I put my youngest daughter to bed just now and as I felt her firm grip on my hair relax and her breathing grow heavier, a thought crept up on me. By mothering her, I am preparing her for life without my presence. She is my replacement. If our lives follow the natural order of things, and there is nothing I wish for more intensely, I will cease to be and she will go on. By loving her, teaching her, correcting her, exposing her to the world little by little and leading her safely into it, I am strengthening her ability to fend for herself. It does inhabit my conscious realm, but is never articulated. My ultimate performance as a mother on this stage Shakespeare called our world will be judged beyond my time.
Paying it forward is a thing of beauty. It is supposedly a selfless act, though I would argue it is anything but. By participating with all my heart in our children’s development, the intimacies that carries our marriage forward, our society and wider setup, our politics and ultimately our world, I bring meaning into existence. And the greatest meaning of my life is my children, those I brought consciously into the world by my actions.
Paying it forward also carries great sadness at its core. I am working to make myself obsolete. I am working to ease the transition for those I leave behind. I am working because the thought of their happiness beyond my death brings me comfort in life. Of course, knowing that I am working to extract myself is sad. I am a human being, and the will to live and go on is as strong as in any living creature on this planet. Knowing the world will one day exist without me is difficult, and knowing I will have to leave my children and all that I hold dear is excruciating. No two ways about it; labouring as a mother under the condition that everything is in constant change and that I am terminal – that my children are terminal – can bring the strongest mother to her knees.
There is no applause for me or any mother at the end of life, no roses, no standing ovations. We just bow out. Silently, with the hope that the work we have put in every day as mothers to those sweet babies, tantrum-prone toddlers, curious five-year-olds, all-knowing eight-year-olds, stomping teenagers and freedom-seeking eighteen-year-olds is enough to sustain them. That a little piece of that love that filled us up and kept us going throughout somehow left our bodies and snuck its way into them, where it nestled and fell asleep, ready to be roused when called upon.
I suppose that is my wish for time beyond me, my pay-it-forward motherly hope.