Not enough can be said about Dr. Maya Angelou and the impact she had upon the world and particularly this country in her 86 years of living. She led a rich, full life and was an activist, actor, singer, dancer, writer, speaker, poet, teacher. ..the list goes on and on. She was also a mom. A mom who once wrote that "[t]he birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life" (Letter to My Daughter). It's pretty safe to say that Dr. Angelou was never fated to live an ordinary life, and by the time she was 42, she had already been an activist with the Civil Rights movement (working with both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), traveled the world as an actor, worked in foreign countries, raised a son who was then a man who was 25 years old, and led a very full life. What she had not yet done was publish I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, the work she is now most famous for. Had she not published that book and the many she would go on to publish afterwards and taken full advantage of the opportunities that arose from them, it is likely that while she would have been a rich person in history and a colorful friend/mentor to those lucky enough to be around her, she would not be the iconic voice of wisdom that she became and that we lost last week. It is awe-inspiring to me that much of her success was due, she believed, to her experience of raising her son, Guy.
Much is made of the way motherhood takes us "away" from who we are and what we want to accomplish. We do "sacrifice" a lot, particularly to the early years of parenting, however, there is also inspiration and motivation and reinvention inherent in being a mother that was, perhaps, too emphasized in the past and not mentioned enough now. Now that we know how many years we were fated to have Dr. Angelou, I suppose it is only natural to wonder how much better off we all might have been if we could have had those first 42 years she spent with a semi-private life (I mean, how private can I really call the life of a performer and dedicated humanitarian and civil rights activist?). However, much of those years were spent experiencing what would become the material for her writing and her life's work. She was raising her son into manhood, and she was also raising herself beyond the limitations she never knew she had placed on herself before learning who she really wanted and deserved to be (and also who Guy deserved her to be).
I wonder if, during those years, she felt many of the frustrations I feel as a mother of young children. How many books did she compose in her head only to lack the time to write them down? How much of her wise counsel to the world was lost in a world of scraped knees, stomachaches, and sleepless nights? I can't even seem to get my weekly blog done on time, not from lack of ideas, but from lack of opportunity to get my ideas down. Entire novels have been born, flourished, and died from lack of time (and increasingly) lack of talent. My fiction skills are rusty from lack of use. The metaphorical number two pencil in my brain has a cracking, dried eraser and a broken tip. I am not comparing myself to Dr. Angelou who clearly surpasses me in all things, but I am drawing a parallel between the life a woman leads while parenting young children and the life she can lead once her children are grown. I don't think Dr. Angelou would disagree with me as she writes in one of her autobiographies, it was only after her son grew up and said to her, "I love you, Mom. Maybe now you'll have a chance to grow up" (The Heart of a Woman) that she felt released to really focus solely who she wanted to be and what she wanted to accomplish (much of which was for the benefit of us all).
The truth is that Dr. Angelou might have been able to be more productive (incredible thought! a woman who was so productive could have produced even more!) had she never been a mother, but who she was and what she had to say might not have been as wise. She let being a mother not only define her, but also refine her into the woman we would all grow to love after she was in her forties. I am no Dr. Angelou, but I am inspired by her. I know there are women out there who do it all and I am inspired by them, too, but I'll bet if I talked to those who I think are "doing it all," I will learn that they feel that they are not doing everything as well as they would like, either. I do not know how much time I will have on this earth and if I had to make a choice between raising my young sons or honing my skills into be a great writer, I will choose my sons because the experiences I am having raising them and learning from them are making me a better person and (I hope) making them better people, too. However, it is my hope that I am not choosing one over the other, but rather choosing one first and then the other. I am taking the chance that while my skills may be getting rusty that I am keeping as sharp as I can with the writing I do manage to accomplish (as flawed and rife with embarrassing typos such as it is) and, more importantly, I am using my experience as a mother to grow as a human being and to develop a wiser, kinder, and sharper mind. God willing, I, too, will have a second act in me and I will get all of the cobwebs and dust out of my mind and begin to write again perhaps better than I ever did before because of all my sons and family have given me to experience. Not all of us can be a Dr. Angelou, but all of us can learn and be inspired by her and the way she used motherhood to inspire her to be a better person.
Rest in peace, Dr. Angelou. You were a mother, friend, and teacher to us all.
Thanks for reading,