Delivering Our Children: A Mothers’ Day Reflection

Bond

Holding Hands. (Portland, ME, 13 September 2010)

Swapping birth stories with a friend (what could be more appropriate for Mother’s Day?), she reported what she calls the “Frogger Effect.” 

The first time she took her infant daughter out in the car, the roadways seemed transformed into a giant video game. Rather than orderly traffic, other cars became massive objects whizzing towards her at unreal speeds. Danger was everywhere.

“I was crouched down over the wheel, checking my mirrors constantly. It felt like the whole world was trying to prevent me from getting this one baby, my baby, safely to the other side of town.”

The image of my friend, her hair all in disarray, her shirt stained with baby spit up, hunched down over the steering wheel of her car, fearing that she and the baby could be flattened at any moment just like the Frogger frog, as she navigated the placid roads of her suburban town, cracked me up and made me feel for her.

But also? The Frogger Effect started me thinking about motherhood can seem like a constant task of delivering one child, your child, to the next point of safety in a dangerous, fast-moving world.

From those first anxiety-filled weeks, from one developmental milestone to the next, making sure your child gets what he needs—the right nutrients, the right toys to stimulate her brain, the safe surfaces to crawl on, the right shoes to support his feet as he starts to wobble and walk. Then into toddlerhood, and gradeschool, and middle school, and beyond… Day by day, year by year, overflowing with love and stress, trying to ensure this child gets to the next secure place. Trying to anticipate and neutralize the unpredictable objects whizzing by on the screen.

There is a way in which motherhood—parenthood—all too often does feel like an extended game of Frogger.

It’s a real frame, but an isolating one.

Motherhood bonds us each to our own. It provokes the deepest sense of commitment many of us will ever feel—a commitment to ensuring our unique, irreplaceable children, make it through the maze of obstacles and threats we understand the world to be.

However, it also has the capacity to bind us to something greater, to universal cycles of birth and love and growth, to the near-universal urgency of wanting one’s children to survive and flourish—and the near-universal sense of pain when they are in jeopardy.

These qualities are not limited to the human world. Elephant babies walk underneath their mothers until they are big enough to walk in the herd without being trampled. Mothers touch their babies over and over with their trunks as they travel, reassuring them, keeping them on track. They nurse their children for several years, and tend them closely until they are teens. The mother-child bond can last for decades, and an elephant mother whose baby dies will trail behind the herd, grieving her loss.

3 Generations. (Mt. Prospect, IL, May 1968)

“Honor thy father and mother” is the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am not often caught citing the Book of Exodus. But the Commandments are a fundamental expression of the attempt to order the world—and it is noteworthy that honor thy father and mother takes spot Number 5.

The first four commandments speak to humans’ duties before God: affirming God’s greatness, establishing God’s singularity; forbidding idolatry; and sanctifying the Sabbath.

Commandments six through ten tell us how to behave toward one another: no murdering; no adultery; no stealing; no lying; no coveting.

There in the swing position, in spot number 5, is honor thy father and mother. The implication seems to be that Commandment Five is both about honoring our unique, individual parents, and honoring God as the parent above all parents. It refers to the particular and universal, the earthly and the divine.

This bit of ancient wisdom is worth remembering on Mother’s Day, though perhaps with a more modern, less patriarchal rendering: behind our individual families are infinitely larger forms of connectedness and belonging.

To truly deliver our children to the next safe space, to truly vouchsafe their futures, we need to care for the fates of children in ever wider circles, to build a world where justice and health and safety and opportunity are the norm.

To truly honor our mothers, we need to honor mothers everywhere, to recognize their own hopes for their children and recognize their particular sources of grief.

We need to honor the elemental forces that give life and call out the fiercest feelings of love and devotion that any of the species seem to know.

(Portland, ME, October 2010)

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