On mothering by non-mothers

I was raised in suburbia, but when I went away to college, I was suddenly living in the middle of a city.  Oddly, the land-grant university with agricultural roots was in an entirely urban setting.  I could only stand three months in the on-campus dormitory; soon I was in a rooming house, then another rooming house, then my first apartment – in a building owned by a bona fide slumlord.

At the same time, I was becoming increasingly aware of the city’s problems, many of which were caused by the middle-class flight to the suburbs.  The middle-class was fleeing the diversity resulting from court-ordered desegregation of the public schools.  People feared the diversity that I craved as a teenager.

By the end of my Freshman year, I vowed to live in the city, not the suburbs.  I lived that promise for thirty years.  During those decades, I also did what I could to help attract some middle-class people back to the city by supporting the fledgling historic districts that ring downtown Columbus.

My first house (purchased at age 20) was in a bombed out urban renewal area that was just starting to become a Victorian historic district. 
Sunset, as we drive along Sanibel-Captiva Road.

My community activism became more important to me at times than my career as a science writer.  For my career, I should have moved to Washington D.C., but I couldn’t, because of a commitment to community activism.  But as much as my avocation may have cost me in dollars, it rewarded me so much more with a sense of accomplishment.  I was a small part of something bigger, something really good, that eventually breathed some vitality into the urban core of that city.

I met Tom when he bought the house across the street from me in a tiny historic district called Northwood Park.  He, like me, wanted to live close enough to campus so that he could walk to work.  We married and lived there for fifteen years, and then a neighbor said, “I want your house and I want it now.”  So we sold it to her when Tom still had a couple more years before retirement was an option. 

Those last two years in Columbus, we lived in a condo in the suburbs.  I hated living in the suburbs again, but the condo was nice.  At any rate, much of the time in those two years we were in Sanibel or Paris, so I didn’t suffer too much.

But something strange happened; when we moved to that condo in suburbia, I felt that a weight had been lifted.  I didn’t realize it, but evidently living too close to campus had been stressful.  When the stress was removed, it dawned on me that the vow to live in the city and be a community activist had been a large, taxing, commitment.

Yet those years gave me a big, diverse group of friends, many of whom I still know via Facebook.  Those years gave me confidence and an ability to be comfortable in an urban setting.  Those years gave me experience in public speaking and in public policy.  In a couple of the urban neighborhoods where I lived, I know I made a difference to at least a few needy neighbors.

A few weeks ago, at happy hour at Traders, a friend said to me, “You know, I just would not ever be comfortable in an African-American culture or neighborhood.”  Instead of looking shocked and annoyed, I thought about what she said, and I responded, “You know, I’d be perfectly comfortable with it.  I know I would, from experience.  But I do admit that in some parts of Paris, I’m uncomfortable.  That’s because in these particular areas, there is a lot of shouting that goes on in the streets.  It isn’t anything bad; it is just the way people communicate there.  They do it at high volume.  But even though it is normal there, the loud voices raise my blood pressure.”

Similarly, the near-campus mayhem after an OSU football game would raise my blood pressure.  The chaos, the drunken screaming and yelling, the burning sofas in the street and flaming dumpsters in the alleyways, the men urinating on bushes surrounding people’s homes, the litter in the streets on the next day – yes, it got to me.
General Burnside, our rescue cat from the alleys of Columbus

That period of my life is over.  Tom and I live in a peaceful swamp now.  I go to church.

At church on Sunday, Pastor John gave a sermon about “mothering,” but toward the end, he pointed out that you don’t have to be a mother in order to be mothering.  He spoke of the popularity of Toya Graham, who was captured in a video as she was chastising her son and yanking him off the streets because she’d seen that he had been with rioters in Baltimore.

Pastor John noted that viewers “loved” Toya and what she did.  His point though, was that they should love not only the mother, but also the child.  He implied, rightly (in my opinion), that many who loved Toya, would find it more difficult to love her son, Michael.  Love the mother, love her child.  Love God, love all God’s children.

It was a powerful message.  Pastor John went on to say that there are many ways we can be mothering without being actual mothers.  For example, he said, ask yourself, when you are deciding whether or not you support a new law, regulation, or policy, “How will this affect the children?  How will it affect future generations?”

Tom teaching kids about drums, at church.

When there are proposed budget cuts or changes, he said, ask “How will this affect children?”  When making decisions about the environment, we should be considering the ramifications for the children and their children.

During this part of the sermon, I felt like shouting “Amen!” – but Congregationalists just do not do that, so I refrained.  I simply told Pastor John that I had felt like doing that, as I was thanking him in the receiving line at the exit of the sanctuary after the service.  He and the associate pastor laughed heartily.  (Tomorrow, I’ll be putting the sermon video on the sanibelucc page on YouTube, as I do every week.)

That vow to live in the city, the ongoing work of my Zonta club, my activism on community and environmental issues even after leaving the city – I’d never thought of it all as “mothering,” but now I realize that this is what it is.  I’ve never been a mother, but evidently I’ve done some mothering in my time.  And I will continue.


  1. Thanks for sharing your journey...very meaningful and beautifully written.


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