This is the time of the year when the nest of many mothers empties as children who are no longer children head off to college. I suppose that the experience is different for everyone, but I am feeling at once a sense of loss of my old life and sadness from missing someone I deeply love, like, and respect, while also pride and excitement at all the future may hold.
As I often do when faced with something new, I turned to my trusty, dog-eared copy of Goddesses and Heroines by Patricia Monaghan to see how women and female divinities have approached the situation down through the millennia. Goddesses who are mothers of specific children seem remarkably like mothers of our time. Some goddess mothers show an immense devotion to their children – Frigg, who made all creatures promise never to harm her son, Balder, or Ceridwen who brewed a potion to make her “ugly” son omniscient and inspired. Any mother can empathize with Mary’s sorrow at the death of her son and Demeter’s depth of mourning when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the Underworld.
Perhaps the goddess who those of us with empty nests can empathize with most is Antaboga, a serpent goddess of Sudan who loved her daughter so much that she gave her only the fruit of paradise to eat, thinking this would keep her from marrying a god and leaving home. There is a lesson in the end of the story when her daughter slowly starved for lack of other food. In fact, this story reflects the modern concern with mothering that is too intense and interferes with a child’s natural move to independence with the other side of the coin being the idea that motherhood is primarily a sacrifice of the mother’s well being to meet the child’s needs.
However, most goddesses associated with the word “mother” are Creator or compassionate mothers, to whom motherhood seems to be a most expansive and positive attitude about ourselves and our relationship to all the universe. We are mothers to our offspring, but also to all the world or universe. After her daughter is restored to her for six months of the year, Demeter returns the Earth to fertility to feed all its creatures. Peru’s Mama Cochu is the Ocean Mother who feeds all the planet and is the giver of health. Mary has inspired and given hope to both individuals and social movements around the globe. Kuan Yin voluntarily returned to Earth after enlightenment when she heard “the cries of the world.” The Sumerian “All-Mother Mami” created all human life from clay. The Yoruba’s Oddudua created the universe itself out of primal matter. Each culture seems to have a Creator or compassionate goddess associated with the word “mother” somewhere in their past history. To these mothers, motherhood is an infinite act of love and creation, fulfilling rather than stifling our or our child’s or creation’s essential being and not in any way limited to just reproduction of beings like themselves. This is the kind of mother I wish to be.
Not only in ancient myth, but also in modern storytelling do we find these mothers whose motherhood makes a multitude of life, or all of creation, possible and at the same time makes the mothers goddess-like themselves. My favorite children’s book of recent years is Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Ladder to the Moon, radiantly illustrated by Yuyi Morales. For anyone who has not read it, it tells a story of “Grandma Annie” who is no longer living on Earth, but who truly “hears the cries of the world” and brings those suffering from natural disasters and human violence onto the moon where they are healed and held in love and understanding. It was inspired by the author’s mother and written for her daughter, who was born after her mother’s death.
I even found a modern “mother goddess” tale in the recent Doctor Who science fiction Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe that tells the tale of an “ordinary” London housewife who, because she is a mother, is able to hold an entire planet of doomed tree souls in her mind and carry them safely to the heavens where they live happily twinkling forever among the stars. I’m sure there are others and maybe you can comment with information about them if you know of any.
How do we bring this type of mothering into our own lives? One lesson I have learned is that mothering the world needs to begin with mothering oneself. We cannot mother if we are tired, sick, angry, or resentful. What can you do today to take care of yourself – to heal yourself and give yourself a moment of joy even if a moment is all you have? Then, as I think about the great Mother Goddesses, I realize that they mothered by doing what was so essential to who they are that they could not help but share it with the world, whether it is expressing compassion, or creating worlds, or feeding living creatures. For some people, taking care of children is what makes them who they are. For others, kids just aren’t their thing, but maybe instead they write symphonies to bring amazement and solace to those who hear it, or run a library that transports the world into the minds of a community, or are a farmer and bring forth Demeter’s abundance to feed others. What is your way of mothering?
I believe that mothering the universe is not defined so much by what you do as who you are. It requires us to expand ourselves every single day, to think of ourselves not as confined to a narrow image of who we are and what we can accomplish, to a small vision of our proper place and role, but to realize that we are as immense a force for mothering and creating the universe anew as we wish to make ourselves. Whether we mother one being or a multitude, or a creation of another kind, and no matter what we do to mother, we are a unique and essential part of the great mothering that began with the first instant of the universe and continues in an infinite number of ways every day and everywhere. Our nests can never be empty when we make the whole world our home.