Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Should I Marry Him?" (Musings on Mother's Day 2013)

Mary Cassatt, Under the Horse Chestnut Tree

"If you want to gauge a man as marriage material, 
look at how he treats his mother.  
Because in ten years,
that's how he'll treat you."  

This was advice given to me by my grandmother, when I was less than twenty years old. Now, many decades later, I am more firmly than ever convinced that she was right.

Everyone has a biological mother, and also someone who nurtured them. Usually this is the same person, but sometimes it is not. We are born so helpless that if we did not, we would not have survived. The bottom line is that everyone has someone to be grateful to in some manner or another, for mothering them. 

True, many among us had imperfect childhoods. As Ann Lamott says in her essay Why I Hate Mother's Day, "many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. [and] . . . An unhealthy mother’s love is withering."

On the other hand, blaming our mother (or anyone) for our own selfish or negative choices only holds water for a little while, perhaps as long as late adolescence. If we continue to blame our mother for our faults after we get out of the Group Home, the longer we go the more tired the argument becomes. This is because, no matter what our past, everyone chooses how to move forward in life, even after a rough childhood. Compassion and living rightly -- today and in the here and now -- are both everyday choices. Hence, my grandmother's wisdom. How does a man live on a daily basis? That is the measure of a man. Does he give lip service to his mother once a year, or does he live rightly every day of the year?

Ideally, of course, we learn attributes of compassion and living rightly from our mother, from the moment we emerge from our mother's body. Through the experience of being nurtured by our mother, we learn how to love and to be loved. In this way, we are socialized and woven into the greater web of life. Through caring, we learn empathy. Through empathy we learn values inherent in living in this web of relationships we call our being. But if we don't come by that naturally, the challenge is to get it figured out. Those who are born with less, get to try harder. It doesn't hold water to justify our depravity by blaming it on our mother.

On the other hand, there doesn't have to be anything narrow minded about Mother's Day. Gratitude need know no boundaries! Yes, of course most of us (myself included) celebrate and thank our biological mothers. I am grateful to have been loved wholly and unconditionally by a biological mother. But, in fact, Mother's Day gives us opportunity to think of and to thank many women, and men too, who have acted in the role of "mother" in our lives. To my way of thinking, Mother's Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate those who have nurtured us, in a generous and thankful way.

And then, how do we acknowledge that debt we owe, or express our gratitude, besides saying it? I propose that the greatest tribute to a mother is not what we do or say on Mother's Day, but rather what we do and say on every day of the year. How we treat others and, yes, how we treat our mother, day in and day out, all the time.

My grandmother, truly, was correct. A man who treats his mother well -- every day -- is likely to have learned how to live a life that includes compassion, altruism, commitment. A man who hasn't learned these lessons -- a person who is not compassionate, altruistic, committed -- will not make a good partner in any endeavor. Truly, the better gauge of character is not how someone behaves just on Mother's Day, on one day of the year, but rather how they demonstrate good values when there are no bells and spotlights, when no one else is looking.  Ladies, does he lie to his mother, treat her with disrespect, or is he honorable in all things?  The answer shows exactly how you will be treated later.  (I'm sure the same can be said for both genders.)

I'm very grateful to have had a kind and nurturing mother, to have had many women in my life who at various times filled mothering roles, and to have married a man who treats his mother well. I'm gratified to have attempted to carry these values forward in raising my own children and to see the results that flow from responding wholly and enthusiastically to meet the needs of my children (with some failings, of course). Most of all, I am grateful to be rewarded by a rich and fulfilling family life, a state enjoyed not only on Mother's Day, but every day. 

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