Mother Love

“I took her in my teeth, dragged her through it all, and I saved her,” my mother said of my then five-year old sister, referring to their deportation and enslavement in Siberia during World War Two.  “Like a mother tiger,” my writer friend Wesley had said when he offered his idea for the title to my book, My Sister’s Mother. His own mother had saved him and his sister through a similar ordeal only to die herself from exhaustion and disease in Iran just after they had managed to escape their own imprisonment in Siberia. He wrote about it in his book, When God Looked the Other Way.

 Ever since my book came out in 2016 and then again in 2019, people have remarked how terribly brave my mother must have been to have survived that whole tragic ordeal, what an incredibly resourceful, strong woman she must have been to have saved my sister when thousands of children had died during that historic tragedy, and then to have been able to return to life with some sense of normalcy.  Or did she?

Mother love I think it was.  But what is this thing we think of as mother love?  We think we know what it is when we see a new mother sweetly nursing her newborn baby, or grabbing her toddler in a panic just before it leaps in front of a moving vehicle, or feeding a child the last bits of rice before feeding herself just as my starving mother had done when she took the last bits of precious bread from her own mouth to give to my malnourished, sickly sister as they waited under bare, cold, wet November skies for a freight train in 1941 to take them on the final leg of their escape from the Soviet Union, or the mother stepping in front of a soldier ready to fire a weapon at her child in today’s world of tragedy unfolding in front of our unbelieving eyes as we are assaulted daily on the news, turning us into unfeeling zombies trying to protect our own sanity. But how did my mother save her sanity?  How do other mothers save theirs amid such tragedy?  Mother love is the answer. They/we don’t think about it. We just do what is necessary. We do it for love. For the love of our children.  For the hope that things will change, that the future will be better.  It becomes instinctual.

We think we know this love when we see in other ways—lovers embraced on a park bench oblivious to the outside world, during marriage vows exchanged between loving young or old partners having survived life-threatening struggles or powerful detriments to their union, or in the gripping looks of helpless shelter animals grateful they have found their forever homes.  None, however, are as powerful or sustaining as that of mother love, that binding connection of a mother to her child where her own self-love gladly vanishes, melts away all fears, emboldens her against any threat to her child, renders her the warrior queen of the earth.

Sometimes a mother’s love is full of anguish, sometimes it is so full of love she doesn’t know where it will spill over or how to contain it before it becomes unashamedly out of control. Sometimes it excuses that which should not be excused.  Sometimes it cannot justify the evil that emerges from her child, or it cannot contain the pride that her child fills the world with, the goodness that humanity is left unapologetically enlightened.

Mother love has such an immutable hold on us that we cannot struggle against it no matter how hard we try. One word from Mother and we are rendered helpless, stopped in our tracks, head bowed, submissive to her command. So powerful is her love, we are lost as our own selves. Yet, the loving mother knows to let go, to render tough love, to send us off into the world, with tears in her eyes, knowing she has prepared us to do battle in a world not always so loving. Mother love is selfless love.

When I first became a mother, the intensity of that love frightened me for I had never experienced the depth of such a feeling—not with any parent, sibling, or man. It was overwhelming as if I had become possessed by this tiny bundle of squiggling joy for whose life I was entirely responsible. I felt a powerful force come over me as if I could fight off anything or anyone who would do my baby harm, that I was ready to lay down my life for this child. I was forever transformed, never to be the same person again. I only became more fierce with each new baby. When I see mothers covering the bodies of their children with their own as bombs drop or think of my mother sacrificing her own well-being for my sister during those World War Two struggles, it makes perfect sense to me.

Mother love is both a push and a pull. It pushes us to extremes of action in the face of adversity for our children, beyond what we ever thought possible. It is a fierce attachment between mother and daughter when the relationship is difficult yet necessary, as it was with mine and my mother’s. Mother love pulls us toward our child no matter how badly our child may behave. Mother love forgives, protects, is unconditional.  Babies in orphanages have been known to die from lack of mother love. Strong men have been known to crumble to their knees in front of their mothers begging their sons to lay down their weapons. A daughter’s bond to her mother is forever cemented and she cannot extract herself from her mother’s grip. That was my childless sister’s bond to our mother. And when my sister became mentally ill, experienced her first major psychotic breakdown, my mother was inconsolable, uncontrollably hysterical that nothing could be done to undo this new siege upon my sister’s life, one from which my mother was helpless to save her. In the end, even mother love could not save my sister that one last time, but mother love was always there.

Mother love is mysterious, beguiling, captivating, or even puzzling and often the subject of artists over the ages trying to capture its rapture over mother and child like the various depictions of the Madonna and Child, or Michelangelo’s Pieta of the mournful mother over the loss of her only son. Mother love endures and gives rise to new lives, new beginnings as new infants are cradled in the arms of young mothers and grandmothers, softening the faces worn by the heaviness of life, bringing new joy, new hope, more love than can sometimes be contained in our overflowing hearts. Mother love is fierce. In one form or another, Mother love is all around us right here today.

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