Your children were your badge of honor, your proof of worth in the world. It was a dangerously selfish perspective, one learned from women who now know better but who taught you that your value would be determined solely by the weight of your children.
You married a child, then gave birth to a child, then three more. You grew up raising the four of them, but the marriage shrank and withered from neglect. Eventually the two of you ended it, mercifully, promising to mutually love and protect the children. You promised to respect one another -- a promise you had frequently neglected when you were married.
You were mortified. You would have to claim a life in the world outside of your nest. Your children would have a home away from yours.
Their father would re-marry and another woman would play mother to your children when you weren't there. She seemed like a fine enough person -- cheerful, energetic, spiritual -- but you cringed when you watched her encircle your sons' shoulders with her willowy arms. Your ears rang with jealousy as her fingers combed through their hair. You became furious when she involved herself in the problems of one of them.
I am their mother, you claimed over and over, as if she didn't know, as if they didn't know after your decades of feeding them, nursing them, changing their sheets, checking their homework, soothing their wounds, demanding their love.
Then, she had a baby of her own. Your kids called you at work and asked you to pick them up at the hospital where they were waiting for the birth. When you arrived, they wanted to stay until the baby came.
Down the hall, she labored for hours. Brave and fit, a soldier mother, she brought her boy into the world with no anesthetic, with pure strength and will. You hugged her best friend. You waited behind the curtain as your sons each kissed their baby brother for the first time. She gestured you around. You combed your fingers through his damp, black hair, your hand barely an inch away from her flushed face.
She thanked you for being there.
Two weeks later, she collapsed violently and your sons were there to help her. A post-delivery complication sent her back to the hospital. You called every day. You prayed every minute. You wanted her to be there, combing her fingers through your sons' hair when they graduated from high school. You wanted her to walk her son across the broad, tree-lined avenues to the first day of kindergarten on a fine September day.
You wanted to be her friend.
She came home and grew stronger. The crisis passed. Her baby grew and cooed and gurgled and she spent her days whispering into his ear how much she loved him. Overnight, your sons grew into young men.
A year later, an invitation appears on your kitchen table -- balloons in primary colors, a first birthday party. You are invited. You search for the perfect gift -- the favorite toy of your sons when they were his age, a dump truck. You wrap it in marigold yellow. You count down the days.
You arrive at the party with your sons. The baby is ecstatically chasing balloons across the room. Every eye is fixed on him. His eye is fixed on the curling strings dangling above his head. She welcomes you and introduces you to her friends. Her brother gives you a big hug. Your former husband looks on, shy and gratified.
You watch your sons watch as the baby dives into his cake, cramming fistfuls into his ears, his hair, his eyelashes. The adults laugh and tell stories as his father carries him to the kitchen sink for a wash off. You wipe the icing from his chubby legs, from between his toes.
A month later, Mother's Day. You find a gift in the colors that remind you of her -- deep blue and soft, lemon yellow. A potted garden that can be transplanted into her flower beds. You deliver her gift and find one waiting for you -- a book, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother. You know that woman. You are that woman. She is that woman. Her card thanks you for sharing the joys of motherhood with her all these years.
One day you will thank her for being your friend.