I have been blessed with three daughters and eight grandchildren. When I tell people that, they usually stare at me in disbelief, so I show them a few photos on my cellphone as proof. I don’t offer more than that unless I sense that they are genuinely interested. I gauge their interest according to what mine would be if our roles were reversed, which doesn’t happen very often. Of course, if it is to prove how young looking I am, then I am more than happy to comply. As the prophet said, “Vanity, all is vanity!”
As mothers, my daughters have taught me at least two things about life. The first is complementarity. In a real way, I see that they have become complete through their own children, as if motherhood has given them an opportunity to express themselves in a way unlike any other. Neither I nor their mother could have done that for them. And even though I used to make fun of Tom Cruise’s “you complete me,” I see that complementarity can be wonderful when done not out of grasping despair but a true desire to bond with another person. As a relationship or community of persons, it is the ultimate form of life.
What about those who don’t have, can’t have, or choose not to have children? When I was in graduate school, I worked with a senior editor and mentor whom I admired greatly. She never married or had children but was a tremendous force through her editorial work on liturgical journals and in her parish. She expressed her creativity through disciplined professionalism and a commitment to Christian denominational and inter-religious dialogue. She also had a dry sense of humor, which was one reason we got along so well. I don’t think I’ve met a more “mothering” woman. On the Monday after Mothers’ Day, she would come into the office complaining about how they had asked all the mothers at Mass to come to the altar to receive a rose. I believe she may have been more offended professionally by the liturgical gaffe than personally as a single woman.
The second thing my daughters have taught me is endurance. They endure the hardships of parenting without giving up or becoming bitter. I see them struggle and suffer through challenges that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. This is particularly true of the adolescent years, which have been nothing less than a cross for one of my daughters. Yet, she endures as her sisters endure. And, although they may not go around quoting Virgil at family barbecues, they implicitly understand the most famous line in Latin literature: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (a joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this). It’s not that I did not know about endurance–whose life is without burden?–but never has it been as clear to me as through my daughters.
And my own mother, the queen regnant of the family? I don’t know of anyone more devoted and loyal to her children. She has made them her life’s work and cared for them, my father, and our home. Also, through both nature and nurture, she imbued each of her four children with wit and a sharpness of tongue that has become a family trademark. Of course, on more than one occasion that trademark has gotten me clobbered. I do not blame her. It’s just easier for a girl than a boy to be caustic. Schoolyard lessons are tough but long lasting. Wit and wisdom have come through her line, Sicilians all, who are known for their colorfulness (see When Your Mother is Don Rickles).
What to make of all this? Motherhood is an elemental force in the universe, as present and powerful as light, magnetism, and gravity. Perhaps that is why, in some Romance languages, gravity and pregnancy derive from the same root, which is gravis in Latin. In Italian, for instance, pregnancy (gravidanza) is nearly the same as gravity (gravità). You can no more get away from motherhood and the relationship of creator to the created as you can from gravity.
Who better than Mark Twain to sum up the importance of motherhood? “What, sir, would the people of the earth be without woman?” “They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”
You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: For Grandmas Brancatelli and Frasula, Aunt Frances, the Brancatella women, and those long forgotten women known only to God.