Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Welcome, First Things Readers

Thanks to Clare Coffey for linking to us in her post commenting on the stay-at-home motherhood fracas.


With that said, it seems to me that we do women no favors when we conflate childcare and motherhood. Motherhood isn’t a job–it’s a vocation and an identity. Stay at homes are not “full-time moms” any more than women who work outside the home–as if breadwinning fathers were “part-time dads.” Fulltime childcare, especially as it’s usually combined with housekeeping, however, is a job–is hard, demanding, work. And the sooner we stop fetishizing it as the core of what it means to be a mother and a woman, as some sort of sacred, higher, path for the female sex, the sooner we will see it for what it really is: difficult, necessary, and honorable work whose workers deserve dignified and decent working conditions.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness. –G.K. Chesterton

I appreciate Chesterton’s thought, but rhetoric like this seems to imply that childcare is one long, exhausting, ecstasy of creative energy and emotional fulfillment. A woman needs no other identity or outlet: motherhood, or at least the Victorian ideal of motherhood predicated on rapt and constant communion between mother and child, is all in all.

Our cult of motherhood demands human sacrifice—hence the constant need for, and glorification of, victimhood (interestingly, in my experience especially by women privileged enough to pay me for childcare while they work neither for pay nor passion). I see women at the playground who look like zombies–completely exhausted, frazzled by the demands of their children, clad in dirty and ill-fitting clothing, constantly interrupted in what may be their only adult interactions till the Mr. gets home by the requests and complaints of their children. “Men just don’t understand,” they say. “It’s all part of being a mom.”

My experience of my life, and of my own personhood, is one of continuity. Motherhood has intensified certain of my tendencies, exacerbated some traits, and ameliorated others. But it has not fundamentally altered who I am or thrown some bright line across the continuum of my life. Being married and having children has been a rich and demanding phase of my existence and has defined much of my experience for the past ten years, but those aspects of my life are not the totality of it.

In fact, I feel most broadened when I branch out into new ventures not connected specifically to being a mother, because those are the experiences that round me out as a person. Can I tell you how exhilarating it was to run a 5K last year? Or to complete National Novel Writing Month in November despite having a death in the family and no heat in the house? My family wasn't absent from these ventures -- indeed, I relied on their encouragement and support, as always -- but they were ventures in which we interacted as people who loved each other as family.

My children, at their current ages, tend to view me as "Mom". That's my primary function to them, and that's okay. But I hope as they grow older, our relationship will deepen (as have my family relationships) to the point where they relate to me as a person who loves them as a mother. "Motherhood" may be an archetype, but every mother is a person. Just as trinitarian nature of God reveals that he is too full to be contained just in the roles of Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, so motherhood is only one aspect of femininity, not its end.

10 comments:

JMB said...

I love having teenagers:) I truly do. Nice shout out in First Things!

Foxfier said...

Cult of motherhood? Lovely. -.-

J.C. said...

Doesn't femininity, by definition, exist to support the end of motherhood? A woman is a woman (normally) by virtue of having female reproductive organs and the potential to fulfill this natural end. Of course, a given woman may forgo motherhood to become a nun or because she never marries or because her body is affected by infertility, and, therefore, in the absence of motherhood, her femininity may benefit other extremely important ends. But for women who do become mothers, these other pursuits would necessarily lessen in priority relative to the good of the children. What this entails would be completely subjective to the individual woman, marriage and family. It need not entail dirty, ill-fitting clothes, though it may for some. Some women may work outside the home or pursue graduate studies or hobbies without imperiling the balance needed for the care of children, while others may find themselves incapable and obliged to make some sacrifices to accommodate God's will in their lives.

I remember a certain Pope John Paul II quotation you cited once related to this subject. I would like to hear what other Church encyclicals or teachings (maybe a little further back) could be used to support this idea. Of course, you did say you didn't want to talk about marriage, sex, men and women, so I will understand if you don't want to get into this! :)

jmcm said...

Even if femininity does exist for motherhood, motherhood isn't the whole of what a woman is - it isn't her personhood. Otherwise, how could we say that virginity is superior to marriage?

I recently read a blog post that quoted St. Edith Stein on feminine nature. Although it's in a different context, I think it's relevant: Stein says that feminine nature is basically about surrendering oneself lovingly to another, but that it can only find fulfillment in surrender to God - complete surrender to another human being is merely slavery. It strikes me that this could be applied to motherhood as well; perhaps what Clare Coffey is seeing in those martyred mothers is fallen feminine nature wrongheadedly making children into gods.

Which would also explain why it's a problem more associated with secular society than with Catholics. The culture at large is always encouraging women to give themselves over to things that aren't God, and make themselves slaves to money, men, fashion, or what have you - so it's not that surprising that children would be on the list as well.

Suburbanbanshee said...

When Chesterton was writing, being a stay-at-home mother also meant being a Personage in the neighborhood among other mothers. If you were middle class (which is where Chesterton lived in his head), you had servant/s to lighten the drudgery aspect of housework. He was protesting people automatically insisting on nannies rather than spend time with kids, or not having kids for fear they'd be work. You would socialize with the neighbors and the people who delivered things, and you got out of the house fairly regularly. When your kids were older, both parents often were members of various societies and organizations. And of course the post came several times a day, so you had the "Victorian Internet" to talk to your friends across town or across the country.

Clare said...

Part of my problem with Chesterton is that he was no particular friend to the female suffragists, or other early feminists campaigning for rights we now take for granted, as far as I can tell. Thus, to me his rather florid writings on motherhood seem a perfect example of how we idealize domesticity as a way of confining women to it--and this is a problem not because the domestic sphere is bad for women or not vitally important for society, but because it is simply not large enough for the entirety of the human person, any more than the office is a sufficient sphere of life for the men who work there. Rhapsodizing is all well and good, but with every pedestal comes with a cage, in my experience.

Clare said...

It's also a problem because when we idealize the domestic, we also tend to idealize one particular method of motherhood, and a fairly recent one. Most women throughout history have been some type of working mother--they just outsourced less domestic labor, or ran businesses from home or worked in the fields. Most had quite a bit of help raising their kids--Zelie Martin sent Therese out to a wet-nurse, and her kids turned out fairly ok, I'd say. When we act as if the domestic is something purely or intrinsically a female concerm, or as if stay at home mothering is True Mothering, we not only make things harder for actual stay at home moms--we also discount the experiences of mothers not suited to domesticity, or outside our little cultural/historical bubble.

J.C. said...

Oh my, where to start? Poor Chesterton! Well, yes, our modern minds find it very jarring to think of a time when women were disenfranchised. But if you can set aside our initial, understandably, knee-jerk reaction to the fact, and consider without prejudice why it was that Chesterton opposed these things, it is helpful to step outside "our little cultural/historical bubble," as you so aptly put it. This was a time when families were considered units, when marriage and family (and the laws that governed them), were oriented to the end of raising children and not to the end of individual personal self-fulfillment. It was a time period (though by no means perfect), whose conventional values were actually much closer to our Catholic mindset. Self-sacrifice and duty were commonly considered necessary expression of authentic love. Yes, the head of the family cast the vote, but he was supposed to represent the interests of his family as a whole, subverting even his own particular interests to this end. This arrangement benefited the family particularly, and, therefore, society as a whole. Were some women abused and exploited in such circumstances? Of course. And many women suffer immensely today, even with the advantages of modern laws. However, I would argue, as Chesterton predicted with amazing perspicacity, that more women and children suffer as a result of the problems unleashed by trying to correct these perceived injustices and oppression than did under a conservative patriarchal system. It's not that these problems were absent, but in our day, we are faced with the results of the modern laws meant to liberate women from the shackles of marriage and domesticity. I hardly think that the alternative is any more attractive--rampant no-fault divorce, epidemic promiscuity and illegitimacy, casual abortion, dysfunctional family life...

J.C. said...

Also, it seems contrary to criticize Chesterton for his "florid" "rhapsodizing" idealizing domesticity when one of the main difficulties or complaints of women who do operate in the domestic sphere, is the isolation and anonymity of the task, away from public (and sometimes private) recognition and praise. You, yourself rightly recognize the domestic sphere as "vitally important to society." Is Chesterton not qualified to do so simply because he is a man? Or did he overstep his bounds in doing so excessively?

J.C. said...

Also, I find that this discussion is only relevant to the middle class woman. And I don't think your selective historical examples serve your cause. Who do you think comprised the "considerable help" these women had raising their children? They were other presumably oppressed women! Why do you identify with Zelie Martin and not the wet-nurse? Most likely she, too was a devout Catholic who had to subscribe to one of the widely varied "method(s) of motherhood" to which you allude. The fact is, most woman outside "our little cultural/historical bubble" fell into the domestic arrangement you are seeking to escape. Most of us on these forums have the luxury of actually having a choice either to work or stay home. I say luxury loosely because I know first hand the sacrifices homeschooling stay-at-home mothers make. They are considerable to our modern, first-world minds, however, they are not the same sacrifices that third-world maids make or impoverished mothers in Africa. No one is criticizing women for working outside the house because they must. And yes, you are right, privileged women have always had the luxury of outsourcing cleaning or child care to have more personal time. Good for them. The criticism never lies with the acts, per se, but in the degree that these acts are detrimental to particular children or a particular marriage. It is so highly subjective that sometimes I find
these discussions somewhat amusing. It often appear to be a pre-emptive attack against some anticipated future criticism. The fact is, these decisions can only be made in the context of a marriage, between husband and wife. Catholicism is the anti-dote to the illusion that we are in control of our lives. We can't know what God has in store for us. As long as we are honestly self-less and pure in our intentions before God, barring something scandalous, the perceptions of others shouldn't matter. The knowledge that we are genuinely striving to fulfill the will of God in our lives is really the only thing that offers women, people in general, true freedom and joy.