Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved. —Erich Fromm
I typically avoid the topic of mothers on Mother’s Day, partly because that’s what everyone is talking about and I’m not sure I can, or should, compete for your attention. Mother’s Day is also a little sad now that my own mother is gone. Some days it is better to let others do all the talking.
We romanticize our mothers in a sense, not that such a perspective is inappropriate, but our love for our mothers sometimes keeps us from seeing the depth of a mother’s sacrifice for her children. She wouldn’t bring it up, of course, mothers rarely do. But what we remember of our mothers is seen through the perspective of a child. We don’t see what all went on in a mother’s life before she had children and everything she willingly gave up for us.
There aren’t many pictures still around of my mother when she was young. Her family was dirt poor and didn’t have a camera so the only pictures are those someone else took and gave her. What I see in those few pictures, though, is someone with a quick smile, sparkling eyes, and curly jet-black hair. I can understand why Poppa found her attractive. She was petite, like her other mother, with her father’s slim build; enough curve to be feminine, but not so much as to appear inappropriately sexual, which was apparently a thing back in the 1950s. She wore bobby socks with loafers and heels and gloves as was common at the time. Poppa said she was very prim and proper, very strict in her etiquette, but more than anything, he said she was beautiful.
Sure, everyone thinks their mother is beautiful, but we don’t see the same beauty that our fathers did. We see someone who is loving and caring and made sacrifices for us so that we could have everything we needed. Remember, though, that our fathers knew our mothers before we did and they saw her beauty in a different light. They saw a side of a mother’s beauty that we’re not all that comfortable discussing. Despite everything that might have happened later, all the arguments and divorces, the illnesses and emotional issues, before we were born our fathers thought our mothers were sexy. They wouldn’t likely use that word in front of us, but that’s what they were thinking.
I occasionally come across someone who has nude photographs of their mother taken before they were born. We don’t often think of artistic nude photography having existed much before Helmut Newton, but it most certainly did, and was secretly very popular. The difference was that they kept those photos to themselves. There was no Internet or social media on which to share them, so rarely did anyone else ever know they had been taken and it certainly wasn’t something they would just show to the kids. Typically, the photos are found by the adult child while helping their mother go through things later in her life. They elicit all knew stories about a side of our mothers we never considered: they were sexy.
Then, we came along and spoiled it all. The effect might not have happened immediately. Some women’s bodies handle childbirth better than others. Others, though, never lose the weight they put on carrying you. Hips that widened to facilitate your delivery didn’t snap back in place. If you kicked the wrong thing while you were swimming around in all that amniotic fluid, you likely created a physical problem your mother had to endure the rest of her life. She was thrilled to nurse you and cuddle you close, but because of that her breasts sag and she never looked the same in a swimsuit again.
You gave her stretch marks and those dark circles under her eyes from 18-plus years of never getting enough sleep and worrying about the trouble she knew you were getting into, even if she didn’t know exactly what it was. You killed her arches as she ran after you in shoes that were not meant for running. Her joints eventually became stiff and arthritic from all the times she put herself in unnatural positions to find that toy you had just dropped, or teaching you how to play leap frog, or picking you up and carrying you from the playground after you fell from the swing, again.
Before you were born, that lady you now call your mom paid more attention to how she looked when she went out. Her ensemble was carefully put together, even if it was more bohemian and less Chanel. She might have even worn makeup and had her nails done. After you came along, though, she was happy if what she was wearing didn’t have any fresh stains and if everything matched it was more by coincidence than design. Your mother’s stylist thought you were cute, but secretly hated you because your mother went from trying out different cuts and colors to short and easy-to-manage.
After you came along, your mother didn’t go out with friends as often, didn’t travel as much, gave up on trying to fit into Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and damn sure wanted to make sure there was sufficient coverage between her and her Calvin’s. Almost everything that had gone into making her so physically desirable to your father either you ruined or she had to give up to care for you, except for one thing: Love.
And that’s what we remember on Mother’s Day: her love. After all, that’s what is important, right? Nothing else matters, at least, not now. A mother’s beauty isn’t defined by how “hot” she looks, how many heads she once turned, or how many hearts she once broke. A mother’s beauty is defined by how she could kiss a boo-boo and make the pain go away, or how she knew exactly when you needed her to make those special pancakes, or how she could mend a broken heart then help you plot revenge. She likes that definition.
Mothers don’t care about what they’ve given up for you. The love you and, in the vast majority of situations, would do everything all over again (with the benefit of a little wisdom from the experience). She loves you, you love her, and that makes everything beautiful enough for her. But don’t you ever forget that she did make those sacrifices. I’ll tell you what she might not: you owe her. Big.
A poet, whose name escapes me at the moment, once said that a mother’s beauty is defined is defined by the grace and compassion of her children. Your mother gave up a lot for you. Make her beautiful, damnit.