Sleeping Mother by Christian Krohg
Have you ever listened to the kind of cathedral music devoted to the Virgin Mary? You know the kind I’m talking about? Those ethereal chants and hymns that soar up into the very highest registers of the human voice? That is beautiful music, isn’t it? But how long can you listen to it? I like to listen to it for maybe a half an hour or so, to calm myself if I’m feeling crazed, but pretty soon I want to put on something with a rhythm and some bass. I want some passion in my music. I want to dance. I find that ethereal Blessed Virgin music to be lovely, but a little too… disembodied.
That’s on purpose, you know. That kind of music was originally written to raise people up out of their bodies and into the purely spiritual realm. (As if there were any such thing.) The realm of the flesh was seen as sinful. From about 400 of the Common Era on, the church associated women with that sinful realm. So, the only way the church could allow people to praise the divine mother, was to divorce her from her whole embodied self, particularly her sexuality. She could be a mother, but only if she was a virgin mother. And her personhood existed only in relationship to her son: she was a sexless being whose whole purpose was to give life to someone else.
In paintings and sculptures, Mary is always shown as the nurturing mother, feeding the divine child from her breasts or holding him lovingly, smiling into his face as he reaches for a lock of her hair. This is the blissful part of motherhood so many women dream of, and that mothers actually do experience sometimes. Those times when we snuggle up with a child to read a story and his whole body is limp with sleepiness. The first time the baby gives a great big belly laugh. Those are indeed blissful times. But they’re not quite the whole story, are they?
The Blessed Virgin is never shown swelling purple with rage at an obstinate two-year-old, or involuntarily smacking him because he head-butted her in the mouth. She is never shown sobbing into her pillow about what a terrible mother she is because she accidentally shut his little fingers in the door. She’s never shown tearing her hair out after he has grown up and yelled “I hate you!” and slammed the door in her face. You never see her crying with exhaustion after being up with the colicky baby all night, with a thought bubble above her head that has the words from this Rosalie Sorrells song: “Today’s the day we give babies away, with half a pound of tea.”
Nor do you ever see Mary out dancing with her friends in a sexy red dress, or swooning with passion in Joseph’s arms, or swimming naked in the Sea of Galilee, or working on an intricate design for a shawl to weave for market.
No, Mary is completely focused on her child, and she is ever patient, ever kind, ever calm, ever loving. The most unhappy she ever looks is when she holds her dead man-child on her lap after his crucifixion. Even then her grief is portrayed as pretty, rather than wrenching.
I mean, imagine, your beautiful eldest son, a great teacher and prophet, murdered by the empire for teaching people to love one another. And you are going to hold him across your knees and look like this? (Sweet sad face.) I don’t think so. I think there would be screaming and stomping and weeping and tearing of hair and clothing.
So this image we have of the blissfully loving or decorously sad divine mother is just a little…incomplete.
But if we consider today’s Mother’s Day cards to be any indication of what American culture believes about femininity and motherhood, we are still holding this image up for ourselves as the ideal.
Last year I went to the store to try to find a card for my mother. This is always impossible, because none of the cards say anything remotely applicable to our relationship, but I still try. So, I was looking, and looking, when I noticed another woman standing near me. First she picked up a card, and read it, and shook her head, and put it back. Then she picked up another, and looked inside, and snorted. She picked up a third and went “Ha!” Then another, and muttered “Yeah, right!” Finally she slammed a card back into the rack and stalked off, every line of her body rigid with pain and frustration. And I knew then that I was not the only one.
The mom whom the cards address is always there for her child, always available to listen and nurture and comfort. She stays up all hours of day and night to care for the child, in sickness and in health. She tends the child’s emotional wounds, and gently challenges the child to be the best person she can be. If the child is a girl she teaches her the feminine arts of beauty and allurement: how to shop, how to dress, how to cook and clean, sew and decorate, how to attract a suitable husband. If the child is a boy she civilizes him: she teaches him manners, helps him with homework, and gives him advice about finding a suitable wife. In Mother’s Day Card Land there are only two genders of children, Son or Daughter. The mother who inhabits that land makes it clear to children of either sex that they are the most important thing in the world to her. She is completely fulfilled by spending every hour of her life at home caring for her family.
Well, if that’s the ideal, no wonder many of us have trouble finding cards for our mothers. And no wonder many of us mothers are afraid our kids won’t even call today. Our mothers didn’t measure up, and we don’t measure up either. But—that’s because the mother pictured in these cards is not a real person. And she is not living in the real world.
So let’s give up the ideal for a minute. What is the real?
There are many “reals,” as many as there are people. There are people in this sanctuary whose mothers did devote themselves entirely and happily to raising their children. But there are also those whose mothers were the main providers for their families and were hardly around. Some had mothers who hated them and abused them, and some people’s mothers live with mental illness or addiction. There are some people who have no mother at all.
There are women who give birth with joy and ease. There are women who have adopted many children with special needs. There are women who want desperately to be biological mothers but haven’t been able to. There are women who gave up babies for adoption and are glad they did, and women who gave up babies and remain heartbroken decades later. There are women who love being mothers more than anything, and also women who find motherhood difficult beyond belief and would really rather not have had children. There are gay male parents who are more nurturing and better at homemaking than most women. There are single parents, straight and gay, and transgendered and gender-queer parents, who do mothering and fathering both. So the real is complex, and when real people have to live in the real world, mothering gets downright hard.
Consider my mother as an example: she had me when she was 19, and my sister two years later. My mom is a brilliant, creative person and she desperately needed contact with other adults. But she stayed home with us until I was four. Then she saw that my father was drinking more and more, and she decided she’d better do something to improve her situation. So she went to college, and we went to daycare, and that was fine. But then when I was eight, my mother went to medical school, and I hardly saw her again for the next nine years. When she was home, she was exhausted and crabby. My life was lonely and hard, and as time went on I had more and more responsibility at home for taking care of my alcoholic father and my sister and our house and our pets.
But what were my mother’s choices? She could stay at home full time and be dependent on an addict, or she could go to school and work full time, and have a career that was fulfilling, and that would support us if she left her marriage (which she eventually did). Part time school and work were not options because medical institutions at that time were set up for men with wives at home. As they still are.
As a child, I was proud of my mother and I was glad to help her succeed and do good work. She wasn’t like the TV moms, or the moms in books who were there when you got home from school to ask how your day was and give you cookies and milk–but she was a medical student and a doctor. She was helping people. And she provided for us. She taught us how to survive as women in a man’s world.
It was only when I married and had my own children that I found out what the full impact of my mother’s decisions had been. Children and teenagers need nurturing and care. That nurturing energy which people of every culture have called the divine feminine—that energy is needed in our world. And every parent needs to have it, not just female parents, but every parent. And not just parents, but everyone who lives on this planet. Everyone needs to know how to nurture life. No one is liberated if we have to give up our capacity to nurture in order to succeed. But that’s just what my mother had to do. She was not there to nurture us and this hurt us.
I didn’t blame my mother. I knew her options were limited. But I told myself I was going to do better. I was going to find a way to balance my needs with my kids’ needs. For a while I managed it: I chose a field in which I did have the option to go to school part time and stay home part time, and I did just that. But then I finished my degree and started to look for a job. I soon learned that like many professions, mine was one in which if I wanted to succeed, I would have to work 70-80 hours a week. Another system originally set up for men with wives at home.
And there was another complicating factor: like all the women in my family, going back at least five generations, I had married an alcoholic. So I found myself having to make the same kind of awful choice my mother had made. I could stay home and be dependent on my husband, or I could work impossible hours that kept me away from my children. I left the husband and threw myself into my job. It was necessary for our survival, but it was the worst time of my life. I lasted three years.
Then I came to a point where I simply could not bear to be away from my kids so much. I loved them more than I had ever imagined a person could love. They were wonderful human beings, in completely different ways. I wanted to spend time with them, to read with them, to dream with them. I wanted to take them to the beach and to the forest and teach them about their world. Academic success was not worth the price of giving that time up. So I decided there had to be another choice. I let all my dreams and ambitions go. I gave up my tenure-track job, and instead wrote grants so I could do research part time. I could still barely support us, economically—but I would never be that brilliant leader in my field that everyone had said I could be. I would never change the world with my ideas. I made the opposite choice from my mother: I gave up success in order to nurture my family.
But in the meantime, before I made that decision? My kids were miserable. First I left their father, and they were devastated. Then I put them in after-school care three days a week, and that made them tired and sad. I don’t know if my son ever really got over it, because as time went on, despite my best intentions, he grew more and more distant from me. He went to live with his father full-time when he was 14. Now, fifteen years later, we are just getting to know each other again.
Now, my story is a hard one. But it’s the story of a woman with an enormous amount of privilege. With my education and skills, I had options that most women in this world can’t even dream of. I’ve known any number of women who had no education and no skills and no way to support their children if they left an abuser. For those women, staying with a partner who regularly hurt them was the best way they knew to take care of their children.
So here’s the hard reality of parenting in this society: we love our kids more than we can bear, and we do the best we can with what we have…and still we will fail them, in one way or another. We cannot meet everyone’s needs all the time. This is why we must have compassion, both for our parents and for ourselves. We are all perfectly imperfect.
I long for my children to come to me and say, “Mom, when you did X, it really hurt me,” so that I can say, “I am so sorry. I never, ever wanted to hurt you.” And then, if they’ll listen, I’ll say, “Here is why I did what I did. I hope you won’t repeat my mistakes. Do everything you can to heal so that you don’t pass these same family dynamics on to your kids. Marry someone healthy so you can share the work of parenting and of providing for your family.”
But you know what? Even if my kids heal all the wounds of their childhoods, and even if they break the generational patterns of addiction and codependence, if they have kids, they will still live in a society that forces people to choose between nurturing their children and succeeding at work. They will still live in a society that dishonors mothering by making war. They will still live in a society that brutalizes the children of mothers with brown skin. They will still live in a society that every day violates the sanctity of our beautiful Mother Earth.
So–what if we change all that? What if we change labor laws so workplaces have to allow job-sharing, and part-time work, and family leave for all genders? What if we redefine success so you can achieve it whether you are a single person with no kids, a parent with a partner, or a single parent like I was? What if we redefine success so that it means nurturing life—so that it means nurturing life in our families, in our communities, among nations, and in our world? Unitarian Universalists have always been people who made major social change. What’s to stop us now?
So let’s take another look at Mother’s Day. Let us no longer keep it as a day when we pay lip service to a mother who exists only on paper. Instead, let us take the day to speak honestly with each other about the real challenges of motherhood. Let us honor parenting as the sacred work it is. This Mother’s Day, let us commit to truly nurturing life.
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.
Spirit of Life, Source of all Love,
You who in each moment bring our living universe to birth:
We try so hard.
We try so hard to do what is right by our children,
and we so often seem to get it wrong.
And we want so much from our mothers,
and they so often cannot meet our needs.
May we be reconciled.
May we look into one another’s eyes and see Your love there,
May we hear you speak,
in the voice of the wind and the water,
You are my own precious child
and I love you.
Mother and father of us all, we thank you for our lives.