I’ve been thinking about motherhood.
At six months pregnant, it would be surprising if I weren’t. While some general anxieties exist in my musings–Will I drop him? Will I have enough patience? What if he’s Republican?–I’ve been thinking mostly about how most cultures expect sons to leave their mothers in some way. I’ve been thinking already, “He will leave me.”
I shared this thought with one of my friends, and she said, “My God, Casey. That’s so sad. Let yourself be happy for a while. It’s like you’re conditioned to find the down side. Right now he’s INSIDE you and you’re thinking about him leaving.”
Au contraire, dear friend. When I think, “He will leave me,” I am not expressing a lament so much as a reminder and admonition to myself. I’m not expressing the sadness that motherhood calls us to experience, the hard truth that we must build various houses around our children and then watch the door close when they walk out of them. I have not felt that sadness yet.
When my brother was twelve years old, my parents let him live in Brazil for a year. My mother still says that the day she put him on the plane–she flew with him to Miami where he caught his next flight to Rio–was one of the worst days of her life. I’ve been thinking about her too, my young mother, watching her sweaty-haired son, barely five feet tall and seriously lacking in body fat, use his bowed legs to take flight into a world she could only imagine.
And I’ve been thinking about an archetypal Mother, about Mary, mother of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Luke, when her son was twelve, she lost him for three days:
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.
I was asked last year to write a devotional meditation that reflected on this story in Luke. Not yet pregnant, and with little hope that I’d ever be, I wrote what I now consider prescient. Somehow I must have known I’d need my own insight, and soon. At the time, I felt pulled by the last line, “But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Here’s what I wrote:
In Luke, we read the story of the boy Jesus at the temple. We may want to read the story as an initiation—a boy stepping over a threshold, into the world, and away from his parents to begin his hero’s journey. However, Luke does not end the story in the point of view of our hero, but instead in the interior world of his mother.
Imagine losing your twelve-year old son. Imagine him purposefully walking away from you. Imagine the fear, anxiety and anger that might arise from such a willful act of disobedience. Mary feels all these emotions, admonishing her son for the sorrow he breeds in his parents, even while she hears the teachers in the temple praise the young Jesus for his wisdom and insight.
Mary treasures “all these things” in her heart, her fear and misunderstanding as well as her pride in her son. She experiences the first shadows of the painful paradox of parenthood: while our children come through us, they are not of us. That Mary chooses to treasure the paradox might be a gentle reminder to us about the divine vocation of parenthood that asks us to “lose” our children so that God may find them.
One of the gifts of infertility–and there are few–is that it teaches you early on that your child does not belong to you. Even to conceive, you require forces outside yourself. When the baby arrives, finally, in your womb, he comes from a land outside your body, outside your volition, and outside your need or desire. He is a traveler and you a temporary guesthouse.
I want to remember that he will leave me, this precious boy, so that I do not mistake him, as many mothers do, for a personal blessing. I have not been “blessed” with child–that violent expression (God blessed me with children, a husband, a home, a job, citizenship…) implies people without children are somehow un-blessed or undeserving, or that we can somehow earn children when we can do no such thing. Rather, the world has been blessed with child. He belongs to the world, and to it he owes most his gratitude, respect, and attention. I want to treasure this knowledge in my heart. I want to remember that he will leave me so I that I never call him mine, and so that his eventual leave-taking will be an affirmation of my love, a love so true and vast that my body could never contain it.