By Todd F. Cope
Susan sat uncomfortably in her pew as the mothers in the congregation were invited to stand and receive a Mother’s Day gift. All the mothers, indeed it seemed all the women around her stood and waited for one of the youth to deliver a small box of chocolates. Was every other woman there a mother, she wondered? Susan found herself reflecting on her childhood dream of marriage and motherhood that somehow had escaped her while becoming a reality for both of her sisters. Each year, she contemplated staying home from church on Mother’s Day. It was so painful; as though everyone had permission for that one day each year to remind her of what she felt was her greatest failure. But each year, she remembered that the discomfort didn’t persist and it was, after all, her mother that taught her the importance of bravely confronting the challenges in life.
Many of the neighborhood youth benefited from Susan’s efforts to make up for her disappointment at not having children of her own. Susan was a loved and respected 4-H volunteer with classes always filled to capacity. Even the boys enjoyed her cooking and sewing classes. And Susan loved to spend time with and spoil her two nieces and three nephews, but still, she longed for the opportunity to become a mother.
Still lost deep in her thoughts, Susan was startled when Lewis, a young man with Down syndrome, stood next to her and attempted to hand her a box of chocolates. Susan shook her head and gently pushed Lewis’ hand away. “Here” he said rather loudly, “I’m supposed to give you one.” Susan could feel the heat from her flushed face. She knew everyone must have been looking at her now. What should she do? She was sure Lewis was likely to continue to insist, and she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she sheepishly took the box and quickly tucked it in her bag. Perhaps the mothers near her wouldn’t notice that she had breached Mother’s Day etiquette by accepting the gift, though she had never given birth to a child.
Once all the gifts had been delivered and everyone began to disperse, Susan made a beeline for the door. Before she could complete her escape, someone from behind grabbed her arm. “You’re qualified, you know?” a voice said.
Susan turned to see who had delayed her escape. It was Joanne Curtis, an older woman with whom she was very familiar. It seemed most everyone in the neighborhood had at some time had an encounter with Joanne. A widow and the mother of four grown children, Joanne was the unofficial neighborhood medic. Except in the most urgent medical situations, placing a call to Joanne was typically everyone’s first thought when assistance was needed. Susan once contacted Joanne about some abdominal pain, which Joanne correctly suspected was appendicitis and suggested that Susan see her doctor immediately.
Joanne still had hold of Susan’s arm and was now looking directly into Susan’s eyes. “You don’t need to be embarrassed,” Joanne said. “In fact, you should have stood with the others.”
“But, I’m not a mother,” Susan stammered.
Joanne smiled softly and motioned for Susan to sit down. “Let’s visit for a minute,” Joanne suggested. Her quiet manner somehow seemed to convey an authority that Susan couldn’t resist.
Susan sat beside Joanne and smiled uncomfortably. Joanne just looked at Susan and smiled in return, obviously waiting for Susan to say something. “I’m not a mother,” Susan repeated after a few moments of awkward silence.
“What is a mother?” Joanne asked.
Unsure of how to respond to such an obvious question, Susan just shook her head.
“No, really,” Joanne insisted, “what do you think makes a mother?”
“Having children, I guess,” Susan replied.
“I want you to really think about it Susan, because having children can mean many things. And if you’re referring to childbirth, this is only one way to qualify.” Joanne continued, “Too many women spend time lamenting over the fact that they’ve never given birth to a child, as though childbirth somehow magically gives them exclusive powers over other women.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Susan confessed.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Joann said, “childbirth is certainly a miracle and it does change a woman forever, but God loves all of his daughters equally. If one door to a blessing is closed to some, he opens another one for them.”
Susan shook her head. She wanted to understand and was sure that Joanne was probably making a very good and valid argument. “Okay,” Susan said, “but motherhood is motherhood and children make a woman a mother.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Joann said in agreement. “Children do make a woman a mother, but do they have to be born to her, and is that the only way?”
“I’m afraid I still don’t see your point,” Susan said.
Joanne took Susan’s hand and squeezed gently. “Let’s look at it another way,” she suggested. “What do you know about my professional life?”
“I believe you were a nurse,” Susan replied.
“That’s right, I trained before I was married, and my training has served me well over the years,” Joanne said. “As you know, my home seems to have become the neighborhood dispensary of medical advice.”
“Yes, I know,” Susan acknowledged as she pointed to her abdomen.
“And how did I do with the care and advice I offered?” Joanne asked.
“Well, from my experience, I’d say you are the best. You clearly know your stuff, but you also know your limits.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’m that good, but I do my best and I’m grateful I can help out on occasion,” Joanne said. “So let me ask you this; what makes me qualified to help out in that way?”
“I’m sure it’s your training and experience,” Susan answered.
Joanne nodded in agreement. “But can I tell you a secret?” she whispered.
“Sure” Susan said.
“I’ve never worked as a nurse,” Joanne began. “I met John during my first semester of nursing school. We got married during the summer break between the first and second year of my training and by the time I graduated, I was eight months pregnant. I passed the nursing board exam when our baby was just a few months old and received my license, but I’ve never used it anywhere but in my own home.”
“Wow,” Susan said. “I just assumed you had years of experience.”
“I do, but I guess they’re just not official,” Joanne said. She looked at Susan and continued teasingly, “Perhaps I’m not actually a nurse after all.”
Susan chuckled. “Of course you are. You went through all the training and received your license.”
“But I’ve never had an actual patient,” Joanne said. “Nurses are trained to assist doctors in providing care. I’ve never done that.”
“Of course you have,” Susan insisted.
“Not by your definition,” Joanne returned.
“What do you mean?” Susan asked.
“Well,” Joanne said, “if your definition of what it takes to become a mother is applied to becoming a nurse, I don’t qualify.”
“But that’s different,” Susan argued.
“Not really,” Joann said. “Consider the woman who marries a widower who has several children. If the two of them have no children together, yet she raises his children to adulthood, would you consider her their mother?”
“Of course,” Susan said.
“But she didn’t give birth to them; in fact, she has never given birth to any children. How can she be a mother by your definition?” Joanne asked.
Susan nodded and tears began to well up in her eyes.
“My dear,” Joanne said softly, “Giving birth is only one way to qualify for the title of mother. It may be the most common and most direct route, but preparation and training comes from many sources and can be implemented in many different ways. I don’t think any of the youth you serve in 4-H or your nieces and nephews would hesitate for one minute to say you qualify for the title of mother. Motherhood is loving and serving children.”
Susan reached for a tissue in her bag to wipe the tear that was running down her cheek. As she pulled out the tissue, the box of chocolates fell from her bag onto her lap. Susan picked up the chocolates, and looked at Joanne as if to ask what she should do with them.
Joanne winked. “Enjoy them,” she said, “you’ve earned them.”