Life's stages are strange, wonderful and sometimes jarring. Not very long ago, I was a babe in my mother's arms. Then, after a couple of decades, I was a babe in a man's arms. Then, after a time of personal growth so misleadingly long that I thought I would glory in it forever, I carried my own babes. That last one was a shocker -- the idea hitting me (literally in the gut) that I would be the vessel for the growth and evolution of someone apart from myself.
At first, I thought I would vanish. Having grown up with the idea of women defining themselves and their roles, it was odd to be a mother. Motherhood, I soon understood (a wailing baby helps you understand this) is service above all. It is surrender, not of the kind that lays you down on your back on a bed of roses, but the kind that wakes you from a deep sleep to comfort, nurse, burp or change the diaper of someone small and helpless. Patient, meek and humble, parenting is all the things that majestic self-definition is not supposed to be. There is a limit to how glorious you can be with poo on your hand and spew on your shoulder. And yet, over time, this service does define you. It defined me, changing my ideal of being loved into the ideal of knowing how to love. In the growth of my children, I grew up tall. I rose to a great height and saw the world around me. For the first time, I knew myself to be a part of something vast. Simple egotism -- achievement, beauty, success -- began to blend with the knowledge that self-love was not enough.
Oh, if only my tale ended there, credits rolling as the Great Matriarch embraces and is embraced by her brood. Nourished by her love, they beam gratefully at her.
Except what really happens is that they grow up. There are clues on the way -- they grow taller than you, their voices crack and deepen (if they are boys) or rise to a shriek (if they are girls) as they debate, rebut and refute your input. These are the teen years, and if you are a loving mother, you want them to reach their independence and you wait for them to master this transitional stage. For soon, as they exit adolescence and enter adulthood, you do feel embraced. Those confident, able people were raised by you. Each child in cap and gown, receiving a diploma, hoists it in the air, looking back at the crowd of parents, catching the wet eyes of the ones who got them here. Their gazes linger; the final credit hovers in the air as the score swells. You made it here together. Your babes are wearing mortarboards.
No one told me that a few years later, my eldest babe would wear a wedding veil. I wasn't ready for this. I wonder if anyone is. For although she is not my only child, although she may have felt, from time to time, that she had to share me with her siblings, the love I gave her was absolute. It was total. Any mother would die for her child, and that feeling -- there are no words for it -- will never go away. But she has moved on. I am no longer the mother to whom she first confides about whom she loves, and the outcomes of those loves. She has chosen her partner, and -- appropriately -- our most personal conversations have ended for now. Should her feelings swell, negatively or positively, the first person she will share them with is her new husband. And that is how it should be. In fact, as I now recall, my husband and I used to talk about our mothers -- and not always lovingly. My mother became "she" to a pair of cool-eyed lovers, and now she is me.
Do I have to stretch my love again? I have, I have stretched it to include a man I didn't even know three years ago, a man who will now share my daughter's life forever. Her groom will, most likely, see me in my final illness. He and she will stand at my bedside together. Over the years, I hope, he will grow to love me, too, and that she may love me more. One day, my daughter will face a new stage herself, in which her heart grows in its ability to care, solace and include. But for now, she is climbing, beloved and strong, into her own new life.