grieving
Sometimes, moms find themselves at the edge of the deepest precipice there is: loss. It’s where words disappear to make room for tears. And then, more growth.
“Grief has deepened my compassion, giving me more empathy and tenderness with my children and grandchildren, as well as others who go through tough times,” says Hines, who lost one of her children a few years ago.
Mothering through adversities
After her youngest son Jessie was brutally attacked five years ago, Sue Simpson’s life changed. Jessie now requires 24-hour care in an assisted living facility—and a strong advocate. That’s now part of the mothering journey for Simpson. “Looking back is too sad, so I look at what I can do today to improve his quality of life,” she says.
Parents of children with chronic health issues or post-traumatic injuries become, once again, caregivers. Something stays the same, though. “You’re always a mom, no matter what. A better mom,” says Simpson.
When Delia Filipescu’s only son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, mothering gave her meaning and reason, though she couldn’t envision the challenges ahead. “What defines me best as his mom is the ability to keep hope, sadness, and fear in my heart simultaneously,” says Filipescu. “You go from just mom to caregiver and back again, rebuilding yourself as a stronger and better mom.”
Mothering knows no bounds
Oxytocin transcends the human realm, and that means that a loving gaze from your beloved dog can also trigger the release of the “love hormone.”
Olivia Martin chose to commit to raising a special needs pup, after tragically losing two others to chronic illness. “Taking care of a dog transforms you into a mom before you know it,” she says. “It’s humbling and beautiful,” she admits. Growing numbers of adopted dogs in Canada are testament to that.
Rearranging attachment patterns
Parenting is a life-changer, no matter how it happens. There was a time when the expectation was that almost everyone became a parent. But people redefine boundaries when it comes to life and parenting, which is reflected in the numbers of couples with and without children being about the same in Canada.
The reasons are many and complex: some people struggle with infertility or medical problems that prevent them from having children; others opt not to have biological children for personal, environmental, or other reasons.
We are social creatures and we need closeness; maternal instincts can manifest in many ways. Mothering each other in friendships or mothering younger relatives in need of such an attachment figure add much to our well-being, both emotional and physical.
Stepping outside after our warming coffee conversation, my friend and I step into a twirl of dancing snowflakes. Some land on my palm and transform, and I think, I’m witnessing the very definition of motherhood: delicate beauty melting into tears, becoming warmth, joy, and future nourishment.
When tragedy strikes
Almost one in four women in Canada experience miscarriage. Late miscarriages may be seen as harder to bear, but loss is heartbreaking whenever it occurs. If you know someone who’s bearing this kind of loss, acknowledge it by sending a thoughtful note, dropping off meals, or sending flowers. Ask how you can best provide help. Grief needs time and space; being present when and how you’re needed is the best gift.
The chemistry of human bonds
Most of us know oxytocin as the love or feel-good hormone, and for its role in birth and lactation. Indeed, this small but mighty neuropeptide plays an essential role in social and intimate bonding, including the connection between parents and children.
But it does far more than that.
Mothering and oxytocin work together to help raise kind and caring humans. Their combined action, and that means including Dad as well as other attachment figures, is particularly important during the first six months of life. Simply put, love and affection powered by oxytocin help children grow up happy and social.