One of the hardest realizations in life, and one of the most liberating, is that our mothers are neither saints nor saviors — they are just people who, however messy or painful our childhood may have been, and however complicated the adult relationship, have loved us the best way they knew how, with the cards they were dealt and the tools they had.
It is a whole life’s work to accept this elemental fact, and a life’s triumph to accept it not with bitterness but with love.
How to make that liberating shift of perspective is what the playwright, suffragist, and psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell (September 14, 1883–March 6, 1979) considers in a passage from her 1968 autobiography The Measure of My Days (public library).
A mother’s love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition. Even when she swallows it whole she is only acting like any frightened mother cat eating its young to keep it safe.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Kahlil Gibran’s insight into the delicate balance of intimacy and independence essential for romantic love — which is always an echo of our formative attachments — she adds:
It is not easy to give closeness and freedom, safety plus danger.
With a wary eye to the brunt of parental expectation under which all children live, well into adulthood, she writes:
No matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement. It could not be otherwise for she is impelled to know that the seeds of value sown in her have been winnowed. She never outgrows the burden of love, and to the end she carries the weight of hope for those she bore. Oddly, very oddly, she is forever surprised and even faintly wronged that her sons and daughters are just people, for many mothers hope and half expect that their newborn child will make the world better, will somehow be a redeemer. Perhaps they are right, and they can believe that the rare quality they glimpsed in the child is active in the burdened adult.
Perhaps that glimpse is what Maurice Sendak meant when he observed that life is largely a matter of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”
Complement with Kahlil Gibran’s advice on children, the pioneering psychologist Donald Winnicott on the mother’s contribution to society, and Alison Bechdel’s superb Winnicott-inspired Are You My Mother?, then savor My Mother’s Eyes — a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love — and Mary Gaitskill’s poignant advice on how to move through life when your parents are dying.