Their mother-hearts beset with fears,

Their lives bound up in tender lives

(from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”)

I’ve read “Goblin Market” about a million times (OK, more like 20), but I noticed these lines only recently. I used to dismiss the domestic conclusion of the poem as predictably Victorian, with the nearly-fallen woman redeemed through childbearing and child rearing. But of course, there’s a wrenching truth to these lines, too, a truth that is impossible to get away from once you are a mother. Those tender lives that are our children do have a way of binding themselves around our hearts, constricting them with fear even as they expand them with love.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I noticed that there is an attentiveness to mothers that makes them sometimes seem absent-minded. Their eyes are so riveted on their children that they may miss punch lines, news items, and gossip, but their hands will almost always be the first to reach out to catch a falling toddler (or the dish he throws), as though each mother’s very body is in tune with her child’s.

My child is still very young. He still needs catching. The other day he wandered from the grass to the edge of the sidewalk near a residential but fairly busy street. I was too far away to grab him but I yelled louder than even I expected, and he stopped in his tracks until I got to him. I felt a surge of mothering-adrenaline in me at that moment – my yell was primal, and my boy heard me. Yesterday I saw him start to fall down our outdoor steps (he was trying to put my sweater over his head and it toppled him). I was across the yard, so I wasn’t fast enough to prevent him from hitting his head on the first step or rolling onto the second, but I did catch him on the third (still two from the ground). Poor munchkin. He wasn’t badly hurt… mostly scared.

I’m not there yet, but I think in some ways it must be harder to feel that maternal pull when your children are no longer children. My mother has mentioned on many occasions her desire (or need) to reach out to us (her children) when she feels that we are falling (not falling down so much, but away from her, away from her dreams for us, away from her expectations of us). I am sure her maternal reach is as visceral as my cry to Owen to keep him from the cars. How difficult it must be to let go. I hope I manage with as much grace as my mother has.

To all the “mother-hearts” (biological and adoptive mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, special aunts, godmothers, and guardian angels) whose lives are “bound up in tender lives,” have a very happy mother’s day.