My sister-in-law Maria told me an amazing story once when we were visiting. She was explaining to her three-year old daughter Frida that she shouldn’t touch birds that have fallen out of the nest, because their mothers recognize them by smell, and a human touch would mask that unique scent.
I don’t know if that’s ornithologically accurate, but that night, Frida was laying in bed with Maria next to her, when she suddenly whispered, “Mama, smell me. Am I your baby?” Maria immediately remembered the earlier conversation, so she sniffed Frida very theatrically, and announced with a big hug that yes, Frida was her own special girl. Apparently, Frida and her mother had been repeating that ritual every night since. Each night, Frida would ask again, then Maria would sniff her and announce with great affection and fanfare that yes, Frida was her baby.
There is something in us that desires connection and a sense that we belong, that we have identity. My brother’s daughters, while raised in a very gender-neutral environment, nonetheless want to understand who they are as little girls. At preschool, they gravitate to the little girl groups and do things the little girls do. They want to know who they are, where they belong.
Who are we, mommy? Am I your own little girl? Is this where I belong?
I remember once back during our years living in Chicago when Janet gave some cheese to the two daughters of some friends of ours. The younger one immediately looked to the older one and said, “Laura, do we like this?”
Is this who we are?
We all feel the yearning to belong, to something, to someone. To feel cared for and cared about.
One of the most tragic side-products of the AIDS pandemic that swept the globe, especially in its poorer places, during the first decade of this century, was the millions of children who lost one or both parents to the disease. Most adults died between ages 20 to 45, the prime child-rearing years. Orphans who could move in with an Auntie or were shipped off to an elderly grandmother were the most fortunate. Next were those who could be taken in by a neighbor. Those on the other end of the spectrum ended up on the streets or, in rural areas, in what we in the poverty business rather clinically refer to as “child-headed households.” But a dilapidated one-room mud-and-stick hut occupied solely by children trying to fend for themselves, the oldest sibling maybe age 13 or 14, is anything but a “clinical” event.
The experiences of visiting these child-headed households were for me mind-numbing and almost paralyzing in light of their tremendous needs. They were also times where I most admired the nurturing response of women.
I met John and his two siblings in Malawi, living in a “home” which was almost indescribable. Inside it was probably no more than six feet by eight feet, with an interior dividing wall stretching most of its length, giving the effect of it having two “rooms” with an open door between. The three boys slept on the bare dirt ground, with a blanket and a single peg for each boys’ clothing being the only other articles I can recall inside.
It was my first trip to an AIDS-ravaged region in those early days, and I did what I often do when I don’t know what to say: I played the organizer of my group instead of engaging the people in pain, and instead I made sure my group was involved in the experience of meeting these boys. But one woman traveling with us, Kay, didn’t need to be a host and wasn’t about to act like one. She was no doubt overwhelmed as well, but unlike me, she funneled those feelings of disorientation and shock into compassion. She sat on the ground with the boys, she spoke tenderly to them, and with her words and countenance she showed them a mother’s compassion. John, the oldest and therefore the one who always needed to be strong, furtively wiped away a reluctant tear sneaking out of the corner of his eye. That stingy tear said more than a torrent could have, about how the compassion of a woman and mother had, at least for the moment, broken through and soothed his weary and fearful soul.
A few years later, I traveled in Tanzania visiting orphaned children with a woman from a very different background. Evelyn is a member of her Community Care Coalition, which is a volunteer network that was caring for orphans and vulnerable children in their own area. Evelyn and I, with a staff translator, rode in the back of a vehicle on our way to visit Rosy and her two sisters, who comprised another child-headed household. Theirs was again a miserable story, but the Care Coalition was ensuring the girls are checked on regularly and can receive help that comes available from outside or from the community’s own meager possessions. Some coalitions develop a community garden where all the food that is grown goes to the orphans and vulnerable children. Other groups, such as Evelyn’s, get trained and become officially registered nonprofits which can receive grants such as chicken coops and other assistance to distribute to those in need, those like Rosy and her sisters.
But though the sisters were surviving–living by themselves for over three years when I met them–I sensed a deep loneliness. “We love it when Evelyn comes. She’s the only person who comes to visit.” It was such a forlorn comment that I used a photo of Evelyn with these three girls as my screen saver, reminding me why I do my work on behalf of children.
But even more powerful to me than the lonely misery of these children was my conversation with Evelyn. On the way there, I asked her why she gave the many hours she does to being a community volunteer. Her feelings needed no translation. “No child should live like this,” she replied with the indignation of just about every mother everywhere. Her own children have their mother, but here are other children who have neither mother or father. Therefore, Evelyn sees that it is partly her responsibility before God to care for them, too. The rest is unimportant: No child should live like this, not if Evelyn can do something about it, anyway. The response is immediate and caring.
There is a great mantle women carry as nurturers and caregivers. Kay, from suburban Orange County, California, and Evelyn from rural Tanzania, both feel it. Both push past revulsion or shock better than most of us men, and they extend arms of love that reach across chasms of culture and spasms of pain to say, “Yes, you still belong. You are one of us. You still deserve motherly love and a compassionate touch. As long as we share this planet, you are important to me.”