Recently, the Provo Big Ocean Women Cottage met and shared stories of women who were not their own mothers who had blessed their lives by their mothering. These experiences show that to be a mother is something all women can do.
I met Ardyth on our first day in a new congregation. She just sat down next to us in the pew and asked if she could take care of my 4 year old throughout the service. Of course I said, “Yes!” We became fast friends after that.
She treats me like an equal even though we are several decades separated in age. She even treats my kids like they are her equals, which has endeared them to her forever! She is truthful and gracious to me in all our conversations, there’s no mincing words and also no judgment, and I like that. I always feel like she understands and values my ideas.
At one point I was worried about my oldest daughter having trouble with friends at school. I thought maybe learning piano might help her and immediately thought of Ardyth, who plays beautifully. She consented but didn’t want to be paid and asked that we do an exchange. I would cook dinner for her and her husband once a week and she would teach my daughter piano. My girl would leave her lessons beaming, feeling so loved, and I loved sharing meals with Ardyth and her family. One day Ardyth revealed that her husband had been sick and the meals I was making had been a saving grace for them during a hard time. I had no idea! I felt like God had inspired our deal, and it brought me so much joy.
Ardyth has made space for me in her life, even though it’s already so full. She shares her goodness, wisdom, and acceptance with me freely. She has taught me to live with grace and optimism. To me that is motherhood at its finest!
Mary Ellen Estill Rudin graduated from college in Texas the year I was born. We connected in 1969 when my newly PhD husband accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, far from our families in the west. At a time when long-distance phone calls were a carefully budgeted extravagance, hand-written letters heralded the weekly news and parental support. Welcome to be sure, but a remote resource.
Mary Ellen and Walter Rudin (both distinguished mathematicians) invited us and our young children to their Frank Lloyd Wright, factory-prototype home. As part of making conversation, I asked how she managed to clean those two banks of small windows that formed the outer walls of the central living area. “Oh, I don’t,” she answered with no hint of apology. She showed me the adjacent kitchen where she cooked and often made bread. The stairs up to the balcony-style rooms were hazardously open with minimal side guard. I asked Mary Ellen how she managed safety when her children were toddlers, Oh, she said, we went to the lake and found some old, heavy-duty fish net. She loved being a mother and sometimes worked on mathematics research while her children were climbing all around her on the couch. She and Walter had four children.
Our fourth child was born with Down’s Syndrome and attendant complications. Somehow Mary Ellen heard that news and bustled to visit me—the first person to come. She told me about their child with Down’s and how he fit in and was a welcome part of their family. Her confidence and warmth transferred over to me in a way that is difficult to describe. I hadn’t had time to think about how we would manage or even what questions to ask. I just remember feeling the confidence and welcome warmth in contrast to the worry and concern about our daughter’s health issues. Mary Ellen had come to the hospital to be my Madison mother in a moment when I very much needed a mother at hand.
In high school, I had a fantastic teacher. She not only took me under her wing and showed interest in me and my life, but she also showed me that being nerdy and quirky is cool. In a time in my life that was uneasy and tumultuous, she was a kind, loving place that gave me confidence in myself and my abilities.
Mary Jane Ayers came into my life in the Fall of 2007, just after I’d completed my course work to become a high school music teacher and moved to Washington, DC to finish my student teaching. I was assigned to teach in the DC Public School system at a charter school of performing arts students. Dr. Ayers was to be my mentor teacher. I was both elated and terrified to be working with an inner city demographic. It was a prospect that excited me because of my love and passion for diversity, while at the same time terrified me. It sounds silly, but I had never taught a black student to sing. I didn’t even know if it was any different than a white student. Did I have the tools, the skills, the ability?
From the minute I met Dr. Ayers, I felt a strong connection to her. It became apparent through the months that she had a lot to be judgemental of, seeing as we had very, very different views of religion, politics, and the world. But from the moment we met, she let me into her world in very personal and very beautiful ways. She asked pointed questions about my life, and she listened. She gave me advice on my teaching as well as my personal life. She opened up to me about her own family. She invited me to her home on several occasions, sometimes for a meal, sometimes just to sit and chat and feed the cats. She was as aware of my weaknesses in teaching as I was, and she quietly assured me that weaknesses were part of life. It was alright not to feel comfortable doing X… because you do Y so well. She threw me into situations that I was neither equipped nor comfortable with, but gave me wise advice and small tools to be successful. Most importantly, in a world of students who had so, so many things in their lives vastly different than my own, she helped me find my own voice to connect with them. I couldn’t try to teach like other teachers I saw there at the school. Those students would have laughed me out of the room. With her tutelage I learned to be myself, I learned to control my subject matter, and most important to me, I learned to love those students completely.
As I watched her work with her students, whom she had spent nearly 40 years mentoring, it quickly became clear that “mentoring” wasn’t what she was doing at all. She was mothering. She was a mother to every single student who stepped foot into her room. They loved to be around her, they respected her, and they looked forward to her advice. She pushed every one of them out of their comfort zones, but nurtured them in remarkable ways that allowed them to blossom. She and her husband weren’t able to have children of their own. I know this caused her heartache. Thousands of young people, however, have been able to realize their potential and reach their dreams because of Mary Jane’s talent, encouragement, time, and love. She gave her whole self to them, just as any mother does for her children.
I thank God that Mary Jane Ayers allowed me to be one of those children. She could have taken one look at a slightly timid, young, white LDS girl and decided it was time to reform me. Judge me. But she asked questions. She listened. She sought to understand. She let me in. She fought for me, even years after I was off her service. She never sugar coated the realities of the difficulty of my profession, the choices I was making in my personal life, and the lessons she’d learned in her own life.
Looking back I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It wasn’t just me who she gave that opportunity to be someone special in her life. That’s who she is.
Becoming a mother was a huge realization that I will never stop needing a mother. I had a wonderful mother that gave me what I feel was the perfect example. It is through her example, and many more women in my life, that I have then been able to witness the mother heart in so many more women and broaden my definition of what makes a mother. A poignant mothering experience for me was the day I delivered my angel baby to heaven with so many mother like nurses that attended me through the experience. Their eyes — I specifically remember how each one of them looked me in the eyes so I could feel their love. They cared for me, supported me, cried with me, talked with me, comforted me, listened to me, cried some more, tended me, felt pain with me, brought gifts to me, shared with me, tended to my other children, laughed with me, walked with me. They knew my needs when I couldn’t. They gave me what I could never give enough thanks for. They continued to be there beyond what their paycheck supported. This was a time when, as a mother, I needed a mother and was blessed with a host of earthly angels. Every single woman in that department exceeded every expectation I could have had. To this day I stand in awe, admiration and deep heartfelt love for the mothering those nurses of Pomerado Labor and Delivery gave me. And they were every bit their mothering selves in the delivery room of our rainbow baby two years later.
Brenda — a woman of strength, faith, and love. Brenda is my aunt. Though Brenda doesn’t have any children of her own, she has used her mother heart to strengthen me. Recently my parents moved across the country. I miss them dearly, and Brenda’s mother heart has sensed that. She reaches out to me and my daughters. Though she lives an hour away, we talk on the phone weekly. We go to movies together, eat together, and take road trips together.
Brenda’s life has not been easy. Yet she carries forward with depth that only adversity and faith can bring. She is constantly taking people under her wing and lifting everyone around her. The main word to describe Brenda is love. She loves life and loves others. I feel her love for me and it strengthens me. I am grateful for that love and for her mother heart. As Julie B. Beck penned, “There is no limit to what a woman with a mother heart can accomplish. Righteous women have changed the course of history and will continue to do so, and their influence will spread and grow exponentially throughout the eternities.”
In thinking about mother figures in my life, I’ve thought a lot about what role mothers play. Mothers can be guides, teachers, and a source of Wisdom. With this interpretation in mind, my heart is overwhelmed with the myriad of women who have – through their writings – guided my life and taught me so much about myself. Pat Holland has written several books and essays about the role of women and her relationship with Jesus Christ. She approaches the difficult subjects of defining one’s womanhood, finding one’s path in life, and finding strength through faith and is a voice of reason and hope that I depend upon in my life. Although I’ve never spoken with her face to face, or even been able to express my gratitude, I am grateful for her voice of goodness and assurance. She has been a source of Wisdom that is a light in my life.
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Photography by Sarah Rasmussen. See more by Sarah @sarahroser on Instagram.