What’s a Mother?

A recent Carolyn Hax advice column triggered some thoughts about this mysterious, untameable tool called language that we all use every day.

A man asked Carolyn Hax for advice about a thorny family situation. Six years ago, he and his wife adopted a baby boy born to a teenage relative. The little boy, “Jake,” is doing great. He knows he was adopted but isn’t interested in learning more.

Three years ago, the couple’s other adopted child had a visit from her birth mother. Jake couldn’t understand what was going on and was terrified that his sister would be taken away.

Now Jake’s birth mother wants to visit him and start a relationship. The adoptive father doesn’t want to upset Jake – but also doesn’t want to be dishonest with him. The adoptive mother flatly refuses to allow Jake to meet his birth mother until he’s older.

When I read that letter, I was really grateful that I’m not an advice columnist! Carolyn Hax (of course) came through with some excellent advice and suggestions.

But my thoughts took off in a different direction. I started trying to figure out why “Jake” – a happy and secure little boy – had reacted so fearfully to the visit from his sister’s birth mother.

And what I decided is that there might be a hidden language issue here.

What is a mother? Life experience tells us there are many ways to become a mother: birth, adoption, a second marriage, foster care, and so on. But Jake knows only that “mother” means the woman who is the center of his young life. He depends on her for almost everything.

So what does it mean when a second woman appears, also labeled “mother”? To Jake, that experience must have been unfathomable. The only explanation he could come up with was that this new mother wanted to take his sister away. Isn’t that what his own mother would do?

It would help if Jake was old enough to understand the terms “birth mother” and “adoption” – but he’s not.

* * * * * * *

We like to think that language is something we can tame, control, and quantify – but it’s not, and we can’t. Our efforts will ultimately fail, and there’s a single word that explains why: imagination.

Language is not an inert system of symbols and sounds just waiting for us to do what we will. It is inextricably and mysteriously connected to the deepest parts of our brains and our souls. I’m talking – of course – about postmodernism.

While I was thinking about Jake and his fears this weekend, a little exchange from Shaw’s Pygmalion popped into my head. Henry Higgins, a professor of speech, is standing with a small group of theatergoers waiting for the rain to stop so they can go home. Pointing to a dirty young woman who’s selling flowers, Higgins starts a conversation with another man who’s waiting:

THE NOTE TAKER. You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. I could even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant, which requires better English.

THE FLOWER GIRL. What’s that you say?

I don’t know how anyone could quantify and label that little exchange. Higgins isn’t even talking directly to the flower girl – she’s eavesdropping. But his words cause a paradigm shift for her. Suddenly she sees possibilities that never existed for her before.

When Higgins throws a large amount of money into her flower basket, she doesn’t go on the expected spending spree. Instead she decides to return the money to Higgins – in exchange for speech lessons.

(If you’re curious about all this, I’ve written an article linking this exchange in Pygmalion with Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” – a provocative term for Freud’s therapeutic method, is it not?)

Critics of postmodernism think it’s hilariously funny when people like me say that words resist being pinned down. But little Jake’s parents are discovering that “mother” is a far more complex word than they originally thought.

In the same way, all of us often have language encounters that shake us up, open new doors, and challenge us in ways we could never have expected. As Jacques Derrida famously said, “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others.”



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