When I first set foot in my current home back in 1993, I looked around at the huge picture windows, the brick fireplace and the sunlight streaming in and I knew I was home. It felt so right and I exhaled deeply. I didn’t know I’d been holding my breath. I had spent a great deal of time searching for mothering, the kind that wraps you in warmth and tenderness, and I believed I would eventually find what I was looking for. I just never imagined that it would arrive in the form of a house. Support and kindness show up in many different and surprising ways.

I had an unusual childhood since I left home at fourteen years old to pursue a career in ballet and I never lived with my parents again. My mother (she allowed me to follow my dreams but she would never have won a prize for warmth) became absent and remote and I felt disconnected and powerfully alone. That was when I came to understand that loneliness is not emptiness. Rather, it’s the hard presence of an absence. It has heft and substance, it’s tangible and inevitable. It’s a part of being human and it’s a powerful motivator to find the things that represent mother to us.

I sometimes imagine that if I had set up my life differently, if I had prioritized marriage and family over my career, I would never be lonely . . . until a friend with a wife and three children told me he was deeply lonely and couldn’t seem to get out of it. I guess it really doesn’t matter if you are alone or have a large family, loneliness is a part of the human condition and we each need to find a way to tap into our inner compassion to deal with the pain and suffering it can cause.

Maybe for some people, loneliness doesn’t exist. For me, it’s real, whether it terrorizes me or feels like an old annoying friend that tags
along when I don’t want it near me. At these times, I know I’m not the only one who wants a mother figure to nurture me and assure me that everything will be okay. It could be a close friend, a sister, a partner, a trip to a wonderful place or a good book. For me, it’s my house, my mentor and a few close friends. And most importantly, it’s the mother that lives in my heart. Not the angry one who scolds and find fault. I’m talking about the good mother who forgives everything and embraces me with steadiness and compassion, no matter what I’ve done or how I feel.

My father used to call my mother “a good lookin’ tomata.” She was undeniably beautiful but I saw her more as a tough cookie. The point is that we don’t all have loving or living mothers. She may have loved and guided you, but she also might have died, abandoned you, abused you or showed a disinterest in you. She may be absent for one reason or another, but that doesn’t mean we are condemned to live without mothering. We are all entitled to have the thing we call “mother” that lives inside of us. We just have to get used to developing her and acknowledging her. When we figure out how to recognize her and make room for her, when we listen and accept her presence, we can find the warmth and safety that is our birthright. When spiritual teacher, Ondrea Levine, lost her beloved husband, she said she needed to learn to hold her own hand. When we find a way to do that, we can also be there for other people who need the same kind of love and loyalty. 

In my search for support and soothing, I came across a
Buddhist definition that speaks to me. “Touch each being as your beloved child. Like a mother who protects her child with her own life, one can cultivate a heart of unlimited love and compassion toward all living things.” Including ourselves. 

Whether it’s physical or in the abstract, what does “mother” mean to you?