THEY shuffle into the room, paper and pen in hand. Sitting at the table, very few of them look directly at me.
They are cautiously expectant. I am a promised diversion. While we have little in common with each other, together they share many things: drugs, perhaps, or abuse, past violence or a crime committed. They are marginal, I am mainstream. I know this as I write "Welcome to the Writer's Group!" on the blackboard, and begin my monthly workshop at a Vermont women's correctional facility.
I know nothing about these women, who come in assorted sizes, shapes, and ages, except this: They love their children with a passion unexceeded by anyone on the "outside," and that is something we all understand. It is the great equalizer. We are bound by knowing that each one of us would do anything for our kids, and there is nothing we long for more than to see our children safe and happy.
It never fails. No matter what writing assignment I offer, what inspirational piece I read, what story I tell to get us started, invariably these women write about what they know best: their love for their children and the memories of their own mothers and "nanas."
Among all mothers, whether we choose to stay at home or not, whether we are "inside" or out, motherhood can be a lonely and difficult business. We are seldom given a pat on the back, let alone an annual review. There's no water cooler for sharing ideas and frustrations, and the bonuses are sometimes few and far between.
I am never more aware of this reality than when I listen to my prison workshop participants as they read their poems and stories of remembrance and love. Bending over their papers as if to protect them from invasion, and often with tears in their eyes, they recall the pain and pleasure of being a mother. They worry, they gloat, they hope.
They transform - not only themselves, but me. I become no longer an outsider, a mentor, or model. I am just a mom, who understands what they are saying and feeling.
So this Mother's Day, I'd like to pay tribute to moms everywhere. And I can think of no better way to do it than by sharing the words of feminist writer June Jordan: "Everybody's momma done better than anybody had any right to expect," she once said. "And that's the truth!"
We mommas need to remember that, and so do those who try to make us think otherwise. Because we may not be perfect, but you can be sure about one thing: Nobody will ever love you the way we do.
Elayne Clift is a freelance writer.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor