I have been mothered by so many wonderful people. Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 82. And I have recently worked on a podcast where the first installment was about fathering. And I’ve been thinking of my academic mothers, one of whom I actually refer to as Doktor-Mutter. All these things have gotten me thinking about mothering.
Is mothering different from fathering, for instance? Does one need both? I think we tend to associate mothering with more nurturing and protecting, and fathering more with providing and preparing, but in my house parenting is pretty gender-neutral, and I certainly wouldn’t say one gender has the market cornered on any of these actions
Yet, there are certain people whom I think of when I think of being mothered. My mom associated mothering with warm bread and secret treats when I was feeling bad. Her job was to make me happy, and she did it well. When I had to leave school because I was sick, the car always veered toward the donut shop on the way home. When I was overwhelmed with school, she brought me a glass of milk and sat with me while I worked, helping where she could and offering moral support if she couldn’t. When I was sad, she made it her goal to cheer me up. She didn’t always get me, but she always loved me, and she made lots of things easier on me.
But in truth lots of women mothered me. My aunt, who recognized the moderately predictable drama of a “smartie” who wasn’t challenged enough in school, had a huge impact on me. Because of her, I parent both of my kids better than I would have. I had a tenth grade English teacher, who, when I was confused and anxious, helped me understand that mental health was just as important as physical health. It was a lot easier to learn that language at 15 than later, I can tell you.
I had professors whom I think of in very motherly terms. One, a Germanicist who taught me Old Saxon, Gothic, and Latin, also taught me how to teach people and how to be a woman in academia, especially a married woman with children. One was a nun–my Doktor-Mutter—who praised my creation of a child as much as my creation of a dissertation, who calmed my tears when I thought I had nothing to say, who bought me oil paints and told me to be creative if I wanted to find my scholarly voice again. She prayed for me even though I didn’t pray for myself, and she called herself a mother of my heart.
And these are just the biggies. I have also been mothered by men—by my husband, certainly, when no one else could have, and by a professor whom I didn’t even take classes with, but who, out of sheer generosity of spirit, coached me to interview for jobs and built me up when I was most insecure. I have been mothered by faculty mentors at my job and by friends who made my well-being a priority, and I even think I have been mothered, if briefly, by strangers who have only shared a few minutes in a shopping line or at the PTA or in a hospital room.
It seems to me, then, that it is incumbent upon me to do my part–to mother my children, my loved ones, my students, my colleagues, the world. Mothering is serious business. I have to pay that stuff forward and backward and sideways and diagonally. I must not seem ungrateful. I think of Angela Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood, who “has been too much loved ever to feel scared.” That’s some powerful mothering. We’ve got work to do.
(These images are of my mother, Marlene Turner Baker, Molly Weasley as played by Julie Walters, and a fox mama and adoring kit that I found on the internet a while back and now can’t find an attribution for. And Angela Carter’s amazing retelling of Little Red Riding Hood is called “In the Company of Wolves” and collected in her volume, The Bloody Chamber. The wonderful podcast I was referring to above is Steve Zelt’s introductory offering on fathering at A Small, Good Thing, available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Og6QvKASQc .)