Mother, Protector

I’ve been reading a lot about the tornadoes that swept through our part of the country Friday afternoon. We spent some time in the basement, as the sky grew dark, but the storm spared us. Houses, and people, as close as a county over, weren’t as lucky.

An article I read today talks about a woman, a brave woman, from Henryville, Ind., who lost both her legs while physically shielding her two children from two tornadoes that destroyed her house. Her story reminded me of another mother, from a very different time and and a very different place.

Before I was a mother Andy and I spent a weekend visiting my brother and friends in New York City in December. Our friend Alan, a paleontologist, was at the time working at the American Museum of Natural History. He took us to places in the museum not covered under the normal ticket. One such place was a very large room filled with rows and rows of tall, thick metal shelving. On the shelves were dinosaurs bones. Hundreds of dinosaur bones. Rows and rows of dinosaurs bones. It was incredible.

Near an exit door in this warehouse of dinosaur bones I stopped and spent a long time looking at a perfectly preserved female Citipati—an oviraptor. Her wings were stretched wide and it was obvious that she was doing all that she could to protect the perfectly preserved eggs that were underneath her. According to Alan, she and her to-be-born children were buried in a massive dune collapse. Oviraptors lived, or at least laid their eggs, between big dunes. When dunes collapsed, they buried oviraptors and nests very quickly, hence the preservation.

I think about that Citipati all the time. As I know I will the Henryville woman. So much has changed, since the Late Cretaceous period. And yet,  so much hasn’t.

One of the first places I took Sophie to after she was born was one of Andy’s softball games. I will never forget the shame I felt that day. Someone yelled “Heads up!” This typically means “fly ball” and the “heads up” command means exactly what you think it means—look up to ensure you’re not about to get hit with an errant softball. I never do this, though. Instead of looking up I always look down, an arm sheltering my head, hoping for the best. I know it’s not smart but it’s instinctive, automatic. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been hit.

On this particular evening, though, I was holding my firstborn, a newborn. My instinct should have been to shelter my baby while also looking up. Instead, I ducked, arm sheltering my own head, Sophie blissfully, thankfully, unaware that her mother wasn’t actually a mother yet. We weren’t hit. But I was (rightfully) made fun of, without mercy. The entire situation scarred me. I worried that I didn’t have the natural mothering instinct so many other woman seemed to get instantaneously, upon giving birth. I worried that when it really mattered, I wouldn’t be able to protect my children like a mother should. I assumed the universe had made a terrible, terrible mistake.

Many months later I remember complaining about a constant backache. Andy pointed out the fact that I spent my days walking around the house bent at the waist, arms outstretched, following Sophie so that I would be able to catch her, immediately, should she fall while toddling about. “Stop it,” he said. “You’re protecting her too much. She needs to learn to fall as much as she needs to learn to walk.”

It wasn’t immediate, but sometime between that softball game and Sophie learning to walk, the primal protectiveness all mothers have for their children finally kicked in.

I was thankful.

These days, I strive for middle ground. I swear my heart stops for a moment when Owen or James takes a tumble. A little yelp almost always exits my mouth. I’m fast. I’m good at getting from the living room to the dining room—no matter how many toys are in my way—quickly so that an inspection and hugs and kisses can be given out in a timely manner. But I also know that sometimes, falls have to happen. I can’t be there, arms outstretched, always.

And yet. Should the unthinkable happen, I know—I know—I would give up my legs, my life, for my kids. And although knowing that, really knowing that, doesn’t make that softball game years ago any less cringe-worthy, it’s comforting, to me. It makes me feel strong. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful woman one state over whose children survived two tornadoes without a scratch, thanks to their mother’s arms and legs, outstretched. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful Citipati, tucked away in a museum basement, who did all that she could to save her children, wings outstretched.

I suppose all of this simply has to do with the survival of species.

Or maybe, all of this simply has to do with love.

Either way, I’m comforted thinking about this connection, this sameness we mothers have with each other throughout time—since the beginnings of time. And I’m comforted believing that this deep desire to protect, no matter the cost, will remain, tomorrow, through many tomorrows. Tornadoes hit. Softballs fly. Dunes collapse. And yet we’ll be there. Stretched wide. Saving. Protecting. Braving. Loving.

Perhaps this, this right here, is the definition of mother.

“Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world a mother’s love is not.” —James Joyce