Mother’s Day: On loss, learning to mother & letting go

May 11, 2014 in Inspiration

Gabriel 1998


Ez shouted, over the thunder of his feet pouring back down the stairs as he ran for the barn.

We’ve been on calf watch every hour for the last three days. Truth be told, it’s been more like the last three months. Ez was wide eyed when Joe told him, upon arrival, that all three of the black cows were expecting. Many of the weeks between it’s been the boys’ responsibility to care for the animals: cows, chickens and ducks, while the farmer and his wife have been away.

Gabe waltzed into the kitchen one morning, shortly after our arrival, with mud on his boots and hay in his hair and announced, “Mom, I’ve got three girlfriends, and they’re all pregnant!” Henceforth, the heifers have been known as “Gabe’s girlfriends,” to the amusement of all.

I looked at my phone to check the time: 6:30 a.m. There was a message from Halifax, Canada: “Are you a grandmother yet?”

“I guess we’d better go see if those are front hooves, or back hooves,” I yawned.

Halfway to the barn Ez met me with blank eyes: “It’s dead. The calf is dead. The vet’s here and he says it’s dead.”

And so it was: a sad heap of wet black hair in the wheel barrow when I rounded the corner: still steaming.

Ez haunted the barn, hovering near the vet.

“Do you think it was my fault? Did I maybe not feed her good enough?” He asked with a worried tone.

The vet dropped his shovel, “Oh Buddy! No. No, man, these things just happen. It was no one’s fault. I checked her at 8:30 last night and she was fine, your Mom checked at 10:30, she was fine, this happened in the night sometime. The baby was backwards and got stuck and couldn’t be born. No one knew and no one was here. It’s not your fault. This is just life.”

The kid looked a little relieved, but still sad. He looked at the calf as the vet shoveled the wet wood chips from the barn floor over the cooling body and we returned to the house.

The death of our long awaited calf notwithstanding, launch day could have gone better. Tony drove the truck of our worldly goods an hour away to our storage space, only to discover that he had neither the keys nor the access card, necessitating a return round trip. We thought we might hit the road by two, instead it was nearly five, and that victory was only accomplished due to the kind assistance of our good friends who bravely see us off every time.

And of course… it is Mother’s Day, a weird one for me.

My own mother is solidly off the grid, in British Columbia, visiting my brother’s little family. I will call and try to leave her a message later today, on my brother’s cell phone, but she won’t pick up, they can’t. There was no point in sending her flowers, it’s impossible. We’ll celebrate next week, when she joins us on the island.

Elisha & Gabe leavingHalf of my children are gone. This is a new moment for me. The first Mother’s Day I’ve spent without my ducklings all tucked safely under my wings. One boy tried to call this morning, but Skype crashed before I could hear his voice. The other chatted to me, leaning on his shovel in the flower bed he’s remodeling today:

  • Sunday is not his day off.
  • The job is going well.
  • He’s working hard.
  • He has a sunburn.
  • There are lots of ticks.
  • Oh, and by the way, he dropped the cell phone we’re loaning him and broke the screen.
  • He wants me to know he loves me and is sorry he’s missing Mother’s Day.
  • Yes, he is aware of what the “bulls-eye” type tick bite that indicates Lyme looks like.
  • Yes, he knows that if he finds one he should get to the Dr. and get tested and high dose antibiotics.
  • He asks that I say hello to Gramps for him.
  • All is well.


Being a mother is an odd thing.

It comes upon a person all at once, and then continues to remake her for a lifetime. It’s a shock to the system to be handed a slimy little mess of angry-to-be-evacuated-from-a-warm-safe-space and realize that life as you knew it is over. And to realize how deeply and profoundly you did NOT get it, just one hour before. And to be overcome by the redefinition of love. And to feel the massive weight of responsibility in a way that nothing you’ve ever done prepared you for. There is instantly joy that redefines joy, and terror that redefines fear. This is motherhood: rushing in that first hour to shuffle your whole life and rebuild your heart on an entirely different premise.

That moment, the one when you’re exhausted and the baby is a mess and a first breath is taken, is not the moment when we become mothers. Anyone can give birth, and many do who will never be mothers. It’s not the biology, is it? Some of the best mothers I know have not gestated their own children. Some women produce a child and even keep it alive for the couple of decades required and never become mothers. Some women never have a child of their own, and yet they are mothers to the very core of their being, and they mother in every direction, for their entire lives.

Mothering is more complicated than biology, isn’t it?

Becoming a mother is about being brought to your knees by your own inadequacy. It’s a product of walking a groove in your carpet through miles of sleepless nights. It’s a badge of having survived toddlerhood and delivered a child to his school aged years having conquered his passions and ready to participate as a productive member of child society. It’s not about discovering you have patience, it’s about realizing you don’t, but then learning patience, and gentleness, and self control, and a million other virtues that turn up on plaques but mean nothing until you’re faced with the marathon of motherhood. Becoming a mother is coming to terms with the fact that life as you knew it is over. OVER. But also discovering that you didn’t really know what life was about until now, and realizing that you wouldn’t trade back for all of the tea in China.

Becoming a mother is about getting okay with being needed, to the point of not being able to pee by yourself, or read a book with words longer than six letters, or drink a single up of tea without interruption, or take a bath without someone’s rubber duck popping to the surface between your knees, or eating an entire meal hot, or getting a break. Ever. Ever. Ever. It’s about learning to love that need, and to embrace it with both hands, both arms, both legs and both lips.

And then… it’s about learning to let go.

Just at that moment when you finally feel like you’re figuring out this motherhood thing, finding your stride a bit, getting the hang of how to spin all of the plates, tie all the shoes, wipe all the noses and still produce a nutritious dinner on time most nights of the week, it hits you. Just when you’ve got bedtimes organized, library books returned on time, the house mostly clean and some semblance of a family routine that works in place, the game changes. They start walking… away.

  • They toddle out of your arms and into the unknown.
  • Then they ride a bike, around the block… alone… and you hyperventilate just a little.
  • Then they take off with friends.
  • They stay places overnight.
  • They fly across countries without you.

 Without you! How dare they! 

Don’t they remember that they need you??

  • And then they drive.

Gabe drivesGod help us all. They drive. I’m working so hard not to hyperventilate about this one right now. Getting two for the price of one through the driving process might have expedited the process, reduced the time and cost commitment, but it has doubled this mama’s case of nerves.

The thing is, I think these kids are both great drivers. I’m not too worried about that, statistics aside. It’s everyone else, and the whole great big world, and all of the what ifs, and then I found that Ghiradelli chocolate wrapper in the front seat of the car… you know, the square ones… and for a half a second I had a heart attack because I thought it was ANOTHER kind of wrapper… not the candy kind (which it totally would NOT be at this stage with either of my teens… but my head went there anyway…) and I had this moment of abject panic. Not about the driving. Not even about the potential of a wrapper I hope never to find in my car, but about this whole project spinning out of my control (I love control) and about leveling up in this motherhood game, and about the fact that they are not my babies any longer. They’re not even my kids any longer. They are their own little grownups now. They don’t need me for anything but funding at this point and they’re both pushing as hard as they can for that independence too.

And so I cheer them, with a big smile and sometimes my heart in my throat.

Elisha had tears in his eyes a little when he boarded the plane last week. He put his hand to mine on the other side of the thick airport glass. Gabe had opened one of my love notes before he boarded the plane. I always send them a stack of love notes when they’re on a test flight. You know, in case they need me. Which they don’t. But they humor me by enjoying them. I think they mostly open them because they know that there is often a dollar bill for a treat, or a piece of gum in there with my note.

I didn’t let them see me sweat.

I’m determined not to be the crazy, co-dependent mother who guilt trips her kids for being away over Mother’s Day, or who moans about how much she needs them. I need them like crazy-cakes, but I’m working hard to let go with both hands and never let them see me worry a bit. I’m working hard to be busy, or at least to look busy with my own interesting things and dreams, so that they don’t feel badly about going off and doing their own things. They want to go work for a month, sail with Gramps for a month, lark around Europe with a friend for two months? Great. I’ll walk the Camino while you’re all gone. Don’t worry about me, and don’t call me every five seconds. I’m going to be busy (worrying about you). Very busy. You’re all leaving? Excellent, your Dad and I have plans. No, you can’t come. Just us. See ya. (hee-hee-hooo…. thank goodness for that useless-in-labour lamaze breathing).

I am still becoming a mother.

I have a sneaking suspicion that it just keeps growing and changing until you finally perfect it and become a grandmother. At least in our family that’s how it works. We have grandmothers on both sides. I’m so thankful for that.

  • My mother-in-law is all kinds of awesome. She raised a son who is as close to my definition of a perfect man as I’ve yet encountered. How’s that for a life’s work.
  • My own mother hitchhikes across islands and ferries to get to her grandbabies. Yes, she has. Does your grandmother hitchhike to you? She’s my own best example of how to simultaneously let go and hold close, continue to mother and chase her own dreams, keep the home fires burning and show up on the raggedy edge, ready for adventure with her backpack full of all of the stuff her grandkids miss most on the far side of the world.

Not many families have the motherhood legacy ours does, on both sides, I’m unspeakably thankful for that.

The ghost of our calf has been haunting me a bit.

That’s a pain I’ve been spared, thus far, in life. I cannot imagine what it is to lose a child, at any stage of development. I’ve felt the presence of my children acutely from the moment I’ve known of their existences, and I can’t imagine that they’ll ever feel any less like my little babies when I’m in my nineties and they are grandparents themselves. It was an important reminder, on Mother’s Day eve, that children are a gift, life is precarious, and sometimes it’s just dumb luck one way or the other. Today is a good day, all is well, we are happy, everyone is developing nicely. Overnight someone can get stuck sideways and die, with no warning. It’s a sobering reality. One I struggle to keep sight of, for the perspective it lends, while at the same time living from a place of joy and freedom with my kids. This day, each day, is a gift.

Motherhood is a gift, it has the potential to make us, and also to break us. It’s a wild ride. A drug worth getting high on over and over again. A roller coaster that I’ll ride forever, even though I puke in the third turn every stinkin’ time. It has occurred to me, more than once, when it’s become painfully clear how badly I suck at parenting, that there are many other things I could have, perhaps should have, done with my life besides inflicting myself on my kids. I’m not a great mother. I’ve done this child-rearing thing by braille, often feeling around in the dark tripping over kids and stepping on toes in the process. But the reality is, I can’t really imagine what else I’d have done with the past couple of decades that would have been more interesting, or better for my self development, or have more potential for changing the world than walking these kids through one world, in hopes that they’ll find the inspiration to remake it for themselves and their children later. It’s been a good way to pass the time.