All these years later, my eyes still sting when I think about what she did for me...
Mothering is ultimately a wide and rich gift that can expand beyond genetic or legal bonds, a community endeavor that deserves support and kindness and help from many directions
When I was in third grade, my parents got divorced. My mom went back to school full-time in the hopes of beginning a new career that would support us.
Oddly, this was one of the richest years of my life. My world split and shifted on its axis, and yet somehow didn’t knock me over — thanks to a SHEro (or two).
Kids are amazingly resilient. At 8, I was in a sort of a “magical thinking” phase where my family’s breakup wasn’t quite real to me; instead, I imagined myself out of the pain. I thought of my new life as a Pippy-Longstockings-esque adventure: My dad was off on his pirate ship, and I just had to be good in his absence. When we lost our home and my mom and I moved four times in a year, it meant we were fugitive outlaws like Robin Hood.
Of course, magical thinking can only work for so long, and a kid can only be so brave. My wistful house of cards came crashing down when my mom couldn’t come to a Mother’s Day Tea at school.
I needed a SHEro. I got Mrs. Bell (not her real name).
Oh... Mother's Day Tea. It seems like such an innocuous, fluffy thing to lose my shit over. And looking back, I don’t see how I could possibly have been the only one with a working mom unable to attend a party that took place during school hours, but it certainly felt like I was the only one — and I was certainly the only one who got upset. And I mean upset.
You see, my mom was the one who had always been there. My dad had been coming and going for a couple of years at this point and, sad to say, I had already somewhat weaned myself off of expecting his presence. But my mom was there.
Until she couldn’t be.
Only fuzzy memories remain about the details leading up to my third grade class’ Mother’s Day Tea: our little 8-year-old selves busily cutting out paper hearts, practicing songs, and writing poems for our moms. Actual tea and actual cake were involved.
As a child abnormally obsessed with tea parties, I was psyched. I was going to bust out my toy tea set for this.
There was a permission slip/invitation asking parents whether they would be able to come. I took it home to my mom full of reluctant hope.
“I’m so sorry, honey, I can’t be there.”
Of course she couldn’t. My mom was a full-time student with an internship. She had lost 10 pounds that year from stress. She was superwoman, staying up late at night in our shared bedroom listening to tapes of herself reading her textbooks and saving the day when no one else would. But even she couldn’t be in two places at once.
I understood that she was so busy because she loved me. I knew she was working to take care of us. But on the deeper, more important, kid level, all that mattered was that at the special Mother’s Day Tea party, no one would be there for me.
The next day when I returned my blank RSVP slip to Mrs. Bell, I burst into tears. An emotional breakdown was not my usual greeting and Mrs. Bell, god bless her, came to the rescue.
She pulled me aside and hugged me, asked what was going on. I don’t remember whether I told her my whole life story or just said that my mom couldn’t come to the tea party, (I still can’t believe a freaking tea party was what brought me crashing down to earth, but I guess it had to be something.)
Mrs. Bell didn’t tell me that everything would be OK. She didn’t tell me to calm down. Instead, she asked if it would be alright with me if, at the Mother’s Day Tea, she could pretend to be my
mother for the day.
How did she know that was what I needed?
To me, mothering means more than simply giving birth or raising one’s own child. Opening my heart to someone else's help didn't threaten or diminish my real mother's importance — instead, it encouraged and uplifted us both during a truly tough time.
All these years later, my eyes still sting when I think about what she did for me, even while the product-of-divorce kid inside me tries to dismiss and distance myself from those warring feelings of abandonment, hope, and gratitude. It doesn’t matter, I’m fine, I don’t need help, I can handle this.
But it does matter. It is a big deal. And sometimes, I can’t handle it.
In a very big way, Mrs. Bell and that Mother’s Day Tea showed me how important my own needs were, which is itself a big lesson. But on a deeper level, Mrs. Bell left me with the lingering understanding that there was more to mothering than the obvious. She unlocked my thinking about what being a mother means, and she showed me how much of an impact mothering can have when it is universal.
To me, mothering means more than simply giving birth or raising one’s own child. Opening my heart to someone else's help didn't threaten or diminish my real mother's importance — instead, it encouraged and uplifted us both during a truly tough time. Mrs. Bell was there for me in a very simple but powerful way when my mother couldn’t be.
And, though my memories are hazy, I know that Mrs. Bell and I sat together at the Mother’s Day Tea. I think I called her “Mrs. Mom” and grinned the whole time, until the cake was gone and it was time to go to latchkey.
Mothering is ultimately a wide and rich gift that can expand beyond genetic or legal bonds, a community endeavor that deserves support and kindness and help from many directions. Mrs. Bell made my mom’s job a little easier that day by joining her in fighting for me, and she also taught me what it can mean when an adult is willing to "mother" all kids: that it can strengthen our identity and lift us out of trouble, and that sometimes we need an outsider to stand in the gap and help us.
The point is that at the Mother’s Day Tea, someone was there for me. And to a kid (even a 30- or 80-year-old
kid), that's all that matters sometimes.