Melanie Verwoerd

To all the heroes of the world: Happy Mother’s Day

2017-05-14 07:26

For years I had a postcard that my sister had sent to me on my fridge. It read: “I was going to go out and change the world, but I couldn’t find a babysitter.”

Most mothers will give a knowing smile when they read these words. And yet, every day millions of women across the world do find babysitters so that they can go to work in order to feed and clothe their children, even if they are too exhausted to care about changing the world.

Because it isn’t easy…

Earlier this year, while on retreat in Bali, I saw that one of the women who took care of us, looked a bit down. I asked why. She explained that the previous day was her day off and so she was able to pick her little five-year old son up after school. When she arrived the teacher told her that her son had been so excited at the prospect of his mum being there at the end of the school day that he couldn’t concentrate. Knowing how hard it is for any mother to hear this, my heart ached. “But I have no choice,” she said tearfully. “His father left us and I want my child to have a better life, so I have to work.”

She told me how she had to leave every day at 5am to make the three hour journey by scooter to get to work. “But before I do, I put red lipstick on and then I kiss my little boy on his hand,” she said. “I do that so that when he wakes up, he can see my lips on his hand and know how much I love him.”

Her story reminded me of another story that a young man told me recently. Siviwe, who is now 21 years old, grew up in very poor circumstances in the Eastern Cape. His father was abusive and eventually left his mum for another woman. His mother had no choice but to find work in Cape Town as a domestic worker and had to leave baby Siviwe with his grandmother. He told me how he started school at a nearby farm school. “There were no chairs or desks. We had to sit on the mud floor and it was very cold. But my mum was the best. Every year for Christmas she sent me one of those little plastic chairs, so that I did not have to sit on the cold floor.  It was always yellow – a happy colour. And I felt like a king on my little yellow chair. Even though I really missed her, I knew she loved me.”

The images of a bright yellow chair and a red kiss on a little boy’s hand represents for me the extraordinary capacity for love and nurturing that mothers across the world exhibit every day.

Maya Angelou once quoted an old African American song: “When it looks like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God puts a rainbow in the clouds.” She went on to say that there were many human “rainbows” in her life who took her through difficult and dark periods.  

In my case, as with so many other people, my rainbows have been my mother and her mother, my dear ouma Lenie. My happiest memories to this day are of the times spent with my grandmother on her small little farm. She wasn’t book smart and money was extremely scarce, but what I know about compassion, love, service to others and how to survive through adversity I largely learnt from her. Decades after her death, I can still remember how safe and warm I felt tucked up next to her in bed and when I close my eyes I can hear the joy in her voice when she answered the phone and realised it was me on the other side.

My grandmother instilled this capacity to love as well as strength and a sense of justice in my mother. Through her example she in turn passed it on to me and my two sisters.

Of course not all children are as lucky as I was, since not all mothers are good mothers. But the vast majority will give their lives (in some cases literally) for their children. This does not only apply to biological mothers. The world is filled with amazing women who love and nurture children who did not come from their own womb. What ultimately makes someone a mother is the unselfish determination to do what ever it takes to look after those little souls who come to occupy her life.

Mother’s Day has become extremely commercialised. And yet, it is a day to remember and honour those “rainbows” in our world, who leave kisses on little children’s hands, or send bright yellow chairs of love, or hold sick and feverish bodies, or nurture with daily plates of warm food and words of comfort.

Years ago I stared bleary eyed out of a window at 2 am while feeding my little baby, when I saw a figure waving at me from a window across the road. It was a neighbour who was also feeding her baby of a similar age. It suddenly struck me how millions of women were at that exact moment awake across the world feeding little babies. It then also became clear to me that, irrespective of race, ethnicity and class, a deep bond exists between mothers even when so much divides us. And, that we do indeed change the world through every person we raise and deliver to this planet.

So to all the amazing mothers: I hope that you have a very happy Mother’s Day today!

(And to my son, who tried to convince me that Mother’s Day is actually for mothers to be thankful for the children they made… nice try! I want chocolates for all those 2 am feeds.)

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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