The Idolatry of Motherhood

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My two babies from a long ago vacation…

“Being a mother is the greatest thing a woman could do.” Kathie Lee Gifford uttered these words some 25 years ago to Regis Philbin, while I watched the tv with an older friend, who had a house filled with children. “I don’t think that’s always true,” I responded, but was quickly reprimanded by my friend. I responded by saying that it certainly was true for some women – perhaps many women – but not every woman. I decided (wisely, I thought) to let the subject drop.

I was not yet a mother, but knew I wanted to adopt children who needed homes. I had always wanted to be a mom one day, but didn’t feel the drive for pregnancy that many women experience. A graduate student at the time, preparing for a career, I also was not blind to the fact that professional mothers had much more challenging lives than professional fathers (and that unfortunately has not changed over the years). And even though I very much wanted to be a parent, I knew there were women who did not feel that calling in their lives.

Being a mom is a core part of who I am. Yet, not every woman is able to be a mom or is called to be one. This might be a choice, or imposed on a woman by circumstances. It also might be a woman who has biological children but is either unwilling or unable to be the parent a child deserves, offering support, love, and a home.

Yet, one thing remains true in our society. Being a mother is seen as the highest ideal for a woman in our society. Every little girl is expected to want children, and every newly wed woman is asked about the time plan for starting a family. New moms have to make choices about employment and child-care. Young women who aren’t even married wonder how they might balance children and a career one day, while that thought rarely crosses a young man’s mind.

And if a young woman doesn’t want children, or is not planning for them, disdain often is reigned down upon her. She is seen as selfish, uncaring, egocentric.

All this occurs because we have made motherhood an idol. It goes along with the ideals of placing women on a pedestal. Either women conform to the patriarchal notion as saints in the household, sacrificing all for their children, or they are knocked off the pedestal to be trampled by others’ judgments. Motherhood is a gift, not a requirement. For me personally, I wanted both my children. They are the most wonderful part of my life, but also sometimes the most challenging. I worry, celebrate, offer guidance and sometimes judgment, and have spent more time and money on them than I could count. As much as they fill my life with joy and love, I know that motherhood is an ongoing journey which has occasionally been smooth and other times been filled with rocks and potholes. I know I have failed miserably at times. The one consistent thing I can offer is my never-ending love to them.

Yet, choosing to be a mother does not make me a saint. It is simply part of my journey. As Mother’s Day approaches, I pray that our society will find better ways to honor mothers. We can see them as real human beings, who are fallible and have dreams and desires apart from their children. We can also honor women who have other callings in their lives, and do not have biological or legal children. Let us step away from thinking of them as less than because of their life circumstances or decisions. I know numerous women who have no legal children who have been instrumental in helping me rear my own, and in offering support to me when I often most needed it. I also feel I have a number of other “children” who are not legally related to me. Their presence in my life fills my heart.

Some Native American tribes pray to the Great Mother. A mother is someone who gives birth – and this might be a physical birth, but it also can be giving birth to love, hope, compassion, kindness, peace, and joy. For Mother’s Day, instead of focusing on a biological act, I hope we can focus on giving birth to these qualities in our society.

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