I gave birth to my son on a Monday afternoon.
Everything was slow and quiet on that day. It had the feeling of being submerged beneath the water – increased resistance that makes movement slow and hard to perform. And you’re suddenly tuned out to sounds you would ordinarily hear. The sacred space of birth – this otherworldly realm where transformation takes place.
“Mummy, I’m too scared of the dark. Can I sleep next to you?”
Like most children, my now four-year-old is afraid of the dark. Sometimes he’ll nod off peacefully. But most times, he’ll ask that I sit with him – battling together against the tyranny of darkness until sleep comes. Until this, it had never occurred to me how valuable my presence could be to another human being.
A renewed vision of motherhood
For moms today, the pressures seem to be unending. The demands on our attention along with the societal push to live a life worth taking pictures of is enormous. It seems that it’s only the public announcements of special accomplishments that can temper our fears of being irrelevant. My ideas about what was valuable and worth doing had long since fallen away since the birth of my child which resulted in a career change that would allow me to spend more time investing in his upbringing, both as a primary caregiver and nurturer.
These nightly interactions, my son found so comforting – were even more consoling to me because it had never occurred to me before how powerful my presence could be. That I could sit quietly beside him and calm his fears about the darkness spreading over him. This idea is echoed by Toni Morrison in Politics of the Hearts, she says,
“There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. It was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. Liberating because the demands that children make are not the demands of a normal ‘other’. The children’s demands on me were things that nobody ever asked me to do… Somehow all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person, about what was valuable, just fell away.”
I was not prepared for how I would feel after having my child. I’d never thought beyond the pursuit of a career and how that might need to give way to something I’d be more passionate about – mothering.
In a speech given at the American Enterprise Institute, Leon Kass challenges us to rethink what work is and what it means. “We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working,” Kass said. “We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which human beings find the most meaning”.
Melinda Gates shocked everyone by leaving a prestigious job in the elite Microsoft offices to become a stay-at-home mom. According to Gates, it was an obvious decision. “Not every woman has the option to say home with her kids, and I felt very lucky that I did”. And after sixteen years, Melinda returned to “work”, once she felt she had completed her assignment within her home.
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world
First published in 1865, What rules the world by William Ross Wallace is a poem that offers tender praise to motherhood as the preeminent force for change in the world. It creates not only the child – but a new creation out of the mother too. The process of shaping the child undoubtedly shapes the mother herself. It can serve as the greatest self-improvement project.
It’s tempting to ignore the immense influence we can have in shaping the world through the earnest, even if sometimes mundane, efforts of raising citizens of the world we ideally would want to see manifested. This is the kind of contribution that cannot simply be broken down into manageable, billable hours. As a mother, you have a vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world and be able to share the very things seemingly in short supply in our world today; patience, love, and acceptance. It’s a world of our own making that we can be intentional about creating. What value is placed on such things?
Seeing in the dark
Mothers are not angels, infallible or error-free. Quite the contrary, children depend on even the most imperfect mother, and who herself does her best raising worrisome, spirited children. And it is forgiveness that oils the machinery of every home. From birth, when babies’ fingers instinctively cling to those of adults, their bodies and brains are seeking an intimate connection. If you’ve ever placed your pinky in an infant’s palm, it will curl its fingers around you and hold tightly. A bond is made possible by empathy and the ability to love and share the feelings of others. We are born with a great need for one another – and what a great gift this interdependence and connectedness is.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through a lot of the pressing issues of our time. The paradox of declining happiness in the world, despite the rise of wealth and social ascension. I am at odds with a society that measures everyone based on personal achievement and unbridled ambition. That motherhood or being someone’s wife signals a lack of ambition is a failure to recognise the vast multiplicity of ways in which people can arrive at fulfillment. What do women want today? What is the spectrum of human longing? Is it personal achievement alone that gives our lives value and meaning? Does it matter whether we are remembered by those we love and cherish or must I make it my mission to etch my name in “the history books”? I’m quite tired of the obsession with visibility. Fame. Attention. As if that were more noble than being barefoot in a kitchen making a meal for your family. In trying to undo the very real and awful limitations once placed on women, we may have let the pendulum swing too far the other way. It has come to my attention that I do not desire to be remembered at all. I long to be forgotten. To keep a quiet heart and empty myself out only to my family and loved ones.
It is a naive sort of feminism that insists that women prove their ability by doing all the same things that men do. These are delicate issues to discuss, and I know I need to be mindful, compassionate and thoughtful. As I come closer to my 28th birthday, I remember who I was ten years ago. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would’ve said, “I don’t know. Maybe a lawyer”. But I knew that I wanted to be a wife and mother. I was always sure about that. I kept a journal for my unborn child (not yet even conceived!) to share my love and joy and hopes with them. For now I will end by saying, there is a reason archetypes exist. It took many years for me to understand that maybe women were not oppressed by being in the kitchen, or staying home with their children. Maybe there is something to be said about the deep longing a woman has – even someone like Melinda Gates – to be home, even when she doesn’t have to be. And could hire all the help in the world. What does that tell us? Not conclusively? But where do the bread crumbs lead?