Ann Hutton

Author, essayist, journalist, poet

Being Mother

I told my children, “You picked me.” I introduced this concept when they were each young, when their malleable, trusting curiosities could still be bent to accept such a notion matter-of-factly. Certainly, I had not ever consciously chosen to become pregnant—although I did choose to stay pregnant after much soul-searching now and then. Rather, I assumed that these babies wanted to be born, that they were out there in the cosmos looking for a likely uterus to land in for another go-round on the planet.

This notion came to me not-so-matter-of-factly. It came as an alternate possibility for anyone’s justification for being born; and it suggests that we each choose rebirth and have some culpability in the matter. This new idea was helped along by my disillusionment with mainstream Christianity and its testiness and all its fated sinfulness. That whole scheme seemed just too weighted in God’s favor. Like, “Let’s breathe life into this blob of clay and see if she can follow the rules and win the Eternal Life prize. And if not, oh well: Hell.”

Instead, cursory investigations into Eastern spiritual traditions, replete with their multiple reincarnations on the Wheel of Life—endless chances to get it right—appealed to my liberal nature. I was enticed by a sort of “Better luck next time!” attitude from a less vengeful, less rigidly judgmental godhead.

Mind you, I never sat around with my mate dreaming of babies with names and genders and eye colors all pre-imagined. I never thought that having a baby would round us out as a couple or otherwise make my own life complete. In fact, discovering that I was pregnant, time after time, did make me feel as though I was a bystander, an empty vessel just too attractive for these floating souls to resist. I came to see myself as a cog on that Great Wheel, or better still, a target in the center of it. I was the target that my five children aimed at in their bid for rebirth. I was their corporeal matrix, their carnal landing pad. And so it went.

When I told my children that they had picked me to be their mother, we all laughed. They didn’t remember picking me. How could they have picked me when they weren’t born yet?

“You must have picked me. I certainly didn’t pick you!” More laughter on those perplexed faces. “I didn’t know who you were until you came out! You must have chosen me to come through!” It was a fun game to plant this idea in their sweet minds, to have them imagine themselves bodiless, flying around the universe, looking for a mommy to curl up inside.

Later, when in adolescent disgust over my un-coolness or our lack of wealth—which prevented them from having all their material desires fulfilled—or over sheer boredom and lethargy with their lives, I reminded them that they had picked me. Not the other way around. This notion of personal responsibility now fell flat. It was no longer fun and funny. Mom’s weirdness was showing. Still, I persisted with the premise whether they liked it, believed it, or not. By the time they’d all muddled through their teens, I was a committed believer. I would not accept responsibility for anyone’s regret for having been born. They couldn’t pin that one on me.

Besides, by then my growing existential angst was enough for me to deal with, not to mention the realization that I, too, had evidently picked my parents. Who would choose a couple so soon destined to orphan their child? Who would opt for a childhood of such tenuous confusion and abandonment as I had? The notion that we come into this life to work through the accumulated karma of a past life was little comfort to me as I reconciled my own questionable choice of parents; and then the full measure of responsibility for having born five new souls into this screwed up world became overwhelming.

Being Mother alters one’s identity entirely. Not only do you take on whatever socially proscribed behaviors your local tribe demands—good mothers feed and clothe their young, look after their well-being, provide them with appropriate entertainment and keep them from self-destruction for as long as possible—but also your very cells imprint with an emotional bond to these creatures that come out of you. Your mental synapses are no longer your own private affair. You are consumed, body and soul, by what you have produced. No one expects to lose them selves in the bargain, but that singular person you once were no longer exists.

I’ve often wondered: why did they pick me, when I was so obviously incapable of protecting them against all odds? After thirty-plus years of mothering, I feel used up, emptied—and still I’m plagued by the lingering doubt that I got the job done well enough. By most standards, things have worked out. We’ve all shared inexplicable luck to have endured being a family without also enduring total dysfunction: no debilitating emotional scars, no crippling accidents in vehicles, no kidnaps, no hopeless addictions, no cancer or leukemia, no genetic defects, no military conscription, no unfathomable generation gap, no fundamental religious conversions. And, thus far, no quitting on each other—no matter what.

Being Mother seems to demand that level of attachment and sacrifice. You bond to your offspring and give them your all. You wonder whose hands are on this Wheel. Does the Great Mother delight in the endless proliferation of Her hapless earthly daughters, a proliferation that uses their bodies and obliterates their egos? Shunryu Suzuki said, “To give is non-attachment; that is, just not to attach to anything is to give.” Certain relationships—maybe all relationships—seem to aim at teaching this concept of non-attachment. Certainly, raising children and letting them go be whomever they turn out to be takes a measure of non-attachment that few of us mothers anticipate.

A mother bird flies ten feet from a nest of half-bald chicks, plants herself on the grass, and chirps, “Okay…jump! Jump!” She doesn’t second-guess herself or her offspring. She doesn’t worry over whether the bugs she regurgitated into their open throats contained the right combinations of nutrients, or whether all the time she spent away from the nest—eating and collecting food for them or just flitting around in the sunshine, having birdlike fun—marked their little brains with faltering self-esteem. She just does what she does, maybe not even her best all the time, and her babies leap into their own fates.

Perhaps we human mothers need to take that leap, too, once the nest is empty. Be assured, I love my grown up children. They have each given me ample opportunity to give up my own expectations and preferences, and to recognize that if I’m not responsible for their shortcomings, I can’t claim credit for their brilliant successes either. They are the best people I know, and they know me from the inside. We rejoice in each other; we forgive each other’s trespasses.

But living in this go-round is not easy. It’s that attachment thing that challenges a mother’s ultimate estimation of her own success. Knowing how to be there wholly and completely for your children, then recognizing when to detach from that life-giving role—and how to reinvent a singular life for yourself—it requires nothing short of a transformation.

Meanwhile, our bond to each other remains secure. Our mutual karma continues to play itself out. Biology and fate tie us together, even as we all struggle to become our individual selves. Maybe we’ll get it right yet. And maybe next time, we’ll all come back as birds. (“Jump! Jump!”)