Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

On this Mother's Day I've been driving across the springtime desert, a great bouquet spread across the mountains and canyons and vast sweeps of the Southwest. And I've been thinking about the power of mothers, the sheer unbelievable exhausting work and terror and joy of mothering that women all across the world take on with their whole hearts.

In the Metta Sutta, an early Buddhist sutra about compassion and loving-kindness, the practitioner is urged to love others "even as a mother loves her only child." The Tibetans teach loving-kindness by suggesting that since all beings have, in one lifetime or another, been our mother, how can we help but feel boundless gratitude to all of them? And Prajnaparamita, the deepest possible wisdom, is described as "the mother of the Buddhas" and is always depicted as a woman.

Personally, I've been learning a few things about what it takes to be a mother, directly from the source. For the past few months, before I started my annual fieldwork, I've been the "token non-mother" in a small meditation group for mothers that my friend Monica and I started together. All the women (except me) have school age children, and some are on the second round of raising children - a child in college and a young child still at home.

We meet at 8:30 AM on Mondays, since mothers generally can't get to an evening meditation group. Anyone can show up as late as they need to, since everyone knows that getting kids off to school can be filled with the unexpected. If someone has a child home from school, she can bring him or her to the house too. After we sit together in silence on couches and chairs and comfortable cushions, we pass around a little statue of Kuan Yin, the female bodhisattva of compassion, and each woman has a few minutes to speak about anything she wants. We all listen with our full attention. Sometimes the person speaking begins to cry. Sometimes we all start to cry. Sometimes we all laugh. And then, after each woman has said what she wants to say, we talk for a bit and then go our separate ways.

Every time is moving, extraordinary, and the hard-won wisdom in the room is palpable. And each of these women, who spend all week listening and responding - to children, husbands, a whole family - have one place where she is completely listened to and heard, and where she can say whatever needs to be said, the thing that perhaps can't be said anywhere else.

This what I've learned, through the tremendous honesty of the women in the group: mothering is infinitely harder than anyone ever acknowledges (and I can imagine all the mothers reading this snorting and rolling their eyes at my great insight). My respect for mothers - any mother - has increased tenfold. All you non-mothers out there, male or female, just try it for a week. Take someone's kids for a week - even your own kids if you're not the primary caregiver - and see what it's like. See if you're not reduced to a puddle of exhaustion, frustration, infantile responses, confusion, and self-doubt by the end of the week. See if you're not horrified by the thoughts that have arisen in your mind. See if you haven't wanted, at least once, to throw something across the room, maybe even that sweet child that you love so much who has just pushed you over an edge you never imagined you had.

And yet, on the other side, ask any mother whether she regrets what she's taken on. I remember when my friend Katy had her first child, at 40, after most of a lifetime of not wanting children. She said, over and over again, "I can't believe I almost missed this. I have never felt love like this, my heart has opened wider than I knew was possible, there is nothing more wonderful." She was transformed, radiant, new-born herself. She's walked a tough road as a mother, with some terrifying moments - the kind of moments that no parent even wants to think about - but I know she would still say the same things that she said when her first beautiful daughter was born.

To be a mother is to open yourself up to everything - to all the struggle and heart-ache, to being unappreciated or even hated by your children, to risk the loss of your children, to weep, to sacrifice what matters to you for your children, to be helpless to ease their suffering, to fail and fail again. And to love with every cell in your body.

When Tibetan teachers first came to the West, they couldn't understand why their practice of generating gratitude by thinking of one's mother often went so poorly with their Western students. It seems that deep trouble between mothers and children is a hallmark of our culture. If we're lucky we can spend a few days with our mothers without going mad. But admiration? Devotion? Very rare.

We can't pretend that trouble away, but at least we can consider what it takes to be a mother, every once in a while. I know that my contact with the women I was sitting with every Monday morning has changed me irrevocably, and has given me a new view of the tremendous nobility of the practice of mothering. A bodhisattva is a being who is dedicated to the well-being of others; however imperfectly, every mother is engaged in bodhisattva practice, doing the best she can with her own heart and the challenge of a child. Now when I see a harassed mother with a screaming child - or two, or three - in the grocery store I want to bow down and kiss her fee, or at least hand her a coupon for a good massage and a glass of wine. I am in the presence of a bodhisattva.

I want to end with part of an ancient koan:

A certain laywoman was a student of a famous Zen teacher in China. From time to time she would come to the monastery to visit the teacher, and she would be treated with great respect and was housed in the teacher's best guestroom. The senior monk at the monastery resented the woman and didn't think it was proper that she was treated so well. He kept complaining to his teacher, and finally the teacher said, "If this bothers you so much, go talk to her yourself."

So the monk went off reluctantly to see the woman. When he knocked at her door with his attendants, she met him and said, "Is this a worldly conversation, or a Zen conversation?"

He said, "A Zen conversation."

She said, "Then dismiss your attendents and come in alone in a few minutes."

When he came in she was lying on the bed, naked. He pointed to her body and said (and I can imagine the tone here), "What is this?"

She said, "This is the gate through which all the Buddhas and great teachers come into the world."

Every great man, every great woman, every humanitarian, every saint, every president, every philosopher, every artist, every writer, every peacemaker has come into the world through the body of a woman. On this Mother's Day, I bow down to all women everywhere, and especially I bow down all mothers. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.

And a special bow to my own mother, the amazing Harriet McNeal, off in Romania having more adventures as I write this. Thank you for all the ways you've taken care of and inspired me.


  1. This is a great picture of you mother~ who has been a great adoptive mother for me. Your words are perfect- I hope Emily and Erin are getting your blog. Funny I always wanted to be a mother- looks like I might get a few more added to my brew. Lots of love to you!

  2. Thank you, thank you Florence, for bringing tears to my eyes this morning reading this. And cheers to Harriet - a role model for us all!

  3. Sometimes, just listening is what matters. How lovely that you and Monica and the others in your group have created this space for listening. And I know that you offer your mother-self to so many beings, including the seeds. Thank you for posting this lovely tribute to the mother part of all of us.

  4. Great post! I just learned about Kuan Yin through a very interesting book called Beneficial Law of Attraction and I can't wait to learn more.

  5. Beautiful! being a mother was the hardest job I ever had . . . and also one that caused me to open my heart the most.

    There is a lot of pressure in our Western world to be a perfectly good mother. An unattainable ideal, that causes lots of mental anguish for all mothers here. When my children were small, and I struggled, I drew much solace from D.W. Winnicott's affirmation of 'good enough mothering' as a standard to live by. That I could do, be . . .

    Deep bow to you!

  6. I just found this, referenced from your more recent post. Beautiful, Florence. I love reading your comments, insights. Very helpful in my own journey.