With Mother’s Day this Sunday, we are invited to celebrate all the moms in the world, especially the ones we call our own.
Five women in my life have been mothers to me. Over the years, each has taught me many lessons about mental health.
1. Mother Mary. The Original. My master teacher. The daughter of Irish immigrants, born in the Bronx during the Great Depression, she went to work as a young teen to help support her family. My mom turned ninety this year. She has known love, loss, and the hard knocks of life. Through it all, she has lived with loving kindness as her north star. Kindness is easy when life is easy, but when we are hurt and harmed (and who hasn’t been in a life well lived?), it is the rare person who can still breathe kindness into their every action. Living and leading with kindness yields a multitude of mental health benefits for oneself and our collective humanity. My mom has demonstrated this truth throughout her life. Dr. Kelli Harding has brilliantly detailed the relevant scientific benefits of kindness in her book, The Rabbit Effect.
2. Lenore. The term in English is step-mother, but I have never liked the “step” part. Its old English roots don’t fit our story. Lenore has been part of my family constellation for the vast majority of my life at this point. Being stuck with a label that doesn’t quite fit captures a bit of the complexity of life for a step-mother. Lenore has navigated with grace and good humor. Among her many qualities that I admire, Lenore’s ready laughter adds to the joy of family gatherings whether it be holidays or everyday kinds of days. The mental health benefits of laughter are well documented – stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, forming social bonds, relieving pain, and reducing stress.
3. Alta. As a high school student, I flew to Johannesburg, South Africa with the American Field Service to live with the Paterson family and attend Roosevelt High School. Host parents Alta and Brian, and host sisters Jenny, Beverly, and Lesley made me feel part of the family from day one. The country was heaving with social unrest caused by Apartheid. Riots, protests, and school burnings were everyday events, and I am sure I would not have been allowed to go today. But back in the dark ages, when all we had was landline phones and telegrams, less was known, and off I went. A message seared in my memory from Alta occurred as she was driving the four of us home from school. She told us in no uncertain terms that we (young women) needed to be agents of change for gender and race equality – poignant then, relevant to this day, and intimately linked to mental health.
4. Gaby. This time in Italy, and this time my host family had three boys. As a university student, I lived with the Conti family in Bologna. Host mom Gaby came to call me her American daughter. Gaby was a fabulous cook, and I had never eaten so well. But more than that, Gaby understood the intimate link between food and diet and mental health. She went on to write two books, La Mente Gabbia and Il Corpo Gabbia on the topic, and as I pursued my professional training and the study of eating disorders, Gaby’s years of practice shaped my own thinking. Gaby was ahead of her time in terms of understanding the link between diet, the gut biome, and mental health. It is exciting to witness the expanding data corroborating ideas that Gaby and I shared on the microbiome and eating for mental health so many years ago.
5. Dena. Mother-in-law extraordinaire. With her passing less than a year ago, her absence is everywhere. Dena was a lifelong student of mental health. She read. She participated in seminars. She engaged in individual therapy, psychoanalysis, family therapy, couple’s therapy, and 12-step programs at various times in her life. Until her dying days, she taught me that the work is never done. At the time that I pursued my doctoral degree in clinical psychology, professional training was dominated by therapeutic models focused on understanding problems so that they could be fixed. The reality of life, my actual practice as a therapist, and my many conversations with Dena, have taught me about acceptance. We shared many discussions about how healing and mental health depend on recognizing these complementary dimensions and learning to distinguish between what causes pain in life that can be changed from what causes pain that cannot be changed but can be carried.
Happy Mother’s Day one and all!