Grace Notes
By Natalie Costanza-Chavez

We get Mothers Day wrong. We’re told to assume the sweetness, the flowers, the ease, and the “dream come true” of it all. We are led to expect a day in a glorious commercial, the house is clean, the dog is trained, and the children have flippy hair that’s never in their eyes.

But, the truth of motherhood is much messier. It’s OK to say it.

The truth of motherhood is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment wild slide along a hard rail of gradation. It’s a trip, repeated again and again, from joy and what lies at the other end of joy.

I’ll start with kumquats.

Small, orange, olive-sized fruits, looking like tangerines gone very small. They show up, appropriately, in early May, in a heaped pile right beside the bananas.

I choose handfuls, fill a bag, bring them home. I put them in a green glass bowl. They pile up, slightly over the bowl’s edge like a small orange hill looking entirely enticing, beautiful even, surely delicious.

But, because kumquats are the very definition of gradation, of slippery-slope, of dichotomous, they will fool you. More than once I’ve been in the house with them for hours and not eaten one. I’m never sure I can take it.

That same day the boys, my sons, come home hungry and looking for the fastest fix. They spot the bowl on the counter filled with what they think are tiny oranges. They are all movement toward the food, stepping out of their wet crocs, peeling sweatshirts off and hooking them on the backs of the kitchen chairs, reporting on a bull snake, on a yappy Boston terrier that chased them, on their bikes still in the driveway because they will ride later, all the while reaching for the fruit.

I do not warn them quickly enough and they chew as I speed talk them through it: “Give it a chance. It’s sweet and then really sour and then shocking and then good and then not. And then good again. Keep chewing.” They grimace, shake their palms like flaps as the fruit glazes their taste buds, their mouth-skin, their throats, shock-silly.

They are appalled I didn’t warn them. Then, they reach for another.

The tantalizing pull of gradation between the horrible and the sublime will get you through a whole bowl of kumquats. And, motherhood is just such a gradation. Every mother knows it.

Each step a child takes is a step away from us. We wish them forward, hold their hands until they can walk, chase them when they learn to run, send them off on bikes, hand them car keys, hope for them, ┬ápray for them. Scrape ourselves up in the aftermath of falls–ours and theirs.

Sometimes it’s delicious. Sometimes it hurts like hell:

This May, too many mothers will pick up posthumous degrees for their children at colleges and high schools. My husband, here in Colorado, will hand just such a degree to the mother of a young woman killed by a driver speeding drunk and delirious smack through a red light.

Motherhood is, of course, appalling in the very deepest of ways, again and again. It stuns us shock-silly and at times, mute. Yet, still, it is a gift of no gradation at all.

This mother’s day is for the ones with children here, the ones with children gone far away, the ones with children in wait, the ones with children who have died, the ones without children who mother anyway, the ones counting their days each month in anticipation of finally, a pregnancy, and the chance to get on this wild rail ride.

The truth about motherhood: It is a soaring, devastating, sweet-sour, rip and mend between despair and hope. The slide is worth it even when feel you’re cutting your teeth on the hard edge of something you can’t do, something you’re not ready for, something you won’t rise to. You can. You are. You will.

And the discovery of that over and again gets you through. That and the smell of your children, sweat-sticky and wet in the deep of the night, curled tightly around their own knees, their damp hair, the soft edge of their ear that you touch while they sleep. The memories of the children who are no longer with you. That too, will get you through.

Natalie Costanza-Chavez.

Find her past columns at

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