Mother: It’s a special word. Just like “grandmother” and “great-grandmother” and so on down the line. But sometimes, those special ladies aren’t around or a connection is missing. Sometimes, we have terrific relationships with our mothers – but still need someone else to confide in now and again. That’s where the un-mothers come in, the aunts and elderly neighbors and piano teachers who touch our lives exactly when we need them, exactly when no one else would do. These women are precious gifts indeed, and May is the perfect month to honor and remember them.
In fact, many of us remember fondly a best friend’s mom who provided much needed support, advice, and caring – be it in childhood or just last week. Or perhaps your memories center around the woman who lived down the street, the one whose own kids were grown and busy with their own lives, possibly in a faraway town. She’s the one who baked cookies for all the neighborhood kids and listened patiently to their woes and joys. You may not remember her name, but her lemonade was the best you ever tasted.
If we’re very lucky, we find second mothers in the women who raised our spouses. Joining a new family can be tough, and those mothers-in-law who truly take us under their wings deserve special recognition. What an interesting balancing act it must be to be mother to both parties – especially on those occasions when those parties are so furious with each other they can hardly speak!
One needn’t be a mother to be an un-mother, though. More times than we can likely count, the women who heard our secrets, bandaged our cuts, and helped us grow didn’t have kids of their own. That didn’t stop them from touching our hearts and changing our lives. Sometimes, it made talking to them easier, somehow, and made the time with them all the more precious.
Louisa May Alcott may have said it best in her 1874 novel, “Eight Cousins”: “For in this queer world of ours, fatherly and motherly hearts often beat warm and wise in the breasts of bachelor uncles and maiden aunts; and it is my private opinion that these worthy creatures are a beautiful provision of nature for the cherishing of other people’s children.” The language is a bit outdated, of course, but the sentiment remains true today, whether discussing an actual aunt or someone who takes the place of one.
Some of us, depending on our religious and cultural backgrounds, may have been blessed with that wonderful invention known as a godmother. (There’s a reason the Brothers Grimm made her magical in the tales.) Others of us grew up with a sibling or cousin so much our senior that she served as a sort of junior mom, a role model wiser and more experienced than we, yet more relatable than the full-fledged adults around us.
When nature and geography didn’t provide our extra moms, the schoolhouse often did. Favorite teachers are just as often the ones who nurtured our talents and creativity as those who challenged our minds. But while teachers are often said to have vast numbers of children and their influence can be quite incredible, special influences could also come from a nurse or a counselor or a coach. The number of adults who remember the “lunch lady” fondly is astounding.
The importance of un-mothers doesn’t diminish as we grow, either. At times, death and distance makes these special women all the more important as we, too, age. A motherless new mother may treasure the older women around her far more than a child could do – partly because those women also serve as surrogate grandparents for her baby.
In fact, once we have our own children, un-mothers become absolute gold. No one can watch over her child at every moment, no matter how hard we try. No mother can be everything to her sons and daughters, much as she may wish to be. We depend on those other women to have eyes on what we can’t see, ears for what we can’t hear, and hearts to protect our children and help them thrive. When we’re kids, what we notice is how the un-mothers make us feel. When we’re the mothers of kids, we see how vital those relationships truly are. No child particularly notices being raised by a village. But every member of the village is well aware of each child.
Eventually, many of us realize that, whether we’re young or old, childless or with a full house, we’ve become someone’s un-mother – or have an opportunity to be. I hope we’ll grab those opportunities with both hands, not to undermine or replace any mother that may be there already, but to shore her up and help her child shine – even if the “child” has kids of her own. I hope we treasure our un-kids and look for the unique and the beautiful within each of them. I hope we realize how very lucky we are to have the chance to help a child come into her own, regardless of whether she’s “ours” or not.
And as we celebrate motherhood this month, let’s take a moment to thank the un-mothers in our lives. Aunt or neighbor, yearbook advisor or nanny, each helped us become who we are today. Why wait ‘til tomorrow to be grateful?