Sometimes the way we talk about motherhood in the Church it sounds like we’re issuing directions for some very special full-time (and I mean full-time) employees at the pumpkin patch on how to raise gargantuan or unusually shaped pumpkins that will garner blue ribbons at the state fair. The only trouble is, the size and shape of a pumpkin isn’t entirely under the control of the greenhouse director. And if pumpkins are sometimes intractable, surely human children in all their splendor are only more complicated.
(Actually, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ve had only two abortive experiences with gardening: when I was about seven I tried in vain to grow some vegetables. I think, in my zeal, I overwatered them; to my disappointment, no green buds ever poked their heads out of the dirt. Several years later I thought it would be fun to grow some weeds. They died in short order. Apparently I’m incapable even of keeping weeds alive.)
(P.S. I have even less experience with mothering: as in, none. I shudder to think what someone who can’t keep a weed alive would inadvertantly do to a human child.)
Motherhood, we’re told, is fundamental to female identity. It entails raw power that compensates for any other perceived lack of opportunities or disenfanchisement. Although women may not contribute to church or society the way men do, we’re reminded, they can contribute in even more significant ways: through their children.
I wonder: is this really fair to mothers, to children, or even to fathers?
Children are born with certain personality tendencies. Central to the teaching of the Church is that they also have agency. Mothers can serve their children. They can provide a safe, clean environment in which children can thrive and create opportunities for growth. But ultimately, mothers don’t get to decide whether their children are the biggest and best pumpkins in the patch. The way we frame the discussion construes children as products and mothers as producers laboring to fashion them appropriately into contributing members of society.
Is it fair to ask women to make other people over whom they have power the raw materials for their creative and personal expression? Is it fair to ask children to bear the burden of satisfying mothers’ emotional and aspirational needs, of justifying their mothers’ sacrifices of self? Is it fair to fathers to be largely sidelined in our portrait of ideal parenthood?
I do think there’s reason to obligate mothers and fathers to nurture and love children and provide them with a healthy home environment, but I find the focus on mothers’ power to manufacture upstanding citizens thoroughly distasteful, as much as I hope children grow up to be upstanding citizens. The reason to love children is because people are valuable, and relationships with them are important, and they deserve our love even as they deserve acknowledgment of their agency.
- 1 February 2008