As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem. - Isaiah 66:13
In a recent article on “Women and the Crisis of American Values,” an associate dean of Harvard Divinity School made the following observations:
. . . motherhood remains for many Americans the central focus of women’s public contribution, . . . A recent study of citizen participation found that women are significantly less likely than men to be active in politics by “making a campaign contribution, working informally in the community, contacting an official, and affiliation with a political organization” nationally or locally. Women also are less likely than men to follow politics in the mass media or to believe that they can understand and influence politics and policy. And in recent years the drop in women’s newspaper readership rates has been substantially larger than men’s . . . . the women’s movement has had limited success in leading women to full public participation. . . . Estimates indicate that only about one-third of voting American women identify themselves as feminists.(Constance H. Buchanan, “Choosing to Lead: Women and the Crisis of American Values,” Religion and Values in Public Life, Vol 4, No 2/3 (Winter/Spring 1996), p. 14.)
At the same time, the dean of Harvard Divinity School points out a familiar circumstance that may help set this in context:
Pluralism inevitably creates a situation in which people have conflicting commitments and divided loyalties. We are members of multiple communities~—families, nations, religions, ethnic groups, and the like~—all of which contribute something to our identities. Each community calls forth a particular commitment from us, and each fosters a specific kind of loyalty. We seek, insofar as possible, to shape coherent personal identities forged from the multiple associations that claim our allegiance. . . . Family and work, for example, may exist in complementary relationship to one another until the prospect of a promotion or a job relocation creates a potential clash of loyalties. At such times, people must weigh conflicting values against one another and seek to decide which commitment lays the greater claim to one’s definition of oneself.(Ronald F. Thiemann, “Beyond the Wall of Separation,” op. cit., pp.10f.)
Perhaps, that is, two thirds of our voting women do not identify themselves as feminists not because they have no sympathy with what they see as the feminist agenda but because they are weighing conflicting values against one another and finding other things, such as family and friends, more important. A little article in Friday’s Patriot Ledger advised political strategists, “Don’t bother with anyone under 45. Campaign hard at AARP meetings. Make sure you get down to the legion hall to shake some hands. The senior citizens’ center is an absolute must.” Why? Because at a recent election, only eleven percent of the eligible voters had turned out, and roughly nine out of ten of those who did vote seemed to be near or over retirement age. Even with school board positions at stake, parents of school-age children simply didn’t show up. Maybe, though, they were not sitting at home with their feet up, watching TV. Given the fact that most parents, mothers included, are now wage earners as well, maybe they had other demands on their daily, finite supply of energy.
The associate dean just quoted points to “the staying power of traditional cultural beliefs” as the reason “the women’s movement has had limited success in leading women to full public participation,” but surely there is more to it than that. “Traditional cultural beliefs” do not create themselves out of thin air. They arise out of efforts to cope with circumstances which are not of our own making, and one of those circumstances is the utter helplessness of the newborn baby. In the “community” of mother and newborn, the mother is virtually omnipotent; and in this “community” a perhaps in no other, power tends to be experienced as it should be~—as responsibility.
If we want to find fault with “traditional cultural beliefs,” perhaps we should look more closely at our attitudes toward political and financial power. There is, of course, an ideal of the politician as “public servant,” but there seems to be much more clamor for access to power than for access to responsibility. Even more spectacularly, wealth is consistently regarded as an unmixed blessing, as privilege. The amount of good that is done with the astronomical salaries paid to CEOs and professional athletes is not significant enough to make the back pages, let alone the headlines.
In motherhood, though, the sense of responsibility is inescapable. In part because the community of mother and infant is so small, there is no blurring of the lines of accountability. No one else gave birth to this child. The child had no say in the matter of being born. I cannot think of any other interpersonal situation in which the connection is so exclusive and the contrast so absolute.
This, I would suggest, is why traditional cultural beliefs attach such importance to motherhood—because the responsibilities involved are simply too immense to be borne without the understanding and support of the larger community. It is not just that the mother needs medical and financial support. It is also that she needs to be understood and valued. She needs a surrounding culture, if you will, that regards what she is doing as worthwhile.
In fact, of course, what she is doing is more than simply “worthwhile,” it is of critical importance. The foundations of attitudes of trust and worth are laid in infancy. We are just beginning to discover the depth of the damage done by abuse and neglect, and the likelihood of abuse and neglect is in direct proportion to the mother’s sense of being left alone with her burdens.
This is not the whole story, though. The surrounding culture needs also to recognize that the woman is more than “mother,” that she has other relationships and other roles. In fact, one of those circumstances not of our own making is that even our own children do grow up, that the content of motherhood changes radically, that in some instances, the children may become the caregivers.
It is a gradual process, this “change of community,” and it can be accompanied by the mother’s increasing involvement in professional or public life. The senior citizens who show up at the polls are not necessarily more enlightened or more liberated or more responsible than the young parents who don’t show up. The difficulty in this case as in so many others is to discern clearly and fairly to what extent the non-participation can be traced to attitude as opposed to circumstance. One thing that life should teach us is that attitude and circumstance are in continual interaction.
Still, this is not the whole story. In doctrinal terms, the purpose of creation is not motherhood, growth, and death, but “a heaven from the human race.” What we are doing here and now is learning how to live together to eternity. This is where the church comes in right from the start~—reminding us that through all the circumstances, over and above all the cultural traditions, there are some hard spiritual facts. There is a God who values motherhood enough to comfort us like a mother. There is a Bible that offers us the radiant image of the woman clothed with the sun, bringing forth a child who is the future of humanity. There are the images of the church as bride and as mother. There is the assurance of a providence over our journeys through this confused and confusing world, that whether we are called to parenthood or not, we are being offered the materials for the building of our heavenly homes.
The Czech philosopher Václav Havel is one who would have us focus less on demanding our rights and more on accepting our responsibilities. He writes,
Genuine politics, politics worthy of the name, and in any case the only politics that I am willing to devote myself to, is simply serving those close to oneself: serving the community and serving those who come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility, expressed through action, to and for the whole, a responsibility that is what it is—a “higher” responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or unconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere “above us,” . . . . If there is to be a minimum chance of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.(Cited from Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Václav Havel on Freedom and Responsibility,” op. cit., p. 9.)
We might say it a bit differently. We would see the recording and evaluating going on not simply “above us” but also “within us,” as our daily choices form the character we will live with forever. It is not just that death “ends nothing,” but that death discloses everything, that there is nothing hidden that will not be manifested, nothing secret that will not become public.
That is, we need not look beyond the grave to discover what really matters, to find the values we need for our decisions when our various communities compete. We need rather to look within, in the light offered by our church, to discover more and more clearly what it means to be human. And surely, when we do that, we will find that the bearing and nurturing of new life is close to the heart of the matter. Amen.