– Mark Twain, ‘Autobiography’
In West Africa, in the nation of Burkina Faso, there is a tribe called the Dagara and they believe every mother dreams her child into being. In her book, Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community, child development author, Sobonfu Some, describes how, for the Dagara, the life of a child doesn’t begin the day they are born. Nor does it begin just after conception. Instead a child is “born” the day it first becomes a thought in the mind of its mother. Once a woman feels it’s time for her to have a child, she walks off by herself and finds a tree. Under its shade, she sits and waits, until she hears the song of her child. Soon as she’s heard it, she returns to her village and finds the man who will be the father of the child. She teaches him the song. And while they make love, together, they sing their child’s song, inviting it into this world.
After the woman becomes pregnant, the mother teaches her child’s song to all the other women of the village. On the day her child pushes out of her womb, all the women gather together and sing the child’s song, welcoming it into this world. As it grows up, whenever the child gets hurt, any villager can comfort the child by singing their song to them since each member of the tribe knows everyone’s song. Later, when the child is older and has done something worthy of praise, the tribe will sing the child’s song to him or her. And when they’re ready to undergo the rites of puberty, the tribe will gather and sing the child’s song. When a child becomes an adult, and they get married, the bride and groom’s songs are sung together as a way of linking their lives. Finally, at the end of their life, as the child prepares to die, the tribe gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her, for the last time. Nice tradition, right?
Now, I don’t know about yours, but my mother can’t sing. She’d be the first to tell you she’s as tone deaf as Sylvester Stallone. However, being Irish at heart, this doesn’t stop her from singing. And I love that about her. All my life, my mother has, in one way or another, sung to me my child’s song. She used it to remind me who I am whenever I wandered far from my path. She sang it to me when she was bursting with pride at some accomplishment. Her singing wasn’t musical. It was entirely metaphorical. Often she voiced it in shared laughter. Other times it was her expressing her constant belief that I could do more and be better. Sometimes, she sang lyrics of support, and when it was called for, she sang her criticism, but always set to a steady rhythm of her indefatigable optimism. I was a difficult child. My poor mother spent many days and nights singing.
Looking back, I often imagine those times when my mother got a call from one of her friends, or from some fellow mother, and they let her know they saw me streaking around town in the middle of the day naked; and I picture my poor mother in that moment, shaking her head, asking herself where she went wrong. Some of us make life very difficult for our mothers. I happened to be one of those children. Many people would say more than a dream, I was something of a waking nightmare.
I was the sort of kid who’d cut a cast off my broken arm because I was convinced I was fully healed. Pretty much, for a stretch of about ten years, my mother spent more time with me in the emergency room of local hospitals than we spent anywhere else. I was hard-headed and defiant. For instance, one time, after I talked shit to a middle school bully, he picked me up and threw me through a window, and I landed in the classroom that I was late for, and luckily, I was uninjured. For some reason, my mother had to pay for that window since my reputation suggested to the school principal that I must’ve jumped through it. And there were those times I’d do something stupid like hang from my fingertips off the side of a five-story building and when some innocent bystander noticed they’d alert a cop and then I’d get chased by police. Of course, someone who knew my mother would see me running from the police and call her. Which I’m sure was embarrassing.
When I’d get home, thinking I’d cleverly and secretly escaped the cops, there’d be my mother, waiting, angry, confused, scared, fully aware of what I’d done, and wanting to know why she was failing as a mother. I never meant to drag my mother’s good name through the mud, nor did I mean to make her think of herself as a failure. I’ve just always been a bit… independent. And rather rambunctious like most red-blooded boys. Now that I’m an adult and survived my early stupidity, I can say without reservation or qualification, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my mother. The fact I’m on this side of the grass and you’re reading this, is a sign of her success and Irish stubbornness.
Like a teacher, a mother’s influence extends forever. And as such, it’s impossible to track all of her impact and the effect of all of her efforts. Only occasionally, will a mother get to pause and feel the warm glow of pride. Most of the rest of the time, she’s convinced everything is her fault.
If my mother got a say she would insist she’s not perfect. But everyone knows that none of us is blessed with a perfect mother. In fact, I don’t think such a terribly trite thing exists. Some of us are blessed with a mother who does the best she can with what she has and what she knows, and scared as she is, she does what her heart tells her to do… and sometimes it all works out. For those of us blessed with just such a mother… almost daily, we ought to let her know how glad we are that we were invited into this world by a loving and kind mother. Instead, each year we set aside one day, to honor the women we call mothers, biological and otherwise. It’s not required that a woman give birth to a baby to make her a mother. A mother is any woman who invited a child into her life and promised to mother them.
So to all you mothers, let me say…
Not for the way you patiently guide us into adulthood, nor for the pains we experienced that you felt as well, nor for all the dreams and curiosity that you entertained and encouraged, and certainly not for your decades of scrubbing, feeding, clothing, nagging, shuttling, cheering, defending and criticizing, all of it is and was important, but these aren’t the reasons why I wrote this for you; I wish to celebrate your fears and the self-doubt you overcame, all the maddening frustrations and those irritations of your last nerve that somehow you swept aside, and all those many personal challenges that remained mostly, if not entirely, invisible to the rest of us. I praise your sacrifices, and your selflessness, that quality most synonymous with motherhood.
I wish in our culture we had a tradition of singing a child’s song, or really, a mother’s song. But just like my mother, I can’t sing. Instead, I offer these words as a love song to my mother, to your mother, to all of the mothers of world, for without them and their dreams, none of us would be here.
Let this be a love song to all mothers of the world.
I sing for all the pieces of you that you gave away for all of us.