Saturday, September 15, 2012

On being 'maternal'

Recently, and not for the first time, somebody I hadn't seen for a while asked me how I was managing with the boys because, "Ya know, you weren't . . . well, what I would call 'maternal' when you were younger, were you?  I mean you didn't come across as someone who liked kids."

This is a sentiment that I have heard surprisingly often since I started fostering - this idea that people are surprised at how well I seem to be getting on with the boys because they never thought of me as maternal - and it's left me wondering what it was about my former life that was so UN-maternal!

I would have thought that somebody who spent 12 years teaching, 15 years involved in voluntary work with children of all ages and years volunteering with orphanage kids in Romania, culminating in a two-year stint living there to work with those very same kids would have managed to establish pretty good credentials when it came to proving their aptitude for and like of being with children.

Admittedly, I have my favourite ages - under 5 and over 12 - but still, I'd have thought I'd done enough!

Perhaps it's to do with the way I related to those children.  Of course I was always the teacher or the youth worker and never the parent.  I usually related to them in larger groups and was probably more often concerned with managing those large numbers as I was with forming intimate, nurturing relationships with individuals.  But at the same time, I spent time with the children of friends, babysat and played with them.

I think the problem boils down to one of opportunity.  I wasn't a mother, so I didn't have much opportunity to be maternal.  In all my dealings with children I was aware that my role was very different from that of a parent and that to lead children to view me in a parental light would be wrong and even damaging.  In short, it's hard to show your maternal side when you aren't a mother!

Perhaps what people mean is that they didn't see me go all soft-hearted or gooey-featured around little kids.  They didn't hear me talk about how much I wanted children of my own or how I longed to cradle a baby in my arms.  Of course not!  For sure those feelings were in me, but what's the point of going on about it when it isn't happening and might never happen?

I have always known I was maternal.  Before I started fostering I had no doubts about my ability to love and nurture little ones, and was far more concerned about other people's reactions and their uncertainties about whether I would 'manage'.  People worried about my busy lifestyle and all the things I was involved in and my commitment to work, and wondered how I would cope when I had to give up most of that.  What they didn't know what that I would have happily dumped all of that in a heartbeat if it meant that I could devote myself to the awesome and beautiful task of raising a child of my own!

I think people who are most comfortable with themselves have learned to live the life that's necessary for the season they are in.  When I was alone with only myself to worry about I focused on work, on my social life, on church meetings and activities.  Now I am in a different season, I live a different life and I allow other strengths and aptitudes to come to the surface.  Before, my job, my status and my education were very important to me.  Now, not so much!

Before, when other people talked endlessly about their children's doings I had absolutely nothing to contribute so I felt left out and a bit irritated.  I would offer stories about my friends' children just so I could join in a bit, but it wasn't the same.  I must have once commented to a friend that I "hated it" when people talked about their children all the time - a comment that this friend now regularly throws back at me when I mention things the boys have been up to! - but really what I hated was that I couldn't join in.  Now I can, and I don't care if it makes me boring!

Recently I read an article where a journalist decried the habit of using pictures of our children as Facebook profile pictures.  She was pretty strident in her opinion that doing so is the equivalent of a mother abandoning her identity and self - hiding behind her children so that she doesn't have to bother to dress nicely, put on make-up or have a life.  Her view was that this was bad for the mother and therefore bad for the children.

I couldn't agree less.  If I was an artist and sculptor and created something awesome, I would probably be proud and pleased enough to use it as my profile picture.  Children are our greatest work - it's not becoming a doormat or a shadow of a person to love them, prioritise them and celebrate them!

For me, being a parent is a far more important role and achievement than anything we could do at work or elsewhere.  When I didn't have the opportunity, I focused on other things and showed the aspects of my personality that suited those roles.  Now I have the boys, a different side of my character has come out.

Am I 'more maternal' now?  Or, as others have suggested 'softer'?  No.  I was always exactly this maternal and exactly this soft - I just didn't have the opportunity to show it!


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