Last weekend the internet observed Mother’s Day. Among the usual flurry of perspectives, people celebrated mothers’ power to work good in the lives of their children. That power is very real and very important, but it can easily be exalted so high it casts dark shadows. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben told Spiderman, and exaggerating the power of a mom burdens her with more responsibility than she can actually fulfill.
Recently I read a vintage novel that startled me into reexamining the modern American image of motherhood. Angela Thirkell published “High Rising,” a frothy comedy set in an English country village, in 1933. The protagonist is presented as a loving mother. She also finds her youngest son so annoying she considers him “hateful.”
He is obsessed with toy trains and talks about them incessantly—“nothing except sleep appeared to check his valueless conversation.” He’s adorable after bedtime, but during the day she avoids him and breathes a sigh of relief each time he heads back to boarding school. She even started his boarding-school career at an earlier age than his elder brothers’ in hopes the derision of peers would cure his determination to monologue.
The book’s light tone makes the humor so different from what we would find today. We laugh about motherhood too, but we toss around the phrase “bad mom” with the self-conscious bravado of gallows humor.
In contrast, it never occurs to Thirkell’s heroine to feel guilty. She doesn’t seem familiar with the assumption that mothers should feel deeply responsible for their children’s personalities, happiness, and success. She has no drive to prove that she is a “good mom.” The author treats motherhood as if it were no different, no more fraught with social weight, than any of the other human relationships also used as fodder for humor within her book.
This contrast begs the question: why are modern American mothers assumed to be wallowing in guilt over their inadequacies? Why has motherhood joined death and religion as something that can only be joked about carefully? There are multiple answers, but one goes much deeper than other people’s pictures on Instagram. It has to do with the fear of suffering.
We take it for granted nowadays that the pursuit of happiness is a moral duty, but we define happiness differently than did the founding fathers, who classed it alongside life and liberty. These days we think it is freedom from anything we don’t want. It is the avoidance of suffering. It is the nebulous modern virtue we call “safety.” And of course we extend our desires for happiness to our children. What mom wouldn’t?
A few weeks ago I felt the pressure myself. I hadn’t slept enough that week, and I began to question my children’s future. I’ve brought them into a world that seems uglier by the day.
A man threw a random kid off a balcony at the Mall of America because he wanted to kill someone. Twitter has turned the masses into barbarians. Pornography bedecks billboards everywhere. People go into schools with guns and shoot their peers. Global religious persecution is on the rise, and Christians are the most persecuted group in the world. What right have I to give birth to these beautiful, beloved, precious children if I cannot keep them safe?
The problem with fear of suffering, though, is that it grows like cancer. Catholic writer Thomas Merton put it aptly: “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the very source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.”
I think for many moms, the existence of their children has also become a source of torture. Our guilt goes far deeper than it would if it were merely a response to the pressure to do all the birthing, nursing, organic feeding, tutoring, self-esteem boosting, STEM-teaching, museum-trotting stuff right. It’s existential.
We have swallowed the notion that to give birth to a child is to acquire the responsibility of giving that child happiness, and we wallow in guilt because we know how likely we are to fail. And we actually think our feelings are a fulfillment of our moral duty!
In this we are more influenced than we realize by the cultural repercussions of abortion rhetoric. Popular justifications for abortion appeal to the fear Merton describes. If women are prevented from ending their pregnancies at will, we are told, suffering will increase: the woman will suffer from loss of autonomy, the child will suffer from being unwanted or disabled, and society will suffer from the need to pick up the pieces.
There is a flip side to these beliefs. If we accept that justification for the existence of new life rests philosophically on a woman’s choice, what does that mean when she does choose to have a baby? If her child is her choice, doesn’t that turn him into an extension of her will? Doesn’t it mean she not only can attempt to mold him into the life she envisions, but that she should?
Not only do we take on the mantle of divine responsibility, we also feel virtuous for beating ourselves up for failing to be God! The truth is, I didn’t “bring my kids into the world.” Humans can end life, but we cannot create it, as women suffering from infertility know well. We don’t have to control our children and their happiness. It is not our duty.
Thirkell’s protagonist may or may not have been a “good mom,” but she can teach us something important: motherhood is a chance to learn humility. Motherhood brings us face to face with weakness.
It can be difficult to conceive a child. It hurts to push a baby out. It is painful to watch our children become acquainted with the fallen nature of the world. We can fight all this. We can turn motherhood into pain and guilt and a false sense of responsibility. Or we can let go, and remember we are not God. Someone else is. Thank God.