I am currently teaching the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin to a group of high school students. One of the themes that emerges in the story is the natural affection a mother has for her children and how often this natural affection is associated with pain. This has gotten me thinking about the fact that as mothers, we live in a constant state of paradoxical tension. We are regularly called upon to suppress our natural instincts to shelter, comfort, and protect and instead subject our children to varying degrees of discomfort and even pain.
My own experience with this has run the gamut from the tragic to the absurd.
When my oldest son was little, he was frequently hospitalized. Again and again, I had to sit and watch nurses poke him with needles to draw blood and thread him with tubes to administer anesthesia or nourishment. My maternal instincts longed to slap the nurse's hand and snatch my baby out of harm's way. I had to force myself to conjure up the deeper instinct to allow him to suffer temporarily in order to serve a greater good.
When my youngest daughter started kindergarten, getting her to leave my side each morning was her own personal trauma. She would gladly have snuggled me day and night for the first ten years of her life if I had let her, but I knew that wasn't what she needed. I'd pull up in front of the school, give her a squeeze and assure her that she'd be fine. Then I'd open the door and literally shove her out. Her older sister would hold onto her while I drove away to keep her from chasing the van. I'd avoid looking in the rear view mirror because I knew what I would see: her tiny arms straining toward me and a look of sheer misery on her face. I'd remind myself that when she got home at the end of her half-day, she'd be all laughs and smiles – the pain of this parting forgotten until tomorrow when it happened all over again.
But perhaps the most unnatural of these maternal moments happened last Sunday when I brought my son to the airport so he could head back to Camp Lejeune. In a few weeks he will be on a transport to Afghanistan. I wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders and pressed my hands against his back. I froze that moment in my memory – the feel of his leather jacket under my hands, the warmth of his neck against my cheek, the pressure of his arms as they squeezed me tightly – and I stored it away in my heart. Then I did what so many other mothers have done throughout the ages. I let go. I drew back, eyes dry, smile confident, and said goodbye.
It would have been natural to cling to him and sob, but for his sake I had to do what was against nature. We tend to vilify the Spartan mothers for their stoic benediction to their husbands and sons, Come back with your shield or on it. But having bid farewell to both a husband and now a son, I think they had the right idea. They understood what their men needed from them. To do less would have been something like selfishness.
Mothering is full of such moments, and it never gets any easier.
As Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking less of mangers and shepherds and more of Mary, the young mother of Christ. The words of the Christmas story that echo in my mind are not, "Peace on earth, good will to men," but rather the words of Simeon as he stood before Mary and her baby in the temple. After prophesying a life of pain and conflict for her infant Son he added, "… and a sword will pierce your own soul, too."
Surely in Mary's case, the suffering her Son endured during His lifetime served an immeasurably great purpose. I am thankful she didn't hide Him away in a cave and smother His life in peace and safety.
So, from dentist appointments to deployments, we defy our maternal instincts and let our children out from under our sheltering wings to do what is good and necessary for them to do. And though it may be but a small comfort to us mothers, at least we know when we act thus, we are in the very best of company.