The Evolutionary Journey of Mothering

Judy Yushin Nakatomi reflects on the evolutionary ride of caring and learning, and protecting that is mothering.

Judy Yushin Nakatomi
21 December 2022
Photo by JW.

On the evolutionary journey of mothering, I’m practicing imperfectly. As the proud mother of two adult kids, ages 31 and 27 who are multi-ethnic, transfemme and queer, my journey of motherhood has not been a linear one. Both of my children came out separately in their twenties, which didn’t take me by complete surprise. Since they were young, I’ve had an inner knowing they were each on their own journey, and that their paths could take many directions.

Looking back, their interests and choices were more fluid than fixed by any set of “rules” presented to them, which wasn’t always met with approval and acceptance from adults in their lives. Both of my children didn’t align with gender norms or rules in school in their social behavior, choice of activities, hobbies, or friends. As they grew into adulthood, I became more curious and excited to see who they were becoming. It felt like I was being invited to be present to witness budding flowers bloom. An inner voice whispered: Wait patiently, keep caring and tending.

In its most exquisite sense, to mother is about caring for the well-being of another being, it’s about lovingkindness, empathy, protection, and a long view of being and time.

Throughout their growing up, my daughters have continually taught me how to expand and deepen my awareness of what it means to love in more boundless and spacious ways. There have been times when I’ve mothered unskillfully. Early on, I misgendered our eldest daughter (who uses they/she pronouns) without realizing the full impact of my actions. It was then that I began to observe more closely and listen more deeply.

As a Japanese American person, I know how racial microaggressions impact my own body. I began to see how my actions of not fully “getting it” impacted and hurt my children. I recognized that I could be more vocal when I witnessed misgendering happening with family and friends. As a cisgender hetero woman, I could make clear and direct corrections to family and friends while educating them on my own journey of learning to recognize and correct my mistakes.

At times, I let my fear for my kids’ safety overshadow their need to live a full life. I was aware that trans and queer people of color experience high levels of hostility, hate and violence in our world. I was also aware that leading with the vibration of fear created the rigid, tight energy that I longed to transform. I needed to remind myself that embodying joy and delight creates very strong vibrations, too. Artistic expression, through dance and music, are a vital part of both my kids’ lives — I wished to nourish and water the joy of their art.  As I educate myself and meet more LGBTQ+ parents, fear is no longer front and center. This has all been a part of the journey to unfurl and flow with the joy and vibrancy in their lives.

Our loving actions can play a vital role in transforming homophobia and transphobia. I use my voice and writing to share how I’m awakening. I point to the ways I’ve been unskillful with a promise to keep learning and growing because to mother is to have the energy of empathy, the spirit to nurture and protect, which for me is closely connected to the Primal Vow in Shin Buddhism.

The Primal Vow is the 18th verse of the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, or Infinite Life Sutra, describing the bodhisattva vow of manifesting boundless compassion and liberation for all beings in everyday life. Part of the practice is gassho (palms together), and reciting the nembutsu: Namo Amida Butsu. Mothering exemplifies how I interpret the vow to continue to show up to transform homophobia and transphobia by actions I take in daily life; to be the sister, friend, and mother who steps up to point to a way through fear, unskillful or harmful view, speech and action. The aspiration to universal liberation and freedom of the Primal Vow is a guiding light of love and compassion where all beings are worthy and belong, and no one is forgotten, abandoned, or neglected.

Along my kids’ journey, it became clear for me that I needed to show up in my everyday life with my family and friends and to let them know how they could continue to be a good relative and friend to our kids, my partner, and me. In speaking to some friends and family, I sensed there might be tension or misunderstanding about my children’s gender or expression. I began to frame the narrative, “I know you have loved our kids from the day they were born” to declare that as my continued hope and expectation.  I affirmed their love while offering advice on ways they could show up more: honoring pronouns, educating themselves, asking questions, checking in directly with our kids, and offering educational resources.

I began to be an advocate and a bridge to help our family and friends understand how to best show their love and acceptance for our kids’ gender identity and sexual orientation. I worked to openly answer questions and am still learning ways to be an ally to my kids and the LGBTQ+ community through groups like PFLAG and Okaeri. In Shin and Zen sangha spaces, I make sure to share my pronouns and make time to explain why it’s important.

Today, I have a different view of mothering. I recognize that “to mother” isn’t limited to biological, adoptive, step, or foster mothers. To me, to mother in its most expansive sense is not defined by gender identity — to care in the fullest sense includes all, leaving out no one, no body.

Mothering adult transfemme and queer kids is en ever-evolving practice in fluid, non-binary, non dualistic way. If I consider the word mother as a verb, “mother” is queer.  How can we compartmentalize or restrict care, love, empathy to a binary? In its most exquisite sense, to mother is about caring for the well-being of another being, it’s about lovingkindness, empathy, protection, and a long view of being and time.

The three doors of liberation remind me to be aware of notions, form, and objects of pursuit, and to ultimately let go. Thanks to impermanence, I continue to practice imperfectly on the path of mothering. This ride flows, unfurls, and opens in a non-linear way. Mothering is on a continuum — an evolutionary ride of caring, learning, and protecting.


Judy Yushin Nakatomi

Judy Yushin Nakatomi

Judy Yushin Nakatomi, (she/we) is a mother, kin, writer, and community cultivator. She practices in her root, ancestral tradition, Jodo Shinshu and is ordained in the Zen community of Thich Nhat Hanh.