One of the most astonishing things about become a mother for the first time was the feeling that I would never again be a unitary being. Holding my baby in my arms, looking into the tar-black pools of her eyes, I knew that I would always be connected to this person. I would be responsible for her til she was an adult, but even then, wouldn’t I always be thinking of her and wondering how she is? Here was a piece of me, nestled in my arms, and soon she would be walking, talking and moving swiftly in the direction of independence.
A favourite topic on this blog is the supreme importance of human connection. But what do these words mean? Even if we haven’t spent much time considering what it means to be connected to another human being, many can relate to this mother: “I hate leaving my baby, and other people don’t seem to understand! I know she’s fine with her Grandma, but when I’m away from her I feel like a part of me is missing.” Even mothers who are routinely separated from their children through work, school, or other circumstances recount the sense of missing-ness when their children are away from them. Gradually, many women get used to being apart from their children, but even at my age my own mother would probably say that she feels the connection even now as I sit here in Wales and she in California.
Reading a recent report of the discovery of a child’s cells living in his mother’s brain, I was reminded of the Upanishadic story of Shvetaketu. Shvetaketu was twelve years old when his father, Uddalaka, sent him away to a teacher for the benefit of his education. Twelve years later, when Shvetaketu returned, his father observed that Shvetaketu was full of pride in his learning, but did not know the Spiritual Wisdom at the heart of everything. Deflated, Shvetaketu asks his father to teach him this wisdom, and his father indulgently replies, “Yes, dear one, I will.” Poor Uddalaka goes on to attempt to explain to his proud but not-very-clever son the secrets of human connection. Time and again Shvetaketu complains that he does not understand, and Uddalaka patiently replies that he will explain again.
“Place this salt in water and bring it here tomorrow morning.” The boy did.
“Where is that salt?” his father asked.
“I do not see it.”
“Sip here. How does it taste?”
“And here? And there?”
“I taste salt everywhere.”
“It is everywhere, though we see it not. Just so, dear one, the Self is everywhere, within all things, although we see him not.”
When a woman is pregnant, she passes life and energy on to her growing baby. Now science postulates that cells actually migrate between mother and child via the placenta. When her child is born, the mother nurtures him at the breast and continues to pass on that same energy. Breastfeeding researchers have time and again shown that breast milk is a living fluid, full of antibodies that protect the human infant. Science now bears out what mothers have always known: here is my child, his own person, yet also somehow a part of me. An individual and yet part of the connected body of humanity. A unique person who also holds a piece of me within him.
We can think of the mother as Uddalaka’s glass of salty water. Filled with her own unique essence, she gives birth to a child and pours some of that salty water into a smaller glass. This child carries a little bit of his mother, a little bit of his mother’s mother, and so on. We pass our life, our spirit on to our children.
Viewed from this perspective, of course a mother will find it difficult to leave her child. Regardless of societal expectation, a child is a vessel for the mother’s very self. We are all connected, made with the same stuff, however dilute. You are connected to me, and I to you.
Suffering comes, the Upanishads warn, when we deny this truth and think that we stand alone. And if you look at so much of the unhappiness in the world, caused by misunderstanding, anger and indifference, you will see the truth of this statement. If we all felt that we were made of the same stuff, would we ever intentionally hurt one another?
Therefore, rather than frown upon mothers who seek to respect and celebrate their connectedness with their children, why not open ourselves right up to it, and welcome in the joy that comes with the recognition and celebration of human connection?
Photo credit: By Garitzko (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons