Tag Archives: mothers

Mother Load: Easing the Burdens of Clinging and Mourning, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 May

Tapestry

It’s the one job where, the better you are the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run. Barbara Kingsolver

Children are knives, my mother once said. They don’t mean to, but they cut. And yet we cling to them, don’t we, we clasp them until the blood flows.  Joanne Harris

No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop.  Marisa de los Santos

I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, Mother, what was war?  Eve Merriam

There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. Amy Tan

As virtually everyone recognizes here in the US and in much of the rest of the world, today is the “designated day” to honor mothers in ways both concrete and, at times, overly sentimental.

It’s been a while since I had a mother around to fuss over, but I am mindful this week of those in my life for whom the pain of mother-loss is still fresh, persons now immersed in a bit of holiday-inspired wondering if they did enough, said enough, honored enough while mother was still with us to ease and enrich her transition from this life to whatever might come next.

And then there are those new to mothering, including persons close to me, mothers who understand the challenges of the moment, who wince at the ubiquitous news stories about some of the issues on the UN agenda this week:  weapons of mass destruction and mass deforestation, climate-related displacements and the violence and lawlessness that seems to be engulfing places like Libya.  And yet, despite the possibility of bringing into the world a life filled more with challenges than satisfactions, these mothers have decided to bet on a human future in the most tangible manner possible – a life to which a mother will surely and steadfastly cling, even when it cuts.

Amidst the flowers and Hallmark cards, the birth notices and family brunches, there is yet another dimension of truth to Mother’s Day – the times when mothers must say a final and mournful good-bye to those “slippery fish” of children later felled by disease or armed violence, by circumstance or service.  This past Monday, the UN held its annual event honoring some of those “children,” those serving under the UN flag who perished while pursuing with often great courage what we all fervently strive to ensure even if we’re not always sure how:  a world at peace.

As one might expect, many of those honored fallen were serving as UN peacekeepers, including in some of the most dangerous conflict zones on earth – in Mali and South Sudan, in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   The list of the fallen was painfully long again this year, a point also taken up in earnest the following day in the Security Council under Indonesia’s leadership, during which delegations explored the means – especially through better training and equipment – to more effectively ensure the safety of the women and men mandated within peace operations to protect others under circumstances that are uncomfortable at best. Delegations on Tuesday clearly reaffirmed their full support and respect for those who serve in peacekeeping operations or in related assignments such as in Hodeidah port (Yemen). Such support was aptly summarized by Ireland whose Ambassador proclaimed that “we are as proud of the blue helmet as we are of the Shamrock.”

Not only peacekeepers were honored at this solemn Monday event but also fallen humanitarian workers and food security experts; people providing shelter and provisions for refugees and other victims of violence and natural disaster; people facing “unfriendly fire” during the course of their service or simply reserving a seat on a malfunctioning airplane. Indeed, people who for various reasons were now being saluted and mourned at the UN by mothers and other family members, not because they were perfect but because they were loved; and because they willingly put themselves in harm’s way, at least we believe, not so much for the sake of the UN or other institution, but so that a world could be birthed in which armed conflict and its consequences are more a childhood curiosity than the pervasive threat we now experience in far too many places on this planet.

During this annual honoring, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to sit in a UN conference room and mourn the loss of a child, even a child who long-since “swam away” and might only have acknowledged episodically the place from which their life first arose. I can wonder but simply can’t imagine what it must be like to have the ball “you should not drop,” being dropped instead by a too-often violent and indifferent world.   What do you say in response to that?  Indeed what can anyone else say to narrow this chasm of “missing?”

The UN surely does not honor enough and often not appropriately.   As a community, we are too focused on protocol and position to recognize in the way we should the many who actually uphold the large and small promises that still take up residence in this place. But this Monday ceremony conveyed genuine dignity as well as the insistence that we will collectively, somehow or other, continue to “answer the call” until our yearning for peace, our dream of a war-free world, have finally been realized.

In this age of digital scheduling, I carry around (and actually use) a small paper calendar courtesy of a modest donation I made recently to the remarkable St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inside that now-scribbled calendar are pictures of children in some cases stricken by cancer even before experiencing the diseases we more commonly associate with childhood. In some of those pictures are the parents, mostly mothers who, like so many others, must find within themselves the means to bear this deep wound, to remain strong and resolute amidst this existential threat to children who, much too often, have not yet learned how to ride a bicycle or tie their shoes.

The reason that we do what we do, despite the ever-apparent absurdity associated with limited resources and even-more-limited wisdom, is because we know that for every mother whose child is given a ray of hope by places like St. Jude’s, millions of others must watch – often helplessly –as violence and disease, hunger and displacement exact their horrible toll.  At the Monday ceremony, several speakers expressed “pride” that so many are still willing to take risks for the sake of global peace. Indeed, more risks will be required of all of us if we are to emerge only semi-scathed from this difficult period in our collective history. But for many of the mothers in the room, I suspect, pride was less in play than wishing for that day when no mother would ever again be required to sit and mourn the loss of her own flesh, the loss of one to whom she once clung tight.

For us and for many others around the world, the possibility of that day makes what we do every day worth our best effort. Blessings to all whom we honor and all who mourn on this Mother’s Day.

Accompanied Minors: The Gift of a Mother’s Presence, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 May

Africa

Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.  Jodi Picoult

The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.  Debra Ginsberg

It’s come at last, she thought, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.  Betty Smith

It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.  L.R. Knost

There is much discussion at the UN on a regular basis focused on the horrible circumstances that some children in this world must endure because of the foolishness of older people much like me.  How do we rationalize, inside and outside of policy communities, the fears and abuses that inflict deep scars on the young and that threaten to make in their adult years people more dependent on care – and less able to give it – than could ever be in our best interest?  What should our response be to children when sometimes cruel and heartless life challenges throw a wet blanket over their capacity to alleviate cruelty for others in their latter parts of their life cycle?

But even more common –perhaps less heartless–circumstances also bring pain and uncertainty for the young – the scraped knees, the verbal intimidations at school, the agony of unrequited desire, the moves away from happy homes to cramped and unfamiliar quarters due to declining economic circumstances.   And then there are the children for whom serious disease or accident threatens to snuff out at least some of the potential of lives that have just barely gotten off the ground.

Some of this might sound a bit like “first world problems,” but it also points to a common experience of so many mothers in this world – to kneel at the foot of the metaphorical cross, as it were, able to accompany the pain of a child’s crucifixion but unable to significantly impact its circumstances.  This accompaniment can be both a great gift and an extraordinary act of courage –easing the necessary and often difficult transitions through the mere grace of presence.

We focus much attention – though probably not enough – on the physical pain and psychic disability that life’s conditions inflict on too many children.  But what of the ones who have committed to bear witness to those lives?  What of the mothers who must engage the eyes of children seeking relief from fear and pain that is beyond their singular capacity to deliver?   Indeed, what of the mothers who can do little but watch in sorrow as the world turns their babies into soldiers, or victims of abuse, or hustlers on unpredictable and even unforgiving streets?

These are the sorts of things I think about when sitting in meetings such as last week’s Security Council Arria Formula discussion intended to review policy progress on ending abuses against children in African states, including and especially their vulnerability to recruitment into such “adult” activities as armed conflict.  Such progress is welcome, of course, as we have clearly not done enough to reassure and protect children from powerful, if metaphorical earthquakes followed by what seem to be for too many, a series of connected aftershocks – the bombing that leads to displacement, that leads to food insecurity, that leads to border hostility and even family separation.

Of course these seismic shifts impact more than just children themselves. What toll do they also take on those parents who seek truly to accompany the lives of these children, who have hopes for their children as we have for ours; who have dreams for their children that they will do well to meet only by fraction?  How do we better support those parents – those mothers – whose hearts have been laid bare through their deep connection with those whom they have born, hearts which are so often in grave danger of being broken in two by the endless shaking of their fragile world?

During the Arria Formula discussion on “action plans” to prevent violence against children, the Netherlands smartly noted the growing disregard for international law that creates the backdrop for so many child abuses, which they then rightly identified as threats to international peace and security.  In the same vein, Sweden (which has been a leading member of the Security Council in calling attention to children’s issues) reminded other members that progress on children’s well-being now will significantly enhance our longer-term efforts to sustain the peace.

Fortunately, as Chad and a few other states noted, we have in fact made some progress on ending child recruitment into the “service” of armed violence, freeing more children from such “service” in both government and non-government forces.  We are also doing a better job at disarming children and reintegrating them into society, providing them with educational and psychological opportunities necessary to growth and healing.  This is all good and hopeful, and many parts of the UN system, including UNICEF, the office for Children and Armed Conflict, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, should rightly take a bow.

But the circumstances that cause children to plead for comfort and relief from their parents – their mothers – can run far deeper than recruitment.

The accompaniment chosen by so many mothers; a consistent presence through the various stages of child dependency and continuing past the time that we can still deliver those we love from life’s heartaches; this is the special gift and responsibility that we honor on this day.   A commitment by the rest of us to alleviate the miseries of children who must one day assume leadership for our threatened planet is essential for children themselves, but also for those parents– those mothers– who too often are left to suffer in silence the burdens that accrue from a fully exposed heart beholding the pain and longing of children that at times must simply seem too difficult to bear.

More than flowers and cards, more than running a load of laundry and emptying the sink of dishes, many mothers could use a hand – including by all who try to make good policy at places like the United Nations– to do more to calm the tremors that create so much fear and anxiety for so many children, quakes to which those who accompany their journey are compelled to respond but for which there is often no effective or satisfying answer. Today is a good time for all of us to pledge to make a world better fit for children, but especially to honor the mothers who skilfully accompany their young – in all of their joy, pain and anxiety — until that elusive calm is reached.

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.