My late mother never forgot the time that she opened up her Mother’s Day card and read the words: ‘You’ve Been Like a Mother To Me’. “But I am your real mother!”, she said. “Exactly”, I responded. “That’s why I chose the card. It’s wonderful that you were not only my birth-mother but also have been so genuinely motherly to me’.
I have been so blessed to have a mother who has been so full of care and compassion through the good times and the bad. But not everyone has been so fortunate. Some people have been raised by their birth-mothers who were so wounded that they were unable to express love and nurture during the formative years. This can leave people with a big hole in their hearts and a sense of loneliness that is hard to express.
Drs. Dennis Cloud & John Townsend, best-selling authors of ‘Boundaries’ and ‘The Mother Factor’, believe that ‘mothering is the most significant, demanding and underpaid profession around.’ When they interviewed people about their definitions of true mothering, certain words came up again and again: nurture, care, bondedness, cookies, and trust. Drs. Cloud and Townsend were able to name five basic needs that must be met by a mother, in order for us to be healthy and secure:
Belonging and Invitation
Someone to Love.
Safety, says Cloud & Townsend, comes in the form of a person who is predictable, stable, and danger-free. Without this person, the child remains in a state of panic or anxiety, unable to love or learn. I give thanks for my mother who gave me this gift of personal safety. I always knew intuitively that whether I was a success or a failure, obedient or rebellious, my mother would always be there for me.
The second need that mothers meet is ‘to nurture’. Webster’s Dictionary says that to nurture is to ‘feed or nourish’. When I was troubled at school by bullies or exams, my mother was always there to feed me, with cookies, milk, and a listening ear. I remember going through deep struggles as a teenager about the meaning of life and career choices. Mom was always there to listen. True, I often rejected her advice and was closed to her deep spirituality. But most important, her nurturing and food were always there when I was struggling.
The third need that mothers meet is ‘basic trust’. Drs. Cloud & Townsend teach that basic trust is the ability to invest oneself in a relationship. Healthy people let themselves need and depend on others without fear. We live in a high-tech disposable age where everything is up for grabs.
There is an enormous fear of commitment and long-term intimacy. Yet simultaneously many of us ache from the absence of such relational rootedness. My wife and I have been happily married for 41 years. I believe that a big part of why I have not self-destructed my own marriage is because of how healthy my mother was. My mother modeled for me the value of hanging in there through the thick and the thin. My mother demonstrated a deep faith and trust that good would always come out of even the most tragic situations. With the help of her favorite comic writer Erma Bombeck, my mother could always find something to smile about, even when life was not ‘a bowl of cherries’.
The fourth need that mothers meet is ‘belonging and invitation’. All of us, say Drs. Cloud & Townsend, have the need to belong to someone and to something bigger than ourselves. Belonging and love are at the root of our humanness. My mother, as a gifted chauffeur, was forever driving me to endless soccer, baseball, hockey, chess, swimming, & skiing lessons. She knew that I had a deep need to belong and to grow. My mom also did her best to involve me in Sunday school, confirmation classes, youth groups, and summer camps. I had no idea how much I really needed the church family to be my ‘spiritual mother’. Like many in our individualistic age, I figured that I could do any spirituality better on my own. My mother never forced religion down my throat, but the door was always wide open. Thank God for my mother introducing me to God’s family.
The fifth need that mothers meet is ‘someone to love’. There is perhaps no greater wound in a child than having a mother who just can’t love you. We know intuitively that everything about true motherhood is about love and caring. Yet some moms have been so damaged that they are what Drs. Cloud & Townsend would call ‘Phantom Moms’: moms who are not really there in any tangible sense. Others have moms who Drs. Cloud & Townsend call ‘China Doll Moms’: moms who are so fragile and stressed out that no one can get too close for fear of shattering them. Without a mom who can show us real love, we end up feeling unwanted at a deep level and estranged from our true identity. Thank you, Mom, that once again you came through for me in a very practical way. For 62 years, my mom showed me time and time again that I mattered to her, and that she really care. The love of Christ that I saw in my mom allows me to show that same love to others.
The best news of all is that even if our mothers couldn’t fully meet these five basic needs, God can make up for any love deficit. As the Good Book puts it, ‘though your father and mother forsake you, I the Lord will receive you.’ My prayer for for those reading this article is that each of us may discover afresh the amazing love of God, especially as seen in the loving arms of our mothers.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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