Throughout the history of the movement for the equality of women, both recorded, and, I suspect, unrecorded, there has been an unresolved tension around the issue of motherhood. Freud said that biology is destiny, and al- though with the advent of reliable birth control that is no longer necessarily the case, the need for the human race to reproduce itself remains, and only women are able to do that. If a woman does it, it means again that for her to some degree biology is still destiny.
Any upsurge in the pressure for women's equality begins with economics and political power, asserting quite rightly that until women have equality in those fields they will not gain equal respect with men, goes on for a while and then stubs its toe on biology again: The fact is. that women give birth and must therefore either make child-raising their career or at least interrupt their other careers while doing the having of children. The response to that is then to try to make that career as prestigious as ones for which people are paid. We have seen it in the latest feminist surge, and it was true in the last third of the l9th century when the right of women to vote and work and be respected was the primary issue confronting society.
And that, contrary to the mushy sentimentality and commercialism sur- rounding Mothers' Day nowadays, was how it all began. The first person in the United States to suggest that there be a day honoring mothers was Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, abolitionist, feminist and Unitarian. She was not thinking of mothers in the sense that the celebra- tion of Mothers' Day tends to categorize them, as cookie and pie bakers, house cleaners and skinned knee bandagers. On the contrary she was thinking of them as those powerful people who shape the culture of the nation, who give birth to the future and can change it for the better by their influence on those who will be the new leaders. This, it seemed to her, deserves respect, and to encourage that respect which women then, and to a great degree still do not have, she suggested the establishment of a day to honor mothers.
It seems to me that the day's establishment had exactly the opposite effect from what she had hoped. It gave people the opportunity to continue to sentimentalize motherhood (even increasing the sentlmentalization, freeing themselves from any responsibility of real confrontation with the concept) without offering either the occupation or the individuals choosing or being thrust into it the respect that it and they deserve. Sentimentalization precludes respect, because it categorizes. It is not Jane, the woman who, among other concerns and activities, has given birth to and is rearing two children, but her status as a mother that becomes important. It is not important whether she is good at it or poor at it, whether she enjoys it and glories in it or merely endures it or even rails against it, whether she is traditional or untraditional in her mothering. It is just that she is a mother. Cookies, bandaids and lullabies, apple pie and aprons. Well, some do and some don't, but that's the image. Even the image doesn't generate much respect, but only a sentimental nostalgia.
Respect is really what it's about. It is no coincidence that a feminist surge occurred after both historical efforts to improve the status of African-Americans. The first one in our history began- after the civil war and the freeing of the slaves, the second one after the civil rights movement, first the effort on behalf of integration, then for respect whether or not integration occurred. Women both times discovered, as they worked hard to improve the status of others, that their own roles were not given the respect that they would have had were they filled by men, or that they were relegated to clerical work, nursing and cooking. They did the filing and made the coffee while men did the planning and got the credit. The philosophy and rhetoric of freedom and equality didn't seem to apply to sex. When Jefferson said that all men were created equal, that seemed to be exactly what he meant.
Women decided both times that men should mean all people and began to push for equality and got the same response and came up to the same stumbling block _ motherhood. If you're going to have careers, fulfill yourselves, do the same kinds of things as men do, when are you going to have time to have and raise babies? And babies, after all, are the future of the race. Why are you so concerned about being seen as equal? Without a woman's role as mother we wouldn't even exist. You are the important ones, you and your cooking, cleaning and dhild-rearing. You have respect in that role. Why everybody in the world gets a lump in his throat when someone talks or sings of an old gray-haired mother. All you have to do is raise the specter of motherhood and all other concerns fall by the wayside. Even where men are concerned. James Whistler's painting of his mother, which he thought of as "Arrangement in Gray and Black", an artistic problem, others sentimentalized, and it is known all over the western world as "Whistler's Mother".
Of course, people like to quote that old saying, "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." There is some truth in that as I frequently mischievously mention to my feminist friends who rail against the child-rearing image of womankind, and the still prevalent superiority of men's roles. Who, I ask, raised people to think men more powerful and more worthy of respect, if it is women who do the child-rearing? However, though the hand that rocks the cradle may rule the world indirectly, it does not do so directly, it does not do so today, and it does not, therefore, receive the respect of those presently wielding power.
This respect is avoided, evaded and denied by the triumph of sentimentality. We can't achieve it by setting aside a day in honor of motherhood. Since it is celebrated in an orgy of sentimentality, it defeats its purpose. And indeed few even consider that that should be its purpose, and I am almost certain that the official creation of the day was done in another such orgy__ not with the poisition of women in our society as mothers and thereby shapers of the future in mind, but rather images of dear old gray-haired mother who would be pleased with any little recognition of the time and effort she put in.
During the early 70's there was a little book by Shel Silverstein called The Giving Tree which enjoyed a certain popularity-in our church schools before some people pointed out its dangers. It was the story of a boy who grew into a man and the tree that loved and sustained him. At each stage of his life he used the tree for some purpose. In the final scene he has used it up except for a stump upon which he sits in his tired old age. That is the image that people, men and women alike, would like to have of mothers. They are people who give and give and give and don't even really need a thank you, but will appreciate a phone call, a lunch, a bunch of flowers or a card once a year on Mother's Day. No wonder there's a lack of real respect for mothers if they are only things to be used __ and to be used up. And no wonder the beginning of each surge of feminism emphasizes careers in business, in the professions, in places that women haven't usually been found, since there perhaps they can find the respect that is lacking for the career of motherhood.
Just as naturally there must be a back-lash, since if there is to be a future for humankind some of us must be mothers, and children must be cared for, civilized, and turned into responsible adults. It really is, despite the fact that fulltime parents, child-care professionals and teachers get little respect, a job of vital importance. And, though the nurturing and teaching of children could, and I think should, be done by men and women alike, the actual production of babies can only be done by women. This is going, for however short a time, to disrupt a separate career, and we are back to the same problem. How can we have babies, take care of children, and still be seen as whole and worthy human beings as deserving of respect as a doctor, a lawyer or a business executive.
One way we can't do it is by fiat. We can't just say that the career of full-time mother is just as worth-while as any other and more than most if we don't really believe it. We don't even pay attention to what motherhood means or is. Any healthy woman with normal organs can, when she reaches puberty, with a little assistance from a male sperm, however deposited, become a biological mother. There is nothing particularly worthy of respect or disrespect about that. It is somewhat painful and more value-laden than it needs to be because of our cultural mores, but it is simply a biological fact. It's after that that things get difficult. Although breast-feeding is also something that only a mother can do, all other aspects of child-rearing can be done by anyone, male or female, with the talent and desire to do it. It is usually, however, mostly a woman's job because somebody's got to do it, and since she's the one who produced the child, the responsibility usually devolves upon her whether or not she has the talent or desire to do it. There is a continuous stream of books and articles about the parent/child relationship, pro and cons what it should be, what it shouldn't be, what neuroses it produces, whether or how much men should get involved in it, how women can juggle child-rearing and a career, how child-rearing is a career and so on ad infinitum. And every year on mother's day we go back to sentimentalizing about motherhood, because the whole thing is clearly too complicated to really think about, and our relationships with our mothers are nowhere near as simple and clear- cut as we would like them to be. What's more, a phone call and a bunch of flowers won't clarify them. Love is no substitute for respect, and women need that too, even when their career has been motherhood. And if they've done it well, they deserve a great deal of it.
The wonder is that any of us can do it well at all _ particularly as there is no one way to do it, either for mothers or children, and what is good for one child may be bad for another, and particularly too, since most of us get into it without a whole lot of intentionality. Biological motherhood produces good and bad, competent and incompetent, willing and unwilling mothers. Since our culture ties biological motherhood to primary parenting, the role is filled without any concern for whether one is fitted for it. That may be one reason for the lack of respect that it has as a career. We tend to respect less those things that are done without long preparation and standards that must be lived up to.
Nowadays, of course, people can usually choose whether or not to-become parents, but there are biological and cultural urges which encourage us to do it whether or not we will be good at it or whether we really want to. Perhaps the first thing that needs to change is that. The world certainly doesn't need more children than will replace the people already here, so perhaps parenting should be something that is done less as a matter of course. That is happening to a degree, but less than those of us who live in a milieu where such choices seem commonplace would think.
Part of the reason for this is that we sentimentalize children as well. One of my suggestions is that those people who "love" children probably oughtn't be allowed to have them. (I wouldn't really do anything so draconic as to pass laws about who could or could not have children, although that is something that many people concerned with overpopulation tend to suggest. The problem with that, though, is the same with any other authoritarian system: who's going to make the decisions for other people.) The reason I say that about people who love children is that the consequences of loving children in the aggregate are the same as the consequences of idolizing motherhood. It keeps you from having to think of children as individuals with their own temperaments, needs and desires, just as having a sentimental image of motherhood enables you to avoid treating the women you think of as mothers as individuals. Children can be playthings, toys, conveniences, or, more responsibly but just as unfairly, clay for you to mold in any way you wish. Mothers bear a strong resemblance to the giving tree.
I would like to see child-rearing the job of those, male or female, who do not love all children but who, like some, dislike some and love a few, because they are aware that children are human beings who deserve the kind of attention that recognizes their differences. The respect given to those whom you dislike, child or adult, from a recognition of their human individuality is more valuable than any amount of unthinking, uncritical love, if it doesn't include such recognition.
Perhaps the process feeds upon itself and gives rise inevitably to the tension that is felt between the necessity of having people follow the admirable career of being a nurturing parent, and the lack of respect for such a career by the accident of biology which has in the past thrust women into it whether they were interested in it, trained for it, competent in it or not, and kept men out of it. To make a virtue out of a necessity which was not biological, but merely cultural, but nevertheless still a necessity; motherhood is glorified, and respect for individual differences in desire for or competence in motherhood goes by the board. A lack of respect for the job itself is the natural consequence in spite of its obvious value. Perhaps next time there is an upsurge of feminism, the most important goal of all can be reached: a respect for the individual, whether male or female, which must indude a real respect, not a sentimental glorification, for the job of nurturing and developing those individuals, now children, who are the future of the human race. Then, perhaps, we can celebrate not Mothers' Day or Fathers' Day, or now, I understand, Grandparents' Day, with no reference to the abilities of any of these in their roles, but Parents' Day; and parents will be worthy of the honor because their respect for children will lead them into a most honorable career. However, then there need be no artificial glorification because respect breeds respect, and the glorification will be inherent rather than imposed.