The Nature of Motherhood
My kids are howling in the backseat. We’re driving to town for groceries, but my real motivation is simple discontent—I feel antsy and constrained, and I need to get out of the house. I’m hot, annoyed, and tired. I wish my motherhood looked more Instagram-worthy, easier to master. Then I see her—the object of my envy.
She tenses, ready to spring onto sticky, hot black asphalt. The summer sun sends shimmering ripples up from the unnatural pavement, the grass and dirt beyond have no such reaction to heat. Her ear twitches, back and forth, debating her movement, an internal war against manmade obstacles. Behind her, two spotted fawns wobble in the shade of the sagebrush, not able to make their own decisions about danger. Her back leg twitches. She might run.
From behind tinted glass, I see her. I feel her nervous energy and slowly roll my F-150 to a stop on the country highway, where it’s commonplace to see tractors and dented, rusted pickups with border collies in the truckbed stopping for wildlife who unwisely cross.
She stamps her hooves. I see the wetness of her nose, flies on her back. She pauses. Her ribcage pulses with insecurity.
There are acres and acres of fertile hayfields all around, wild country just beyond that. Why is this mother doe here, stamping her feet on the edge of danger?
Some primal instinct tells her to move and she does. No one else is on the road, no one else sees the tiny twin fawns follow her dutifully as she holds her head up with regal poise, all skittish movement long lost once she enters the blacktop. It’s as though the vehicle is the predator and she is staring me down, daring me to take her on.
There are often the mangled, bloodied carcasses of does who were less lucky, less courageous on the side of the highway. No matter how kind-hearted, not every driver can see every deer lurking just at the edge of death. But not today. Today this mama and her fawns scamper over the embankment and into the field beyond where the grass is indeed greener. As soon as her offspring feel their tiny hooves hit the lush vegetation, they skip around like my own excitable toddlers at a new park.
I feel a kinship with this wild mother, risking recklessly, yet trying to stay guarded while on the edge of death. She is constantly protecting and feeding and watching out, just as I do at the grocery store or in the parking lot. Watch any wildlife with their young and you see the familiar behavior—just as I reach for tiny hands or put my arms around little backs, so the robin cranes her neck around her chicks, so the doe nudges the fawn, so the cougar carries her cub.
But I am tired of mothering, and they feel no such constraint. They don’t yearn for creativity or freedom, they don’t wish for their husband to look them in the eyes or for a friend to say, “How are you?” They are content in their God-given role—that of caregiver, survivor, and relayer of knowledge. They don’t need a story to tell to make sense of their world, they require no narrative crutches. They are exactly where they’re supposed to be. And unlike us foolish humans, they ask no existential questions. There needs to be no meaning here on the blacktop—only the moment-by-moment realities of death or life, day or night.
I’m jealous because my search for meaning has left me frustrated and aching for freedom. I want a break from these tiny people and all of my anxiety over their welfare. Every day there’s a terrifying news story of a child snatched from a shopping cart, a toddler who chokes on an innocent plastic toy, or a babysitter gone berserk. How do I guarantee their safety? I don’t know how to protect or guide them; I feel as insecure as the fawns in my care. Will my daughter do well in school? Is my son too picky? Have I taught them to love? Will they ever write their names without my cajoling and bartering for each painstaking letter?
Unlike me and my fractious discontent, the doe doesn’t yearn for less busy roads. She doesn’t sit around her hiding place at night and reminisce about the old days, back before the highways had trucks and the fields had fences. She tells no such stories to make sense of her surroundings. Her life is simply there; today is enough. There is no need to translate circumstances with tales.
She does not mourn, she does not create, and she does not laugh. We are vastly different beings, we could never mother the same.
Her presence in front of my truck reminds me of myself. She is a picture of my heart, the times when I selflessly stop in front of the roaring engines of injustice or danger for my children, the times I stride out on to metaphorical blacktop with regal poise because I feel the pull on my heart to move. I recognize the sense of fear I have leading my young ones into perilous places—places I can take them when they are small but someday they will have to navigate alone.
She will not make meaning from this. All she requires is that she and her fawns live another day, that the alfalfa on the side of the road is sweet and tender, and that her DNA has another chance to live on.
By contrast, I get the immense privilege of making meaning from danger and sacrifice. I get to see the fruits of my motherly labor play out in not just survival but character, a uniquely human trait. My soul is being shaped as I shape the hearts and minds of the little people entrusted to me, I get to choose whether I model wisdom and kindness or folly and anger.
Nature bends around me. The wildness survives, though we carve out roads and drive through it, coughing dust and exhaust from roaring engines and manmade hurry. It endures though fires rage or snow piles up. The power of survival, of instinctual nurturing, is strong and limitless.
May the nature of my meaning-making be even more so, though I am tired and feel unworthy, though the roads be ever more deadly. May I always tell stories of transcendence, especially when quotidian routine threatens to choke creativity out. May I never stop looking for meaning in motherhood, because I have been given the gift of finding it.
Cover image by Siska Vrijburg.