(photo from discogs.com)
“Oh, I know that I owe what I am today to that dear little lady so old and grey, to that wonderful Yiddishe momme of mine.”
The beautiful song “My Yiddishe Momme” was written by Lew Pollack and Jack Yellen in the 1920s. Sophie Tucker sang it (among many others), making it a hit in 1925. It has become a classic in acknowledging the culture of that era, when the stereotypical mother was the very essence of love, warmth and selfless devotion and sacrifice. (See the 2006 article “Jewish Mothers” by Philologos in the Forward.)
This Sunday, May 13, many people will pay homage to their mothers. No matter the distance, flowers will be sent and phones will be ringing as sons and daughters take a few moments to honour the woman who nurtured and cared for them, who was the source and sustenance of life, and to acknowledge her sacrifices. On this day, once a year, we recognize the value of a mother. But, there is, perhaps, a contradiction that belies our actions. While we rightly honour our mothers on Mother’s Day, we devalue their role on other days. For example, the recognition and awareness of the crucial role of mothering in a child’s healthy development and, consequently, to future generations, is often seen as a secondary role in the scheme of our busy lives.
Psychologist and author Penelope Leach says in her book Child Care Today: Getting It Right for Everyone (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), “unlike all other mammals, most of the growth of the human brain is postnatal, and continues for several years.” Social and economic pressures continue to present conflicts for all mothers in terms of child care, as attachment theory emphasizes the importance of mothering in the early years.
But mothers don’t have to be perfect. Like her children, she has her own needs and cares. Yet, she performs a multitude of tasks in ensuring her child’s needs are met, and that is a greater challenge and more important than any other undertaking. We can attempt to delineate her role in three areas: providing the basic physical, emotional and psychological needs; protecting her children from harm, along with safety, security and stability; as well as being a role model who offers guidance as her children make their way in the world. In what way can we define her worth? Do we put a monetary value on it? That is impossible because it is priceless.
To this point, I have only described the practical responsibilities that mothers do. What cannot be seen, but only felt, is the unconditional love that permeates her actions, which envelops her child like a warm blanket. We’re much like Linus, a character in the Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, who clings to that security blanket like a lifeline.
Perhaps the importance of my Yiddishe momme can best be expressed in the words of the child in each of us:
She gives me a hug when I am sad
And holds me close when I am mad
She cools my brow when I am sick
And puts my art work on the fridge
She makes me wear mittens, and a toque, and a scarf, and boots when it’s cold outside, even if I don’t want to
She holds me when I have bad dreams, when I am afraid of the dark, or when lightning and thunder scare me
She kisses me for no reason
She loves me just because I’m me.
These needs are not just for children. They remain with us all our lives. We learn how to satisfy them better as we “mature,” but, when life overwhelms us, or we feel sad or lonely or frightened, we all hunger for a mother’s touch, for a mother’s hug, for a mother’s love. As Barbra Streisand sings in the song, “People,” “we are … letting our grown-up pride hide all the need inside.”
This is why the most fundamental loss of a mother – due to an untimely death, or her being present physically but absent emotionally or psychologically through mental illness or other debilitating disorder – is the loss of love. A child may recognize who they have lost but not what they have lost. Only in her absence does the impact of the loss become clearer. Only in her absence does her value become perceptible. Only when it disappears is the value of a mother deeply felt. And it is irreplaceable.
Doris Lessing, who was a Nobel Prize-winning author and lecturer at the CBC Massey Lectures, shared a deep insight in the 1986 essay “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside,” when she said, “… what we have we take for granted. What we are used to, we cease to value.”
To those who are fortunate to still have your Yiddishe momme in your lives, be thankful, and let her know how much she is cherished. For those who don’t, treasure the memories, which are precious. And, for those who are themselves mothers, you have undertaken one of the most difficult but important tasks of life with all its pleasures and perils. To all mothers and to those who “mother,” we honour you, today and every day.
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.