My background is Irish, German and Sicilian. I'm a typical Euro-mix Northeastern-er from Jersey, I suppose. I grew up with lots of folks like me - whose forebears were hardworking immigrants who did whatever it took to keep families alive in the face of great hardship, even if that meant traveling in the bottom of large ships to come to the Land of Promise and work several backbreaking jobs for a few cents an hour.
I am very proud of my heritage, as I assume we all are of our own. But I am also fascinated with other backgrounds and cultures, and always have been. So, like the good post-modern woman I am, I try to be culturally sensitive, and learn from others. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I just shake my head in... impatience? aggravation? But there is so much to learn from one another.
This past week I was in Orlando, Florida. And yes, I was at the House of Mouse, oftentimes in lines or small crowds of people - riding the monorail, the tram, getting through bag check, waiting for rides. There is enough people-watching and more without all this crowdedness. At one point on the ferry, a young Latina woman was trying to move her way past my sister, and I heard her say "excuse me, mama."
Ok. It's not the first time I have heard this common Latino referent for a woman - any woman. But I started to listen, and around me that week I heard plenty of "hey, mama"s and "oh, no, papa"s to men and women regardless of age or marital status.
Now, I have to be honest and admit that there was a time in my life where a woman at church (not Latina) used to refer to me as "mama" and I would really take offense. I felt like she was disrespecting my grief, in fact. Since God blessed me with a path different from the usual marriage-and-childbirth one, I felt I had earned the place to just be who I am - not "mama" but just me. I was reacting to her adoption of another culture's word out of place, and I was responding to my own vulnerability at the reminder of who I was not.
Time and practice, the grace of God and perhaps an open heart, can heal these wounds, I assure you.
I know that just before I moved to Ohio, a dear friend of mine affirmed the work I have done these last many years by saying I was above all "a mother"... and I was able to accept that because it is indeed the woman I have grown into. I acknowledge my spiritual motherhood, not just because I was taking care of teenagers, or because I saw to their needs, or because, Lord help us, I was getting closer to the age of their moms (!), but because this is who we are created, as women, to be. Because ultimately, women and men are created for motherhood and fatherhood - it is the unique and glorious distinction of our bodies that teaches us from the time we are young that we are not created for ourselves. It is in the potential of the body that we learn how to give spiritually First, and physically when that door is opened.
Certainly we see this in the tradition of the Church - a world where priests are called "father" and religious women leading orders called "mother". This is a world where celibacy does not equal infertility. On the contrary, the potentiality of spiritual care, of self-gift, of nurturing and education and love is abundant and wide-ranging. The Bride has understood and embraced fertility not only in the physical gift of its marriages, in families with two or four or eight children, but in a Holy family with one child. It embraces the life giving nature of women and men dedicated to the final marriage of the Lamb, who forgo the sacrament of Matrimony for a more universal call. And finally, we begin to embrace with care and hope, the married women and men who are unable to bear children, and join both vocations in the sense that their marriage is physical, and their fertility spiritual.
And so it dawned on me that this is somehow in the very vernacular of a culture which I don't know much about. My Latino brothers and sisters recognize in their very naming of another that motherhood and fatherhood MATTER and are not dependent nearly as much on childbirth as on potential - not as much on some sort of natalism as on ontology. I am created to be a mother - that is Who I Am. My dear husband is created for Fatherhood. It is the "is-ness" of his life. And the challenge is to be truly liberal in our understanding of what that means. To acknowledge and support and love those called to bear children in the world. To acknowledge and support and love those called to be a gift in a much larger circle. To understand that mama and papa are appellations of respect, and of privilege. Because they signify the gift. Because they honor our bodies, and give us a tiny glimpse into the fertile and lavish ground of the human soul.
These words are not part of my culture, and so perhaps I will not begin to use them in my speech tomorrow, or ever. Nevertheless, I think they are beautiful. I hope the people who do use these words understand their meaning - I admire an entire culture that respects life and life's potential in such a way. How amazing would it be if we all saw one another as "father" and "mother"? How would it change the way we honor one another, the way we think about family, and the way we offer our womanhood and manhood as a unique gift? So, be you mama or papa, walk into the world with that kind of embrace, and I suspect life itself will take on a new, and vibrant, and life-giving meaning... perhaps inspire an entirely new and abundant culture with great value of its own.