Discover more from Other Feminisms
Being a Mother to Others
Plus a debate on masculinity this week
Before the Mother’s Day links, I want to let you know that I’ll be moderating a debate on masculinity on Thursday, May 18th, as part of my work at Braver Angels.
We’re debating R: Society Needs the Influence of Men’s Aggression, and you can sign up here. Our debates aren’t a spectator sport—all the questions and speeches come from our attendees.
And we chose this phrasing for the resolution, because we didn’t want to frame a debate around rejecting toxic masculinity. We wanted the speakers in the affirmative to be making a positive case for a particular approach to masculinity, and speakers in the neg can offer a contrasting positive case or a rejection of the idea that there are distinctively masculine virtues.
Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post asked mothers to reflect on their favorite part of motherhood, with an eye to telling prospective parents something they wouldn’t anticipate. Here’s my contribution:
Children are unashamed of their big feelings and enormous capacity to love. When I travel around on our Bunch Bike with my 3-year-old and 1-year-old, I call out hellos to neighbors, to our parish church, to a particularly beautiful tree. People might think I’m doing it to entertain the girls, but I love how taking care of small kids is a permission slip for me to take more joy, louder joy in the givenness of the world. I try to soften schedules so we can pause by a very interesting flower or see what we can hit (safely) with a stick. I see more of the world, moving at my children’s pace and looking through their eyes. And, frequently, I receive more kindness from strangers than when I travel alone, self-sufficient. Because my children obviously encumber me and slow me down, people hold doors, lift luggage, play peekaboo. I’ve been drawn into conversation with strangers and sometimes wound up praying with them because my children make me needy, and thus make me visible to others and others visible to me.
I got to live this out over the weekend during a 5hr train trip with my 15mo, where other passengers helped me get carseat and stroller off at my stop, and, during a fussy time, tried to help my daughter by offering 1) a small toy, 2) the chance to see their lapdog, 3) a costco-sized bottle of Tylenol as a rattle.
Charlotte Mason used the phrase “masterly inactivity” to help us understand the cooperation of the parent’s leading and guiding of children, which appropriately preserves the space for God to inspire and bestow knowledge on the learning child. Mason encouraged parents to stand back, allowing the process of the divine to do its natural work amid education without unnecessary interruptions and overwork on the part of the parent. Masterly inactivity allows for intentional thought, planning, and guidance on the part of the parent, as long as it doesn’t obstruct children’s freedom to learn and explore for themselves.
Boden draws a really good distinction about when a parent’s planning comes in. I put in a lot of upfront work to try to make the whole first floor child-safe, so that my daughters can play and explore with a lot less supervision and intervention from me.*
*(This plan has two major weak points: You can’t childproof the big sister-little sister interaction. My littlest can now climb up onto couches and from there work her way onto the end tables.)
It’s easier to have free, exploratory play when you’ve first cleared a space. And often, as a parent, what I need most is to have cleared a child-safe range of time, so we can move at the girls’ pace, not by adult deadlines.
There’s an interesting piece at the NYT on “Mommunes” as a way to clear that space and attention. The article is on single mothers who decide to live togethers in pairs or in bigger groups, so that they don’t parent alone.
It’s not a panacea, and there’s a lot left under the surface of the article about where the fathers are and what support they (don’t) have for their own parenting efforts. But this is clearly the good the moms are aiming at:
When she came down with a headache, sore throat and body aches that knocked her flat, the other women in her house cooked her homemade soup and cookies and shepherded the children to a nearby park so she could rest.
As that article suggests, the goods of motherhood aren’t limited to our immediate family or our own children. Some of the people who helped me on the train were grandparents, one was a childless college student. Each responded generously to a child having a tough time, and they helped my toddler learn the world as a welcoming place.
Too often we think in terms of discrete life stages: Once we get married, perhaps, then we can start thinking about being a mother (or father), when really, to be a man is to be called to fatherhood, and to be a woman is to be called to motherhood. It is not a matter of having one’s own biological children, but rather of fulfilling what Edith Stein calls motherliness: the key characteristic, and vocation, of all women, single or married. […]
“One who is mother only to her own children is not a mother,” says George MacDonald’s narrator in his novel Sir Gibbie; “she is only a woman who has borne children. But here was one of God’s mothers.”