Mothers Have an Expiration Date

Being a mother is wonderful and terrible at the same time.

This task is wrapped up in experiences and expectations not only passed down from her own mother, but from her ideals, friends, and mentors. Even in the Church, we have highlighted the vocation of mother, that this office is necessary and an important service to God and neighbor. There are plenty of blogs, books, and podcasts to guide one in the ways of being a great mother, secular, Christian and otherwise, but there is something critical they may not tell you about mothering. Because, if you considered this little piece of advice, the parenting paradigm may crumble.

Unlike other jobs and vocations, a mother is not a permanent job. Mother is only good for a little while. Although, when she is in her prime, mother is irreplaceable. From birth, hungry baby, catching toddler falls, worrying about fevers, interviewing caretakers, snacks in the cupboard, to her kiss goodnight, mother is essential to building a confident and grounded member of society. As her babies grow, she shifts from diaper service to shuttle service. But in the end, she is the comfort in the middle of the night, the calming caress on the back, the soft song that returned us to sleep. For a time.

She has a defined and specific task to have children, love children, raise children. The parenting empire is aggressive and opinionated in such a critical duty. But there will be a time when her mothering is complete, and her relationship with her children must change. She cannot serve them only as a mother for life. Even if she wants to. At a point, her gentle advice turns to sour pestering. Along the line, her needed provision spoils into needy enabling. The good vocation of mother rots away and leaves her sick for the past.

Some wise mothers know this. As their children grow, she has a vision of the future where she looks proudly upon the adults who came from her house. She knows her guidance must be hushed, her spoon-fed mashed potatoes must be a recipe passed along, and her goodnight kisses should fade into the grown-up night. The relationship must grow into something else; friend, acquaintance, estranged, mentor. Although the past will never be forgotten, the years, days, nights, eventually a mother’s job should expire.

Mothers, this makes us sad. It is such a life-overwhelming job that must be done, that we are mostly happy to do, that we find value and purpose in doing. But then when it is approaching expiration, when our once little people are taking care of themselves, what do we do? Do we double down, out-mothering each other, mother our husband, mother our grandchildren, just so our days continue to mean something? Do we take that beautiful gift of time with our young children and wrap it around their mature necks, so we can continue to feel whole?

Last night I had a crazy dream. My many kids and I were on these little tiny rock islands somewhere like Hawaii. They were all there, climbing around in different places, on different mini islands. Some were directly in my line of vision. Others I just vaguely remembered the direction they were playing. Without warning, the islands began to shift and sway. Just a little. Then more, crumbling and rising and falling coming dangerously close to the sea below. I looked around in panic. Trying to count the kids, like so many years in the grocery store 1-2-3-4… where is 5. Stay calm, stay calm. Then a burst of steam exploded from the big island in the east. Clearly, this was going to be an epic disaster. Stay put, swim away. What about the kids?

As the mothering terror gripped me in my dream-world, I looked over at the two kids I could see on the adjacent island, which was rumbling just as mine was. I saw her smile. My middle daughter raised up her hand, laughing and waving, “Hey Lady!” she yelled.

And I woke up, strangely comforted. This was not a nightmare of uncontrollable destruction for a mother who was about to lose her family. It was a dream of appreciation for the confidence her children have learned, separated from her, even in the face of danger.

What can we do, knowing that our mothering days will expire? We mother so they will eventually not need us to care for them. We mother so they grow into a life more than their mother. We mother them to trust in a salvation greater than a mother’s patience, hands, and heart. And then, when our time has expired, we welcome a new and different relationship with these people who we once had the privilege to mother.

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