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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between a rock and a hard place

Last year, I read the book Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, since I had been one of the millions of people who were grabbed by her Atlantic article, ‘Why women (still) can’t have it all.’ Millions of women, maybe. Not that men wouldn’t be interested, exactly. But part of the problem that Slaughter identifies is that care is a women’s issue. Again, not that men are not or cannot be caring, involved parents–even ‘lead’ parents, if we can call it that. It’s complicated.

So I’ll bring it home. In my life, it looks like this: when I was 5, I had two big goals in life. One was to go to Harvard Medical School and become a neurosurgeon; the other was to get married and have a family. The awesome thing about being 5 is that those two goals seem perfectly compatible, not like a superhuman juggling act that’s only really possible if you don’t need sleep. By the time I was in high school, I realised the whole neurosurgeon thing wasn’t going to happen. Yet I clung to the idea of having a career, nurtured graduate school ambitions, and definitely still wanted the marriage-and-kids option. Still, the idea that those two things might be on a collision course never really occurred to me.

Now my life mostly looks like the train wreck I never expected. Not that the house is a mess. It is, of course. One only needs to step one foot in the door to realize that I am in way over my head. Eventually I might find someone to clean, though, and I’d still be sitting in a train wreck. Because I did get that PhD, somewhat later than I maybe anticipated. And I did get that marriage-with-kids, also somewhat later than I had hoped. At the same time, actually. But even the collision of these two major undertakings–motherhood and the academic career–did not produce the wreck that surrounds me.

No. The wreck is this: that I find myself, as a 40-something woman, constantly worried that I should be doing something else. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, usually. (By child #4, I’ve finally settled into the idea that unless someone is bleeding or the house is on fire, if the little ones ask me to read a book, there’s nothing else I should be doing. But that’s about it.) Whatever it is I am doing, I have the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing, for my children or my career, that’s more important than my current activity. Like now, for example. I’m writing a blog post. What is this accomplishing? (Nothing, probably, but it does help to keep me from going completely insane.)

At the heart of the problem is the sense that I should be secure in some sort of employment, or employable at the very least; I should have some measure of independence. I should make money. My half time lecturing job (which of course is not anything like half time) pays embarrassingly badly. If suddenly I had to support my four children (and my husband is under-insured, so that’s not going to solve it–but is there a good way to nag about that, really?), I couldn’t do it. And I feel like a failure.

But why? Why should I feel like a failure because I haven’t managed to do what so many women seem to have done? Every family is different. Our family life has unfolded in the way it has because I was a grad student and my husband already a professor when we met and married. It’s because our first child has Down Syndrome–she had two heart surgeries before her second birthday. It’s because we were worse than completely broke when we got married. It’s because…the list goes on. It’s the strange set of events and circumstances that have shaped our available choices, and we’ve muddled through, probably making the wrong choices as often as not.

Somehow, though, the struggles all settle on my head: there’s the train wreck. If only I had done something better, spent some time more constructively, I would not be 40-something, wondering whether I will ever ‘amount to anything’. I can’t look around me and see four children who know that I love them, and think I’ve amounted to anything. I can’t see the book I wrote as an achievement. Hell, everyone I know has written a book or two–that’s just what people in this line of work do. I’ve no idea how I did it, either, so I am finding writing another (maybe that will be an achievement) somewhat daunting.

I didn’t want this to be a rant. I didn’t want to complain. The thing is, I am glad that I have had the opportunities to study, to write, to teach. When I am not in collision mode, I love what I do. I LOVE it. And I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without being a mother, oddly. I never would have been able to give myself fully to the work if I believed that I was choosing it over having a family. But some days I do think that there is some elusive ‘all’ out there, and I could have it, if I could just work harder…or something.

But the truth is, being a full-time mother and a part-time career woman (as if one could have a career part-time; maybe that’s my big mistake) will always feel like being between a rock and a hard place. Because as a mom, I am (psychologically) ‘surrounded’ by all the moms who devote themselves fully to the work of motherhood, and I wonder why I can’t be like that. And as an academic I am constantly being compared to a variety of other academics who have totally different outside-of-work lives, and who work full-time. Whichever direction I look, I don’t measure up. Not remotely.

I still don’t have any answers. Tomorrow, I will get up and start again.