What does “mother” mean anyway?

It can be rough when you learn that you’re not the mother you thought you’d be. When I say “rough,” of course, I mean heart-wrenching, soul-crushing, and seemingly life-ending. Though it is in fact a painful revelation, I believe it’s so acute, in part, because we have a wacky definition of “mother.”

Mother idealized

A mother, we believe, is loving, beneficent, self-less, kind, gentle — all of which are true except in rare cases. The challenge comes because we add to these characteristics the qualifier that she is this way “all the time.” Even if you don’t think this is what you believe, you will determine that this is what you’ve been expecting of yourself all along once you become a mother. Whether this misunderstanding comes from our cultural myths, our own deepest desires, or a conglomeration of sources, believing that “mother” is a synonym for “saint” is harmful for us all.

Mother actually

Here’s what I’ve learned about what it means to be a mother in my 18+ months fulfilling this role.

  • Being a mother opens up your heart to a love so deep that you could seemingly be consumed by it. Out of this love you desire to be and do only that which will nurture your child and reflect to them the love you feel for them.
  • The act of mothering — all that you “do” as a mama to manifest this love and care — is more profound than anything you’ve ever done before and, at times, wears you to the rough and fragile places of your ego. In these moments you learn that your “better self” has a “less-better self” and you feel off-kilter as your self-image gets reshaped.
  • First recognizing the gap between the idealized and real picture of motherhood can be an experience filled with surprise, disappointment, shock, or horror, depending on how strongly you held the idealized beliefs, how unrealistic your own demands on yourself, how honest are the other mothers with whom you connect, and how challenging your overall parenting journey.
  • Navigating the true territory of motherhood is a rich and hopefully life-altering journey. I say “hopefully” because I believe that in losing some of our untrue ideas and demands, we become more whole, more human, more real — our homo sapiens version of the Velveteen Rabbit transformation — which is a better model for those children in our care.

Your Mother
by Shonnie Lavender

I am a mother.

I am gentle, loving, and protective.

I am rough, mean, and sometimes the person you need protection from.

I nurture you.

I need my own nurturing.

I am attentive to your full and healthy development.

I am still becoming my authentic and healthy self.

I love you in ways words are inadequate to describe.

I fail to behave lovingly even when that is what you need most.

My best intentions are often realized, even in difficult moments.

I make amends, and deserve forgiveness, when my actions aren’t ideal.

My love is for you is unending, unfathomable, and unrelenting.

My love is bestowed unevenly but done to the best of my ability.

I am a mother — your real, un-perfect mother — and I am grateful to fill this role for you.


5 thoughts on “What does “mother” mean anyway?

    1. chelsea acopulos

      Shonnie…thank you. This brought me to tears this morning. I love my boys more than they will ever know, but at times I am that imperfect mother, and that is ok. I just keep loving, and keep doing my best. I love reading your thoughts, I sure can relate!!
      Love u!

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