When Charmain first called Brenda Spahn "Mama," Brenda thought the tough 25-year old ex- con was mocking her. But Charmain had looked at Brenda so seriously, her eyes big and hopeful.
"You're my Mama now," she said.
Then Charmain, who had just been released from prison after three years for distribution of narcotics, asked Brenda to tuck her in to bed. "That's what mamas do for their daughters."
The next day, nearly all of the seven women who had been sent to live in Brenda's fledgling "whole way" house were calling Brenda "Mama" or "Mother" or "Mommy." Ten years later, Brenda is called these names by hundreds of women -- young and old, white and Black -- who live at The Lovelady Center, the largest and most successful faith-based transitional center for the women in the country.
When the women began calling Brenda 'Mama,' she assumed it was because they had been motherless. When she learned their stories, she discovered a more horrific reality. There were mothers who didn't wash their children or change their diapers. They were mothers who never held their crying child. There were mothers who drugged formula to induce sleep. One mom never named her daughter. Another sold her child to a drug dealer. Another offered her daughter's services in exchange for clothes, jewelry and a place to live. Some moms apprenticed their daughters on the streets. A few taught their daughters how to shoot heroin.
Any wonder these daughters wound up in prison? They assumed it was just another rite of passage. Their moms and their mother's mom had served time, why wouldn't they? Selling drugs was the family business. Smoking crack was quality family time. Visiting mom in prison was the family vacation. Each bad mother was creating another bad mother. It was generational. It was endless.
It was hopeless.
Hopelessness is a funny thing. When it's all you have, it feels permanent. It feels intractable. It begs for a crack pipe or a needle, any kind of fix. But hopelessness also dissolves easily. When the women started calling Brenda "Mama," it wasn't just a term of endearment. These women desperately needed a mother to raise them, teach them, help them become. Brenda was their only hope.
"I want you to be my mother because I want you to teach me how to live," one of the women said to Brenda. "I want to have hope in my life."
Around Mother's Day, we're bombarded with images and descriptions of motherhood. We are told mothers are not only mothers -- they're CEOS, CFOS, accountants, secretaries, directors, performers, maids, chefs, waitresses, busboys, personal assistants, chauffeurs. Often, we hear motherhood referred to as "the toughest job in the world."
Despite what the commercials, the media and the mom bloggers say, being a mom is hardly the toughest job in the world. Lots of moms overcomplicate motherhood by loading every second of their kids' schedules with sports and clubs and lessons and play dates. We have become conditioned to believe that motherhood is the toughest job in the world, so we must make it so. We have been conditioned to believe we must be exhausted, frazzled, under-appreciated, so we act that way. We have turned the art of raising children into a competition. Our kids reflect us -- therefore we must make them perfect, or at least better than anyone else's kids.
Maybe it's time to re-define motherhood, trimming away the hype and puffery. Sticking to the truth would be so much more powerful. It's not the toughest job in the world -- but it is the most important. When done wrong, the misery toll is incalculable. When done right, a bit of the world is saved.
Next time you drive past some razor-wired women's correctional facility, take a moment to imagine the lives of the mothers contained therein. And the lives of the children who see them rarely, though thick glass and a dirty telephone handset.
To learn more about the remarkable story of Brenda Spahn, check out my latest book: Miss Brenda and The Loveladies.
Happy Mother's Day!