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Love, loyalty and limits -- why mothers get grey

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Wednesday, May 5th, 2004 — Mother's Day is coming. With it might come flowers, good wishes, hugs, kisses and maybe even a nice dinner out.

Husbands and children beware. We mothers enjoy this pampering, even if we protest: "It's just a day. I don't need any special treatment."

When our kids lived at home, I declared Mother's Day a work day. It was the only day of the year when I had five people at my disposal to clean the garage, wash the car, scrub the deck and patio furniture and perform other tasks. They did all of this with smiles and, "What's next?" We have pictures to prove it; I still chuckle when I look at them.

My youngest son once gave me a gecko pin with a genuine ruby set into the tip of its tail for Mother's Day. Apparently, he had used every penny of his saved-up allowance to buy this gift. When one of his brothers questioned him about his decision, he said simply, "She's my mom." Ah, to be so loved! I still treasure that pin.

That said, none of these priceless expressions of affection or recognition really touches the heart of motherhood. This lies deep within the lived experience -- day in and day out -- of mothers and children.

Anyone who has spent more than a few years as a mother knows mothering is made up of moments of joy and moments of sorrow, of successes and failures, and of everything in between. There are lessons taught and lessons learned.

At times I am filled with self-doubt and at other times things go so well that I wonder what I am missing. Motherhood is a roller coaster, not a trip to the moon.

But I would not trade this experience for anything. It is a privilege to have my life so deeply connected with the lives of others. The challenges that come with being a mother force me to stretch, search, and ultimately grow. I learn to trust.

My grey hair is a badge of honor and deserves respect. It represents years of trying to look good in my kids' eyes -- knowing that much of the time I was losing.

Of the many ways a mother's love is tested, perhaps the most painful is when we watch our children suffer in times of illness or injury. Some mothers are asked to bear the loss of a child. I cannot imagine the depth of such a loss.

But most mothers, at one time or another, will be faced with the conflict between wanting to simply love and please a child ("Yes, Sweetheart, whatever makes you happy") while knowing that what we really need to say (and mean) is, "No, that's not the best thing for you."

My mother's heart wants to support and be loyal to my child, and to find him or her right in every way: The rest of the world must be wrong because my child can't be. But there are times -- even as I hear myself defending my child -- that I know this is not right. That is when the real work begins.

Even though I want to build this child up, I know I need to stand my ground, disagree and risk leaving a void between us that can't be crossed with my feeble words. I fear losing my child, and at the very least, I know we will both need to swallow huge doses of pride to regain our equilibrium.

In his poem, "If," Rudyard Kipling captures this feeling of helplessness when he writes, "If you can bear to ... watch the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop to build them up with worn-out tools ...." Often the work of mothering seems to be done with those "worn-out tools."

But Kipling promises "the Earth, and everything that's in it" as our reward for this effort. As a mother, I find mending differences with my child, and feeling a renewed closeness, every bit of that and more.

Mothering is an act of love that sometimes means losing the popularity contest, at least for the moment. But there's the long run: it's our hanging in there through the rough times that our children perhaps most deeply remember and appreciate.

The highs are sweet, but hard won, because they often are borne out of painful lows. A mother's love, like any authentic love, knows how it feels to be brokenhearted then to keep on loving, even more than before.

Mother's Day is a celebration of a love that never stops loving.