A Child’s Guide

by Nicolette Stewart

I have a two-year-old daughter. I have given birth, and I have been pregnant. I spend the majority of every day caring for a child who calls me mommy. But am I a mother? No. Well, yes, but no. I can’t relate. I have a daughter; I am not a mother. The word is too heavy. I can’t carry it.

Mother Earth, Mother Nature, mothership, mother tongue, mother lode, mother $#%@&*, mother-of-pearl.

Mothers are archetypes, not people. They are concepts. They are not individual women, women who got up this morning and barely managed to drag themselves to the coffee, pajamas askew, smelling faintly of someone else’s bodily fluids. They are not women who would rather spend the afternoon writing than playing The Same Damn Game for the six hundred thousandth millionth time. They do not complain (unless their complaints end with “but it’s worth it”), they do not put themselves first, they do not sleep around (or even sleep—now there’s something I can relate to), they do not take risks, they do not go adventuring. Mothers are never the character in the book who sets out to slay the dragon.

They might find love. They might lose their temper. They can multitask, remove stains, and Impart Important Lessons. They are wise. They are comfort. They are home. They can probably cook an egg. They might feel disappointment (or disappoint), but their pride and joy oscillate around the child. They are important, but they are not the center of the tale. Their story arc will contain no more sudden curves, with the exception of a death in the family. A feeling of contentment is probably involved.

Mutter, moeder, majka, moeder, mathair, madre. mater.

As far as fiction is concerned, particularly the kind of fiction in which people are going on adventures, there are no mothers. Oh, they’re in there—on the edges—but the stories belong to their sons and daughters. Motherhood always signals an ending. The beginnings belong to the children.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Reality. Reality who?

There are mothers who have children and then, later, decide to leave home and slay dragons. There are mothers who take their children on their epic quests, who refuse to listen to the stories that translate the word mother, alternatively, as “the end.” These women refuse to bend to the expectation that a mother, when her path forks before her, will always choose the path safest for the child, no matter how she feels about it. These women are writing (living!) a story we haven’t heard often, but that western culture desperately needs, that I desperately need as a parent.

Mommy, mom, Mamá, ma.

The word mother has come to mean everything—and nothing—to me. The high frequency of stereotypes attached have wrung it into pieces. I don’t know what a mother is. I know people with kids, but are any of us anything that we weren’t before? In donning the moniker, we define ourselves through our relationship to just one person. One! I don’t want to define myself in relationship to anyone. I refuse to bear that yoke. I can be nurturing, motherly. I can be patient. I am not particularly nurturing, motherly, or patient.
Maternal, maternity, matronly, motherly, mothering.

One of the important steps into adulthood was when I realized I could see my mother as a person, that she no longer was an archetype, a Mother, My Mother! It signaled the pulling of a curtain, a clarity of vision, the maturity necessary to see the world in all its complexity, to see people in all their complexity.

It is a question of semantics, really, and maybe it sounds crazed, taking a six-letter word to such lengths. But words are powerful, and mother is a word that comes with expectations. I am not interested in those expectations. I refuse to define myself as a parent through the hang-ups, assumptions and stereotypes of the last two hundred years. I have a daughter, but I am not a mother. I will redraw the blue prints every morning, and I will set to work telling another story. Tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine?

I like to think of myself as a guide. Guides are not left out of the story. Guides are adventurers themselves.

Not only does the word more accurately reflect the way I think about parenting, it is a word that will let me be a parent while slaying the dragon, that lets me walk beside my child without owning or controlling her, that lets me protect her as she protects me. As a guide, I am allowed my adventure without becoming the frame in which another picture hangs.

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