September 2012

The many paths to motherhood

There’s something mysterious, something God-like, about mothering, however it happens, writes Judith Scully.

BY Judith Scully

It’s the kind of photo you find in family scrapbook albums. Five women perched around a sleeping baby boy – his three grandmothers and two great grandmothers. Once I would never have believed that one of those grandmothers would be me.

Being a mum was never on my agenda until I reached my thirties. Back in that unwrinkled past I lived and worked among Aboriginal women. Something about their innate womanliness, their deep motherly instincts, touched a restlessness and yearning in me. Their hygiene standards may not have matched my own but they loved their babies with an intensity that moved and challenged me. It was time to listen to my restlessness.

Back in the big smoke I married a lovely man and we bought a four-bedroom house, getting ready to fill it with the babies we assumed would come. But they didn’t.

As I agonised over my failure to conceive I gradually came to understand that motherhood wasn’t a right that came with being a woman, but a God-given gift. That understanding came through praying the pain and leaving the ‘how’ to God.

God has a sense of humour, because it seemed as though one week there was just my husband and myself eating together and the next week there were three school-aged children, Paul, Maria and Peter, sitting around our kitchen table. Because neither their mother nor father was able to care for these three siblings, my husband and I became their long-term foster parents.

Within a few years they were joined by Kate, who died before her first birthday, and later on by another baby girl, Mary-jane. Gradually, our disparate group of foster children and adopted children became a family.

Family is such an elastic concept. We worked hard at being an ‘ordinary family’, whatever that might have been. We did all the usual things like birthday parties and holidays, started our own family traditions, encouraged better academic achievement, worried about their futures. We encouraged contact with their birth parents and discouraged social workers who might have upset our fragile family balance. Gradually it came together. When the youngest was married the guests included her adoptive uncles, aunts and cousins, her extended birth family, her three half-brothers and the three siblings she called her brothers and sister.

Because my children were gifted to me by other mothers, my experience of being a mother differs from most of my women friends. Years on, talk of pregnancies and births can still unsettle me. Even as I rejoice in my now adult children, I still carry some of the pain of my infertility. Five boys, ranging in age from 21 to one month, might call me Nana, but I will look in vain for physical traits of myself or my husband in any of them.

But I get cards on Mother’s Day, unlike some religious women I know. These women spent their working lives caring for other women’s children. Some taught generations of children in small country towns or inner city schools. Others lavished care on new-born babies, before placing them into the arms of the waiting adoptive parents. My friend, Sister Monica, worked in child care, placing at-risk children with foster families such as ours. Sister Monica was always there to mother me when I struggled with difficult parenting issues and needed some loving and wise encouragement.

There’s something mysterious, something God-like, about mothering, however it happens. I saw it years ago in those Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory. Just this week I heard it echoing in my friend’s voice as she talked of the pain she felt in not being able to protect her middle-aged son from his own impulses. As I observe my career woman daughter and her friends competently and lovingly coping with toddler meltdowns and babies with reflux, I rejoice in the way they have embraced being mothers, how it rounds out their lives into something that looks like a sacred space.

Those who mother reflect God’s love and care in a multitude of ways. Through mothering we touch God. Maybe no-one ever tells us that, or maybe we lose sight of it in the full-on of our days. But in quiet moments, from giving a baby its midnight feed to holding children and grandchildren in prayer, we sometimes get a glimpse of the mystery that surrounds us – that to the children given to us to mother, we are the face of God.

Judith Scully

Judith Scully is a retired pastoral associate. She lives among the gumtrees in Warrandyte Victoria, where she posts on her website WORDS from the Edge Her first book, "A Gentle Unfolding", will be published in August 2018.

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