Tsan and her son Moses, whose compass is perfectly positioned true north thanks to his Mom!

While doing my monthly grocery run last week I watched a teen boy reprimand his friend for not wearing a mask in the grocery store. “No one’s watching,” replied the unmasked kid, “it’s no big deal and besides, it’s uncomfortable.” The other boy would not let it go, “it’s not cool, and it doesn’t matter that no one’s watching.” The exchange lasted only a few seconds, but even in the brief standoff between friends, I thought to myself, that kid’s compass is not just north; it’s true north. Emotionally, true north refers to your personal center, internal values and principles you hold dear.

In that grocery store, without anyone to enforce the teen’s cavalier attitude toward the health of the rest of us, it would have been easy for his friend to shrug off the incident under the weight of peer pressure, and the stigma of correcting his friend, but the boy didn’t waver. He stood firm that despite their own health and inconvenience, and despite no real consequences to not doing the right thing, there was in fact a right thing to do. The young man would not be pulled off course. “Put on your mask,” he repeated. And the other boy did. I don’t know anything about his home life, but I’m quite certain the young man was never instructed specifically to correct his teenage friends. Nevertheless, he was firmly grounded in what he understood was right, and he got that from mothering.

Mothering is not just being a mother; that is largely a biologic function. Mothering is the more difficult task of balancing raising a child with love and kindness on the one hand, and with guidance and consequences on the other. Focusing solely on task without caring and kindness leaves children uncharitable, and judgmental of others; unable to bend with sentiment or circumstance. Kindness without discipline leaves children demanding, not self-aware, and rudderless. Regardless of the initial lessons we received, eventually, as we make our way in the world, most of us figure out what we didn’t learn at home. Through trial and error, we manage to create a generally leaning life for ourselves that points generally in the direction of good, but when the world turns upside down, the distinctions between north and true north, however minute in the good times, become clear.

It is mothering that causes us to hand a young mom a few extra bucks so she can get all the food in her cart, even while we may be counting pennies. It’s mothering that shares the last bottles of hand sanitizer with a senior, even though we’re not sure where we will get our next bottle. It is because of mothering we sit in our homes, inconvenienced and antsy, even though we’re healthy, to keep the immune-compromised safe and the medical professionals healthy, even though neither affect us. We were taught enough to understand the world requires all hands on deck, and mothered enough to have the strength to step forward even without recognition. This is what mothers do every day.

Some of us are lucky enough to call mom that person who installed our directional compass, but not all mothers go by that name. Perhaps it was a stalwart grandma, who fed the neighborhood kids for no other reason than they were hungry, and expected no accolades. Maybe it was the next door neighbor who always collected the packages of the neighbors on vacation. Or a little league coach who — though you said nothing to him and he wanted nothing from you – knew to quietly invite you to Sunday dinner because he seemed to know it was the only real meal you’d eat.

Just last week a nurse on duty stayed past her shift to hold the hand of a dying man, because his family could not be with him as he transitioned. The selfless act of doing good through action is real mothering, and it doesn’t come with a ticker tape parade, or the promise of glory. As we move past the second month of quarantine, if you have received the grace of unexpected kindness from a stranger, thank all the mothers in the world. They didn’t practice what they preached; they just practiced. Because true north cannot be memorized from a book; it must be experienced.

This Mother’s Day, so many of us are without our mothers and mother-ers. Whether it is the temporary setback born of a world on lockdown, or a more permanent passing on of someone we held dear, perhaps more than ever, our mother’s legacies are with us, demonstrated in each act of kindness, giving and love we share with the world. There will be no restaurant banquets or picnics in the park this year, but we can raise a glass to our own true north because of them.