Women of Valor: Glorifying Motherhood, Abandoning Mothers

Goddess of Spring

Sometimes I have every intention of writing one thing, but my muse has other ideas. This morning, I’m facing deadlines for two different magazine columns, plus a series that I’m working on for No Unsacred Place about how to practice as an ecological polytheist… but they’re all going to have to wait.

Instead, I’m going to write about motherhood. Because I’m so gosh darn qualified. (She said sarcastically.)

A Mother’s Cry for Help

Last weekend, I sat in a stuffy auditorium full of earnest, inspired, liberal Christians who’d all come together to explore the intersection of justice, spirituality and art at the Wild Goose West. I wore a symbol of my goddess, forever maiden, on a thin silver chain around my neck, an unobtrusive acknowledgement that I was engaged in my own personal interfaith work, a Pagan among the Christian flock. Up on the stage sat a panel of three women, all leaders in their communities engaged in social justice and abuse recovery work, discussing the challenge of how to sustain a commitment to that work in the face of economic hardship, emotional burn-out and flagging community support. If I closed my eyes and listened past the occasional references to Jesus, I could have imagined myself surrounded by fellow Pagans struggling with the very same challenges.

It was the Q&A part of the talk, and audience members awkwardly fumbled with the microphone as they passed it from hand to hand down the rows of metal folding chairs. One girl, hunched and nervous with frizzy hair, spoke of her terrible experience working for a community outreach non-profit where her manager acted out abusively, driving her deeper into emotional withdrawal until she had to quit her job after only a few months. The panel of speakers affirmed her decision and spoke about the importance of self-care, and how vital is the inner work that activists in social justice need so that they can cope with the stories of darkness and despair that they’re faced with on a daily basis. Without self-care, our relationships suffer, and our social justice work can fail even despite our best intentions.

Next, a young man with a lip-ring took the mic and told his story — once full of hope and gratitude for the friendships he’d forged as part of his work with #Occupy Wall Street, he now found himself struggling with frustration as the movement lost its momentum and petered out into bickering, abandoned by the larger community of liberals who just wanted to keep their heads down and make it through the upcoming election mostly unscathed. I found myself tense with sympathy for his anger, the sense of betrayal giving an edge to his voice. The speakers on the panel acknowledged it, too, and shared stories of their own experiences of setbacks, all the while emphasizing that the relationships forged in such times of “doing the small, steady work” were the very same relationships that can allow us to act most effectively and powerfully when the time is right.

Then a mother stood. She turned to the young man who was just sitting down again in his chair, and she spoke in a trembling voice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m a mother, I homeschool my kids, I have five to seven years of that work left before they’re grown. I watched the Occupy movement on TV and in the news, and I cheered for them — for you — but I couldn’t be there, I couldn’t be out in the streets no matter how much I wanted to. I am so sorry that you feel abandoned. I just couldn’t…. I barely have a few hours to myself in a month, let alone time every week, or every day. I have my kids. Social justice work is so important, but my kids are more—” she bit back the words. “I’m all they have. So I guess I’m asking you, what can I do to help? What can someone like me possibly do?

There was silence for a moment. The young man’s anger from just a moment before was draining away, replaced by heartache and frustration of another kind. But there was also, in that moment, a shivering tension of potential, a half-formed hope that here in this space, a new way of living together could begin to take shape.

One of the panel speakers said, “I think being a mother is a powerful form of social justice in itself.” And the moment was gone.

Support Our Mothers, Bring the Troops Home

Where was the affirmation of self-care? Where was the advice to seek out friends who can help sustain us and support us through difficult times? Where was the acknowledgement of the “small, steady work” of forging and nurturing relationships?

Just as I am not a Christian, I am also not a mother. Sometimes, being on the outside of a community looking in can give us a perspective that those within the community can’t easily see. As a woman who is child-free by choice, I’m confronted every day with the glorification of motherhood in our society. Again and again, I have to prove myself against the disparaging belief that a woman cannot be truly mature and responsible if she doesn’t give birth and raise a child of her own. But the flipside of this myth is the equally problematic belief that women who are mothers should be Super Moms, supremely capable and never in need of help. They are large and in charge. They are glorified as domestic soldiers, noble and self-sacrificing for a greater good. Even role models of powerful, intelligent, articulate women are subsumed within the greater call to motherhood — told proudly that their most important job, in the words of Michelle Obama at this week’s DNC, is to be “Mom in Chief.”

And when a mother asks for support — it’s easy to sidle away like the lazy, not-really-funny TV sitcom husband with the excuse, “Oh, but you’re so much better at it than I am, I’d just mess it up if I tried to help….”

To me, a woman without children, the idea that a mother might not have even a few hours to herself to nurture her passions and pursue her own dreams is horrifying. The belief that she should be the sole caretaker and provider for her children — who not only need but deserve a village of friends, relatives, teachers, and elders — is a disservice not only to her as a human being, but to her children as well. And the fact that she feels the need to apologize for not being able to do even more, to speak out of her frustration and isolation about her regret at not being able to put the needs of all others before her own, is a sad statement about how, in our eagerness to glorify motherhood, we often leave mothers feeling selfish and guilt-ridden for not living up to our expectations.

Of all the people in that auditorium that day, who could be more deeply concerned with the future of our society? Who could have more at stake in the work to see the arc of history bend swift and sure towards justice? Who could want more for a better world for future generations, than a mother?

What words do we have for her? Is it enough to tell her that we honor her sacrifice and expect her to keep soldiering on? Do we pay lip-service to her noble self-giving as a way of refusing her the full depth of her desires, the fullness and complexity of her humanity?

Or do we find a new way of living together?

Lessons of the Goddess

I won’t lay the blame for the Glorification of Motherhood at the feet of Christians alone, though it’s hard to deny that the figure of Mary, Mother of Jesus, has played no small part in it over the past two millennia. Still, there have been many social, political and cultural forces that have shaped our attitudes towards motherhood, and while understanding that history is important, I’m more interested in how we move forward.

Just as I am not a mother, I am also not a Christian. Within the Christian tradition, there are scant few instances of child-free women presented as positive role models. More often, their childlessness is portrayed as a flaw or a tragedy, an obstacle they strive to overcome or an opportunity for God to manifest his miracles by blessing the barren womb.

In one of the better known stories of childless women from the New Testament — the story of Mary and Martha — the wide-eyed young Mary would rather sit at the feet of Jesus listening to his teachings than help her sister with the household chores. The story portrays a basic hostility between women of the more domestic, motherly variety and those who are drawn to more “masculine” pursuits (like education) outside of the home. Though Jesus defends Mary’s choice and chastises Martha for her judgemental reaction, we see little in the story itself about how these two women might resolve the conflict between them or seek a better way of living together in relationship.

This same story played out that afternoon in the auditorium at the Wild Goose. The young #Occupier sank sullenly back into his seat, his sense of frustration suddenly eclipsed and forgotten in the speakers’ rush to affirm their support for motherhood as equally noble. In trying to honor both the activist and the domestic as separate but equal, the result was that both were left feeling trapped, abandoned and cut off from the other, stuck in their respective spheres of influence, their cries for relationship left unanswered.

As a Pagan and polytheist, I am blessed with more archetypes and examples of feminine expression than I know what to do with. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, recently a new goddess has made herself known in my life — a maiden goddess of the forest and wilderness, a virgin of the hunt, a torch-bearer and light-bringer who walks in darkness and moonlight. This goddess, so the stories say, asked her father to grant her equality in all things, to be equal in skill and beauty and power to her twin brother, and to be free forever from the confines of marriage and motherhood. And yet her first act in the world, fresh from her mother’s womb, was to ease her mother’s pain during labor and serve as midwife during the delivery of her twin. She is not only a goddess of beasts and wilderness, but a protector of women in childbirth, invoked by women in that very moment that they themselves become mothers.

How different is this story from the story of Mary and Martha, where youth and maturity are set at odds with one another, isolated and kept separate though equally honored. In the story of this goddess, we see instead the maiden in the service of the mother, strong in her compassion. We see a sacred force that mortal women called to in their times of need, a protecting presence that mothers invoked to guard their children, though the goddess never had any children of her own.

The goddess as midwife and maiden is a powerful symbol of motherhood not as an isolated and isolating role of self-sacrifice, but as a part of the greater community of divine being. The Midwife says to the mother:

“You are not alone, you do not have to be all-powerful and always capable. In your moments of greatest suffering and need, when you are brought low by the pain of your own body and the effort of your own creativity, I am here to help. To ease your aching. To remind you that you will not be consumed by motherhood, you will not be gobbled up by society as a sacrifice for the greater good. Within you the maiden, youthful and wild and powerful, is living still.”

And the mother, in her turn, dedicates her daughters to that goddess, a goddess of wildness and freedom and self-possession. She honors and supports the power of that choice to remain childless, to devote oneself to the community, to guard the boundaries of wilderness. She in her turn nurtures the activist, the hunter of justice, the women (and men) who walk the liminal spaces.

The parent and the childless, the mother and the midwife, together cultivating a community of mutual support. This is, I think, a better way of living together.

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Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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