We were eating dinner around our kitchen table when my dad asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I was 14 and into serious religious piety at the moment, so I answered, “I want to be a missionary to Africa.” My brother, five years younger, wanted to be a fire engine driver. My 7-year-old sister rose to the occasion by declaring; “I don’t want to be anything. I just want to be a mother.”
“Just a mother!”
I still remember when my first child, a boy, was put into my arms. I thought he was perfect and beautiful, and because I’d expected a red-faced, wrinkled bundle of humanity – the books had warned me – I quickly checked his wrist band to see if they had given me the wrong baby.
We so loved this miracle we had created. And we made the mistakes we often make with the first-born. But his father and I dreamed about who he might become someday. His first steps in this world were so special, and the shoes he wore then are forever encased in copper. So many steps after that …
Two other children followed, a girl and another boy. I still have vivid recollections of that moment when I held them for the first time: a chubby-faced little daughter bundled in a pink blanket, a second son whom the doctor pronounced “another perfect baby.”
Even those early moments themselves belie the throwaway words, “just a mother.” We have such memories of our children, as babies and as they grow. We nurture them, encourage them, discipline them, and most of all, love them always, the best we know how.
I remember all the “stages” identified in parenting books: first smile, first steps, first lost tooth, first climb up the school bus steps, and so many “firsts” after that as they confronted life.
We wrestled with how to discipline the temper tantrums, picky eaters, deliberate disobedience. How to handle the disappointments, fears and everyday challenges.
I was lucky to be a stay-at-home mom until my youngest was 8. And when I began teaching, my hours still allowed me to be home when they left for school in the morning and return within an hour after they came home in the afternoon.
It was especially important later when their father died, all of them in their fragile teens. I tried to fill both roles of mom and dad after that. I watched sports their dad would have enjoyed, supervised their driver’s tests, worried about their first cars and how to finance their college education. And finally there was the ultimate challenge. Knowing when to let go.
I remember the day my youngest learned to ride a bike. I ran behind him those first times, like my dad had done for me, steadying him by holding on to the seat of the bike. Then that magic moment when he called, “Let go now, mom! Let go.” And how I watched him wobble, and fall, and get up and try again.
“Let go.” That’s perhaps the most difficult for moms. Our “apron strings” are so comforting. But we need to know when our children must be free. I hope I knew when that time came. (You’d have to ask my adult kids.)
Women today are proud to claim so many titles: engineers, corporate executives, surgeons. Careers not even imagined in our history until the 20th century. Nurse, teacher, secretary was mostly what we knew. And, of course, always, “mother.”
This Mother’s Day, I’ll receive flowers, cards and phone calls from my kids who now live far away. And once again I’ll relive all those years and all the memories that go with them.
“Just” a mother? I don’t think so.