Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More Wednesday Wisdom with Warner

It's time for some more Wednesday wisdom with Judith Warner.  During our first two installments, we explored balancing our premotherhood and postmotherhood selves and the burden of modern husbandhood and fatherhood.  Uplifting topics indeed.  Today we'll take a look at what Warner calls the "Motherhood Religion."

In Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Warner traces the evolution of the idea of the perfect mother all the way to the dead end we have reached today: the image of a perfectly selfless creature, who sacrifices her own wants and needs for those of her children.  Warner describes devotees of this new Motherhood Religion living their lives in a "totalizing, ultra-child-centered way": chairing every school committee; making organic, hypoallergenic soccer team snacks from scratch; staying up into the wee hours finishing their kids' homework; preparing all of their own baby food at home rather than buying commercial brands.

We all know these women.  Sometimes we are these women.

In a recent post on her blog at the Times, Warner revisited the Motherhood Religion.  Placing issues of motherhood in the larger context of our cultural attitudes toward women and the choices available to them, she suggested that
some of the more insidious elements of the long-brewing antifeminist backlash have become an accepted part of our cultural landscape. We’ve seen this for years in the way we talk about motherhood: celebrating selflessness, demanding an almost inhuman degree of child-centeredness, positioning the interests of mothers in opposition to those of their children, as our political and personal debates so often do.
And once again Judith got me thinking: if your time becomes consumed by your kids and their activities, the business and stuff of them, where do they end and you begin?  How selfless can you be before you start to lose your Self?

Lately I have started to take steps to distance myself (and, I suppose, my Self) from the Motherhood Religion.  I've started to let Big Boy play on his own more often, maybe watch a little more TV.  Tiny Baby spends more time on my lap while I check e-mail and Google Reader and more time on his activity mat while I read.  I've traded in the dogma of nightly home-cooked meals for a new adherence to that modern-day prophet, Trader Joe.  I've secured the services of a loving and lovely childcare professional to watch the boys while Husband and I go out to eat now and then.  And I have enjoyed just about every moment I've spent following these new commandments.

But, like the zealots they are, disciples of the Motherhood Religion (both real ones and the ones in my head) have tried to reel me back in, with their comments about what they do and subtle criticisms about what I could do too, if only I gave in and believed a little bit more.  (Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; I have gone to the movies after my children have gone to bed.)

Once again, Saint Judith comes to my rescue, offering, in Perfect Madness, some salve to help assuage my guilt:
Studies have never shown that total immersion in motherhood makes mothers happy or does their children any good.  On the contrary, studies have shown that mothers who are able to make a life for themselves tend to be happy and to make their children happy.  The self-fulfillment they get from a well-rounded life actually makes them more emotionally available for their children - in part because they're less needy.
So mothers (fathers, too), keep right on loving your children.  But find ways to love yourself too.  Eat.  Drink.  Read.  Write.  Be Merry.  Put the Self back into yourself.  Your happiness - and that of your family - depends on it.

When it comes to the Motherhood Religion, are you a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic?  Do you think our society needs more separation of church and state where the Motherhood Religion is concerned?

(Can you tell that I was digging the religion metaphors while working on this post?  Just another benefit of nine years of Catholic school.) 


  1. Motherhood Religion. Fascinating. You know well that I am a lover of the good metaphor and this is a good one. I do think there is such an emphasis, spoken or no, on selfishness, on martyrdom. We are led to believe (hey, religion) that our children are our purpose, that their health and happiness, should be of paramount importance. And often we go about our lives heeding this scripture. But then if we stop and think about it and ask questions (eek, often does not go over well in religion) things become more complicated, don't they? How can we be good parents, good shepherds (yup, getting carried away too) if we are ourselves lost, grappling, seeking something, empty? We can't. We must nurture Self to sustain Other.

    And when we realize this, when we make efforts to foster our and figure out our own identities, we face scorn (from others and ourselves). We feel guilt. Where do we draw the line between our kids and ourselves? And is this line-drawing in and of itself sacrilegious? Should there be no line?

    I am a believer in lines, however wiggly and uncertain. We are better mothers - and people - when we put time and thought and energy into the evolution of ourselves. We do not stop living and learning - nor should we - when our kids start.

    Wonderful post. Wonderful.

  2. Apologies for the sundry typos above. Got excited and the fingers were flying! And I meant "selflessness," not "selfishness." But selfishness is itself ripe metaphorical soil, no?

    Thanks again for the thoughtful piece.

  3. I agree--so much of the image of the "Good Mother" is sacrificial and rooted in martyrdom. But if you exist solely to meet the needs of others, you lose yourself, no?

  4. I worry that in my adamant opposition of the Perfect Mother archetype I overcorrect to the detriment of my children. I think Warner is onto something, in my cynical moments it seems just another, increasingly sophisticated, plan by the patriarchy to keep women oppressed. But in truth I don't believe that, because I think that this "religion" is designed and pushed my women. We have all somehow bought in to the deification of an impossible women. And as I said, in classic me fashion, I've totally massively swung the other way just to prove a point. But isn't the fact that I feel that way proof, ultimately, that I too have accepted the religion?
    Eek. Tangled in thoughts. Sorry to be so inarticulate.

  5. I don't personally care for organized religion, of any sort, for myself. I have a religion. I respect religion. I enjoy attending occasional services of various faiths.

    I don't need another's "scriptures" (or building, or narrow Truth) to live by; I choose a variety of voices and possibilities and teachings as they come (some sought, some not) - and live my life in that manner. A sort of respectful ever-moving borderless boundless space, that nonetheless has rules.

    Like I said, I don't need organized religion. It's too polite, too neatly tied up, too proscriptive for me. I do need community, a variety of beliefs, and many sources for strength.

    Doesn't that sound like Motherhood? Which is imperfect, messy, borderless, boundless, in need of community, a variety of beliefs, and an ever expanding set of sources for strength?

    To me, the self-sacrificing all-nurturing Motherhood Religion is one more myth that sets groups against each other (like organized religion?) - rather than fostering parents (men and women both) helping each other to raise kids.

    Part of that - as you've said here - is retaining the Self. And more than retaining - continuing to nourish. (Those who criticize may feel that if they were to do the same, they would be criticized. Or perhaps they don't know what other interests they might explore. Not yet, anyway.)

    If you are married, and you lose the "self" who is part of the couple, you often lose the couple.

    All that said, there are periods of time when it's all about the babies and kids. It just is. That starts to change when they go to elementary school. The job description shifts. And the nature of the juggle shifts.

    In a world already so fractured by classifications (and most of us don't really fit so neatly into them), can't we dispense with one more religion? Just try to share the workload, attentively parent, and carve out time when possible - more so as they get older - to dust off old "selves" and encourage a few new ones to pop out.

    Long ramble. Sorry. MAJOR computer problems (typing fast while I can and not editing)... GREAT topic, Kristen. As usual. (You're setting the bar high! I'll need to pull out my 5" heels!)

  6. This is a wonderful post. These are wonderful comments.

    I am a stay-at-home mother, which (for me) has made it hard to establish an identity. When I no longer had my job with which to identify... my kids took its place. It was a very natural shift, and also very dangerous.

    This phenomenon is maybe a part of a larger problem I see: people identify themselves (and others) externally rather than internally. They determine self-worth by what they do rather than by who they are.

    And this became very apparent to me after I became a stay-at-home mother. That was a difficult transition for me, and for a while I was tempted to play the Martyr Mother role. I still am sometimes.

    Identifying myself primarily as myself rather than as the mother of my children or the wife of my husband has been difficult. But I think the reward is proportional to the challenge.

    Really, I should read this book.

  7. First, I love Trader Joe's almost as much as I do my kids {maybe not that much, but you get my point}.

    I think honestly I believe in the Motherhood Religion when it's needed. When the babies are smaller, it's more necessary (for me, for our family). When they need their own independence it's a little less, but at the same time they go through phases when yes, it is all about them. Granted, I do also believe that happy mama is a good one, and for me, happiness comes when blogging and sometimes drinking a nice glass of red. It's all so fuzzy to me because {not the wine...} children's needs change so much at different times. The need for the Motherhood Religion comes and goes, sometimes like in life when you need religion a little more at some points than others.
    Thank you for a very thought provoking post!

  8. Great post and great comments. (What a great dialogue you've started!) I believe in Motherhood Religion -- for ME. It's not for everyone. And I love your metaphor because like religion, motherhood has a different meaning for everyone. For me to tell another mother that they MUST follow my religion is as abhorrent to me as me telling every mother they MUST go to my church. One mountain, many paths is the phrase I refer to when sharing my belief on which religion is "right." I think this phrase works for motherhood, as well.

  9. I agree with theycallmejane, this dialogue is excellent!

    From what I understand, the Motherhood Religion is the extreme version of anti feminism. The extreme version of feminism counters that a woman's identity cannot be formed if she only stays at home with her children. I tend to avoid eclecticism, yet in this case I gravitate toward its comforting-- middle of the road--arms.

    I think that selflessly giving to children is an important step in becoming a parent. As we learn sacrifice, we are better able to care for our babies. If we feel they are taking away from our identity, we can become resentful. Embracing that positive aspect encourages our spirits to flourish.

    On the other hand, I do not worry about homemade everything, or doing children's homework assignments (heck, its their assignment!), or perfect hair dos, dress, etc. If I did, I would go crazy!!

    These are my beliefs. I find that every parent must make their own decision. Whatever suits them, and makes their lives meaningful, becomes their individualized religion.

  10. As a mom of two kids who are old enough (14 and 10) to have saved me from what I think of as the new Motherhood Immersion movement, I have to say that sometimes I look at it and shudder. Any rediscovery of the wheel, so to speak, I find always suspect. I find that when women feel that they must be all things to their children, micromanaging everything that touches their existence, it's just a new type of bondage.

    When my son was born, a pound and a half preemie I'll add, all decisions were immediately taken out of my hands. Machines, medicine, breathing apparatuses, surgeries. Any plan I had for anything - even Lamaze - was gone. To this day that lesson has stayed with me, that sometimes there are professionals who do things better than I ever could and thank goodness for them.


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