Column: This Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate all the healing and caretaking taking place during a pandemic

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

This Mother’s Day will be marked by who is not there.

About 577,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Mothers and grandmothers. Children and grandchildren. We know that 40,000 kids under age 17 have lost a parent to the virus.

We know that the pandemic is far from the only thing that robbed families of their North Star this year. Mothers and grandmothers and children and grandchildren were lost to cancer and car crashes and violence. The pandemic holds no monopoly on cruelty.

This Mother’s Day will also be marked by reunions.

More than 100 million Americans are now fully vaccinated, and families who were abiding safety measures and avoiding hugs and meals and in-person visits are starting to meet in the flesh and marvel at the novelty and flat-out beauty of moments that once seemed ordinary.

I wonder if this Mother’s Day could also be marked by a shift in how we view and understand and celebrate mothering.

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Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

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I don’t mean more structural supports, although we’re certainly overdue for wholesale changes in the way we care for mothers and the humans they’re raising. I’ll take improved, equitable maternal health and paid parental leave and taxpayer-supported child care and universal preschool as my Mother’s Day gifts. You know, if you’re tired of giving flowers. (Though I’ll never tire of getting flowers.)

I mean a shift in who we mother. In how we define mothering.

After a year of loss and grief and trauma, after a year of reminders that our fates are inextricably linked, that my behavior, my movements, my decisions, my comfort, my sacrifices absolutely impact your well-being — and vice versa — what if we vowed to take better care of each other? Not just the people we’re directly responsible for, by blood or by law, but the whole of us?

What if we looked at all that’s broken around us, all who grieve, all who don’t have enough, all who are lost, and instead of seeing differences, instead of making excuses, we saw a family? Our family?

What if that called us to improve the world? What if we called that mothering?

I’m reading a beautiful book called “Stranger Care” by Sarah Sentilles. It’s a memoir about her attempt to adopt a child through the foster care system in Idaho, where she lives with her husband, Eric.

Throughout the book, Sentilles weaves in stories about nature’s ability to heal and nurture its surroundings. Not just its ability, actually. Its willingness.

In one chapter, she writes about plant grafting, which is accomplished by cutting two plants’ cambium layers and then connecting them with cloth or string or even masking tape.

“To graft,” Sentilles writes, “is to join the root system of one plant and the upper part of another so they appear to grow as a single plant.”

Once they’re side by side, the plants heal each other’s wounds.

Grafting is used for a variety of reasons — to repair trees or plants that have been damaged, to help plants and trees adapt to harsh climates, to create plants and trees that produce more than one kind of fruit or flower.

“Most simply put,” Sentilles’ botanist cousin once said, “grafting is convincing one plant to take care of another.”

The past year left wounds that will take a lifetime to heal. Some will never heal. They’ll scar over, but they’ll always be present.

I’ll never forget the way Kim MacNeill, whose 11-year-old son Ross died of cancer, explained it.

“I have a hole in my heart that never closes,” she said. “Nothing else fills that hole. It’s always there. You learn to garden around it.”

Her “gardening” includes running a foundation she started after Ross died. It raises money for pediatric brain cancer research. She’s healing the people around her.

For 14 months I’ve watched and listened and narrated as people found ways to take care of one another, to help each other heal. With food drives and lasagna deliveries and Love Fridges and tamale purchases and GoFundMe campaigns and front porch concerts and an entire paycheck donation.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing. The willingness was immediate and instinctual and tireless. It was unbowed by obstacles. It was motherlike.

I hope as we gather on Sunday, or don’t gather on Sunday, as we grieve or celebrate or give thanks or ask why or some combination of all of those, we take a moment to notice and celebrate the healing — the grafting — the caretaking that rose up all around us, in this harshest of climates, this cruelest of years.

It’s motherlike. But not limited to mothers. And it’s been beautiful to behold.

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hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13