When you run a nonprofit to assist young girls and women, you spend a lot of time thinking about mothers. They are, after all, central to our whole mission. For more than 15 years the organization I work for has acted under the intertwined beliefs that 1. women should have the same opportunities for education, safety and financial independence as men; and 2. in most parts of our world women are more likely to share the advantages they do have with the next generation. At the same time, you can’t work at this job without noticing that “mothers” aren’t always the people who have given birth to a child and sometimes, aren’t women at all.
Here in the U.S. we usually stress the self-sacrificing quality of motherhood on Mother’s Day. Our advertisements come laced with guilt;”what do you give to the woman who has given you so much?” asks the announcer, and the camera pans over a woman waiting quietly in her living room, eyes opening with surprised gratitude as an anonymous delivery person hands her a standard bouquet of flowers. Mind you, I am the mother of a teenager, and I like flowers. But I would hope that motherhood has not destined me for a floral-upholstered future in my living room. I prefer to think of motherhood as something much more active.
In my line of work, the “mothers” we encounter are generally the ones bringing a young girl to our attention. They travel miles on foot or wait tirelessly outside gates; they forego meals to pay for the travel and they push their ways through crowded villages or miles of red tape to make sure that THIS young girl is recognized for how special and valuable she is. Often these “mothers” are aunts, family friends or local nuns. We have seen couples that were “sold” a young house girl turn around and put the child in school instead. Our own Beatrice Mwaniki has taken in several young women over the years and redirected her future from house girl to school girl or business woman. And our only male coordinator, Godfrey Okello, carefully manipulates our schedule on the East Africa trip every year to include stops at local family homes where extra help is needed.
Love of any sort makes holidays irrelevant; loving a child happens of its own accord and persists regardless of what the rest of the world is up to. Looking at my own child, I am always grateful for what motherhood has given me. But I am also grateful for how it has shaped me. Motherhood means fighting wholeheartedly for what is unique and miraculous and invaluable in one particular child. And then doing it all over again for the next child that needs you. In a world sorted, categorized and administered in statistics, motherhood is a striking reminder that statistics are mere shadow and illusion next to the solid, living reality of the child beside you. Thank you to my own mother and to all of the “mothers”, biological and otherwise who correct the course of our world a little bit every day. Happy Mother’s Day.