There is Motherlove for the Motherless

I lost my mom, not my need or ability to be mothered.

Seventeen years ago, the trill of a million cicadas greeted my sisters and me as we left the church where our mother raised us. They landed on our car and shouted above our grief as we followed the hearse down a long Virginia road. Each mile took us farther away from the life we knew. Each minute took us further from our own memory. My mother was a woman of faith and told us many times, “when you see me there in that casket, that’s not me. That’s just my shell. I’m with the Lord.” We chose to believe her. We wept all the same.

Mother’s Day sucks for a lot of people. Amidst the torrent of flowers, greeting cards and targeted ads there is also grief. Mother-loss, stillbirths, miscarriages, failed adoptions, abandonment, tragedy and abuse are part and parcel of Mother’s Day for many. Just like the shrill half buzz, half rattle of the cicadas, Mother’s Day can be unbearable and impossible to ignore.

Losing my mom just a few weeks after Mother’s Day makes this an especially tender time of the year. I miss her. I miss her laugh and her wit. I miss her beauty and the way she seemed to sparkle in the right company. I miss her jokes and her cooking though neither were very good and I won’t tell you which was better. I miss how she always believed me.

About a week ago, I caught up with a friend who has grown kids. One of her kids is queer. My friend shared her frustration about all of the insensitive parents who ask invasive and disrespectful questions about her kid. She shared the beauty of seeing her child affirm their identity and the exasperated anger of not always being able to protect them from a cruel world. With every word my friend shared, I saw more clearly the well of motherlove. The glimmer of it was in her eyes. The pour of it was in her voice.

My mother never got to know I’m queer. She never got to know a lot of things. Picking a prom dress, choosing a grad program, forging a career and finding love are all things she would never mother me through. Hearing how my friend mothered her child through their queer journey reassured my heart that my mother would have done the same. She would be with me, stroking my hair when I cried and empowering me to trust myself.

A sepia toned photo of a beautiful Black woman with light brown skin and voluminous black hair holding a baby.
An undated photo of my mother holding someone else’s baby

There will never be a replacement for my mom and there will never be a replacement for her love. Yet, over the years I’ve started to see and embrace motherlove in other places. Through family and friends, I feel connected to a Divine Motherlove, even though my own mother no longer gets to share it with me. I see it as a deep well from which our mothers are tasked with drawing water and giving us to drink. But our mothers (by birth or adoption) are not the only ones with access to that well and they are not the only ones that can share the divine water.

I recently heard the answer to the age old question of whether trees make sounds when they fall alone. They don’t. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a brilliant neuroscientist, explained that in order for there to be sound, there must be an ear — something that interprets the force, movement of air, vibrations, etc. as sound. It’s not that nothing has happened, but in the absence of an ear those happenings will not be experienced as sound.

Love functions the same way. Affection, kindness, respect, vulnerability and any manner of Love’s component parts may be present — but in the absence of a mechanism that interprets all those things as love, we cannot experience it as love. We need to build an ear for it.

I learned early on that losing my mother did not eliminate my need to be mothered. I have never stopped feeling the ache of her absence. Now, I’m finding that losing my mother didn’t destroy my ability to be mothered. Chatting with my friend, I felt invited into the heart of a mother. The root of her fury was a ferocious love distinct to motherhood and it was an honor to witness and, in witnessing, be a part. Hearing the divine motherlove for another made its presence in my own life palpable.

I have felt motherlove in big moments. Half a dozen older women once swarmed me with Benadryl and bandages when I got stung by a wasp on a nature tour. When I was struck by a car on my bike in college, a professor scooped me into her car and refused to leave my side at the hospital until the doctor came. She held my hand saying, “I would want someone to do the same thing for my baby.”

Then there are smaller moments. A mom at my old church brought me into her family for Easter dinner when I was away from home. She made sure I didn’t leave without a plate and texts me every Easter to see how I’m faring. My mother’s closest friends text and call often and tell me when they see my mother in me, which happens more and more as I grow older. These women drew from the well, creating moments that whisper and shout, “Here I am. I will mother you.”

Some days, motherlove roars in the trill of a million tiny wings. Other days it’s the gentle slosh of a bucket drawing up water. Today, I am listening — tuning my ear to pick up its distinct notes and carry its song in my heart.

Spirituality | Racial Justice | Friendship

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