04/14/2015 06:34 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2015

What Great Mothering is Really All About

Rachel Toalson

She turns 60 this week.

I have known her for just more than half of those years, and in the same way she has watched me grow from infant to toddler to teenager to adult with infants and toddlers of my own, so I have watched her grow.

I have watched those black-brown eyes she got from her quarter-Navajo great-grandmother, the same ones she gave to me, soften with the forgiveness of years spent working on it. I have watched the mouth she gave my sister smile without the weight of worry more than I ever did as a kid. I have watched her skin wrinkle into beauty lines that speak of wisdom and bravery and joy and a fierce determination that pulled her through all the hell of her past so she stands, today, triumphant.

A couple of weeks ago, we pulled off a surprise birthday party for her, and she walked through a closed door into a party room crammed full of close friends and family who love her.

She laughed about having no idea of these plans, because she thought everyone had forgotten she had a birthday coming up and had just begun planning her own celebration. We went right along with her plans so she wouldn't know our secret, and then we gathered a week early and shouted our surprise and laughed at her shock.

I don't know if she knows it or not, but the surprise we yelled said much more than that one word.

How could someone forget a remarkable woman like you? it said.

I get to call her Mom.

My first memory of her is bright yellow, with orange around the edges, like a brilliant sunrise. She is reading a book to us. She was always reading books to us, because this is what librarians do for their children.

She had a deep love for words, and she wanted to make sure her children loved them, too.

It was in that same house, not long after that first memory, that I watched my dad disappear on his motorcycle, and I ran into the house and threw myself onto the bed I shared with my sister, sobbing in my 3-year-old hysterical way because I didn't know when I would see him again.

She knelt by my side for as long as it took, just stroking my back while I cried. She didn't try telling me it would be all right. She didn't try telling me he would be back soon. She didn't try telling me he was leaving for our good.

I would learn later it was because she didn't know any of those answers herself.

She just hoped. And prayed. And went on with her life, caring for the three of us on her own.

She is the strongest woman I know.


I was only 4 that morning we were on our way to church. We had just stepped out the front door when my mom said, Get in the car, kids. Be quick.

My brother and sister and I did as we were told without asking any questions, probably for the first time ever, and we locked those car doors behind us. There was danger in her voice.

We watched her disappear into the house and come back with a garden hoe. She rattled the branch of one of the trees that stood like a canopy over our yard, and something fell to the ground, something striped and long and thick. It writhed in the dirt.

She started hacking, in her Sunday dress, chopping like her life depended on it. She saved us from snakes that morning.

She hunted other snakes, too.

The ulcers and sorrow and anger that chased my brother after my parents' divorce, she hunted those snakes on her knees, praying ceaselessly for him.

A boyfriend who asked me to marry him early on, one who held a look she knew too well, she hunted that snake with boundaries and limitations and refusals, knowing what would eventually happen -- he would stray and I would leave for good (I did).

The poverty that followed us like a starving stray, because she never could quite make ends meet with three hungry kids. She hunted that snake with a school librarian job on the weekdays and a candy-stocker job at the local store on the weekends.

There were some snakes she could not see, like the ones that waited for a little girl in the dark closets of a friend's house, and the ones that burrowed not-enough holes all through my heart, and the ones that wrapped my brother tight and hard and closed to the men around him who might have taught him how to be a man.

But she tried with every single day of her life.

She is the bravest woman I know.


In sixth grade, I signed up for band.

In seventh grade, I added volleyball and basketball and track, because I didn't know what I most wanted to do. My mom let me throw myself into all of them.

She worked all day and cleaned house in the afternoons and then sat an evening away in the stands, cheering and clapping and paying attention even on the nights I sat the bench.

In high school, there was marching band and state competitions and volleyball and track and softball and tennis, and I wonder how many of those she wanted to miss.

But she never did.

She was there the day I made second chair in the state band, even though I wanted first. She was there the day I came in dead last in the 800-meter run because I'd only ever run the 400. She was there the day I stood on a graduation stage in my silver robe, shaking through a speech while all eyes were on me and the maroon hair I'd dyed the night before as a statement.

She let me be who I was, and she stuck around to watch the failures and the victories so she could love me through every one.

She is the kindest woman I know.


She is a piece of my history I am proud to call my own.

And now that I am a mother, I know the courage and perseverance and determination it takes to be a good one, and I am so thankful she carried me in her womb and carried me through my growing-up years and carries me still into my mothering ones.

This woman, who kept every one of my earliest stories in a cardboard box under her bed, is the best mother I have ever known.

She is a hero, a warrior with battle wounds and a purple heart and a legacy of love that saved the worlds of three people, and so many more, and it is in her heroism that she has taught me all about how to be the greatest mother.

Because great mothering does not live in being the greatest housekeeper or the greatest lunch-maker or the greatest provider or the greatest beauty or the greatest crafter or even the greatest teacher.

Great mothering lives in being the biggest fan.

It means letting children be who they are instead of trying to change them to be who we want them to be, and it means guiding them gently in the way they should go and it means staying present in the failures and the victories and all the places in between.

It means being the person they most want to be, because we love and honor and cherish and teach and hold and accept.

This is my mother's gift to me.

This is my mother's gift to the world.

A version of this article first appeared on Rachel Toalson's website. Find Rachel on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.