If you’re like me, you carry in the back of your mind an image of the ideal mother. Maybe she keeps the house impeccably clean, or bakes bread twice a week. She has a successful career. She juggles, with apparently no effort, a large brood of children while also feeding the homeless and training for the Olympics. Her lipstick never rubs off and her minivan is clean. Her kids never get carried out feet-first during church.
But here’s what I know about motherhood: it is not one-size-fits-all. Certainly there are qualities that make for better mothering, but a good mother comes in many forms.
I was reminded of this last week when my mother-in-law, Vivienne Lewis, was honored at the American Mothers Convention in New York City for being named Oregon Mother of the Year.
I can’t think of anyone more fitting to win such a title. In many ways, Vivienne fits the image of the ideal mother — I’ve never heard her raise her voice or talk in a demeaning way about people. She works hard, and juggles her large family with grace and skill.
But in many ways she doesn’t fit what you might think of as the ideal mother. She didn’t run the PTA or have a side career or participate in many civic causes. In fact, she is more comfortable working quietly in the background than taking center stage.
What makes Vivienne remarkable is her story as a survivor.
At age 3, she fell ill with polio. The polio vaccine had just been introduced, and all of her siblings were immunized, but the family doctor, unsure of the outcome for someone so young, withheld the vaccine from Vivienne.
After multiple surgeries and therapies, Vivienne went on to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, get married and have nine children. When her last child was still a baby, she was struck with post-polio, a degenerative disease that breaks down your muscles over time. For months she crawled from room to room, in too much pain to walk.
If you were to meet Vivienne, you wouldn’t guess any of this. She doesn’t complain or feel sorry for herself or dwell on the injustice of getting a disease that could have been prevented with a single shot. She still puts a home-cooked meal on the table three times a day and runs her double washing machines and plans reunions and weddings. She has taught her children to pitch in alongside her with the same self-effacing attitude of kindness and hard work.
Vivienne knows the limits of her abilities and guards her health carefully. Her faith in God and support toward her children run deep.
There are mothers who are remarkable because they are instruments of change. I know mothers who care for special-needs children, and mothers who provide a stimulating environment for learning. Some mothers put their kids to work, take them traveling across the world or have them cut the neighbor’s lawn.
It’s easy to approach Mother’s Day feeling like we have an inadequate stamp on our foreheads. We may look at our families and only see the things we do wrong: the untidy corners, the bickering, the wayward or unmotivated children, and the cold cereal for dinner.
But I’ve come to think of mothering, this whole wild and messy and incredible journey, as a school for learning. We are all of us scientists, testing and experimenting. We learn by trial and error. We form hypotheses and conclusions. We study the words of experts and, more importantly, those who have gone before. We pray without ceasing.
And because it is a complicated formula, one that involves a million variables and the intricate minds of so many little people, the outcome is different every time.
The point is that we are all learning and growing, parent and child. We are creating something akin to a miracle each day. We are doing it deliberately, with thought and effort and loads of hard work.
I was wrong to call my mother-in-law a survivor. To survive means to simply stay alive, and she has done so much more than that. She has not only survived but thrived. To thrive means to flourish, prosper, boom and bloom, to take what you’re given and make something even greater.
The world needs all kinds of people, and it needs all kinds of mothers. It needs mothers who will thrive with the varied tools they’re given, and have faith in the journey.
That, I believe, is the ideal mother.