Mothers, heroism, and the divine house

May 10, 2004 | 7 comments
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Yesterday was Mother’s day and the lady’s birthday, so I took over all her job descriptions except milk-nurse. I got up early, cleaned and dressed the kids, cooked breakfast, washed up, went to church and back again, made a three-course meal, washed up again, polished the silver, vacuumed all the crumbs, washed up again, and wrote a poem to go with her birthday cameo. I’m not boasting, I’m exulting. I felt like a hero out on adventures, I felt charged up and fine-fettled, I enjoyed myself immensely.

That got me thinking. The thing about adventures is they end. Afterwards one wishes they didn’t, of course, but at the time the adventures wouldn’t be adventure if the end weren’t soon and clear.

For me yesterday was an adventure; I was done at day’s end and full of the gratitude of my wife. She on the other hand has to fight the dragons every day.

I think my realization that adventure is short-term heroism has put me in the way of understanding what’s going on in this thread. Mothers have mixed feelings about Mothers Day even though they get all the praise.

Mothers, I think, are much like missionaries or soldiers in long wars. They are stretched to their capacity. Their life is hard; they need help. They just haven’t the room to amiably tolerate praise from people who aren’t doing anything to lift a barely bearable burden. They can’t bask in praise because their job isn’t over so they still could fail. They know intimately they could fail. They feel how close they are to giving up and know they’ve done it before. Praise for shrinking from the hard job emphasizes too much their fear that they might yet shrink. At the same time, they often feel guilty because though their life is hard and they hardly know how to take it, sometimes–sometimes they can’t take it–yet they’ve done nothing so hard as the people in the stories that are told when soldiers and missionaries and mothers are being praised. That’s how it was, at least, on my mission. When I ran across a panegeyric to missionaries, I felt a little satisfied and a lot weary.

I’m not proposing to do anything about it. The burden of heroism has to be added to the other burdens of the heroes, I think, and the burden of the impossible ideal on top of that. The good must be praised, or the stones would cry out. The impossible ideal must be set before our eyes, or the dirty struggle in the real world would lose its meaning.

So here is my little effort to praise the good mothers, and set an impossible ideal for their motherhood. My effort consists of summarizing a talk in church yesterday that moved my wife, and me, and my mother-in-law.

Two pillars, the speaker said, held up the entrance to the Hebrew temple. Notionally they also held up the universe. I am here, the speaker said, to discuss another pillar, motherhood.

Don’t think of mothering, he said, in terms of the national and international economies, where we measure good in production and in efficiency. Compare the household economy that is the mother’s stewardship to the divine economy of the Lord’s house and of the houses of worship. God’s economy works toward the immortality and eternal life of man. So does the house’s.

The speaker then did a comparison in detail, beginning with meals. He said that McDonald’s, as an instance, sells food as calories. Mothers make food that looks beyond today’s hunger to tomorrow’s health. When they do it they form relationships. The sacrament likewise doesn’t feel the belly but it does heal us and tie us together under Christ. The family meal the mother makes is like the divine meal that the Lord provides. Mothering makes the house divine,

He said many other things.

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7 Responses to Mothers, heroism, and the divine house

  1. obi-wan on May 11, 2004 at 1:19 am

    Hm — recall Bilbo Baggins’ definition of adventure: “Nasty uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.”

  2. Kristine on May 11, 2004 at 11:11 am

    Adam, I think you (and the speaker whose talk you summarize) are working around the edges of something I’ve been mulling over and haven’t quite thought of anything intelligent to say about yet. [note: the fact that I have nothing intelligent to say rarely shuts me up!] To wit, there’s something tricky about the boundaries between private and public at work in Mother’s Day. Kingsley’s T.S. Eliot poem in the other thread got me thinking about it, and your post encourages my suspicion that there’s just something really uncomfortable about making the domestic sphere public. While your analogy with soldiers in a long war is appealing in many ways (and has dragons!), I think that mothering is fundamentally different from soldiering in that it is undertaken in private, with few clear orders to follow, few recognizable signs of victory or defeat, no standards for awarding medals, etc. Part of what’s uncomfortable about Mother’s Day is that we take something that is as intimate as sex and parade it around–I think in some ways it’s embarrassing to have a mother; having one represents neediness, dependence, vulnerability which most of us would rather not admit. Trying to *publicly* articulate what having a mother means inevitably foregrounds the whole embarrassing intimacy of the relationship between mother and child. And so we end up talking about the public good mothers do, which is clearly also important, but the link between the intimate drudgery of what mothers do all day and the public good of children who grow up to be noble, worthy solid citizens isn’t very clear to anyone, least of all to the mothers and children currently engaged in the battle (as you rightly point out). Perhaps it’s partly that disjunct that makes things so awkward.

    [see, I told you I hadn't quite gotten anything into intelligible form yet. ugh.]

  3. Jeremiah J. on May 12, 2004 at 2:46 am

    Motherhood entails serious difficulties and is surely worthwhile, but it seems to me that heroism must also mean danger. Is it dangerous to be a mother?

  4. Nate Oman on May 12, 2004 at 11:11 am

    Child birth always struck me as a peculiarlly scary and dangerous experience. Historic mortality rates bear me out…

  5. Kaimi on May 12, 2004 at 11:44 am

    Adam,

    “She on the other hand has to fight the dragons every day.” You’ve articulated a feeling that I’ve often had. Motherhood is a real marathon, and I’m grateful to my wife, and also glad that I’m not running it myself, because I don’t think I’m much of a marathoner.

  6. Adam Greenwood on May 12, 2004 at 11:45 am

    Kristine,
    I’m not sure what you’re saying, but I think I agree with it. Or, if you prefer that I tie myself into a knot differently, you’ve got me mulling over the same thing with the same inability to express itself.

    I think you’re on to something with your suggestion that motherhood is a very private and emotional thing, which makes it hard to address formally and in public–very much like private revelation, which is also usually marked by vulnerability and messy dependence. To analogize, I’d hardly go around beating my chest in public about the best parts of my fatherhood–they’re messy and usually involve my weakness or my wife’s weakness or my children’s weakness and just don’t translate well to speech. That’s why I look forward to the day when we know each other as we are known–it’s so lonely when all the most important things can hardly be expressed.

    I believe with the Saints that statements of principles are only shadows to the real truths of experience and relationships. I wonder if mothering is so awkward to discuss because it lies at the heart of experience and relationship. It can’t be described as this or that, motherhood is.

  7. Adam Greenwood on May 12, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Uhm,
    not to subvert your humility, but don’t you work for Cravath?

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