Cult of Motherhood?

Now there's a telling charge, which Ms. Quindlen makes in a ghastly piece in the most recent issue of Newsweek. From Webster's Dictionary we have the definition of insidious: “1. Working or spreading harmfully in a subtle or stealthy manner. 2. Intended to entrap; treacherous.” A rough word for what has been used since the beginning to launch new persons into the world.

My reaction to the counted-cross-stitch attempt at theology in her pediatrician's office (“God Could Not Be Everywhere So He Created Mothers”) would have registered the same amount of disgust. Hallmark has its excellent points but it has never claimed to offer PhD's in the Deep Thoughts categories. Just as confusing to many women are the pristine homes in glossy magazines, the clever witticisms on sit-coms that provide pat endings to moral dilemmas, and the subtle animus across the board against women who choose to waste their talents on the formation of the next generation. Surely every woman takes time to wonder now and again, “Am I the only one?”, “What am I doing so wrong?” or occasionally, “Have I lost my mind completely or will there be something left for later?”

The healthiest women cry, laugh, chat it over with friends, and then re-enter the fray where they left off. In a multi-generational extended family situation, there was plenty of wisdom to go around and memories of battles won, battles lost, and the perspective of what Really Matters. Even if occasionally we had no choice but to pull up tent stakes and move away, there were always plenty of dedicated mothers to share stories and dilemmas with and who understood the occasional need for “personal space.” How else could an entire ad campaign reach right to the hearts of women with the slogan, “Take me away, Calgon!” Don't you think they were banking on the fact that all mothers lock themselves in the bathroon to be alone? Life's tough and mothers are in the thick of it.

Oddly enough, despite our frustration over the intense physical and emotional needs of children, the understanding that without love and the rewards of kinship to payoff now and then, and the inevitable consequences of daily decisions large and small, women are buying into the notion that institutionalizing the children in the early years with minimum wage daycare staffers will solve the problem. If one woman has the capacity to go off the beam with five little ones whom her family insisted that she loved dearly, then consider an adult with a room full of toddlers she cannot even name — what are the chances of her getting too rough or even hitting the wall on occasion when chaos runs rampant?

“The weight was not always so heavy,” Mrs. Quindlen reminds us, and she's right. So instead of indicting motherhood, let's consider the culture and how it has increased the pressure. We have a society that insists that women are unfulfilled without an income, that fathers are irrelevant, that a stable marriage has no bearing on the children's welfare, and a mass media that spoon-feeds our kids violence and soft-porn, ridiculing family values such as commitment and service all the while. Combine this with jobs that demand more hours, mentally taxing commutes, and the disintegration of the neighborhood. The family is caught in a vice, motherhood takes the brunt of the squeeze, and we wring our hands and blame the children — hello?

Mrs. Quindlen's phrase, “the insidious cult of motherhood” attacks the problem and yet, within it, provides the solution. “Cult” is based on culture and that is nothing more than the sum total of all of our decisions. When we decide to love our children through thick and thin, when we choose to pass up a promotion that is tied to leaving grandparents behind, when we insist that forming the next generation is a proud and complex task, we recreate culture. Not only do we change the landscape at large, but we change ourselves. As Mrs. Quindlen admitted: “My children have been the making of me as a human being.” Amen. Part and parcel with the runny noses, the spilt milk and the arguments over clothes and homework is the refinement of the parent, if she allows it to happen.

Whatever conspiracy Mrs. Quindlen has been a party to needs to end. There is no game unless we acquiesce to the misplaced notion that the demands of motherhood are not fit for normal conversation. Family life is a mixed bag and always will be. “Yes, 'M is for the million things my mother gave me,' and I drove her demented over all those years.” Now let's forgive and move on — wiser, more human, and ready to give to others in the same way.

If our culture at large is rewarding youth, recklessness, and paths of least resistance, then our children will absorb that. It is adults who create the television fare, teach the children, and provide the role models. This is no time for hand-wringing but for course correction. We didn't get here overnight and won't get back on track immediately. There may be far more casualties in the process, but if we begin to esteem motherhood, virtue, and honest communication now, we can only enhance the popular culture and begin to diminish the weight on women's shoulders.

Today we take the first steps. We remove the silly sampler bromides that miss the mark and irritate the flustered in our midst. We look each mother in the eye and show her that her gift of self is noble and honorable, cheerfully holding the door if necessary as she pushes the double stroller. Tomorrow, we'll take on the workplace, the universities, and the mass media, reminding them that motherhood is not the enemy. But not until we've soaked at leisure in the soothing bath and regained peace after tucking in our corner of civilization for the night.

(Mrs. Kineke is founder and editor of Canticle Magazine, the Voice of Today's Catholic Woman.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage