It’s not conception, not pregnancy, not nursing, not even wiping snotty little noses. After all, dogs and cats give birth and lick their kittens and pups clean.
Real motherhood is a banner we raise for the young…real fatherhood too. Real motherhood is about dancing where the young can see us. My birth mother always ran outside to stand in thunderstorms, and she gave me that. But my music mother—who never bore any child—conducted her own sinfonia and gave me the passion of music itself. Real fatherhood means being consistent, strong and gentle. It means touching with kind hands, even though we have the strength to hit.
But it’s not male or female. This has nothing to do with what sex organs are between our legs.
What do caring adults mean to a child? Think back to being tiny. Things don’t make sense. Grownups loom over us, cooking, feeding, driving, going away and coming back. They are powerful, and we are small. Some grownups—maybe even our mothers and fathers— hit us and tell us we’re worthless. But there are others—teachers at school, the man who sells bikes, our brownie troop leader—who look deep into our eyes and see us as we really are. They are big too and have wonderful power. They bind the hurt places and tell us the things no one else has said: “You are awesome just the way you are. You don’t deserve to be hit. Here’s a different way to dance. I am here for you.” Little people need safety and a big person who sees them as important.
Making sperm, getting pregnant and giving birth mean almost nothing. Instead, it’s the fidelity, the daily caring that tells true motherhood and fatherhood. My violin teacher nudged me through years of difficult technique practice. She loved a gorgeous tone. She used to lean close as I played, whispering “play, play!” When I played well, her highest praise was “not bad.” I had a Hindi teacher who praised me and always served up more challenges. In his class the fun was seeing what twisted little grammar assignment he would give me next. These were the people who were there for me, year after year. They raised me just as much as my birth parents, and every child needs such adults.
Often people talk about a child’s “real” mother or father as if giving birth or making someone pregnant—often by mistake—was a sacrament. A holy thing. That adult is then labeled as the “real” mother or father. This is nonsense, and it is cruel.
Here’s what holy: My violin teacher welcoming me back as an adult. After a disastrous divorce I needed to find my true self again. With no comment, she smiled wryly and handed me Sevcik’s book on bowing technique. “Let’s get to work!” Later that year I was playing better than ever in my life. That’s true motherhood. She showed me a way to dance through the shame and come out better.
In our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our circles of friends, small people need safe adults. A real mother or father—not just a biological parent—comes back day after day. Small people need someone faithful and safe who bends close and says, “I see you. You can make it through this. Let’s get to work!”
That’s our work. Children need all the help they can get. It’s the fidelity of daily caring and the utter safety of an adult who only touches kindly. It has nothing to do with genetics or childbirth.
We big people need to dance in the open, show our own work, show how we found our joy. We bend down, take the hand of a child and say, “I see who you really are, and you are wonderful.” It’s a holy moment, and the answer is the soft smile of hope.
by Jean Gendreau