The BLOG: Voices

A mother’s manifesto

mother and child

In “Everlasting Man,” G.K. Chesterton remarks:

“You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the newborn child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother.”

Nowadays, there is a disconnect between motherhood as social ideal and motherhood as lived reality. Our society supports an ideal of motherhood that is not only beyond reach, but a pale rendering of the essence of what it means to be a mother. It presents an ideal of motherhood that is neither desirable nor reconcilable with the actual experience of being a mother. The meaning of motherhood has been downplayed and fallen victim to trivialization, commercialization, professional pressures and gender competition. It is time for mothers to speak up and give motherhood its deserved place in life’s universal drama.

The other day, my 8-year-old son put his arm around me and asked sweetly, “Mommy, what does it feel like to be a mommy?” At first, I was at a loss of words. How could one define that all-engulfing feeling? I finally said that it meant immense joy and immense pain, that all my happiness was tied to his, that every pain he felt was my pain tenfold.  And that if I could take all of his pain and give him all of my joy, I would do so in an instant. How complicated that must have sounded to an 8-year-old. My hug and kisses that followed probably brought it to a point for him, but I was left wondering about the impossibility to say it all in words. Indeed, perhaps only a poem, a song, or a painting could ever describe a mother’s attachment to her child.

When a woman learns of her first pregnancy, maternal bliss is not something that usually jumps to mind. Exhilaration, yes; joy, maybe. But underlying those noble emotions is bewilderment, panic. Pregnancy spells the end of life so far. To women, pregnancy means a radical reshaping of life. Not only abstractly, in terms of professional plans and making space for a new member of the family. Pregnancy takes a woman whole both physically and emotionally. There is no physical experience more radical than that of a pregnant woman, and the life inside is truly part of her and inseparable. The maternal sense of oneness lingers beyond birth through nursing, constant worry and doting care. It is at moments of complete exhaustion that mothers realize the strengths of their instincts and the inescapable oneness with their child. A friend and a wise mother of four recently remarked that a mother is only ever as happy as her unhappiest child, no matter what the age.

Despite such age-old intimacy, the widespread acceptance of abortion has undermined the notion of mothers’ uncompromising defense of their children and has eroded the understanding of the inseparable bond between mother and child. Abortion defenders will celebrate a woman’s right to abort her child as a basic human right, generating views of mothers as separate from their children. Because abortion always remains an option and most doctors will treat it so, no pregnant woman can assume that a doctor will see her interest and that of her child as inseparable. A mother is thus seen as simply a woman who chose to have a child where motherhood does not become an identity. As mothers, should we not expect our society to protect our children, at all costs, for the simple reason that these children are ours?

Besides the cultural denigration of motherhood through the wide acceptance of abortion, the nature of professional life, and women’s participation in it, has reduced mothering to a sideshow. Thanks to some radical outposts of feminism, having children came to be construed as a liability, something a modern woman needed to free herself from both physically and emotionally in order to prove parity with men. Sadly, many women have been duped into simply imitating men rather than bring their own interests as mothers to the fore of their professional lives. Furthermore, the experience of motherhood inevitably suffers from the notion that women “can have it all.” Juggling motherhood and career in a fulfilling way is almost impossible without feelings of guilt and longing for one’s children. Perhaps women can really “have it all” – just not all at once.

On the other hand, many stay-at-home moms feel inadequate when women their age surpass them professionally.  Many mothers will make up for opting out of a promising career by turning her children into projects of excellence. Highly competitive helicopter and stage moms who over-exhaust their children and themselves with busy and ambitious schedules will barely pause to enjoy the simpler facts of mothering.

Much social pressure exists to make stay-at-home mothers “prove themselves” while they inevitably lose themselves in the whirlwind of catering to their prodigy. Another wise mother and friend once reminded me that the most important thing a mother could do for her children was to make them feel loved and safe. Taking such wisdom as a guide might very well be the secret to maternal joy. As a stress reducer, this emphasis on love and safety places feelings of inadequacy, professional pursuits, “helicoptering,” and over-achieving into a more sensible perspective. As mothers, we’ve had love and the needs for safety running through our veins from the moment we held our baby.

But there is a third development that is tearing at the cultural standing of motherhood. It is a fashionable fluidity of parental roles and fathers trying to be mothers. It has, indeed, been a great gift to our society to turn men into more sensitive, nurturing fathers. And it has been a great gift to mothers to have fathers help with the care of the children in practical ways. Fathers who do the night shift and change diapers should be applauded.  But there will always remain something essential to mothering, a secret intuition, that no father can imitate. It is the bond that grew while the mother carried her child, gave birth to it, and cared for it with a sense of oneness that only she can feel. Like fathers, mothers will work outside the home and provide for their children in material ways. Yet for mothers, the motivation to do so will always, somehow, circle back to the needs of the child, not personal ambition separated from her maternal identity. The competition for “mothering” between men and women is a fake one and risks diminishing the social role of mothers to being a role chosen rather than tied to an essential identity to be protected.

There are plenty of historical records that attest to the power of a mother’s special love. In Nazi concentration camps, separating mothers from their children was avoided when possible for fear of disruptions. Normandy survivors attest to still hearing cries of dying soldiers crying for their mothers. As emotional D-Day veteran Frank DeVita noted in a 2014 interview with Tom Brokaw commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, “You know there’s a fallacy people think that when a man is dying. They don’t ask for God. The last word they say before they die is ‘Momma.’”

Should the world face an apocalypse of fire and destruction, with the worst of all human instincts unleashed, there is one image we may expect with certainty. That is the image of the mother holding her baby and not letting go.

Fellow mothers, let no promises of public power, professional achievement, personal liberation or creative fulfillment distract us from the great power motherhood entrusts us with. It is the secret power that drives us in whatever we do and whoever we are.

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost.