One of the advantages I enjoy from teaching online is flexibility. As long as I have an internet connection I can grade papers and answer students’ questions at 7am from a cafe, or at 11pm from my couch in my PJs. Such convenience can be burdensome at times, especially when I receive a flurry of papers just as I’d cleared out my inbox; or when new students bombard me with questions. Some of my students require more attention than others, more prodding to do their work, or more time spent explaining a particular lesson’s readings. In many ways teaching has become for me not only a way of making a living, but a way of living out the motherhood that’s intrinsic to me – even as an infertile woman.
A few weeks ago I’d set up a work station at a coffee shop near my home. Situated at a high top table in a corner near the door, earbuds in to drown out any distractions from the conversations buzzing around me, I focused in on my work. In a moment of thought, searching for the right words to convey feedback on a student paper, I glanced up from my computer screen and saw a young mom with a little girl. The child was small but walking, and I figured her to be around two or three years old. Her furry coat and brown curls that fell just below her ears gave her the appearance of a little stuffed animal, eager to be squeezed and cuddled. It was a sweet little scene, mother and little girl stopping in for a quick treat, but not compelling enough to take me from my work. I dove back in, imparting wisdom and knowledge to my student. (I wish it were that romantic. In reality I struggled to offer constructive feedback on a paper that gave me little to go on.)
Suddenly the little classroom of my own creation in the corner of a coffee shop was unexpectedly breached. The tiny peanut, wispy curls half-shading one eye, suddenly peered up at me as I sat on the tall chair. Taking out my earbuds, I strained to hear what she was saying to me through the din of conversation and whir of the espresso machine. I left my perch and went down on my knees to her level. The girl’s mother looked both embarrassed by her daughter’s intrusion into my space, and a bit worried at my coming so close to her baby. I looked up at her and smiled, as if to reassure her that I had no intentions other than to be present to her sweet – outgoing – child. I asked the girl to repeat what she’d said. The mother looked on, puzzled by her child’s behavior, clearly wondering what was important enough for her daughter to tell it to a total stranger. The girl drew close to me, as if she ‘d chosen me specifically to share a special secret. Her big brown eyes widened as she said softly, but with intensity: “It’s Aunt Lauren’s birthday today!” As relief passed over the mother’s face, I smiled and greeted the announcement with joy. “How wonderful!” I said. “Are you going to see Aunt Lauren?” “Yes!” the girl answered, and she moved closer still – so close I thought she might jump into my arms. So close that I had to remember who and where I was, quelling the urge to scoop her up and plant a kiss on her rosy cheek. Instead, I told her to go and wish Aunt Lauren a happy birthday, and give her a big kiss and hug. The girl smiled, said “OK!,” and turned toward the door. Her mother smiled and said “Thank you.” I wondered for a moment what I’d done to deserve her thanks, then thought perhaps she was simply grateful for my moment of kind attention to her little one. Our world is so often “bothered” by children, and people can see them as nuisances, especially in public places. But for me every encounter with a child is both a sad reminder of my own infertility, and a joyful sign of the mother I am still called to be.
It is for often mysterious reasons that God doesn’t grant us motherhood according to our bodies. But He has made us mothers according to our spirit and the capacity of our hearts to be open to another. God provides these opportunities, even if only for a few moments at a time, to receive a child in unexpected but significant ways. When children are attracted to us – for whatever reason – it’s a wonderful thing, affirming our God-given aptness to be motherly. Of course I couldn’t take this little curly-haired spitfire home with me, just as I couldn’t claim as my own any number of little wonders who’d smiled or giggled at me over the years. That there isn’t a sweet little girl or boy with my eyes and my husband’s smile to kiss and cuddle – and worry about when they talk to strangers – still makes me sad. It will for the rest of my life, I suppose. But it’s moments like the one in the coffee shop that are God’s reminders to me that in my way I am a mother. I mother my students (who are sometimes as needy as a crying child), calming their fears and nurturing their gifts. I mother friends who come to me for advice or comfort. I am a mother to the nieces I text with every day, offering them my support and love, and receiving from them the affirmation that I matter to someone. My motherhood, unique to me and my marriage, isn’t limited by my inability to become pregnant. My motherhood is really only limited if I am unwilling to welcome it when it finds me. This is the real secret a little girl shared with me one morning at a coffee shop; a secret I have to intentionally work to keep pondering in my heart. It’s a secret God doesn’t want me to keep to myself.
Ann Koshute lives in Central Pennsylvania with Keith, her patient, kind and loving husband of seven years.