Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Mother's Day Reflection - On the Importance of Mothers

Mother's Day is one of the most popular celebrations in our society.  The reasons are natural, in a very literal sense.  Mothers have an incomparable advantage over Fathers.

They carry us in their wombs for nine months.  They give us birth.  Their breasts feed us, several times a day, several times a night.  Their faces they hold close to ours.  They smile and kiss us.  Their voices coo and say gentle loving words, and are pleasant to our ears.  Their hands they use to hold us, play with us, and also clean us up when we make a mess.  Mothers do these things and more, throughout our lives.

We could write something about mammalian behaviors, about healthy emotional attachment development--which affects our capacities to trust and love.  But only biologists and psychologists are mainly interested in those aspects of Mothers, and their effects on their children.

When it comes our mothers, we really have no interest in anything except loving them, not analyzing them or putting them into some kind of biological behavioral class.  No, we have thousands of our own special feelings, thoughts, and memories about our Mothers.  When we think of Mom, we may think of lovingly prepared food, a recipe she only cooked for us, or our siblings.  To think, Mom, may be to have a memory of how she took care of us when we were sick.  To think, Mom, may be remembering we could talk to Mom and trust her with anything.  To think, Mom, may be knowing that--of everyone else you ever knew or loved--she was the one person who was forever loyal and true in her love for us.

My Mom is dead, and has been for two years.  I told her I loved her, I showed her I loved her, for many years.  When I was a teenager, I had a disrespectful smart-mouth with her, though I feared my Dad's hand and did not do that to him.  It would not be many years that I remembered how badly I treated my wonderful, loving Mom.  I apologized to her, and to Dad, for being such a teenager at times.  Mom and Dad were not grudge-bearers, by nature, let alone with their own sons.  Oh, they remembered some very trying times raising up three boys.  But they accepted the apologies (which were made periodically over the years), with a smile, hug, kiss, and command, "Now stop that!  You were a kid like anyone else."

Several years ago, I was driving after work on the interstate and, as I often did, would call my Mom and Dad just to talk on my way home.  One evening, Mom answered with that sweet voice of hers (and she had one, such a singer she was).  I choked up and said, "Mom, you know, one of these days, I will call 502-xxx-xxxx and there will be no answer.  I just want you to know that, when you and Dad are gone, I will be the loneliest orphan in the world.  I love you so."  She paused a second and said, "Oh, John.  You always are saying something like that.  I KNOW you love us."  And then we went on to talk about whatever was on our minds.

Now some readers did not have loving, good mothers.  I know that.  Some of us were abandoned.  Some of us were abused and removed from contact with our mothers.  Some of our mothers had substance problems.  Some of our mothers cursed and slapped us.  Some of our mothers humiliated us by the things they did.  Some of our mothers, or our fathers, never behaved like those of our friends.  When I was a Christian minister, I have seen some children glad to see their mothers dead.  Those adult children were bitter and angry with years of memories of mothers who had been selfish, abusive, manipulative, and unloving.

The main reason, I think, for their strong negative emotions is not so much that they adults had suffered whatever they did.  I believe they suffered more because it was their mothers who had done the harms.  Nature itself--from rabbits and squirrels, to bears and whales--shows that normal, healthy mothers love and care for their children.  When our mothers betray and harm us, they are acting against Nature.  And that knowledge, that we have been denied what is an almost universal childhood of nurture and support, makes many of us angry and bitter.

The Women's Liberation Movement worked hard to obtain equal rights for women in the workplace and in society.  Since World War II, from the Rose-Riveters to today's Supreme Court Justices and Secretaries of State, great progress has been made.  But I completely resent and condemn the disrespect and mockery the Women's Liberation Movement gave to "stay-at-home" Moms.  And I also have my own contempt for the arrogance that makes any distinction between the work done by stay-at-home Mothers as work and whatever "career Moms" do at the corporate office or factory.

Raising children, personally guiding children every hour of the day, thinking about and cooking healthy nutritional meals, gathering and sorting and washing and drying and ironing clothes, serving as preventive health care worker and in-home nurse, and the thousands of detailed jobs a mother must do is work.  And frankly, if you ask me, once a child is born, the work of mothering is much more important, much more satisfying, and much more life-changing and life-meaningful, than being in a corporate boardroom.

There are millions of women who do BOTH very well, work outside and inside the home--and too often with little appreciation or help (which is more important than words or flowers on Mother's Day) from their husbands.  While I do not want to romanticize women, or put women against men, it is my experience that many mothers are more reliable, work harder, sacrifice more, than fathers.  Again, I am not wanting to be too harsh with my gender, but my observations of my own kind seem to put most women above most men when it comes to caring for children, juggling multiple responsibilities, and still managing to put love and care in them all.

I have seen some Mothers--rural and urban, educated and illiterate, rich and poor, of all races--who have been self-absorbed, selfish, emotionally unavailable to their children, and sometimes, physically absent as they allowed their children to raise themselves, and at their own risks.  Now the middle and upper classes love to look down their noses and point downward at the parental failures of mothers raised in the ghettos or backwoods.  Well, we surely should not blame people for being what they were taught to become, or what they grew up to believe was normal or permissible.

As a member of the middle class, and as one with some experience socializing with the upper class, I have other observations.  I have seen more than enough middle-class and wealthy, well- and highly educated mothers emotionally neglect their children while they filled their social calendars with everything that would get their picture in a newspaper or a newsletter.  Their kids were basically "perfect in every way" from a purely physical point of view.  They wore designer clothes, had perfect teeth, had every popular toy, had the latest technological innovation, had plenty of ballet and piano lessons.  Yet inside, most of these children with over-scheduled, egocentric mothers are emotionally starved and neglected.  Take a look at the Columbine killers.  They were not from the wrong side of the tracks.

And as a former youth minister, who once had a church in the mountains of Central-Eastern Kentucky, I also saw, first-hand, some "white trash" children.  Let me introduce you to two, who were often shoeless, somewhat dirty, crooked-toothed, wild-haired, rags-dressed kids.  They lived in what ought to have been an uninhabitable, windows-broken, bare-plank floor, wood stove-heated house, fronted and sided by abandoned and dead old appliances, broken concrete blocks, and trash.  Those two kids proudly showed their young pastor their "bedroom."  It was a narrow pantry, modified for "bunk beds," which actually were  two wide planks nailed perpendicular to the wall, with pallets on them.

Guess what?  Their mother really, really loved them.  They Pa was a drunk, but their Mom, really, really, really, really loved them.  And they were not "putting on a show" when they smiled and laughed and carried on.  Those kids knew their Mother loved them.  She really was embarrassed--the first time--to have the youth minister get out of the van and come in.  But not after that.  She knew I loved her kids, her, and her drunken husband too.

I have seen wealthy mothers who neglected to love and nurture their children, and the kids grew up to become wild and embarrassing. I have seen mothers use their political influence to get "their" kids quietly off from a criminal charge, because she was a friend of the mayor or police chief, or the head of a local political party.  That was a real lesson for the kids--which, by the way, never was done "for the kids" but to save the "family name" from public embarrassment.  But even connected Moms (and Dads) cannot always keep things quiet.  So when things have gone public, I have seen those wealthy mothers tearful before the cameras, holding their heads high, wondering "how such a thing could happen," and the adoring media supportive and kind.  Many know the real story, but no one dares tell.

They were horribly, emotionally neglectful Mothers who did not intentionally raise monsters.  They just were too busy to notice.  So their children grow up emotionally empty and behaviorally wild.  Then those Mothers have scheduled more visits with their physicians for more pills, and doubled their normal psychiatric visits per month.  Those poor Mothers needed help "for what their children did to them."  They should have spent less time on the golf course, at the country club, attending lecture series, going to symphony, taking trips to Aspen and Cozumel, and years of "Girls' Night Out."  And they probably made a mistake by having a medicine chest full of prescription drugs by which they "managed and coped."  That was a lesson too.

I am not an anthropologist or psycho-biologist, or a prophet.  But I know scholars in many fields attribute the explosion of personal, familial, social, and political problems in Western industrialized societies to the gradual erosion and breakdown of our most basic emotional needs, known by instinct: to love and be loved, to experience trust and loyalty, and then have experiential capacities to be trustworthy and loyal, and many others.  Why would anyone be surprised that a human being--who never was loved by his or her own mother, or who was abandoned by his or her own father (another kind of loss)--should grow up to be an adult who does not love, who betrays, who believes these are normal, even if illegal?

I was fortunate and blessed, indeed, to have had a Mom who was completely devoted to her three boys.  In fact, sometimes her maternal instincts for us overrode her awareness that she really ought to have paid more attention to our Dad.  But he was not, nor is today, a complainer on all that.  He was so pleased to be married to such a woman of character, beauty--inside and out--and devoted love for both her own and his family, and for their three sons.  Mom is dead now.  And I must tell you, this 57 year old man sometimes thinks about his sweet Mother, has a sob rise up in his throat, and says, "God, how I miss my Mother."

So, Mothers, think about who you are.  Would-be mothers, think of who you would become one day.  And for all who have Mothers alive today, consider the following suggestions.

Today is all you have.  Use today to express love for your Mother.  Tell her you are thankful she carried you.  Tell her thanks for any good memory you can think of.  Tell her you are sorry for having caused whatever troubles you gave her.  Tell her how much she means to you, even now, even if she is lying in a bed in a nursing home.  And if she did something to you no natural, healthy mother ought ever to have done, take her in your arms, and tell her, "Mom, I want you to know I forgive you for what you did.  I ask your forgiveness now, for having been angry and bitter, and for not having known how better to react or love you, despite what you did to me, until now.  I am sorry, Mom."

The wonderful thing about love is that you need no suggestions on how to express it!  Love is a creative and dynamic force!  Turn it loose!

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