Shouldn’t it be true that we can protect our children? From other adults, from the world’s cruelties, from themselves? I want it to be true. It should be true. Last night I dreamt that my daughter had miraculously returned to her form as a newborn. Her small dark head turned to my breast, her mouth rooted furiously, and even though in reality it had been 25 years since she last nursed and she is now a grown woman carrying her own child, in my dream, I rejoiced that I could do this for her, and pulled my blouse down so she could find my nipple and latch on. She nursed strongly and confidently, and for the first time in many years, I felt like I was a mother again: able to hold, fill, protect.
It’s true that in my daughter’s real childhood, I did protect her in many ways, especially the ways in which my own childhood was NOT protected. I shielded her from poverty, alcoholism, abuse; kept a roof over her head, fed her well, made sure she had good medical care, went to good schools, learned to enjoy music, swimming, books, human touch. But what’s truer: I could not protect her from the fact that she owns her own soul, and her soul has its own battle in this world, a battle that I can only watch, throw in a few words now and then that I hope are loving and encouraging. Words that give her heart, I hope, and remind her she came into this world loved, and is loved, and will leave it still loved by a mother who feels like a part of my body chipped off and is walking around without me.
Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) wrote a poem once about the earth and the moon. It is called “Partings.” “The moon was once earth/ a daughter whose leaving broke land to pieces” when the moon flew out into darkness, found her own orbit. The mother earth and daughter moon must speak to each other forever across that distance, never rejoined, always separate. “Here is the scar of rupture,” Hogan writes, and she articulates precisely the brokenness. Are mother and daughter still connected in ways that can’t be severed, after such a rupture? “Think of the midwife,” Hogan writes, “Whose knife made two lives where there were only one.” The price of giving birth, it seems, is parting from that which is most beloved; giving up a part of yourself that might very well wander away into the Universe. The price of having children is that the “having” is only temporary, and the parting goes on and on. The best a mother can hope for, Hogan seems to say, is to master the art “of beautiful partings.”
In my dream, I imagined my daughter as a newborn again, perhaps because that was the last time I really believed that I could protect her from all the hurts and cruelties and hard lessons of the world. Maybe it’s all those mothering hormones, maybe it’s the Mama Bear instincts, but I KNEW I could take apart anyone who came between me and my baby. A few years ago, when a young woman I know had a baby, the baby’s father asked that young mother, “Do you love the baby more than you love me?” and she gave him the most amazing answer: “I would die for you,” she told the father of her child, “But her, her I would kill for.” Once we are mothers, we know exactly how precious life is; at the same time, we know that we would take someone else’s life from them if it meant protecting our own child. That kind of fierceness filled me as a new mother, especially when I remembered my own childhood when it seemed no adults were protecting me or my siblings at all. I vowed that would protect my children in all the ways I was never protected!
Figuring out that I can’t has been the hardest part of mothering.
Mastering the art of beautiful partings. In my lifetime, I’ve sure had a lot of practice with partings, some necessary, some unwanted - but making parting into an art, into something beautiful that makes another life possible? It seems the opposite of what parenting is supposed to be. Yet as Hogan says, ”This is what it means to be mother and child … believe that emptiness is the full/ dance between us,/ and let it grow.”
This is a lifetime’s work.