I have always been a lover of words. Confusingly, I have found myself unable to define words that I would have easily been able to describe a decade ago. Due to a more weighty examination of cultural and social constructs, I am now left scratching my head thinking about how to define previously simple words like woman and mother.
When posed with the question, “When did you become a mother,” I previously would have rattled off the date of my first child’s birth. However, my real introduction to mothering was much more closely tied to my second child. Though difficult to fully capture the meaning, the process that matches the definition in my head began with her. Of course, I know the definition of mother and woman as defined by a dictionary, but a more profound understanding is much less tangible.
My role as a mother is more heavily vested in the experience and profound privilege (both in a myriad of nuanced issues and more simple definitions of privilege) of becoming a mother of a child that was not initially placed in my life. By adoption, I became the mother of a daughter that had other mothers. She hails from South Korea, a world away, and left behind not only her first mother but a foster mother.
The realization of having a child who does not have access to white privilege, which I have been accustomed to my entire life, largely unchecked and certainly unexamined, left me poorly prepared to be a good mother. As I started to study privilege, I became aware that my understanding of the world and the systems that I move in was profoundly problematic. The process of deconstruction of the tenants of white supremacy culture that I had heavily benefitted from and viewed the world through — painful and life-altering — is what I would count as my most meaningful mothering. This process continues today. The task of changing your worldview, examining your ugliness, and engaging in the act of adapting your life to that of another without the expectation of reciprocity is more closely what I associate with mothering.
Now again, I am looking and thinking about the word mother and understanding that the act of birthing a child may define mothering, but it certainly doesn’t fully define it. However, if a person chooses to make other plans for a child doesn’t negate them being a mother. What about a person who engages in caretaking as an adoptive mother or a person performing the act of mothering in many different scenarios? I believe thinking of mother as a noun and a verb is perhaps more inclusive.
However, I have been more drawn to the word matriarch — I think even more inclusive — the head of a tribe or family. I see so much matriarchy in life and practice, and it allows for people who have birthed children, those that are childless by choice or circumstance, those who have been enlisted or chosen to engage in mothering — and especially to be included in a task that is human caring for another. I see matriarchy in my colleagues in medicine every day. We, as physicians, make sacrifices to care for others day after day, minute after minute. The matriarchy is all around us, but I feel it most in the practice of medicine.
Courtney Markham-Abedi is a psychiatrist.
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