Becoming a ‘motherist’

The new academic year is underway, and today I am introducing a group of second year students to Christian ethics. What on earth do I mean by that? I am hoping to persuade them that one of the most important things that ‘Christian’ does in modifying ‘ethics’ is locating practitioners. We cannot pretend we have a view from nowhere.

Where do I stand, I wondered. How can I explain to them what it is that shapes the person before them and guides my own practice of this academic discipline? I describe myself as a Catholic moral theologian, but that has to be qualified. I used to qualify it by saying that I was a feminist. That no longer seems to fit, for a variety of reasons.

The most important reason, especially for the purpose of teaching an ethics class, is that the word ‘feminist’ generally conjures up the notion of ‘women’s rights’. I’ve nothing against women having equal rights. Access to the same legal protections as men is essential for women. It is especially so now, when women suffer sexual violence routinely in spite of broad public support for the #MeToo movement.

My concern with rights-language, in this context, is two-fold. The first concern is that it is insufficient. Necessary, but not up to the task of reforming relations between men and women. And that is what is required: not more laws, but a conversion of more hearts.

The other concern is more complex and more controversial. I have long had a niggling sense that something wasn’t right about the way we women got our rights. Something had to give–something always does in order for such radical change to happen.

What gave? Something intangible, and something that cannot be recovered. I am not ever going to be one to advise turning back the clock: the young Sean Connery as James Bond convinced me there was no going back. The cultural milieu that made his interactions with women ‘normal’ had to change (and hasn’t yet changed enough).

I agree with early feminists about the ‘problem with no name’. I’m just not certain that the diagnosis and treatment of the problem was thorough enough. On the one hand, women who wanted (or needed) to work outside the home should have had equal access to the training and positions. On that score, I think we have not done too badly. I’m sitting in an office in an academic building, about to go and lecture in a university that admits at least as many women as men each year. The women now studying will have the same career opportunities, legally, as their male colleagues.

On the other hand, though, there is still ‘women’s work’ to be done. And, though some may find it unimaginable, there are still women (and not only women, I hope) who want to do that work. The problem is that that work does not have equal status in the eyes of our achievement-oriented culture. The equal rights taken up by women in the workplace ought to be matched by an equal respect for those who (whether women or men, mothers or not) who take up the hard and thankless work of mother-craft.

By mother-craft, I simply mean the kind of work that more than 50 years ago would have been thought of as stuff women did. Not just doing housework, but teaching children to tie their shoes, cross roads safely, and take their responsibilities seriously at home and school. Parenting requires attention and discipline. More than that, the hardest part is the constant self-giving involved.

The essence of mother-craft, as I see it, is teaching our young that life is not only meant to be lived, it is meant to be given. We all live our lives, and we are careful about how we do that (at least that’s what I’ll be insisting in my ethics class). But also, and perhaps more importantly, we all give our lives. That is worth repeating: we all give our lives. Not only mothers and heroes die. We all spend our lives. We give them away in projects and various pursuits.

Motherhood, the biological kind, makes a nice figure for this. The body is given in pregnancy. Ask anyone who has carried a child. The mother’s body is no longer just her own; it is given for the needs of the child. Mother-craft is the art of co-operating with the body’s work of giving. It continues through the whole of life, as the mother (as was) spends her life for those in her care. The most important moment in my life as a mother and as a scholar came one day when, completely spent and frustrated at my inability to be the mother I wanted to be and have the career I wanted to have, I sat down and wondered what life was for. ‘It’s for giving away,’ I thought.

It hasn’t made me a great mother. And it certainly hasn’t helped my career. But it has made me something beyond a feminist. It has made me a ‘motherist’: someone who believes the equal rights of women should include equal respect for what used to be regarded as ‘women’s work’. The work involved in mother-craft deserves our respect. No matter who did it for us, and no matter whether they did it brilliantly or not-so-well, we wouldn’t be here without it.

Thanks, Mom.

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the other front

This morning I was struck, looking out at the children during Mass at my kids’ primary school: my future is in their hands. Oh, I know, it’s the sort of thing we say. Like we know we are mortal. But it doesn’t really sink in until something presses it on us. (For me, it was the death of my mother that did it.) In fact, it is such a banal thing to say that Whitney Houston recorded a song about it. Today, though, that ‘banal truth’ (as David Foster Wallace might describe it) hit me in a different place. A deeper place.

I’ve long worried about the evaporation of childhood. Academic work starts earlier. And homework, and stress about school. Kids watch more TV and are protected from the dangers of tree-climbing. My generation thinks that childhood in the 1970’s may not have been as safe, but we survived it–and thrived. So I am not alone in the concern for childhood. Nor am I alone in the concern that part of what shapes childhood for our kids has little to do with safety and everything to do with what’s convenient for us. Screens keep kids occupied as easily and certainly as Mary Poppins. I know (#guilty).

And I wonder whether, at least for me, a part of the desire to keep my kids safe and healthy is a desire to keep things in order. Nothing disrupts my work like a kid off school. Yesterday, I let my 11-year-old stay home because he was so stressed out by school, knowing that I’d be sacrificing a day of work. We had a great walk in the woods and more time alone together than we have had in years. We both enjoyed it–and a funny thing happened. I slipped in the mud, and realised suddenly that he was fully my equal in terms of agility and speed. And he thought he was looking after me as much as I was looking after him. We have changed. I’ll miss the deadline I thought I would meet, though I judge the loss to be worth it. The unexpected sick days, though, can inspire grumbling and worse. Who thinks that missing work because a child is off school ill, or because of bad weather, is worth it? Maybe I’m just selfish that way.

That experience yesterday probably set me up for the awakening I had this morning, that conviction that my future is in the hands of all those children at Mass in the school hall. We worry about what sort of future we are creating for them. But we should be equally concerned about what sort of future they will create for us. God willing, I will still be around when they are running the world. And I will be vulnerable, as they are vulnerable now. I hope they don’t just give me a screen and hope I’ll leave them alone for a bit to get on with their work. If they do, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Work, work, work. I love my work, actually, and am grateful for the opportunity to do it. As a moral theologian, I work in a space cleared for me by feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ve expressed my gratitude for them in previous posts. And there is still work to in that space. Part of the reason I do not jump on the ‘it was all better in the 1970’s’ bandwagon is that it wasn’t. Not for women, anyway. I don’t mean not being welcomed into the workplace, either, though that is part of it. I mean the sick feeling I got when I watched an old James Bond film (with the young Sean Connery). The portrayal and treatment of women in those films horrified me. Never mind that there isn’t the graphic and grisly presentation of fighting: those films are deeply violent, unconsciously so…which makes it worse. I’m not going back to that, and I am deeply grateful to the women in Hollywood who have led the #MeToo movement. I dream of a future in which my daughter will never, ever use that hashtag.

There is, however, another front in this war we women have been fighting. A less glamorous and more dangerous front. One of the things that we have lost in the fighting is the value of childhood, of home, of motherhood–by which I mean the form of radically available parenting that doesn’t regard a sick child as an interruption in the work. In ‘mothering’, tending to the sick child is the work. (Obviously this form of family life was never the universal that some of us like to think. But it is still true that growing up with parents who were still married to each other is a privilege. So it is worth considering as a desirable form of life, even if it isn’t for everybody.)

The ‘other front’ is the battle for the honorable craft of caring for children. To fight for it doesn’t mean asking for a regression to the 1970’s, but for a true recognition that those who are children now are creating their future and ours. Teachers cannot raise our kids for us, though my kids’ primary school does a smashing job of making kind and generous-hearted young people. We are losing childhood and motherhood together, and it is a terrible loss. Not because we should all return to a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ society, but because losing childhood and motherhood means losing a space in which we used to do a lot of growing together. I remembered that space yesterday: every day my children change, and I change. I want to help guide that change, and I want them to guide my changing self, too.

So I fight the battle for being a mom. (Or, I guess, a mum, since that’s what my kids call me.) When the world says, let him watch TV and finish that review, I have to say, no thank you. I’m going for a walk. I know there are mothers out there who do this every day and never think twice about giving their entire lives for their children. Their CV will never, ever reflect the world-changing work they do. And I thank them, because my future is in their kids’ hands, too.

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the other lie

I’m a little behind in my reading, I confess. Only today (for boring reasons) did I get around to reading The Feminine Mystique. Since I am so behind, I have the advantage of reading the text through the criticisms of others (notably bell hooks) and the luxury of a pdf version online. Because the book celebrated 50 years since publication, I also have the help of retrospectives: Ashley Fetters’ article in The Atlantic gives a concise and helpful overview of the major criticisms (and has its own argument to make with respect to the book and its reception).

If you want to read about those major criticisms–that the book is racist and classist, founded on lies, and homophobic–please click the link above and read Fetters’ article. Here, I want to point to one more lie that permeates The Feminine Mystique: the ‘pointlessness’ of the work mothers do. The problem with no name seems to me to be only partly about women’s newfound ambitions being frustrated by the daily suburban routine. The women who don’t make an appearance in the book are those who found meaning in family life, and those who never had the opportunity not to work (see ‘classist’ above).

Please don’t stop reading now, because you assume that I am about to argue that motherhood is intrinsically fulfilling and women should all be trained not to develop other ambitions. Not at all. I am, after all, a Catholic theologian who teaches at a university in the UK. The work I do gives me a sense of ‘more’ beyond the boundaries of family life, and I enjoy it. I confess to a certain weariness sometimes, though, and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better not to have ambitions. I sometimes think I would be a better mother if I were always there for and with the children and not off teaching, researching, or writing. I’ve no way of knowing. I do envy women that seem satisfied with family life, who somehow make motherhood a profession, a vocation, a career. But this is a bit of a digression.

The pernicious lie of The Feminine Mystique is that the work housewives did was ‘pointless’ (in the words of one of Friedan’s informants). It is a lie because the work is not pointless. It’s repetitive, and it can be boring and isolating. But the mundane tasks that involve care for others–preparing food, cleaning, looking after children–are necessary. Care is not pointless. And that’s the pernicious part of the lie. The tasks associated with the care of children are demeaned by the complaint that they’re pointless. The implication is that these things are unimportant; by doing these tasks every day we achieve nothing. In this line of work, there is no opportunity for advancement–no raises, no promotions, no corner office. And those are the things that mark us as important.

As long as we believe that, however subconsciously, we will serve our children badly. Not because we don’t care about them, but because we have begun to treat childhood as something of a disability. Children are not able to look after themselves, they need educating and training so that they can become productive. All this is true. But in adopting this attitude to childhood–it’s something to be got over–we ignore children in themselves. Children are not merely defective adults. (This is one of the key insights of the work of Maria Montessori.) Even if they were, and raising children was simply the process of shoring up the deficiency, it wouldn’t be pointless. Treating children as doing the essential work of becoming the people they are meant to be takes a different kind of attention to them, an attention that does not just measure them against the standards set for grown-ups but helps them to see who they are becoming. That work is not pointless.

So Betty Friedan was wrong about that. As grateful as I am for the opportunity to study and to work, which is a fruit of the feminist movement, I do sometimes worry about the cost. When caring gets sidelined, children suffer. And not only children, but all those who need care–the elderly, those with disabilities, and us temporarily able-bodied folks, when we fall seriously ill. Caring is a distraction from the really important stuff; let someone else change the sheets and prepare the food, so we can get on with the stuff that matters. I think we’re missing something here.

But I can’t say more about what it is: I have to take my 5-year-old daughter to the library now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Trinity and the newspaper

Yesterday was the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. How did I mark it? I wrote my usual piece for the church bulletin at St Cuthbert’s and I led the children’s liturgy–a lot less ‘usual’ and a whole lot more nerve-wracking. More on that later. Late in the afternoon, after the rain dashed our hopes of a walk to the park, I caved to the 12-year-old’s plea for ‘another James Bond movie.’

UnknownIt may have been watching Goldfinger that made me alert to the three articles in one newspaper (the New York Times) this morning, all touching on the situation of women in the contemporary Western world. I was slightly shocked by the behaviour of our favourite spy towards women–obviously it has been a while since I watched the Sean Connery films. Fortunately, two of the articles today suggest that the reason I find his behaviour inappropriate is that things have changed for women, not only in the US, but also, finally, in France. Denis Baupin was forced to resign from his post as the Assembly’s vice-president because of his persistent sexual harassment of female colleagues. Big firms in the US have come a long way on these issues, but the less obvious discrimination against women continues: the pay gap and the obstacles to advancement on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the vehicle for changing the rules about sexual conduct may not be much use to women in addressing the other structural issues, as firms make arbitration the rule and prohibit employees from being involved in class-action lawsuits.

23BOOKZEISLER1-master180The article about women on Wall Street makes Jennifer Senior’s review of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler, all the more pertinent. Zeisler denunciates the cheapening of feminism, arguing that ‘feminist’ has lost its meaning and its power. Now any woman can be a feminist, and the only goals she has to embrace are ‘to seize [her] power and tap into [her] inner warrior.’ I won’t rehearse Jennifer Senior’s good work here: her review is worth reading. In short, the difficulty with the book is that the real issues, to which Zeisler often refers, get very, very short shrift. And why? Because, perhaps, the boring issues like the wage gap, especially as it affects workers in the lower tax brackets, don’t sell books.

My interest in this trinity of articles in this morning’s New York Times doesn’t require all the details from each of the articles. Some of us women have benefited enormously from those who resisted the James Bond approach to relations between the sexes; some of us have found our way into spheres of work and influence that would never have been open to us 30 or 40 years ago. I know I am one of those women. I worry because the playing field onto which I have emerged, somewhat uncertainly, still operates by a set of rules that haven’t changed too much since women weren’t allowed to play. This affects me deeply, as a caregiver and someone who believes strongly that there are more important things in the world than career advancement. But it affects many, many more women who have to play by those rules in order to survive, and women who cannot play by those rules, and so are excluded.

Things have changed. Things haven’t changed nearly enough. Unfortunately, as long as we are ruled as a culture (and here I am thinking of culture both in the US and the UK) by the need for comfort and stability, and driven by the desire for luxury and entertainment, nothing will change very much. The problem feminists face is a part of the bigger problem we face in the world: sin. Sexual harassment can be fought; women can win, because sexual harassment doesn’t really increase the profit margin. (Note that one broker mentioned in the article about women’s struggles on  Wall Street was promoted, despite having such a bad record on sexual harassment that he wasn’t allowed to have a female administrative assistant: he must have been really profitable.) But equal pay, family leave, and improved wages for those earning the least are difficult, costly.

It all seems pretty dismal: I guess that’s why books addressing poverty and discrimination in specific and concrete detail, don’t sell. Whatever sort of oppression we might be fighting, the odds are against us. The wisest thing I’ve ever found in Judith Butler’s writings (not to be a feminist name-dropper) is the observation that real change comes when we are able to resist the urge to fight back when we have been hurt. (See her Frames of War; I reviewed it for Modern Theology a while back.) I think I have heard that somewhere before. Fighting back seems like the only way to get anywhere; it is refreshing to find someone whose work has shaped critical gender theory for more than twenty years saying something different.

TrinityNow, maybe you’re wondering what the Trinity and the whole business of feminism have in common. No, I am not going to go in the direction of feminist theology. Yesterday, in that terrifying experience of trying to say something to children about the Trinity, a beautiful thing happened. There we were, talking about the Glory be, and listening to the gospel (John 16:12-15), and trying to make sense of it all (without actually using the word Trinity, which seemed extraneous), and the children somehow managed it. Why don’t we hear ‘Son’ in the gospel, we wondered. Because Jesus is the Son, and he’s speaking, offered one of the children. We wondered how God was present with us now. ‘In our hearts,’ offered another child; and ‘by the Spirit,’ said a third. But the best of all was in their free drawing time. One of the girls came up to show me her drawing afterward. Below the text of the Glory be, she had drawn a circle with a series of arrows to indicate the circle’s direction. ‘Because it continues,’ she explained.

So it does: this business of God’s involvement with our world, with all it suffers from the sin of men and women, continues. Because we women and men have that same Spirit living us, the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead; and so we stay in the game, despite the odds, offering our suffering as a part of the struggle.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Note: yesterday, in other years, would have been the memorial of St Rita of Cascia, who might make an excellent patroness for Catholic feminism, insofar as there is such a thing…