She stands in the kitchen looking at me. Her hair is stringy and needs to be brushed. She’s shifting from side to side uncomfortably, unsure of what I’m doing there or what to say.
Her brother overdosed last night. Her mother is my good friend, and the swirling vortex of grief and community sucked me into her kitchen, stocking the refrigerator and tidying the counters because that feels like something when there’s nothing.
“I don’t know how to make lasagna,” she says, glancing at the pan I’m sliding into the freezer.
“That’s okay, sweetheart. I can show you.” I begin to walk her through how to preheat the oven.
She interrupts me. “I don’t know what to do next.”
I pause and look at the shattered girl standing next to me. “No one does, love. Sometimes, when really terrible things happen, nothing comes next. Sometimes we just sit together in the awfulness.”
I haven’t seen this lanky 22-year-old in years. I knew her when she was in grade school. As the years passed, she breezed in and out of my girls’ nights with her mom and was off to college faster than any of us expected. She’s a woman I don’t know.
But I know her today. Today she’s a girl standing in the kitchen in search of a mother, and she found me.
I stroke her hair and hold her hand, and we stand together unmoving as the oven beeps.
I started loving like a mother 16 years ago.
Simon was born after a daylong labor, angry-red and screaming. The doctor held him up, and for a split second, I thought he’d pulled the baby out from under the table, like a medical magician. I expected to feel overwhelmed by love and gratitude and motherhood, but I felt none of those things. I just felt tired.
That disconnected feeling lasted through the next day. The nurses would bring him to me, and we’d say all the right things and go through the motions of nursing and burping and changing, but it felt like an elaborate game of make-believe. This wasn’t my baby. This wasn’t real.
In the predawn hours of our last day, I was walking the halls with my IV pole, following my doctor’s orders to move my body. I was alone in the corridor and heard a baby in the nursery start to cry.
That’s Simon, I thought, and then instantly laughed at myself. How would I know Simon’s cry? I’d only just met him, after all. I kept walking.
On my next lap, I met a nurse pushing a bassinet out of the nursery.
“Mrs. Chapman! You’re up! I was just bringing your little boy to you. Simon was crying, and I didn’t want him to wake the others. He needs his mommy.”
Years and many children later, I often fool myself into thinking that the business of mothering is carpooling and filling out forms and sitting in the bleachers. I confuse mothering with picking up shoes and clearing the table and shouting up the stairs that “it’s time to go for real!” I diminish mothering with prefixes and qualifiers: single, divorced, foster, and step.
I’m wrong. That’s just the daily noise of it.
Mothering is so much bigger than grocery lists and school projects.
Mothering happens when the child in front of you needs deep and unconditional love. It happens when they need a safe place to land. It happens when they need a champion.
I’ve mothered a 13-year-old boy who’d just come out to his deeply religious parents. It hadn’t gone well. He was worried he’d broken his family and hurt his mother and might never fit in. Simon dragged him off the bus and brought him home for mothering. I fed him meatloaf and mashed potatoes and reminded him that his mother and father loved him beyond reason. Sometimes parents get a little lost in the details, but that doesn’t make the love any less real.
I’ve mothered a 4-year-old girl who was already so banged up and broken she’d been through three foster homes. She locked my baby Caden in a box and shoved him under the bed. She set fires. It was everything I could do to advocate for her, pushing for therapy and medication. Truthfully, it was hard to like her, but for that chapter in our lives, she was mine to mother, and I loved her fiercely.
Loving like a mother isn’t unique to me.
My children’s group leaders, teachers, stepmother, grandmothers, and aunts have loved them like mothers. Their friends’ mothers have set places at their dinner tables and offered a shoulder when they needed one. I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of how my children have benefitted from the rich love of other mothers. It’s a strange feeling to walk around grateful for something you know is happening but haven’t witnessed directly.
Loving like a mother isn’t bound by blood or paperwork or gender. It isn’t qualified by the word that comes before the title. It isn’t found in limited quantities. Its presence doesn’t diminish the love of other mothers.
Loving like a mother is simply defined by the object of that love. When you love someone unconditionally, in the way they need to be loved in that moment, you love like a mother. And the world is richer for it.