In the adoption world, at least, there’s a lot of confusion about what a real mother is. I believe that, at our cores, we know a real mother in relationship terms when we see one; to name just a few archetypal incarnations ranging from the mundane to the sublime, she is Harriet, she is Mrs. Cleaver, she is Olivia Walton, she is Celie in The Color Purple, she is Mother Theresa, she is the Virgin Mary. But, because many people are wounded in their families of origin and may even have the added insult of having been separated from their mothers and subsequently adopted (or raised by someone other than their mother), people can become muddled and confused about mothers and mothering. When that happens, it helps to have people who are clear about mothering to say, “This is the behavior of a real mother; that is not the behavior of a real mother.”
Having others in our lives is helpful if they will point us in the direction of truth, even if those others aren’t mothers, but are merely authors or therapists, best friends or sisters-in-law, grannies at church, bosses or other bloggers. People who point us in the direction of truth are helping us to find the way home. And if we never had a true home, a hearth from which to start our hero’s journey, then those who love us enough to help us may also show us how to establish the hearth from which we may leave.
What is love?
I think that any discussion of real or authentic mothering has to eventually arrive at love. What is love? Who is our real friend, the one who is really there for us, the one who truly loves us? Do we know it when we see it? I think, yes. We feel it, we feel deeply satisfied by love; and we feel calm and whole in its presence.
While it may sound odd that I would recommend a book about romantic love for those grappling with adoption issues, I do think that Robert A. Johnson’s book, We, provides an excellent overview of our flawed Western view of love, based on the oldest Western romance that we know of, Tristan and Iseult. Johnson writes this about real love:
Love is the power within us that affirms and values another human being as he or she is. Human love affirms that person who is actually there, rather than the ideal we would like him or her to be or the projection that flows from our minds. Love is the inner god who opens our blind eyes to the beauty, value, and quality of the other person. Love causes us to value that person as a total, individual self, and this means that we accept the negative side as well as the positive, the imperfections as well as the admirable qualities. When one truly loves the human being rather than the projection, one loves the shadow just as one loves the rest. One accepts the other person’s totality.
Johnson goes on to point out that love leads a person to honor and serve the other, rather than to use others for purposes of ego. Love compels us to be concerned for the needs of the other person, for their well-being, rather than merely on our own needs and wants. As the Bible says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).
I wrote yesterday about why, in my way of thinking, it’s wrong for a birth mother to tell her adopted child that, if she had it to do over again, she would choose abortion rather than suffer the loss of her child to adoption. What a terrible thing for the adopted person to hear! Though the adoptees I’ve known who have heard this from their birth mothers extended grace to those mothers by sympathizing with their pain, they later confided to others just how deeply such sentiments had wounded them. They didn’t trust their mothers any more after hearing this, for if their birth mothers were given the same choice again, they would want to hear their birth mothers say, “I would do anything to keep and raise you, and be there for you and be your real mother.”
Adopted people also don’t want to be reminded by their adoptive parents, “You’re my child, you know; I raised you!” They don’t want to be party to the paranoia and fear of adoptive parents who never really stepped up to the plate emotionally in the first place, but who assert their parental rights later, when they are getting older and more needy and know they weren’t very good people, but want to continue to pretend that they were. Proving that they still aren’t very good people.
But whether we are orphans or not, injured by separation or not, what we really want is love, isn’t it? Don’t we want to know that sometimes we, and only we, are reflected in the eye of the beholder? Do we not want to be engraved on the palms of someone’s hands, the apple if the other’s eye? Don’t we long to be beamed at by proud parents, to be told that we are more than enough, that we’re blessings beyond measure?
Oh my God, yes. Don’t we? Yes.
Love sees the glory of the other person, and stands in awe.