When we were expecting our first, when we couldn’t actually do anything but wait while Emily’s body did all the parenting that could be done, when we spent a lot of time on idle research, I looked up mammary glands on Wikipedia.
The theory is that they began as glands to secrete lubricants onto an egg, maintaining a porous and healthy membrane. I find a drawing of an early mammal. I imagine her: small, flat, badger-like in shape. A nest of eggs hidden as best she can. I imagine it lined with soft pine needles. She’s anxious, nudges the clutch of eggs, tests them, hovers over them attending to their moisture and warmth. She is neither happy nor sad, she does not ask herself these questions. She cares dearly for these eggs. This is the origin of caring; for if ever “caring” will mean something, it will mean something because it is like this caring.
This is not just a creature, an interesting factoid: she is my ancestor. There is a chain of motherhood that leads from her to me. That she is forgotten does not make her less real.
Does she love these eggs, little embryos swimming in a ball? Does she love the little ones that hatch? She keeps them warm, she licks them clean, she gives the affection that must trigger some unconscious reminder of the affection she herself received. If she is not called upon to sacrifice her life for her children, there will be mothers among her own ancestors and descendants who will.
All of this is not inevitable. Many creatures do not mother and are not mothered. And yet she doesn’t choose to mother. She does not care for her children because they are beautiful or noble or worthy. She cares for them because they are weak. She cares for them by instinct. Now we look down on instinct, but she mothers because it is inseparable from her existence, her instinct is not that which is unwillingly attached to her, it is not a burden, it just is.
Many generations later her offspring will find a way to express “love”. What might that expression have looked like? A calming murmur of contentment, purposeless except to tell the one you are with it is well that you are there together? Later it will become a word, a sound that will echo in our minds, until the sounds become self-aware in our self-reflection; the mind. But love is older than that.
We’ll ask ourselves what “love” is, but the question is not the answer. Life is older than love, and yet love itself proceeds the word by eons. We’ll ask what love is because we’ll compare our ideas against the thing we already know, that which is already in us.
The eggs hatch. The mother lies in her nest, her tiny children piled up – among them one will be the next generation that leads to me, a lineage whose conclusion we still do not know. They squirm to press themselves against her warmth. She’s still anxious: what might appear in the dark? Does she hear the squeak of a little one that has fallen out of the nest and is still too small to get itself back in? But she’s happy, even if she can’t tell herself that she is happy. She does not ask why.
Her eyes drift close. Something else takes over as she drifts into sleep, but that something else still watches, still feels the bundles of warmth. And the little ones also sleep, and that something that takes us over in sleep – it is not purpose, it is not will – that thing remembers. It saves that moment. And that is also the chain that brings us to where we are. More than genes, we are an ancient and unbroken chain of these experiences. We know this because we can see the chain broken by neglect or abuse, and though it’s repairable, without repair life will not continue.
So to all the mothers who have brought us here – who have brought me here – I can only offer recognition. To my mother Gay, who raised me, first taught me love. To my wife Emily, mother to my own children. To her mother Diane, upon whom rests another mysterious tree. To my grandmother Jeanetta, now departed, who acted with such will in her life. To my grandmother Joyce, now departed, who struggled with so many demons, and yet I believe began the mending. To my great grandmother, who lived a life of such extreme stoicism; so stoic I don’t know if she realized her own nature. And to so, so, so many mothers I do not know. It was never once easy. Thank you all.