Polished Personal: What it Means to be a Mother

What do the texts suggest about an individual’s capacity for self-sacrifice in the face of compelling circumstances?
Responding to the picture: Mother and Child, Malaga, Spain, 1996
Prose Form: Online News Article

We can’t really comprehend love until we feel it, and when we do, it is as though the complexity of the world begins to fade away and all that is left is the rekindling of two souls that have always known each other. Three years ago in Spain, I embarked upon a new journey with Discovery as a Human Right’s Journalist, exploring the idea of What it means to be a mother?

Being brought up in an orphanage, I never had an opportunity to understand or feel the unconditional love embodied by such a pious relationship between a mother and her child. I’ve failed to experience the taste of my mother’s cooking, the sound of her scolding voice, or the tenderness of her maternal hugs, as it all seems to fade away into a cloud of unexplainable feelings of absence. From young I’ve been craving to experience such moments, but perhaps my circumstances weren’t as forgiving as I’d prayed for them to be. Regardless, through my adventure as a story-teller, I aspired to capture the tales of different families around Spain, seeking understanding of a relationship I wasn’t destined to receive.

Our team travelled for days through various cities- Barcelona, Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, and so forth interacting with families from different castes, religions, and cultures. We spent days analyzing relationships and studying the innate need for affection within human beings- but our most interesting study was of a tale that began in Malaga at a vegetable processing factory- Niaken.

Niaken, was a women run opportunity for ladies from the slums to work for the money needed to feed their families. Many were mothers of eight or nine children, some with children merely three weeks old, all struggling to foresee what the future had in store for them. All of them- 15,000 women- sacrificing themselves to cater to the needs of their loved ones.

After spending hours processing beans, the workers would journey back home on foot for an hour before arriving home and then very quickly they’d busy themselves in household chores: cooking, cleaning, looking after their children, producing heat, finding clean water resources. And that was life. But I couldn’t help wondering, what about her? The woman? Before the labels of being a mother, a wife, a worker, what did she want?

I found it hard to believe that any woman wouldn’t feel trapped in a mundane cycle of days and nights, living such a life. Until I met Maria, of course.

Maria was only twenty-one when I met her running between her job at Niaken in the West and her home in the East- baring the weight of her beautiful baby boy Jose on one arm and a basket of vegetables she had managed to purchase for dinner on the other. Dashing down the busy cobblestone streets between cyclists, cars and people she found her flow within the chaos; elegantly, moving through the crowd, accustomed to the heat and noise. However, seventy kilometers of walking under a heat wave is not only concerning in terms of her health, but also her child’s. And so, out of sincere care, one of our local team members offered to give her a ride to her home in exchange of her story. The story of Maria.

But Maria, was a firehouse. Used to being conned, deceived, and abused she knew better than to trust a stranger. However, oddly enough there was a strange sense of familiarity between her and I when we saw each other. Our minds both set off onto pathways of fear induced calculations and our hearts flooded with anxiety. Perhaps that is why we got along so well- she was a story waiting to be told and I was the messenger.

That night, she invited us home for dinner. For days to come I spent observing moments of joy and sorrow fill her life. There were days when she didn’t eat only to feed her children, days where clean water wasn’t accessible, nights where Jose suffered through a fever with no chance of medical treatment- nights where she thought he would die. And I couldn’t help but wonder in moments of vulnerability, why she didn’t have an abortion or give up her child to an orphanage if she was constantly living on the brink of death? What was compelling her to sacrifice bits of herself every single day?

But then came moments of unmeasurable happiness, like when Jose said his first word, mama, or during the weekly community gatherings where everyone sang tales of hope together, or the communal celebration of Maria’s promotion at Niaken. And in moments like these, I saw Maria in love. I began to realize that perhaps it were these circumstances or fragments in time where she was immersed in loved that influenced her to stay.

Maria’s home was lit by a fire. She spent her nights rocking Jose to sleep, telling him tales her mother used to tell her: stories of heroes at war with conflicting nations, fables rooted in the history of desolate cultures, and tales of long lost lovers. Her day and her night were consumed by Jose- he was her everything.

But what about her? How does one sacrifice one’s own dreams and hopes for another? How did she leave behind her own aspirations to look after her children so selflessly?

“But that’s Motherhood,” she said, “you sacrifice your entire being for your children, because they become your life, I dreamt of being a seamstress, a simple job really, but when you have to choose between your dreams and your child’s health, you choose him. You choose him, not because he is an obligation. You choose him because you love him more than you love yourself.”

And in that moment I finally understood that love is a life-altering circumstance that provokes individuals to choose one of two paths- to stay or to leave- but in either decision you are sacrificing parts of yourself. Many times our capacities to self-sacrifice are greater than we credit them to be, for every time we love, we lose bits of ourselves to the other.

When I set out to Spain, I did so, to understand what it means to have a mother and be a mother. And now with my own baby girl, sleeping in my womb- I remember Maria and her baby Jose, as I truly begin to understand how one’s capacity to sacrifice has less to do with obligation and more to do with love. Mothers sacrifice because they love. And as I retire from my journalism career to care of my daughter Anna, I realize that these compelling circumstances are a gift that I choose cherish.

~Liz Fields

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