IMST, AUSTRIA — Mothering is a tough job, and at SOS Children's Villages it is a profession that demands the utmost commitment.
"It is your life, hobby, and job, and it is a kind of special task you choose for yourself," says Austrian SOS mother Angela Grabner. "I became an SOS mother out of love. But I was very idealistic and I had to become realistic."
Ms. Grabner works for the SOS Children's Villages in Imst, Austria, where the internationally renowned charity has its roots. Unlike traditional orphanages, at SOS villages, trained women commit to raising orphaned and abandoned children in a secure family environment until they are old enough to care for themselves.
Grabner lives with four children, ages five to 15, in a modest, two-story house with a little garden patch, surrounded by other SOS family houses built in the same Alpine style.
Being a mother to children who invariably come from difficult circumstances is not easy, and for Grabner the situation was compounded by the fact that her children's first SOS mother had died.
"The very first question my children asked was 'How long will you stay?' "she says. "They had lost their mothers, they had lost their SOS mother. They lost the most important people in their lives and they were not prepared [for it to] happen again.
"I lost the time when they would have sat in my lap," adds Grabner. "I had to learn to accept that my older children would not see a mother in me. We like each other, we appreciate each other, but I am not the Mummy they love with all their hearts. But they know that I do whatever I can for them."
The principle of providing lost children with a mother forms the backbone of the villages' philosophy. The charity was the idea of Austrian Hermann Gmeiner, who started the project in 1949 to help orphans and refugee children after World War II.
Mr. Gmeiner had lost his own mother when he was five and was raised by his eldest sister, Elsa, who became the model for the SOS mother.
Gmeiner imagined a place in which orphans would be raised in "families" with brothers and sisters and a mother, in individual households clustered together in small residential communities.
"A child needs a mother, siblings, the security of a home, the community of a village," says Gmeiner.
From one tiny village of five houses in the Alps, SOS now supports 360 villages in 130 countries, which took care of some 37,500 children last year.
"We have achieved more than Gmeiner ever imagined," says Helmut Kutin, president of SOS, who was an orphan raised at the Imst village.
Women between the ages of 24 and 35 undergo two years of intensive training before taking on the responsibilities of an SOS family. They must raise the children, care for their education, run the household, and manage the family budget.
Grabner, who worked as a teacher before moving to the village, decided to become an SOS mother after seeing an article in a local paper.
"I almost got married, but life played other music for me, and I thought, just as well," she says. "My mother was very disappointed. My elder brother died in an accident, and she always hoped I would get married and have children and stay nearby.
"She has not visited yet, but she is happy now, and my father is a grandfather to my children. He visits twice a year and he makes beds for the dolls and repairs the bicycles."
Like most SOS mothers, Grabner is unmarried. SOS used to require that the women remain single, and though the rules have relaxed a bit, few choose to find a partner.
"I could imagine it would work fine, but it is difficult for the man," she admits. "He does not just marry a wife but children who are not his children.
"Men who can accept this are carved from a special wood, and I think it does not grow in Austria," adds Grabner.
The workday for an SOS mother is long and leaves little time for a social life.
Up at 6:30 a.m., Grabner makes breakfast, sees the children off to school, takes care of the household chores and works in the garden until they come home in the afternoon. She is also taking correspondence courses.
She then makes dinner, helps with homework, and spends time talking and playing with the children until they go to bed. "A very important time is before they go to sleep."
Grabner says her main task is to maintain her spirits and theirs. "The most important thing is that you do not lose pleasure in life. Children who have gone through difficult circumstances need things that give them joy."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society