Mothers get by with help from friends

BOSTON — BOSTON -- The Mother's Day images arrive on schedule, rather like flowers forced -- ready or not -- to bloom on exactly the right Sunday in May.

Icons of mother and child, arranged in perfect harmony like a painter's still life, rise up again out of some primal cultural databank. They reappear magically in cards and ads and store windows as primal portraits of mother-and-childhood, a closed circle redolent of perfume and baby powder.


As a mother and a daughter, I am not immune to the pull of such idealized images. But today, I am skeptical of the sales pitch for brunch and roses; I remember the early months of motherhood in a different light than those who paint our classics.

I for one went through the passage from pregnancy to motherhood more catatonic than peaceful, more sleep-deprived than mellow. My own memories carry the aroma of Pampers more than baby powder.


Like most women entering motherhood, I was shocked to find this an entirely new 'hood. It's a place that not only put family first, but assumes that mother-child bonding is automatic. Yet in those early days, I felt as much fear as love. And as much loneliness as bonding.

The message that I absorbed in all those cultural images was that mother and child should be enough, a closed circle of completeness. But the fantasy didn't gel with reality. Only now do I realize how many of us raise our children with friends as well as family.

I am remembering this, I am sure, because I will spend the next few weeks out of this space and on the road with my friend Patricia O'Brien talking about women's friendships.

The whole process of writing a book together has made us aware of how our culture still draws a sharp -- and often false -- line between family and friends. We forget how many of us have crossed, or maybe erased, those old boundaries.

Today our biological families are often scattered over ZIP codes and area codes. We have nuclear families that may disintegrate or sag under the weight of so much pressure. But even women who credit their friends with "saving their lives," or at least their sanity, don't always realize that they have helped create their own extended families.

Yes, motherhood can separate old friends when one is still talking about high heels and the other is newly obsessed with her breast pump. But at the same time, mothers reach across family lines for company, for advice, for comfort. They try to build those villages that it takes to raise a child.

I know now that my own mother's idea of mothering came not from her genes or even her patient temperament. It was born at her best friend's kitchen table. She found a role model in her best friend's mother; a woman I never met helped raise me.

Friends do the unseen work of co-mothering. The stuff that rates no flowers or breakfasts-in-bed. We do it in offices over a sandwich, exchanging instant tips on how to get a kid to go to bed or how to keep a teen-ager out of trouble. We do it passing in the hall or in schoolyards waiting to pick up the kids. We do it in phone calls, and in e-mails.


We look to friends who listen and empathize, who can say "I know just what you mean" -- a phrase that resonated so often in our interviews that we used it as our book title -- and in turn, we look to friends who need us.

The truth is that the culture of motherhood today is a composite, a recycle bin, of old mother-child images and new imperatives. Women are improvising their lives, trying to be independent and caring while stretched across roles and racing against the clock. Too often, too hurried, we are encouraged to tell our troubles to "professionals," to hire "life coaches" for decision-making, to learn baby care from books and seek parenting advice from, god help us, Dr. Laura.

But now, after marriage, divorce, remarriage, I realize that in raising a daughter and caring for a mother, my friends have made it work. They are the consultants, the "talking cure" psychiatrists who keep me from mistakes. Or at least try to. And, like an inheritance, I pass the favor down to others.

Maybe Mother's Day is not such an odd time to pay homage to those "volunteers" who don't ordinarily get a place at the family table. There is no special day, no ceremony, no breakfast in bed set aside to celebrate friends. But in the care and maintenance of a whole life, this is what many of us have learned: Motherhood is strengthened by friendship.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is