01/26/2012 06:44 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Lessons in Motherhood From Kenya

I am a mother. I have two daughters whose movement through the world causes me to feel, as someone much more poetic than I once put it, as though my heart is traveling outside my body, exposed and throbbing.

I am a step-mother. Well, not officially. But they are part of my blended family, and my love for them, too, is profound, despite not sharing blood or even a deep history together. And I am something else, indeed, to the 50 children I help support in Kenya, at Cura Orphanage.

Like my own children, the children here are quick to, honestly and without insult, point out my flaws: that I am dangerously close to growing a unibrow or that the skin at my elbows is showing the sagging signs of my age or that I forgot, yet again, to bring the apples I promised the last time I was in the village.

Unlike my own children, however, the children here know what it means to have lost their mothers -- they carry this grief behind their eyes, but it flickers to life on occasion when they refer to the time before they lived in our Home.

In the process of living with us, they have to accept a force akin to mothering from women who touch their lives along the way. I'm one, of course, and more deeply so is Yassi, their steadfast and committed advocate. Evelyn, who founded the Home, is a source of trust and security, and Scola provides encouragement to read and learn.

There are others, too, of course. But it is the Kikuyu women who work at the Home -- the housemothers -- who provide the daily labors of love that make the children's lives possible. This isn't to discount the role of men in the process! But I'm struck on each visit by the incessant work and attention required by the women who wash endless vats of clothing and select stones out of countless trays of rice and who have a tolerance level for noise and chaos that puts them on par with the saints, as far as I'm concerned.

This motherhood isn't warm and fuzzy. It's affectionate but stern. There's humor and dancing and play, but there is also a system for instilling a work ethic and gratitude and skills for a future outside the Home -- where life is certainly less comfortable and where the children will need to become productive adults.

In short, these eight women are doing the work all mothers strive to do, and they're doing it for 50 children who are not their blood. They work long days, in fact, AWAY from their own children and grandchildren, the people for whom they prepare meals and pay school fees and would move heaven and earth.

I'm learning about motherhood from these women who take this work as a matter of course. I bring my own mothering self to the work I do in Cura, and though it's only a small contribution, I'm aware that I'm part of a group of women doing vital, life-affirming work.

Hayden Bixby is the International Program Coordinator of the Cura International Advisory Committee. Click here for more information about Cura Orphanage.