It was such an honor to speak to the Loyola Mothers’ Club at the Harvest Pot Luck Dinner last night. For all who so generously opened their hearts to my words and asked if they could have them online, here they are, with my humble thanks. And, as always, Go Dons, Go Musketeers, and Go Tribe.😉
I am so happy to be back here at this place which is so familiar, and at an event that I’ve not been to before. During the years when my sons were at Loyola, we had a potluck at Christmastime. But I like the idea of moms gathering at harvest time so much better.
I have a friend, Lora, who is my oldest son’s age, who knows more than anyone I know about the harvest. You see, while attending college as a biochemistry major, Lora fell in love with another undergraduate who would turn out to be the man of her dreams. And when they married, he joined his family’s business. And with that, Lora became a farm wife, and then later a farm mom, on a large family farm in western Kansas. And Lora and I have talked about the harvest, about how it is for her and for the other women in her community. And it turns out that harvest time looks a lot like you might think it would, pretty much the same, Lora says, as how it looked to her grandmother and great-grandmother when they were farm wives. How it has always looked.
Which is to say that the harvest is an important but difficult time for farm families, and in those times, moms do what moms always do when they find themselves single–temporarily, when work deadlines loom, or more permanently. When things get tough, when families get stretched, when scarcity comes calling. We Mom up.
We get the children fed, the lunches made, the dishwasher emptied, the trash taken out, the homework checked. We skip a shower, we stop for gas, we make do. We forget the hot tea on the counter until, untouched, it grows cold. We wipe our tears away when we think the children are not looking and claim brightly that oh no, no we are not crying, we are absolutely fine, we are only just looking out the window.
And we rely on the other moms, and on our tribe: to keep each other company, to understand, to have each others’ backs, to help us get ‘er done.
Which is why harvest time is the perfect time to come together as part of the tribe to which we all belong. Before the women here became the Loyola Moms, or the Loyola Alumni Moms, the mothers of the graduate or of the groom, our tribe had a name. We were the Boy Moms.
In the early days, that meant that we were the ones who stepped on Legos in bare feet in the middle of the night and yelled at our sons to please stop! jumping off of the back of the couch. We demanded that they not hit each other with light sabers and we changed their diapers until they were almost in kindergarten. We used our outside voices for phrases we could never have imagined, things that I have really and truly said, like “No, you may not pee in the backyard,” “Sure, I don’t care, go ahead and pee in the backyard,” “Which one of you put the toad in the dollhouse swing?” and “I am not going to tell you again to put your private parts away.” Raising these darling, destructive beings, so different from ourselves, could not be faced alone. We were going to have to band together with like-minded women to survive. And so the Boy Mom tribe was born.
And the work was exhausting but exhilarating, too. We found that we loved our boys fiercely, and the world said that was OK. We found that our little boys loved their mamas in a special way, too and that was also ok. It was all very sweet, and also very socially acceptable. For a while.
Eventually, though, they got to middle school. And as everyone here knows, middle school is a time when you just never know what you are going to get. Middle school boys are sometimes little boys who still love their mamas in a special way, but increasingly become boys pretending to be Men, who would prefer if their moms would stop asking so many questions, would get off their back, would leave them alone. And here begins a confusing time for everyone.
In the moments when the boy believes he’s got the Man thing handled, the mom is the first one pushed away, and he grows adept at keeping her at a distance. His hugs become a metaphor for his whole middle school being: he will approach you only sideways, and will stiffen and wriggle as you try to pull him close. This breaks our hearts a little. But not for long. Because when the jig is up, when the façade of pretend manhood crumbles around him, when he finds himself suddenly more boy than man, it is the mom he calls for and, privately—so privately that he will deny it ever happened if you bring it up later—sometimes even cries to.
In high school, the boys get even bigger, and so do the stakes, and the mistakes. We moms pray and worry and reassure each other about their characters, their futures, their dangerously undeveloped frontal cortexes. Never before this year have Jesuit high school mothers worried quite so much about the stupid things these boys might say, the inappropriate things they might do. About how long-lasting and wide-reaching, how devastating the consequences might be.
Still, we are there to paste baby pictures together for the yearbook page, to rejoice when the admission letter finally arrives, to wear the corsage for the Mass and brunch. We are more exhausted than ever, but it is the fourth quarter and we are happy to be still in the game.
And when they leave for college, we feel the loss like a sleeve unraveling, bit by bit in a way that we know we cannot stop and we know cannot be undone. We are the ones, now, who cry in private. Once we get used to the pain, we feel it less acutely, and start to notice that the grocery shopping, the laundry, the workload is easier, even if the expense and the worry are not. Even as we miss them, it is fun to hear from them when we do, to send advice from afar, watch them become independent. We see them begin to Get It Together, to begin to really be Men. But still, we get to have them home sometimes. Most importantly, we still are home, always.
And then, one day after that, we look around for our boy and find only a real, live Man in his place. And sometimes it feels like the whole world is telling us—and not in the nicest way—that it is just not OK for their moms to care so much anymore.
The experience, expertise, and sheer endurance that we have honed, individually and as a tribe, are abruptly declared obsolete, and moms who do not cease and desist are roundly criticized. Since these are young men, and not young women (for whom the rules are entirely different) it is deemed especially important for Man-moms not to Worry Too Much, not to Call Too Much, and never to Say Too Much about our opinions, our feelings, their choices, or much of anything at all. Any infraction can cause the world to remind the Man-moms that their sons are after all, Grown Men With Their Own Lives. If a mom persists, the world might employ the nuclear option: She doesn’t want him to be a “Mama’s Boy”, does she? We find ourselves confused, disoriented. Out of the blue, we’ve been fired. We can’t believe it. We look around, and see only our tribeswomen standing with us, the same stunned look on all our mom-faces.
I am here tonight not as an expert on anything, certainly not to give you any advice. But I guess if there was anything I’d say, now that it has been many years since my boys were here at Loyola, now that they are for sure Men, the thing that I would say to you tonight about the tribe is this. The whole purpose of having a tribe in the first place is so that we don’t have to be alone. But for this to work, we have to tell each other the truth.
It doesn’t work when we say that the boy—or the man, for that matter—is “doing great!” and “loves it!” when he is sad, when he is struggling. We don’t foster connection when we insist “the family’s terrific!” when things are kind of falling apart, when nothing could be farther from the truth. We can’t be there for each other if we are wiping our eyes when the other moms aren’t looking and insisting that oh, no, we are absolutely fine, we were only just looking at Knott’s beautiful stained-glass windows.
Years ago, I was in a group of moms at my church. Our children were very small, so we were all more or less losing our minds; it was more like Group Therapy than the Bible Study that it was advertised to be. I noticed that many of my girlfriends had a devotion to Mary, something I envied, something I hoped might rub off on me, too. We prayed together and did the Bible study and we said the rosary, but the part that felt most holy to me was the part when we told the truth: about the struggles and the failures of motherhood and family life, about our children and ourselves. When we cried the ugly cry while our sisters held the baby, passed us tissues, started a casserole sign up sheet around. But while my devotion to telling my girlfriends, and to telling the truth, flourished, a devotion to Mary did not.
I never could relate to people on pedestals.
But over the years I spent here at Loyola, and since, I started thinking: I mean, even if Mary was Perfect Mother to Perfect Son and all that, nobody said that things were always perfect. Nobody said it was easy. They called her the Queen of Sorrows, after all, not the Queen of the Sunny Disposition.
I mean, Mary’s boy was different. I’m sure He was always super nice and kind. Definitely. But He must have been very different. Unusual. Other-worldly, even. And I don’t know, maybe it was different then, but for my money, boys who are unusual and otherworldly often don’t have a ton of friends. And their mothers worry.
Nowhere does it say that Jesus was a superstar, that He made the team, that He was good at stuff, that He ever won an election. Nobody ever said He didn’t sometimes appear, from the outside, a little lost.
I mean, you’ve got to wonder how good Jesus was at carpentry school, considering it wasn’t anything close to what He was born to do. For a kid so gifted in parables and teaching, I’m just saying maybe it didn’t go so great. Maybe, following the placement test, Mary’s boy didn’t place into the Advanced Honors carpentry classes as she had hoped, but landed in the more Basic classes. And maybe, like many of us, she was, I don’t know, kind of disappointed when He struggled, or when He didn’t show a lot of natural ability. Maybe she was even a little embarrassed sometimes. Maybe she wished she hadn’t said quite so much about the God-given talents of her boy around town, and at the mother’s club lunches.
We know it took longer than his mother thought it should for him to get a job, on account of the whole change the water to wine because I am asking you to, that’s why, a request to an adult son that I like to think was made through serenely and perfectly gritted teeth.
And maybe sometimes, when there wasn’t much good news to report to the other Boy- or Man-moms, Mary would casually mention that she couldn’t make it to the well today, but oh no, she was totally fine, she was just crazy busy pondering things in her heart. And that it was in those times that her girlfriend would make her come to, you know, the potluck thing, or whatever, promising to pick her up and to run interference with Patty Perfect. You know Patty Perfect. And like I said, maybe things were different back then, but I bet they weren’t that different; I bet even in Nazareth there was a Patty Perfect who never shut up about her “perfect” son who happily went to Temple with the family on the weekend without complaint, even if he had to get up early, and did his homework ahead of time, and never announced at 9:30 at night that he needed poster board for a project due the next day. And the perfect girl from the lovely family to whom he was betrothed, and the prestigious carpentry internship which he got on account of the AP classes he took as an eighth grader or something, in which everyone knew he had done so well. And that maybe even, in my imaginary story, Mary’s girlfriend, her tribeswoman, a person who had most definitely not been born without sin, could be counted on to, you know, maybe roll her eyes a little, just to let Mary know she had her back. And then Perfect Mary could just smile serenely some more.
I am sure that in Mary’s best moments, she knew—as all moms, in their best moments, know—that the gifts and successes of the boy she adored would one day be revealed to everyone. That the day would come when she would get to be the proud mama with the good news, instead of the one whose kid had let his hair grow long and was eating bugs while living in the woods with his cousin. But it helps me to believe that sometimes, late at night, even a Perfect Mother might wonder: Was her beautiful boy going to turn out ok? Would he ever find his purpose? Was she doing the right things? Was it possible that she had gotten it all wrong?
I will also add—though I am not proud of this-—that I like to think that the day came when Mary’s fiercely loyal friend walked right up to that Patty Perfect and asked in front of everybody if she had heard how great Mary’s boy was doing now, having turned out to be the Messiah, Savior of the World and all. And even maybe that she went on to say—in maybe not the nicest way, and while making air quotes with her fingers—something like “So guess who turned out to have the ‘perfect son’ after all?”
Perhaps you are starting to see the problem with me.
I have a little Mary statue in my yard now. My Mary is simple and small. She stands not on a pedestal, but on the damp ground. She has no crown; she does not look like the Queen of anything. She is just a woman, looking down, her left hand open at her side, her right hand held close to her breast. Maybe, I sometimes think, because she is a Boy Mom, she needs to steady herself, to catch her breath. Maybe she just needs to think for a minute. And maybe she is praying serenely, but I like to think maybe she is just trying to figure out what to do next. That maybe she is hoping that a girlfriend, a tribeswoman, will come and grab her open hand and remind her to breathe, and then will make her laugh. Will make her go to the potluck and will have her back. Will be someone with whom she can speak and hear the truth. Will make sure she knows she’s never alone.
Now this is a devotion that I understand. Because this devotion I learned from the tribe. Mary and I, well, we’re just Boy Moms together. And I think God knew we’d need someone like her in our tribe. Someone who really knew about sons who sometimes appear a little lost.
The summer my son was eight, we lost him for real in Disney World. He was gone for 30 minutes but it felt like 30 hours, an excruciating, terrifying eternity during which his father and I searched, wild-eyed and desperate, around a fantasy Town Square that suddenly seemed to hold real danger. We pushed forcefully to the front of lines, shouting descriptions frantically: Dark hair, dark eyes, glasses, yellow shirt with a blue bike on it, have you seen him?? Where’s the lost child area?? Where do we go??
Without warning, his father climbed a light pole to try to look down; he told me later all he could think was to get high up, to try to spot him from a bird’s eye view. I would never have thought of that. On the ground, I was closing my eyes and trying to get in his head. What would he think, how would he be feeling? What would he have thought to do? His dad and I split up, racing around in separate, zig-zagging searches. Each time we met up again, finding the other one still empty-handed, we grew more wild-eyed than before.
And then, in an instant, we saw him: dark hair, dark eyes, yellow shirt, just exactly the same as I remembered, exactly the same as we had described. And I heard a sound, more animal than human, before I realized where it was coming from; it was coming from me. I had cried out when I saw him, in the guttural, female sound of labor and of loss. The boy explained that when he found himself alone, he had looked for a “mom with a stroller” for help. He knew a member of the tribe when he saw one. The costumed Disney employee who had led him to us explained the Disney Lost Child protocol: take the child by the hand and just keep walking, around and around, in the area where he wandered off. No mother will ever go too far from that place.
My boys are Men now, and now I am the pretender, a boy mom pretending to know how to be a man mom. I need the tribe as much as ever. Just like when my sons were younger, I sometimes still find myself saying things I never expected to say. As much as ever, I need to band together with like-minded women to survive.
My sons’ dad, it seems to me, still sometimes sees the big picture better than I do; he tends toward the bird’s eye view. But being back here in Knott Hall with you tonight, I am flooded with memories of my years here, and of my lost boys. I remember why I loved to be here, and why I wanted to come. Why many of us have come tonight, even though our boys are long gone from this place.
Because even when the boys have gone, the Boy Moms remain. And because—as the Disney people knew—a mother cannot help but return to the place where she last saw her boy. Which is why none of us will ever really go too far from this place.