This post is dedicated to women who have never given birth, but are still mothers in the fullest sense of the word.
The focus of Mother's Day in the U.S. is on women who have biological or adopted children. I've read numerous articles regarding how painful this day can be for women who have never had their own children.
It's different in Nigeria.
First of all, Mother's Day is not really celebrated in Nigeria. A few churches might do something for mothers and a few people might send greetings, but basically, it's a U.S. holiday that is on the periphery here.
But I would say motherhood is honored in Nigeria on a daily basis.
Giving birth to children in certainly valued in Nigeria, but the concept of motherhood is so much broader than that.
Upon reaching a certain age, nearly every woman is looked upon as a mother, regardless of whether or not she has given birth to children. She becomes a mother to everyone around her. She will be addressed as "Mum/Mom", "Mummy/Mommy" as a sign of respect.
The age at which this happens varies depending on the circumstances. It could happen as young as the 30s; it will definitely happen within the 40s and continue for the rest of her life. Younger relatives, younger colleagues and even a total stranger could use "Mommy" when addressing an older woman.
And sometimes age is not really part of the equation--the term of endearment simply comes from the relationship that exists. For example, a woman who is at least 10 years older than me affectionately refers to me as "my mommy" every time she sees me. And I refer to her as "my kaka" (grandmother) every time I see her. She's just expressing our relationship over the years through the sewing program for women with HIV/AIDS. The work has been a lifeline for her in terms of having something to do and being able to earn some money to take care of her family.
Who is a mother in the Nigerian context? She is a woman who opens her arms to care for people--her offspring, her relatives, people in her community, people in the city, strangers. She has a mother's heart, caring for people in need, seeing unspoken needs, providing food to fill a belly at just the right time, speaking a word of encouragement or admonishment.
Years ago, when I was a young bride and still learning to navigate Nigerian culture, I was shopping in the main market when a screaming toddler came running towards me and locked his little arms around my knees. His angry mother was right behind him so I pried him off and handed him back to her.
Later that night I asked my Nigerian husband how I was supposed to handle that situation. He told me the child was running to me for protection, and culturally it would have been appropriate for me to beg the mother to calm down and not be angry at the child.
I have never forgotten that. I was coming from a background where we just don't get involved in another family's issues--unless invited. But in this case, I was supposed to act as a mother to that little boy, and I failed.
Motherhood--it's a high and noble calling. And I'm grateful to be living it out in its broad context in Nigeria.