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When I was 18, just out of high school and working at my first full-time job, I came down with a flu one night while reading, for the first time, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.

Exhausted, I flopped into bed early with the book. My mother brought aspirin, juice and a wash cloth, then silently slipped down the hall. I read deep into the night as my fever rose and images of Plath, trapped and tormented, invaded my brain.

That night I dreamed I stopped breathing, in a dark room where no one could find me. Panicked, I tried to call out but could make no sound. Just as I was about to pass out, my mother entered the room and hovered above my face. I tried to call out for help, but the words wouldn't come.

I dreamed my mother leaned over and kissed me -- a confusing, terrifying kiss. My heart stopped. I thought at first she was sucking the last remaining air from my throat and I struggled to push her away.

But then, she let out a long powerful breath that filled my chest with cool, sweet air. She moved her face away from mine, brushed back my hair and asked if I was OK.

I awoke, tangled in clammy wet sheets, my fever broken, startled and shaken by my mother's phantom exhibition of power.

The dream stayed with me -- one of only two or three I've ever remembered in my life -- and I don't need a psychiatrist to tell me what it meant.

Innumerable images have been written, painted, sung, dramatized and sculpted depicting the mother-child bond. In modern times, they have been bathed in pastels and fuzzy light. Rarely have they captured the do-or-die quality of the actual bond, the essential, practical, driving nature of it. And at the turn of the 21st century, popular images of motherhood rarely reveal the reality of mothering in these complex times.

When I was a child, though I frequently fell in love with other mothers, wishing the cool ones could be mine, there were no surrogates. In the middle-class surroundings where I grew up, moms did the job solo, except in rare circumstances like when someone's mother died.

As the mother of four children, single, possessed of demanding work and crowded by the many inconvenient turns of life with young teenagers, I have come to think that one of the most liberating developments of the past 30 years has been the sharing of mothering. It's not that mothering has become less intense, less heart-ripping, less formidable. But because changes in lifestyle have caused many of us to hand our children over to more and more caregivers, we have come to understand that the village of mothers it takes to raise a child is not such a bad thing. Hideous child-care wages, burned-out teachers and inadequate funding for most everything that has to do with providing good care for children aside, the world is full of loving people who want nothing more than to mother the upcoming generation.

On Mother's Day, this year, I hope all those mother-types are adequately thanked.

In my family, personal thanks go to the woman who mothers my children when they are not with me -- their father's second wife who loves and protects them with everything she's got. It is understood when they leave my house that their various school forms will be filled out, their morphing feet dressed in new shoes, their social obligations met under the direction of their other mom. If trouble arises, I can rest assured I will hear of it and, even better, she will focus her gentle attention on the troublemaker. We share an uneasy friendship, but have finally come to share with ease the thing that matters most between us -- the mothering of my children.

Frankly, I couldn't do it well without her.

I miss the days when my children's lives were mine, when I chose their clothes and pulled their socks on and made them look wonderful every day. Then, I was all powerful -- I could single-handedly determine the course of their days, create their happiness -- or at least I thought I could.

I know now that memories of those days, and that dream of mothering, are illusions -- pleasant, pervasive and designed to fit the images of motherhood I inherited from my own childhood.

Mothering is still as essential as breathing, but it's not nearly so lonely and frightening in this brave new world. I no longer want to do it solo. My bond with my children is just as strong, even though it is shared. This Mother's Day, I'm grateful to be just one of the great, warm body of mothers -- including the woman who graciously mothers my children when I'm not there.

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