When You’re Not a Mother

I love my mother, but not Mother’s Day.  It comes every year.  I can set my biological watch by it.  Like the incremental changes in my garden that happen while I’m not looking, my dislike of the holiday that began as a small seed years ago now has deep roots and casts an even longer shadow.

Just like that biological clock that used to be contented to tick quietly in the background of my everyday routine got a figurative tech upgrade shortly after I hit thirty and now sounds an alarm every time I see a baby or a pregnant belly.  I’m not a person to hit snooze in the morning.  I set my alarm each night for the latest possible moment I can wake up and not be late.  That alarm sounds, and I hit the carpet running.

This biological alarm clock is different.  I never know when it’s going to go off, instantly generating a chain reaction, emotional and physiological, culminating in the irrevocable anxiety that I am late, that I’ve waited as long as I can, and that if I can’t fulfill this desire to have children, I need to figure out a way to dismantle that clock and get my sanity back.

As I sat in church with Charming up in Maryland on Sunday, I was grateful they didn’t make a big Mother’s Day show.   I noticed our friend who had miscarried this year was fighting tears, and I thought about how much harder this day must be for her.  My eyes scanned the room, and I wondered how many other women were sadder today than usual, saddled by their own maternal anxieties.   How many Mother’s Days have been hard for my mom since she lost her mother so many years ago?

Despite the possible associated discomfort of the holiday, each of us exists because a woman gave birth to us, and a woman gave birth to her, and the cycle continues.  I recall the reproduction unit in AP Biology as one of the most incredible miracles explained by science.  It was awe-inspiring the way my own existence had begun as one determined microscopic organism finding another.

My Bible app announced my verse for the day on Sunday as Proverbs 31:30.  The woman of Proverbs 31 is a legacy for me.  As a senior in high school, I wrote a biography of my mother’s mother, Theresa Rubbo, and the twenty-four page account was comprised of stories about Theresa that illustrated how she embodied those qualities and characteristics of the woman depicted in that chapter.  Now, I think of her every time I hear one of its verses quoted, remembering her as a woman of strength, fortitude, resilience, and faith though I never got to meet her.

I’ve been told that people can change things, but their character doesn’t change.  I think that character is more like the plants in my garden.  The changes are subtle, slow, and unnoticeable until a greater accumulation of the changes reveals something has grown.  What grows depends on what seed was planted in the first place.

Our character is shaped by what was first planted.  That forms the base, the foundation of our life’s greenhouse.  Envision rows of soil ready for planting commiserate with your birth.  Your parents sowed the first seeds.  For me, raised in a family who believed that if you train up a child in the way that he should go that he will not depart from it, my parents were intentional about what was planted.  They got to make choices, like what I listened to or watched and who I spent time with.

I worry about how my garden will fare when I’m in Italy next month.  I’ve invested time and money in those seeds that are now boasting potential for a hearty harvest, and I want to protect this life that grew because of me.  It’s a natural instinct.  My parents were raised by parents who were raised by parents who sowed similar seeds: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.  My mother exemplifies the qualities of the woman of Proverbs 31, as her mother before her, and no doubt her mother before her.

There is continuity in this cycle of nourishing the young generation, tending to the greenhouse of each child’s life to lay a foundation of growth in the areas that will be resilient to the incumbent weeds that will undoubtedly be planted beyond a parent’s influence.  When weeds pop up between my vegetables, I have a choice to let them grow or rip them out before they cause problems.  Character is maintained or altered by our response to the weeds in our life.

Sometimes, we let things grow, and over time, maybe even over generations, those weeds choke the fruit out of the garden.  In church on Sunday, I’m sure there were woman who were sad because their own seeds had not blossomed as they’d hoped and prayed.  After the service, we spent the afternoon with Charming’s family.  With his grandmother there and three generations of women represented, there was much to celebrate.  His mom showed me her garden and gave me a new flower to plant.  It occurred to me that Charming’s family lineage was a lot like mine, shaped by women of Proverbs 31, generations who would find freedom in faith and faithfulness.

I’d managed to smother the biological alarm clock most of the day, keeping it at bay as though nearby under a throw pillow, until his father shared a gift with a quote about how a family was like a tree.  I excused myself to the other room.  I might have actually muttered aloud that I hated Mother’s Day first though (sorry, Mama Charming). I sat on the stairs in the house where Charming grew up, his family’s voices drifting through the foyer.  I wished I had my journal.  I closed my eyes.

I saw a tree.  Not an oak.  Black lines on white paper.  My great-grandparents names linked together, like Maximilliano Tosetto and Michael Palma, men who wrote Italian hymns together, who would come to be connected by their daughter and son’s marriage.  I see that even though Grandma Theresa died before I knew her, there’s a line from her to my mother and another to me that connects us still.

This is why I keep weeding my garden, year after thirty-four years.  We might reap what we sow, but we sow what we reap as well.  My grandmother’s character shaped my mother’s character in those early years where she had the greatest opportunity to plant the right seeds and control my nourishment and environment so that I could thrive.

I want something good to grow from me.  My brothers’ names are each connected to a woman’s, and their names are connected to children.  I pray that my name won’t remain alone, that God will grant me the desires of my heart and allow me the honor of carrying on the Palma family legacy, to be a part of that generational cycle – a story of strength of character, iron sharpening iron spanning centuries.

When something beautiful grows, we notice.  I loved surveying all of Charming’s mother’s pots of beauty, noting her choices in what she’d planted and why.  I’m grateful for her intentionality in what she sowed in Charming as a young boy.  His inscription on his family tree is marked by a familiar theme, good fruit planted in good soil.

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