A few nights ago, my three-and-a-half year-old daughter, steeped in curiosity, approached me with yet another one of her earnest questions. “Mom,” she said, her big blue eyes looking up at me, “What’s a mother?”
Familiar only with the more casual “Mom,” “Mama,” or “Mommy,” she had heard the word “mother” somewhere and found it wholly unfamiliar. I suppose I could have quickly answered her by saying a mother is a mom, but something about the question brought me pause. I found myself wishing I was answering a more straight-forward question, like where babies come from. “Mother” can be loaded with complexity, expectation, or pain for so many.
A few nights later, my two-year-old daughter was fighting her way through a sleep regression. She’d been sleeping through the night for a year or more, so I knew it was possible, but maybe she wasn’t so sure. After some back-and-forth, I finally just stood by her bedside, holding vigil as she did the thing I knew she could do. Every once in a while, she’d lift her eyelid to ensure I was there. Maybe she knew she could sleep on her own, maybe she didn’t, but either way, she didn’t want to be doing it alone.
As I stood there, silent but present, I thought of the silhouettes that have held vigil for me in the dark moments, bearing witness to the thing they knew I could do. My mom, holding me as a full-grown adult while I wept in her lap, surrounded by the shards of a broken heart. My sister, who met me at her door, holding her toddler and the dinner she had cooked for me when I felt afraid and alone. My dear friend, who stopped what she was doing and called me, even though all I could do was scream guttural cries into the phone as I slogged my way through the most painful and isolating season of my life. Looking back, it’s silhouettes of my mom, sister, grandmothers, friends, and even a few grandma-like bosses who have showed up, made themselves available, and were lovingly present as I made it through the thing they knew I could make it through.
My tears hit my daughter’s mattress as I stood in silence, allowing her to see she could sleep on her own, though I’d still join her in the journey.
Thinking of the silhouettes I’d kept opening my eyelid to see throughout my life, I wondered if maybe a mother is someone with whom were are invited to co-create, whether it’s joining forces in literally being birthed, receiving nourishment, or being nurtured. Maybe it’s less about saying all the right things or keeping the most catalogue-worthy home, and more about vigils. The quiet but sturdy presence that somehow boldly, yet softly, says, “I’m here. I see you. I believe you can do this, but I’m not going to leave you to do it alone.” And so we do the thing together, even if one party’s responsibility is “just” quiet vigil holder.
There’s a lot I don’t know about mothering—how to offer it and receive it. But I know how to stand at a crib at 2 a.m. Maybe, for right now, that’s enough.
Mallory Redmond embraces anomalies—she is an adventure-loving homebody who keeps a clean house yet always makes a mess while eating or brushing her teeth. She loves dry humor, clean sheets, and gathering around the table with friends. Mallory and her husband, Darren, live in Ohio with their beagle, Roger, and their two daughters. You can follow her writing here, where her stories are told with the hope of further uncovering the places of connection in our humanity.