On Mother’s Day, of course we are going to honor our mothers. And, of course, we don’t each of us individually just honor our own mother, we honor all mothers.
What does that mean? What do we mean when we say “we are honoring mothers”? Is it like Hispanic Heritage month, where we honor things Hispanic? Is it like Columbus Day, when we honor the man who “discovered” our land? Or “Businessman of the Year? In those cases, saying we “honor them” means that we take note of the distinct good that this person (or this people) rendered to us or the distinct good they stand for, and we give due thanks and due recognition of the effort and spirit of the person(s) who did it.
Yes, we certainly do this too when we honor mothers today. But I think that we mean more than that for mothers. There is another, more specific sense of honor that we should think about as well. The generic sense is “giving due recognition” for someone’s good work, good will, and goodness of spirit. The specific sense is more like “giving due recognition for full self-sacrifice”. This is the honor applicable to soldiers and police and firemen, most especially: they put their own bodies, even their very LIVES on the line for the good of the rest of us. So, when we think of “honors” in this sense, and we have military awards and medals to make known these honors, we acknowledge that honor is connected to these professions, and the people who fulfill them, in a special way.
When a person willingly goes out into battle to protect his family and his people, he is rendering a signal service to them, a service that (at least potentially) is all-encompassing: it may require giving everything he has. Even as it is the duty of some to commit to this service, (because man is a social animal whose personal good is integrated with the social good), it is the duty of the rest of us to be properly grateful for this service, in some cases merely difficult and in other cases supremely difficult. And it isn’t just the risk of death (or disability) that is difficult, it is also the physically trying efforts and conditions – putting up with screaming sergeants during training, sleep interrupted at any and all hours, being in battle conditions long past when there should have been a reprieve, accepting wretched food because that’s what’s available en masse, limitations on their liberty to decide their own comings and goings, and so on. And our due respect, our due gratitude, comes in these acts whereby we GIVE honor to them because not only their acts but their very lives ARE those of honor. Thus, “honor” is a two-sided reality, it subsists in individual acts of goodness and giving that are difficult, and especially in a person whose life’s service is of difficult good acts rendered well and willingly; and then it evokes our response, respect made manifest by our returning back to the person public acclaim of the goodness and service, with the thanks and respect of the people made better by that service.
It should be obvious, then, how even this special sense of honor applies also to mothers – though not in quite the same way it applies to soldiers and police. A mother, for the first 9 months of a child’s life, puts her whole body at the service of the child. (It’s not just the uterus: the hips splay out, the skin deals with the stretch marks, the back takes on enormous stress, the breasts prepare for food delivery, the hormones change many other things, the appetite changes, the moods change, etc. It is not a mother’s womb that bears the child, it is the whole person who bears the child.) For some 6000 years at least, this service was, also, very dangerous to mothers: loss of life or loss of health was almost as common to mothers as to soldiers. They took on the risks to themselves for the good of others.
The sacrificing doesn’t stop at birth, of course. Nursing a child and other caring for his needs demands enormous attention, and considerable physical effort as well: sleep interrupted at any and all hours, putting up with squalling and screaming even as you are trying to locate and fix the problem, slogging through your 20th hour without reprieve of changing sheets because the kid with a flu barfed yet again, grabbing wretched meals because that’s all the time or energy you have available, limitations on your liberty, your freedom to choose to go to the store, the cinema, the play, just out with friends. And it doesn’t stop during childhood: mothers experience in their hearts the pain that their grown-up children must suffer in adult life, for being a mother doesn’t stop when the child-rearing does. (“A sword shall pierce your heart,” Luke 2:35)
Which leads me to the example par excellence of mothers, Mary. As a dutiful and grace-filled Jewish young woman, she must have been well aware of the “suffering servant” of the scriptural passages about the Messiah. She knew his life would not be all peaches and cream. She probably knew how Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac was a foreshadowing of the Messiah’s role also. The angel’s bidding to her presented both an absolutely unprecedented honor to a human, and an almost unprecedented promise of future heart-rending sorrow, a piercing role confirmed by Simeon. In addition to offering her self to God for bearing the Son, she willingly took on the prospect of that future suffering. And at the wedding feast at Cana when the wine was out, she kicked off Jesus’s public miracle-working ministry, though she knew where it would end. And she stuck to that, to the bitter end, standing at the foot of the Cross, humbly offering to the Father her only child. When we honor mothers today, we honor also Mary for her obedient life-long sacrifice to God.
Notice also that being a mother isn’t just a profession, it is a vocation. It is a calling – particularly, a vocation to lay down your life for someone you don’t even know (yet). It is just a slow form of laying down your life, bit by bit. And so, if we say that soldiering is a profession of special honor, then so also is the vocation of mother. Not in exactly the same way as soldiers, certainly: mothers don’t have enemies trying to kill them, for example.
So what’s the problem? The problem is a social failure of imagination: our culture is losing the sense of motherhood as a calling of honor. In movies, on TV, and in books, you can hardly move without tripping over something that casts a woman in one of the OTHER fields of special honor, but who is not a mother: women police, women agents, women fire-fighters, women tomb raiders(?), women martial artists extraordinaire, women superhero fighters, and on and on. And then, when a significant character is a mother, her motherhood is downplayed, the character is always a mother AND: engineer, coach, doctor, etc. There is a hardly a show or movie in the last 20 years where a lead character’s main purpose in life and in the story was as a mother. I read a science fiction book some half-dozen years ago where an important character takes the question on point blank. Raised in an “oppressive” traditional culture, the young woman feels that because the risky, fighting professions are forbidden to women, so also is the opportunity for honor closed to women: If they are not worthy of being entrusted to do their share of the fighting, they are not granted full equality of rights, self-sufficiency, and honor. (To which my preferred answer came from a women I know: why in the world would women want to sink to mere equality with men?) There is almost no depicting of motherhood itself as a deep and noble calling.
Why this failure of social imagination? I was tempted to say that it stems from the sexual revolution, but I think it actually came in with mothers working outside the home, which started earlier. Perhaps the sexual revolution (and it’s contraceptive progeny) hurried the change along. But somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, women (and society as a whole) were sold a false story: that to get their just deserts they needed to be in the workforce the same way men were, in the same roles and in the same conditions. With a poverty-stricken social narrative, feminists could only see one thread of equality: that of sameness. They refused to see a whole fabric with threads woven in the warp and weft of society, refused to see a multiplicity of roles for of being excellent, successful humans, of being honored, being “empowered”, being able. The only form they accepted for fulfillment was job fulfillment. The only form of honor is that of the honored male professions. The only form of social power was that in the hands of men – captains of industry, politicians, etc., so that form needed to be extended to women. Feminists proclaim this picture as empowering women, but it is only empowering to women who want to act like men in the world. For a woman who wants to succeed well in the traditional niche of mother, she is now even less able to fulfill such a role than was true before, so the “expansion” of women’s so-called equality is really a shifting of rights from one set of rights to another, one set of opportunities opened while another set are closed off.
How far has this trend in media affected people? I know of young women who can’t even imagine being stay at home mothers. I know of a few young women leaving college who are torn because they know that socially, they are expected to enter the ordinary workforce and acquire a career, and economically there is little choice but to do that, while at the same time they recognize that doing so means that there are womanly / motherly arts that they will hardly have the opportunity to develop fully…not to mention that they can rarely find a young man who expects to provide for his wife and family so she can stay at home with the children.
What’s to be done? Some, but not enough. One easy one is to make sure your children have a wealth of books and stories from 70 years ago and older. Everything from the Bobbsey Twins (not very good writing, of course) to Narnia, and the Little House books. Another avenue is to explore work-at-home entrepreneurship, so that the economic demands can be met while not being “out in the world”. But I don’t see any of these actually turning the culture around, not even close. At most they help create a tiny stich in the fabric, enough to allow a woman to at least try (if she wants that) to be a mother first.
Thanks to my Mom (now deceased) and to my wife, and to all mothers who are fulfilling their role as the bearer of children, the heart of the home and the one who forms characters.