I believe that if we only have the eyes to see we will surely find ourselves surrounded by a whole tribe of mothers (related to us or not) who are cheering us on. Apart from my mom, who died a week to the day after I turned 18, these are the five women who have shaped, cheered and encouraged me into motherhood. This is for them.

And this is for you, dear reader, because you are one of them.


Mrs. Gyori in South Africa

I was 18 and awkward as all get out with my dead mother and gangly legs and I so badly wanted the boy on the 50cc motorbike to notice me.

Mrs. Gyori was my favorite high school teacher.

She took me in on late afternoons when I didn’t want to face going home to so much emptiness and she filled me up with tea and biscuits and conversations. She believed in me. All of me. All the scrawny bits and pieces of me that didn’t understand how to grow into a woman, she believed in.

She loved me and her love listened to all my talk of boys and my dreams of America and college and growing up and away from the cliche I was living. Mrs. Gyori always opened her door, always pulled her chair up close so she could listen, always made me feel like my life was worth being interested in.

And her chocolate milk shakes. Don’t even get me started on her chocolate milk shakes.

She was the one who took me to pick out a wedding dress when I came home with a diamond ring on my finger. She drove me to the store in the blush of spring and she was the one who spotted the perfect dress in the window. I was leafing through row after row of gowns when she called me over. She was fingering the soft lace daisies sewn into the skirt and when she knew it was the one, so did I.

She climbed into the window to get a better look and called over the attendant to fetch it for me.

Mrs Gyori and that dress made me a bride in one afternoon.

I tried it on and she told me I had to call my dad right away and he up and left his medical practice in the middle of the day to come and meet us. And when he saw me we both cried and I’ll never forget how he said we needed to see if it would be good for dancing. And then he waltzed me through the thick carpet of the dressing room and all the walls were mirrors smiling back at us.

Mrs Gyori conjured a bride out of a girl who had lost her direction and seeing myself through her eyes was always believing in happy endings.

Colleen in Ukraine

We were living in Kyiv, Ukraine when I discovered I wanted a baby. I turned 30 and all I wanted for my birthday was the one thing I’d been avoiding as long as I could remember.

In Ukraine no one demanded that Pete and I have kids. No one pressured. No one peered into the whys or why nots. They simply expected. They loved us and expected that a marriage they were so fond of would naturally walk its way into parenthood. In the meantime I watched Colleen and her three boys and their crazy black dog always on the go. She enjoyed them. More than that, I would say she reveled in them.

They came with her and Bob across borders, on Soviet trains, and into markets, apartment communities and churches. They didn’t slow her down. They were part of her journey. They breathed Russian, they translated for visiting International teams, they played chess and made movies on their computers and watched their mother living wildly outside the lines of quiet or tame or ordinary.

Colleen with her blonde bob and long skirts, huge smile and fearless mothering was a first for me since my mom had died.

It’s hard to quite put my finger on what makes her so fierce in my memory.

She would be up at crazy hours making birthday cakes or Easter cakes or writing cards and notes to members of the congregation. But it wasn’t because she loved to bake or craft. The people inspired her. Mashrutka drivers and next door neighbors who came by in their shouty Russian and house coats to discuss the electricity being off again. To meet her was like reconnecting with a long lost friend. She would throw her arms out wide to welcome strangers. Her laugh was loud and her enthusiastic embrace of the culture they were living in was contagious.

Like me, there had been no white picket fences in her memory. Slipping into the nooks and crannies of her every day gave me a taste of family again with a woman at the center. A woman who is filled up by filling her home with people.

And then one Sunday after church Colleen asked me if we wanted to come over for lunch and hang out with some visiting friends who spoke English. We were in the sanctuary. Roma was doodling with his drumsticks. Babushkas were still chatting across seats and the teens were straggling in for their afternoon service.

I’d been counting days for a month. So I whispered my excitement into her ear. I told her that I was ovulating and that lunch meant we’d miss an important window. How she laughed. How she clapped her hands in delight. How she grinned and grabbed me with fingers digging into my upper arms, hugged me and told me to get. myself. straight. home. and have some great, late afternoon sex. She was so unembarrassed.

Life all around us in that welcome church sanctuary – Colleen and God – how they made me believe motherhood could be good. So very good.

Wanda in South Africa

My dad would remarry an Afrikaans-speaking woman of action in Wanda (pronounced Vuhn-da) two years after Pete and I got married. The awkwardness of a new woman in the house lasted only as long as it took us to absorb the warmth of the home filled with people, food, and tender touches for all the kids – her two and my dad’s three. That white house built into the side of a hill had been lifeless for years. So much sad cemented into the rock walls, it was a relief to have someone else in the space to defuse the tension. Wanda threw open the windows of the Honeyrock house and life blew back in again.

Late in the afternoon of their wedding reception a mini van taxi delivered to the foot of the steep driveway of that thatched roof house at least 15 of the men and women she’d worked alongside for years at the Spar store in Hammanskraal. They came and with them came the music. I was down the street hugging cousins good-bye – I think I was barefoot – when I caught the strains of Tshwana voices lilting over the back wall. I remember running up the steps, worried it would be over before I’d seen it. Past old family trees that lined the wall I burst out into the garden and a circle of stamping, clapping, ululating wedding guests with dad and Wanda caught up in the middle. Her white dress hitched up in one hand and the bride white tiger lilies in her hair all dancing to the irresistible harmony of new beginnings.

It was impossible not to be pulled in by the friendly hands and the revelation that this woman who lived and breathed a language different from my own was rebuilding our home out of people.

Family, vetkoek, and Five Roses Tea in tall glass mugs, a fascination with all things cricket and rugby, massive Boerboel dogs and supper again around the big table with all the seats filled. Wanda was so many fresh starts it was like how a good long pull at the inhaler must feel for an asthmatic I imagine.

Wanda who treaded water with me in the aerobics pool during my first pregnancy, Wanda who gave me and her oldest daughter, Annie, pedicures when I could no longer reach my toes. Wanda who has driven dark streets and desperate back roads for prodigals. Wanda who lives the parable of adoption on so many levels it’s dizzying. Wanda who always, always comes. Who fights. Who wrestles. Who prays the prayer of the good shepherd and goes clambering after the lost one, two, twenty with food and warmth and the assurance that she will keep coming back. We follow her. We all do. We know her voice, working, weaving, making all things work together for good. Not just for happy endings.

Debbie in the US

I wasn’t what she expected. A tall, South African girl who would spirit her son away after his senior year of college to another state and eventually another country; several other countries actually. I must have taken some getting used to.

Quiet where I am loud. Thoughtful where I am wordy. Deliberate where I am impulsive. Short where I am tall, my mother in law has grown into my mother this last nearly two decades. She is now my first phone call and her second name is also, Jo. It took some prying at the hinges to find a way to creak open my every day ins and outs to a mother again. I live an ocean away from my father. It had been a long time since I was daily accountable to any kind of parent; it’s easy to slip out of the habit.

I’ve heard tell about daughters who sweat days ahead of time to get their house ship shape for a mother’s visit. Instead I make lists of chores she’s offered to help me with. The house bleeds laundry and I know when she gets here things will be better. She cleans the insides of my fridge and packs up boxes of clothes that should have been donated the last time we moved. She researches whether or not the garbage men will pick up expired paint (they won’t; it’s still in our garage) or if we need to drop it at a special location.

She loves us with busy hands and tireless tasks checked off the list. And when she’s not in my house, when she’s back in Floriday and I’m here, I know she’s praying. She learned it from her own mother. The faithful prayers of a woman who isn’t just being polite when she says, “I’ll pray for you.” I’ve come to recognize in that too often trite, over-used phrase the battle cry of a warrior. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

You on the blog

Yes you, dear reader. The women I bump into at the playground or at the first grade pick up outside the school’s side door. The women who are pushing tired grocery carts with squabbling kids looking for dinner options that are fast. The friends at church who raise barely an eyebrow at my confessions of temper and frustration and the dream some days to just be alone for uninterrupted hours.

The women who read my blog and bleed their stories and failures and mothering victories into my comment box. This sisterhood that gets what it’s like to live your own wants out of life in the left overs of the day. Where would we be without one another to hold up the tired arms, to rub the knotted shoulders, to help fold the laundry?

You are braver than you know. There is nothing ordinary about you. You make the music that makes the life that gives the rhythm to the day in and out and in again. Wonder. You are.

You deliver babies by C-section or adoption certificate or by push and pant and pull and wailing battle cry of birth. You lay yourself down and open yourself up and give, give, give more than you think you have. And when you’re empty, when you’re bone dry you wring out one more drop, one more bottle, one more soothing the tempter tantrum, one more opening up tired arms to the tireder teenager.

You make a budget stretch. You clip coupons. You fight ketchup stains. You face the awkward parent-teacher moments. You listen. You translate for your child. You do the hard work of teaching at every turn. You find a hundred new ways to answer a hundred new versions of the question, “Why?”

You show up. You take photos. You cheer. You shuttle boys and bags of gear between sports fields and serve up french fries afterwards. You are a welcome home. You disagree with him, you make her change her skirt, but you love fiercely from beneath those unruly bangs. You learn to laugh at your reflection. You revel in your smiley wrinkles.

You lose your temper. You yell and apologize and stamp your foot and prove that you are human. You cry. You venture out into an ocean of vulnerability with only a small dinghy and two short oars to keep you afloat when you become a parent. And you do it more than once. A mother can get seasick from all this turbulent love.

You yield your figure, your abs, your size 4 jeans but your will turns to muscle unheard of – iron hard; it grows heavy with determination. No one will wound these children without going through you first. You will protect them from yourself if you have to. You are immovable, a last harbor, a lighthouse in the storm of Internet and Facebook and failed grades and peer pressure.

You will not be sunk.

And then one day you uncurl your desperate fingers and find that these other pieces of yourself can float. Gently, quietly, sometimes violently. They rise and fall with the swells and find their own currents.

And you let them.

You make me feel less crazy and more understood.

Mostly you remind me daily that we’re in this thing together. Every step of the way.

Happy Mother’s Day!

It’s not too late to pick up a copy of my book, Surprised by Motherhood, for all the moms in your life, whether you’re related or not. Click here to order in time for Sunday delivery.