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opinion

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

I recently found myself watching a Venezuelan anaconda giving birth. Now that schoolwork is optional, my sons have become quite keen; eager to identify an animal that lives in the Amazon for a science assignment, my 10-year-old called me over to a National Geographic video just as 40 glistening snakelets were spilling out of their 500-pound mother. Among the brood were a dozen slimy orange balls (undeveloped eggs, the narrator explained), which mama snake was devouring, along with any progeny that didn’t put up a fight.

Mothers. We do what needs to be done, be it snacking on afterbirth or running home schools during pandemics. There’s not much glory in it, and certainly no money, but we do it anyway, generation after generation. And in these exceptional times, when mothering – along with so much else – takes on new meaning, and Mother’s Day can’t occasion large family get-togethers or lavish brunches, we have an opportunity to reflect on what it really is to be a mother.

The first maternal imperative is to survive and ensure the same for our young. This puts us in a pitched battle against any external threat, such as COVID-19. Forget toilet paper; as the novel coronavirus drew nearer, my first instinct was to order chickens – lots of chickens – from the local butcher and to cook up vats of broth. If we must encounter the beast, then at least well-nourished. I also felt a hitherto unknown desire to scrub knobs and vacuum under beds; the nest should be clean and well-feathered. These habits, miraculously, have persisted as I continue to compulsively consume the most potent weapon against new enemies: information.

It’s possible that my defensive impulses are heightened by the fact that my children and I live with my own mother, who is, by definition if not in spirit, a senior and therefore, statistically, at greater risk. Our cohabitation reflects another important maternal role: the picker-up of pieces. It’s no coincidence that when my partner set sail for new horizons, leaving me with two children under the age of two, I set sail for my mother, who took us in.

This is something mothers do well: salvage. We do it to morsels in the fridge and to what remains in human tragedies. Both my grandmothers lost their husbands in their early 40s, leaving them to raise their children (six in one case, four in the other) on their own. They did what needed to be done – sending some children away to school, entering the work force, remarrying in haste in an effort to create stability – and lived to great ages, so I got to know them well. Neither one dwelt on their losses. To the very end, they focused their energy on what remained: their children and their children’s children, their gardens and birds and books.

Of course, mothering looked very different back then. In the past couple of months, our house has frequently filled with the smell of baking bread, which takes me back to childhood, when my mother not only baked our bread but also sewed many of my clothes. Those were the 1970s, when children came home from school for lunch, and “Block Parent” signs hung in many windows; when the majority of Canadian families were headed by single-earning fathers, and most mothers were at home.

Not so today. With around three-quarters of Canadian mothers working outside the home, much of what was once mothering has been relegated to third parties – daycares, programs, nannies, grandparents – making the adjustment to the current situation, for some, all the more shocking. We’re no longer administering our children’s lives; we’re fully sharing them. Add to that the volume of domestic work, still largely the domain of women, associated with having everyone at home – the trails of mud, the piles of dishes, the mouths to feed. Add to that the supervision of home school, which falls to the more “available” parent: typically, mum. Top it all off with whatever paid work we engage in. If one image captures this new reality, it would be my son’s teacher hosting a Google hangout with her 26 Grade 4 students last week: Clutching a mug of tea, her own small children barnacled to each side of her, she patiently listened as each student recounted what kinds of cookies they were baking, Lego they were building and video games they were playing.

It’s a lot. And yet, how many friends have written to me to say, “You are so lucky not to be going through this alone"? I know they’re right. Mothers may give a lot, but they also get a lot back. Day in, day out: the insatiable curiosity, the unsolicited expressions of love, the wondrous creations, the pure energy. A few years ago, my son presented me with an unforgettable birthday gift: his two favourite toy cars, lovingly frozen in blocks of ice.

I hadn’t seen that coming – which goes for much of motherhood. The birth of my first child, on a beautiful May day 13 years ago in a hospital outside Berlin, did not proceed as expected. My placenta (in German, Mutterkuchen or mother cake) tore off the uterine wall, and my baby lost his connection to my blood and oxygen. Born unconscious and not breathing, he was transferred to an acute neonatal care centre miles away. We were separated for five days. In that time, I learned a very hard truth: that my well-being was now inextricably bound to another being; that I could not rest, knowing he was suffering. I had lost a freedom I hadn’t even realized I possessed.

But as that baby grew into a child and was joined by a brother, I began to understand the magnitude of what I had gained. The connection mothers have to their young is a vulnerability, but also a source of immeasurable strength. Colette Sevigny, the 80-year-old Edmonton grandmother who, as Global News reported, was released from hospital last week after overcoming a broken pelvis, pneumonia and then COVID-19, had told her health care workers that she wasn’t ready to depart; her husband had died in January, and she didn’t want her children to lose them both.

Every now and again, my 10-year-old, struggling to master the new lexicon, asks, “When is this paramedic going to be over?” I have no answer. But I know that when it is, our relationship will be a layer thicker. And that on this Mother’s Day, we children have a lot to thank our mothers for, and we mothers our children.

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