I had to force myself to keep my seat in church a couple months ago. The lesson was on Mothers Teaching Children in the Home, a.k.a. Mother's Day In Your Face Two Months Early, but the class was being taught by a good friend, and I didn't want her to think I was walking out on her.
Before the lesson even officially started, one of the women sitting near me leaned over and whispered, "I'm so glad I get so much time with my grandchildren. It's like God's giving me a second chance."
She had no clue that was a stab in the heart to me and never would have said it had she known. Nevertheless, to me, her statement provoked, "Oh, that must mean I was an awful mom because I don't get grandchildren at all."
I adopted two special needs children at an older age, long after the devastation of five miscarriages. Both kids took permanent unauthorized field trips before they turned 18. (They ran away.) They keep in touch with me a little now, 13 years later, but this doesn't feel like true motherhood. I'm glad they both are grounded to me, but sometimes it feels like I was a glorified babysitter, not a mom. The annual "roses for every woman" in church on Mother's Day is one of the most painful "recognition" moments I face each year, and I typically ditch church that day because of it.
One of the best recommendations I've ever heard for how to make it through Mother's Day when Mother's Day is not your favorite time of year is to focus on your own mother or grandmother if you can't bear the weight of your own childless status.
So that's what I've tried to do for the last decade or so, and it works. Somewhat.
To my teacher friend's credit, she went out of her way to try to make the Sunday lesson apply to everyone in the room, acknowledging there are women who have never had children, women who no longer have children, women who have lost children, women who are raising or have raised handicapped children, women who are raising their grandchildren and women who are raising children of all ages right now.
She asked how we can be mothers if we are not mothers.
I thought of the girls I used to work with at the rehab center. The transitions unit has since closed down due to lack of funding, and the annual service project my co-workers and I performed each Christmas was brought to a sudden and unexpected hault. No advance warning, no substitute. I thought of the years of trying to make those girls smile for the camera, then retouching their photos to help them see how beautiful they can be, both on the inside and the outside. I remembered the ones who hugged me after leafing through their photo albums. I remembered the two who told me they'd never had anyone be kind to them before.
Then I thought of the girls at camp each summer, when I'm asked to help, and how a couple of teenagers always seem to gravitate toward me. And how awesome that makes me feel. I remembered teaching them the names of wildflowers and how to start fires without matches and how to purify water in the wilderness.
I thought of my nieces and nephews, the children of my cousins and the whole new generation now being born to the grown grandchildren of my parents. I thought of the 13 quilts I'm trying to finish by Christmas so each of them has a handmade quilt of their own. Because no one else in the family quilts. For real.
Then I thought of the adorable little five-year-old who lives next door. Her grandmother lives across the country, and they get to see each other only a couple of times a year. Her mother has thanked me for being a grandmother-like influence on her daughter, and I have to tell you, I love that little girl like crazy! When we don't get to see each other for a while because of my work and her school, and she suddenly spots me working in the garden, she squeals my name and comes running with open arms for a jumping to-die-for hug. I made an afghan for her a year ago, and she still carries it around everywhere. She helps me in the garden. She's trying to learn to crochet. She loves to dye yarn. She loves to be tickled and chased. One day, we're going to ride our bikes up Waterton Canyon together.
I didn't get to give birth. I didn't get to teach grandchildren to ride a bike or take pictures or write poetry.
But God didn't slam the door on me. He opened a window. I get to be a mother-like and grandmother-like figure to girls (and sometimes boys) who sometimes don't have that, and that's a pretty cool way to do it, even if it's not traditional. It's better than nothing at all.
I may still ditch church this weekend, but I'm going to bask in the glow of a five-year-old's joy while I play hooky.