Mater Abscondita

May 10, 2005 | 61 comments
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Gordon’s post has prompted, not surprisingly, a torrent of discussion, which now seems to have veered off into a rather different streambed. I want to paddle up to a stream of the conversation that branched off a while back, taking another look at the presumptions behind the “absent mother.” It’s interesting to compare Audrey’s account of her (part-time) working mother and the psychological detriments following from her absence with Elisabeth’s account of her full-time (and many-times-over) at-home mother and the psychological detriments following from her inaccessibility. Recently I read a memoir by Reeve Lindbergh in which she described the inaccessibility of her mother, Anne Morrow Lindberg, the primary caregiving parent who pursued her writing from home while her famous husband traveled. I’m seeing a pattern here: mothers who work outside the home are insufficiently available to their children; mothers who stay home are insufficiently available to their children; and mothers who work from home are insufficiently available to their children. I want to suggest that virtually all children will perceive their mother (or primary caregiving parent) as insufficiently accessible—whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically—because a child’s appetite for parental attention and affirmation is, by psychology and circumstance, insatiable.

The feeling that one is alone, abandoned, insufficently cared for and attended to, is one of the existential conditions of being human—it seems to be wired into our neural networks, a crucial part of almost every psychological stage of child and adult development—and it often gets concentrated in and projected onto the figure of the absent mother. We presently attribute this, quite naturally, to the influx of women into the workforce. But the absent mother is a strikingly present figure even in historical contexts in which the at-home mother is the norm: think about, say, Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” published in 1957, in which the mother, “out for the day,” leaves the door open for all manner of havoc and mayhem to ensue. Or think about all of the fairy tales premised on the absent mother: “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “The Wolf and the Kids,” “Snow White.” (In fact, one is hard pressed to come up with a single fairy tale that features a living, available, natural mother to the protagonist!) Whether one attributes it to a Lacanian “lack,” a Freudian “complex,” or any other psychological mechanism, the phenomenon seems to be similar: a fundamental—indeed, structural—fear of abandonment is constitutive of human identity.

Don’t get me wrong, though: to suggest that a mother (or father) can never be sufficiently accessible and available to satisfy her children is not to relieve parents of the duty to make themselves as accessible and available as they are able! Furthermore, it seems to me absurd to suggest (though many do) that a mother who is away from her children forty hours each week, particularly if the separation begins early, will have the same kind of relationship with her children—the same comfort-level, the same experience, the same authority—as a mother who is with her children during those forty hours. (I don’t have the experience to say which kind of relationship is better or worse—but that there will be some kind of difference seems very plain to me.) The simple, if troubling, truth is that children fall deeply in love with the person who is their most predictable and consistent caregiver; this is a crucial survival mechanism for defenseless infants, and it’s something that, when they’re not being attacked, most working mothers that I know acknowledge.

There are a lot of good reasons for mothers to choose to be their children’s primary caregiver: there are economic benefits, personal benefits, and, yes, benefits to the children. Some of those reasons have worked on me in my decision to forego the career for which my education prepared me and stay home with my children. But to attribute the spectre of the absent mother, and the putative pscyhological and social ills attendant on that absence, wholly to women’s entrance into the workforce is to misunderstand the phenomenon and, ultimately, to alienate the very group whose cooperation is most vital in shifting the current dynamic.

61 Responses to Mater Abscondita

  1. Jordan on May 10, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    I think we should do all we can to make working moms feel included in the arms of our friendship, and to help them as much as possible. Even when both parents work, although this is not always the case, it is often such that the mother still feels the brunt of parenting. Instead of criticizing working moms for their decisions and blaming them for the ills of society, why not rechannel that negative energy by reaching out to them? Especially since they probably already feel some measure of guilt, whether externally or self-imposed.

    It’s too bad that mom always has to have something to feel bad/guilty about. Not enough time with the kids, whether working or not. Wasting her talents in a career. Wasting them at home. It seems like whatever a woman decides she will be guilty in the eyes of some.

    It seems like we who are disciples of Christ could alleviate that by simply loving the mothers around us for who they are- someone who cares deeply about her children and is committed to doing all in her power to make their lives full and rich, which is the case with just about every mother.

  2. annegb on May 10, 2005 at 3:20 pm

    Amen to Rosalynde and Jordan. Being a parent is so hard and scary. You can totally mess up your kids when you are totally trying to do abolutely the right thing.

  3. kris on May 10, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    Interesting post, Rosalynde. I have just finished reading two works of fiction, “Davita’s Harp” by Chaim Potok and “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews. Both have the “absent” non-working- out-of–the-home mother as a prevalent theme.

    Perhaps we should not have such a narrow interpretation to President Hinckley’s counsel to “do the best you can” and encourage women to find out what that means for themselves through personal revelation and not be so eager to throw stones from our glass houses.

  4. Mark B. on May 10, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    The old fairy tales spoke of the ultimate in absent mothers–the dead ones.

    I suppose if the Brothers Grimm were writing down their tales now, the stepmother would still be wicked, but she’d be living in Sheboygan with Dad, and the kids would be living with Mom and Jason in Waukesha.

  5. Elisabeth on May 10, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    Great post. The fear of abandonment and neglect is very real, and children don’t realize that they are being unreasonably selfish in demanding so much attention from their mothers, who may be rightly distracted with other family responsibilities or interests. But what do we do with this information? Tell the kids to stop being so selfish? Tell the mothers to have fewer children so she can be more attentive to them? Both?

    Also, I agree that the relationships of full-time working women with their kids are very different from relationships with SAHMs and their kids. I would speculate that sometimes it may actually be better for a mother to work outside the home, so that she feels more fulfilled, energized and happy when she is attending to her child care and family responsibilities. However, I think the more common scenario is that the woman working outside the home feels that she’s not devoting enough time to her work and not giving her children the attention they deserve.

  6. J. Stapley on May 10, 2005 at 3:47 pm

    Am I alone in believing that my Mother was not at all insufficiently available? Or have my neuroses not fully manifested themselves?

  7. Jonathan Max Wilson on May 10, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    I’m with you J. I always felt that my mother was available when I needed her–and she was. She was neither emotionally or physically distant.

  8. Matt Jacobsen on May 10, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    I’m with J. My mom worked at the university during my school hours, was home the rest of the time, did more than her share of housework, but didn’t play much with me at all (why would I want to play with her when I could play with my friends or siblings?) Still, both she and my father were there for most of what I needed as a child (and adult).

  9. Ryan Jell on May 10, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Put me in the column with J., Jon, and Jacobsen.

  10. Jordan on May 10, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    #9: Ryan Bell, is that you?

    Or do we now have an evil twin named Ryan Gell?

  11. Jordan on May 10, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    Oops- I mean Ryan Jell.

  12. Matt Evans on May 10, 2005 at 4:46 pm

    Count me, too, among those who felt their mother was as emotionally and physically close as I let her be, even though she was single with seven kids. We kids were the center of her life, and we knew it.

  13. Greg Call on May 10, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    The J.’s are Momma’s boys. Me? My nightly meals were repetitive, and *rarely* still hot when I got home late. And when I needed her to play catch with me, or explain what “Ozymandias” was about, or tell me again how wonderful I was, I had to wait in line — she was nursing the baby, putting younger siblings down, preparing meals, ironing Dad’s shirts, meeting with teachers, preparing Relief Society lessons, sewing clothes, stripping furniture. Selfish, I say.

  14. maria on May 10, 2005 at 4:58 pm

    Rosalynde’s post reminded me of a sacrament meeting talk this past Sunday–the speaker talked about no matter where/what a mother is doing, she is constantly plagued by self-doubt. If she is home, she has doubts about wasting her talents. If she works, she has doubts about leaving her children. It seems as if in all scenarios women are conditioned into thinking that they’re doing something wrong. For many mothers, the absence of guilt on any given day is alarming–shouldn’t I be feeling guilty about something?

    What can we do to help women avoid this vicious cycle of self-doubt?

  15. N Miller on May 10, 2005 at 5:04 pm

    My siblings couldn’t get rid of mom. She was always available when we needed her. When we would get home from school, she was always there, often in the sewing room on some project she was working on. Sometimes it was a treat when she wasn’t home because we would get into the ice cream without having to be too sneaky (because normally she was around and cared for our nutritional habits when we didn’t!).

    My mom was always inclined to be a working woman. That is just the kind of person she is. Now that the kids are gone, she’s working. She is very successful now and has no regrets to choosing the path that she did in rearing children before a career. She now has the next 20 years to do get into a career if she so desires. If she had to make the choice today rather than 30 years ago, I would imagine that she might make the step into the career. If that were the case back then, I don’t even know if I would be here right now and if I was, what I would be doing in my life? Who knows. I am grateful to my mom for the choices she made.

    (side note) I will bet that those women who tend to be working women but decide to stay in the home to raise their children (discussion of right or not aside), are better at teaching and preparing their children than those who have wanted and prepared to be mothers.

    With that being said, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the women at work. They are usually smarter, more detailed, and hard working than their male counterparts. My current boss wants to be home with children, but the career decisions her husband has made doesn’t allow her to do that. She expresses her desire too, but knows that in the current situation she cannot. I could tell her that she doesn’t have enough faith or she should fast more often or whatever. But when it comes down to it, my job isn’t to tell her if what she is doing is right or wrong, my job is to encourage her to her best while she is here (and to do what she tells me to, she is my boss!).

  16. annegb on May 10, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    I be myself loud and proud. Those older women who weren’t afraid to be who they were took a huge load off my shoulders when I was young.

    I think that’s why Anita Canfield (who I got sick of) was so popular. She said things like “so you don’t can tomatoes, who cares?” But then she started telling us to always wear lipstick and earrings and she lost me.

    One more hour till closing time. Speaking of working mothers, I’ve decided on Wal-Mart now. At least I will be busy. Also committed to an insane asylum after a few weeks.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on May 10, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    Rosalynde cites, in support of her thesis about the widely shared feeling of one’s mother’s inaccessibility: Audrey, Elisabeth, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. All daughters.

    Various commenters insist that they never felt their mother was inaccessible. They are: J. Stapley, Jonathan Max Wilson, Ryan Bell, Matt Jacobsen, Matt Evans. All sons.

    There’s something to this difference, but, being one of seven sons, I really don’t think I’m qualified to get at it.

  18. Jordan on May 10, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    Maria-

    Love them. Treasure them. And don’t put them on a pedestal.

  19. Jonathan Max Wilson on May 10, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    “We kids were the center of her life, and we knew it.”

    This is the core issue, I think. I have six siblings. Sure, my mother was often too busy with nursing the baby, cooking, etc. to give close attention to me specifically, but the focus of her activity was directed toward our collective nurture, and we knew that.

    If you didn’t get a chance to read it back in October 2004, you can read my mother’s own thoughts on the issue, in her own words here.

  20. Kaimi on May 10, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Rosalynde,

    And don’t forget Dickens, who gives us quite the memorable absent (minded) mother in Mrs. Jellyby (and plays her for laughs, no less!).

  21. Paul on May 10, 2005 at 5:30 pm

    Add me to the emerging dichotomy noted by RAF. If you were to ask my sister, she would be on the other side. Would the line up do a 180 if we changed from mothers to fathers?

  22. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    Rosylande,

    I don’t think using a few T&S commenters as a representative crossection of society is going to yield the right statistical basis for this discussion.

    Has anyone ever considered that the world may have something to do with shaping the psychology of children? I think in many cases that parents nowadays simply cannot be good enough for their children because of competing loyalties thrust upon them by society. But even so, we shouldn’t assume that because the child doesn’t feel that his/her parents are measuring up that all is lost and it really doesn’t matter whether the parent is around four or forty hours a week. It still matters and (imo) can make the difference as to the child growing up as a slightly maladjusted selfish twit rather than a hardened criminal.

  23. Rosalynde Welch on May 10, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    Wow, lots of comments! Guys: props to your respective exemplary mothers (I’m serious here, not snide), and congratulations on your superior mental health. That’s great.

    Right, Jack, the anecdotes I cite in the introduction don’t constitute grounds for my claim; they were just an entrance and an illustration. Personal testimonials to the availability of one’s own mother are really beside the point, and, of course, provide only anecdotal, not systematic, corroboration. I stand by my claim that the absent mother is a pervasive motif in cultural materials of all sorts: look at Shakespeare’s plays, look at all manner of Victorian literature (the emphasis on the “angel at the hearth” is really just counterpoint to concern about women’s relationship to industrialization), look at representations of absent housewife mothers from midcentury. The absent mother is a compelling figure, a lightning rod for anxieties of all sorts, and perhaps even a topos in human subjectivity. (This is only a blog, after all, surely you’ll allow me a little room for speculation!)

    Russell, the gender divide so far is striking. To my knowledge, all of the male testimonials to the superior qualities of their stay-at-home mothers come from men who are also the husbands of stay-at-home moms, and I suspect that this is the more salient characteristic.

  24. Melissa on May 10, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    Matt writes, “We kids were the center of her life, and we knew it”

    This knowledge is more important than whether a mother works full-time. Even when my mother was around, her heart was somewhere else and we knew it.

  25. Audrey Stone on May 10, 2005 at 7:32 pm

    I cannot begin to measure the amount of time that I’ve spent in my life on analyzing my own and the family dynamics of others. It is what I love to do, have always loved to do, and a very large part of who I am and why I love others. I agree with Rosalynde to a point, but I would say that a child’s need is not insatiable, rather that it diminishes with time. Or that we find another source to fill the need.

    I would like to say that I love my mother. She is not perfect. She did not do all that she could have done, but she did do some things (right) that other mothers did not. I take it all and am thankful for who I am today because of the lessons that I have learned. What I want to say though, is that there are things that could have been done better, and that there is a better way. I am trying to be a better mother than my mother was to me, and she is proud of it, even though it hurts her at times to see it. My point is that motherhood is so crucially important that it is something in which I want to be doing my best, not passing by with the mommy mediocrity that I have experienced and seen so often. Perhaps it is wrong of me to say, but I wonder what I could have done if only…

  26. Tim on May 10, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    Adding to the statistical insignificancy, my mom had a good relationship with her sons during adolescence and a great relationship thereafter, but my sisters are another story. They didn’t get along very well at all. My dad wasn’t really in the picture while we were growing up – he was working too much to be a major part of our lives.

  27. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 8:58 pm

    Rosylande,

    You have leave to speculate!

    I like to think that the “absent mother” is the stuff of which good stories are made It creates vunerability and vunerability seeks the resolution of security. I think also that this theme resonates with us on the deepest levels because of our fallen condition. So, it should be no suprise that this theme permeates our literature/folk lore. (of course, I know you’re not suprised–you’re the expert here!) That said, I think there IS a little room to attribute a new ‘spin’ on the absent mother theme in our post industrial revolution society. And sadly that little spin is that it is fast becoming a virtue to wittle down the hours that ought to be spent with the little ones for time spent in more noble pursuits. I don’t think the deep thematic undercurrent of the “absent mother” in our tradition has ever conveyed a sense of virtue about itself–only as it is resolved as in the case of Cinderella whose security is restored by her union with the Bridegroom.

  28. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 9:17 pm

    That’s vu-l-nerability. Only I can misspell the same word twice in one sentence!

  29. Pam W. on May 10, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    I have to pipe up as a daughter who never felt her stay-at-home mother was inaccessible. Busy with one son who was autistic and another who had cancer, but always accessible to me nonetheless. (Maybe it helped that I was the oldest child.) So add *that* to your imperfect statistical sample! ;-)

  30. RoAnn on May 11, 2005 at 8:37 am

    Here is another daughter who felt her stay-at-home mother was accessible physically and psychologically. She was active in church callings, PTA, and community affairs, but never at the expense of her children or husband. Mother was an artist, and while single she taught art, and was the principal of an elementary school. But she happily switched to the career of full-time motherhood when she married at age 31.

    Her example of satisfaction with her life (despite the normal quota of crises, disappointments, rebellious children and serious family health problems) probably made it much easier for me to desire to be a stay-at-home mother. She and I had very different talents and personalities, but she always encouraged each of her children to gain as much education as we wished, and to appreciate the particular talents we had.

    I always loved learning, prepared for a career, and taught a foreign language before my first child arrived. I never felt that I was a “natural” around children the way my mother was, but I chose to stay home, and never doubted that I would find the same ultimate satisfaction that my mother did in raising a family.

    The joy that came from being accessible to my children, and offering a listening ear when they got home from school, or from a field trip, or from a debate tournament or a play rehearsal, is just one of a host of motherhood experiences that helped me to understand why my mother felt she had chosen the best of all careers.

    I wasn’t the world’s best mother, and some of my children would probably have traded me for another, had that been an option. But now that they are adults, we have close relationships, and they are gracious in their expressions of gratitude for my being around when they were young. As the years go by, all the moments of anguish and the times of unbearable tension are fading from our minds; what remains are the bitter-sweet memories of shared trials and triumphs, laughter and tears, forgiveness, appreciation, and love.

    Even though I fully understand that many a mother is obliged by circumstances to be a “mater abscondita,” I hope that those who do have a choice will elect to be present, in all the ways they can be, in the childhood of those spirit children that Heavenly Father has entrusted to their care.

  31. Jonathan Max Wilson on May 11, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Thanks for your comment RoAnn.

  32. Daniel on May 11, 2005 at 11:21 am

    Rosalynde, great post. Thanks. Add me to the list of children with a mother who was never inaccessible. I am the third of eleven, including three sisters, and I can almost guarantee that my sisters and the rest of my siblings would say that my mother was never inaccessible (with the exception of the youngest, who probably felt that my mother was less than always-there while she fought the cancer that killed her the last few years). She was uncannily able to perceive our thoughts and feelings and to reason through with us our emotions to come to a spiritual solution. Only as we prepared for her death did my siblings and I all discover that each of us had cherished a secret sense that we were our mother’s favorite child.

    My mother had her masters degree, had written what Professor Cracroft called the best thesis he had seen out of the department, and taught university classes, yet chose to stay home and not work and always saw motherhood as the highest calling. She never chose to work, even when it meant our family was obliged to use the Bishop’s Storehouse for a time (and work for her would have been readily available, yet she and my father exercised faith and obeyed prophetic injunctions). I recognize that some mothers must work, but the ideal remains to have mothers home, and prophets must speak to the ideal, following the old adage that if the exception is given with the rule, the exception will become the rule. I agree completely with Jonathan Max Wilson on this (Jonathan, weren’t we in Dr. Cowles class together at BYU arguing with him about gender roles?). Having been the recipient of the attention of a mother who chose not to work, I can say that not one of my siblings or I would now wish to have foregone those times of deprivation at the cost of having our mother gone.

    Having said that, she was also constantly plagued with self-doubt and concern that she was not measuring up. I think that anyone involved in such a monumental task as important as raising children (or conducting missionary work–I remember feeling those same doubts on my mission quite frequently) is going to feel some self-doubt as a reflection of their earnest desire to be perfect. Perhaps the guilt that mothers feel today is at least as much a reflection of pressure coming from conscience and an innate sense that they are involved in something critically important as it is a product of societal and environmental pressure. I don’t mean to sound simplistic, but often the most intense sense of self-doubt I’ve experienced has come at times when I am involved crucially in endeavors that have eternal consequences, and I believe the doctrine is clear that mothers are engaged in those crucial endeavors daily. My wife and I say often that what I do any day at work is not as important as what she does every day as a SAHM.

    Finally, perhaps the reason that the absent mother is recurrent in literature is because it is the ultimate abandonment and the worst scenario, not because it has always been common or because most children have felt their mother was inaccessible.

  33. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on May 11, 2005 at 11:31 am

    The feeling that one is alone, abandoned, insufficently cared for and attended to, is one of the existential conditions of being human—it seems to be wired into our neural networks, a crucial part of almost every psychological stage of child and adult development—and it often gets concentrated in and projected onto the figure of the absent mother.

    I love it (not surprisingly). I wonder, is the distant and unavailable father a similarly common motif?

    Furthermore, it seems to me absurd to suggest (though many do) that a mother who is away from her children forty hours each week, particularly if the separation begins early, will have the same kind of relationship with her children—the same comfort-level, the same experience, the same authority—as a mother who is with her children during those forty hours….The simple, if troubling, truth is that children fall deeply in love with the person who is their most predictable and consistent caregiver

    I don’t know if I buy this, at least with the strength it is presented here (e.g “absurd”). Is there more than the use of strong words to offer by way of argument? I may be deceiving myself, but as a working father it’s not clear to me that my bond with and influence over my children is not as strong as that of their stay-at-home mother. This is of course a difficult thing to analyze comprehensively; one is probably left with random anecdotes (e.g., sometimes my wife will call to have a child talk to me to calm them down when she has been unable to do so) and vague impressions (while I now feel closer than ever to my mother, growing up and in my early adulthood I perceived myself as more tightly connected to my father).

  34. Jonathan Max Wilson on May 11, 2005 at 11:58 am

    Daniel,

    I have fond memories of that class, though I often felt outnumbered and somewhat marginalized. I only remember a few people from that class, but I think I might remember you–did you sit front and center? Since I habitually sat in the back corner I was most familiar with the backs of people’s heads! Send me an email (jon at millennialstar dot org).

  35. Daniel on May 11, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    Jonathan,
    Nice to be in contact with you again. I was the one who sat front and center, and I largely remembered you because you were the one who distributed an analysis based on the Proclamation backing up a comment I made in class about womens’ roles for which I received many arrows. I remember what a relief it felt to know that there was at least one other person in the class with me willing to toe the line. I’ve thought about you many times since, though I did not know then your name. I only realized that you were the same person after digging up my books from that class in a recent move after having recently read your comments on Fem. Mormon Housewives.

    By the way, I can’t help but feel that we share more than a few similarities — your description of your mother on FMW was inspiring and reminded me so much of my mother. I forwarded the link on to all my family, and my dad then forwarded it to others.

    I’ll email you shortly.

  36. Daniel on May 11, 2005 at 12:45 pm

    Posting again. Sorry. Your email address bounced back

    Jonathan,
    Nice to be in contact with you again. I was the one who sat front and center, and I largely remembered you because you were the one who distributed an analysis based on the Proclamation backing up a comment I made in class about womens’ roles for which I received many arrows. I remember what a relief it felt to know that there was at least one other person in the class with me willing to toe the line. I’ve thought about you many times since, though I did not know then your name. I only realized that you were the same person after digging up my books from that class in a recent move after having recently read your comments on Fem. Mormon Housewives.

    By the way, I can’t help but feel that we share more than a few similarities — your description of your mother on FMW was inspiring and reminded me so much of my mother. I forwarded the link on to all my family, and my dad then forwarded it to others.

    I was already thinking about whether to homeschool or private school with my children, and since reading your post on FMW, I have since been thinking much about how strange it is that more articulate, intelligent, educated, women who are discontent with “just being mothers” don’t band together and create a private school for their children rather than throwing their children to the wolves in these horrid public schools, especially when they could give their children a far better education by homeschooling them than they could get in even the finest public school. My mom pulled us all out of public school to homeschool us after a move from Vegas to Utah, after having done so with a few of my siblings.

    Please reply. Is your email [removed]? I’d be very curious to not only get this idea rolling in the blogosphere, but also to get it into the minds of some of these feminist mormon housewives that those yearnings to teach they feel might just as easily be put to work on their own children and the children of their Mormon friends (or mine, for that matter) and might be a product of the Spirit.

  37. Rosalynde Welch on May 11, 2005 at 1:40 pm

    Christian, I guess most of us can only go on our own experiences here, and of course nobody can (or should) gainsay another’s relationships. In my own experience, and from everything that I know about child psychology (which admittedly is not much–anybody who knows more, feel free to correct me), though, children will have the strongest bond with the person who provides the majority of their physical care most consistently: that is, with the person who spends the most time with them. This is certainly borne out in my own case: my husband, a loving and able father, is a medical intern, and is thus absent from the domestic routines of the household and provides virtually none of the physical care for my children; though the children know him and enjoy playing with him when he’s around, they insist that I provide their care (my daughter takes this to a rather atonishing lengths, not allowing him even to touch her food or read her a bedtime story) and they clearly prefer and have the stronger bond with me. This is not because of my gentle, nurturing, constant-loving demeanor; it’s merely because I’m the one they know they can trust to care for them. It makes a lot of sense as an evolutionary survival mechanism.

    (About the strong language, “absurd,” et al: yes, a little over the top. I need to cancel my subscription to the “Parenting” magazine that was given to us, which spends half its column inches reassuring working mothers that daycare will not only not hurt but acutally benefit their children, and the other half providing instructions for meals and crafts that any sane SAHM–let alone a working mother–would never have the time for. It gets me a little worked up sometimes.)

  38. Jonathan Max Wilson on May 11, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Daniel,

    The reason why the email bounced is that millennial is spelled with two Ns. Don’t feel bad, nearly every one of the millennialstar.org contributors misspelled it when we were first building the website. Send your email again and we can stop this threadjack.

    [P.S. if the T&S Administrators will kindly remove my email address from comment #36 I would appreciate it.]

  39. Christian Y. Cardall (TSM) on May 11, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    Okay, Rosalynde, but an 80-hour work week is pretty extreme. A more sane work schedule allows both father and mother to be present at two out of three meals, and allows both father and mother to dress children in the morning, read to them at night, and prepare them for bed. There’s a bigger difference in the earliest years, but take away hours in preschool and school, attention on household chores, and weekends, and I’m not sure the difference is as big as seems to generally be assumed.

    But I’m also curious about the relative frequency of distant father vs. distant mother in literature (or is it simply a universal given that father is out of the picture?).

  40. Rosalynde Welch on May 11, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    Right, Christian, an 80-hour work week *is* extreme! (Believe me, I know.) I’m not arguing that the child will always have the stronger bond with the mother: on the contrary, I’m arguing that the child will have the stronger bond with the person who provides more care, and that time spent with the child is a necessary condition for both care and bonding. So if you and your wife provide roughly equal amounts of care for the children, then it stands to reason that the children will have roughly the same degree of bonding with each of you. (By the way, I don’t think that “bonding” is equivalent to “love” or “influence,” necessarily; it’s merely the physical preference that children almost universally display for a primary caregiver.)

    As for the distant father–that’s obviously become a political hot-button during the last few decades, and has taken on a lot of socio-cultural freight itself. But (and this is just off the cuff) when patrilineal structures were more prevalent and powerful, the relationship to the father seems to have been quite solidly assumed.

  41. Kristine on May 11, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    I’m struck by the near unanimity with which commenters have worked from the assumption that a mother *should* be available and accessible to, and emotionally centered upon her children. While I suspect most Mormons think this way, I don’t think it’s a notion supported by either ancient or modern revelation, and it is certainly not the way Mormons thought about the raising of children in the early days of the church. We have imported American (by way of late-Victorian British) childrearing ideas from the early- to mid-20th century, heavily influenced by class-centered notions about gentility, and imbued them with religious significance. That this should have been accomplished so totally in the space of three (or so) generations is quite remarkable.

  42. Jack on May 11, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    Well then, maybe the world IS getting better in some ways.

  43. Kristine on May 11, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    “I’d be very curious to not only get this idea rolling in the blogosphere, but also to get it into the minds of some of these feminist mormon housewives…”

    Y’know, Daniel, they seem perfectly capable of getting things into their own minds, and figuring out the source of their yearnings all by themselves, without your benevolent tutelage.

  44. Jack on May 11, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    C’mon Kristine,

    Would you say that if it were Danielle instead of Daniel?

  45. RoAnn on May 11, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Kristine — “We have imported American (by way of late-Victorian British) childrearing ideas from the early- to mid-20th century, heavily influenced by class-centered notions about gentility, and imbued them with religious significance.”

    Most Latin American cultures seem to me to have been little influenced by Victorian ideas. Historically I believe they have supported mothers being accessible to their children, and consequently wielding a great influence over them–often supported and supplemented by other female relatives, a resource often lacking for LDS young mothers today. Even now, when many women in Latin America are working outside the home, I perceive their cultures as successfully fostering more family togetherness time than an American culture that often promotes fragmentation in pursuit of talent development (lessons, sports, etc.).

    I don’t have all the historical background you do, but it almost seems that you are attributing the statements of modern prophets about childrearing to imported Victorian ideas rather than revelation pertinent to our times. Could be that mothers throughout the ages were usually more accessible, but we now need more specific counsel because of changes in family work patterns occasioned by the industrial revolution?

  46. Julie in Austin on May 11, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    RoAnn–

    I’m not Kristine, but I think you found the crux of the issue: historically, women could, did, and had to ‘work’ (i.e., farm, home production, etc.) *with* their children. Industrialization (Which I love! Please don’t take my dishwasher away!) removes production from the home, and you are left with women who feel (1) underutilized (2) isolated from society (3) a desire to ‘work’ as in produce something (4) like their whole world must/should revolve around their children (5) and therefore become obsessive mothers.

    Fortunately, I think industrialization will save (some of) us. In another generation, any woman who wants/needs to will work from home. (Not that I think this is a perfect solution–I’ve tried typing with children hanging off both arms before I convinced them that there is a force field around the computer desk ;), but it will help.)

  47. Kristine on May 11, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    If it were Danielle, I’d suggest that she make a comment on the other blog and participate in the women’s discussion, not talk about them and what they should be thinking.

  48. Kristine on May 11, 2005 at 8:54 pm

    What Julie said, and I’d add that men also did a great deal more work with or alongside their children. The “fathers earn, mothers nurture” is a recent pattern, generally only available to the wealthy.

    And yes, I think prophets are influenced to a significant extent by the culture that surrounds them, and it’s not particularly surprising that the Brethren should have ideas about gender that are very similar to those of other people who were raised at the same time and in the same environment. I don’t know how to distinguish between their sentimental human notions and their pronouncements of God’s will except through that tricky business of personal revelation.

  49. RoAnn on May 11, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    Re Kristine #48 & Julie #46. I agree with both of you. Perhaps I often misunderstand some blog posts and comments, and become defensive when I interpret them as evidencing a great deal of skepticism in the inspiration of counsel given by present-day prophets when it seems to conflict with some modern sensibilities.

    I think Kristine puts it well: “I don’t know how to distinguish between their sentimental human notions and their pronouncements of God’s will except through that tricky business of personal revelation.”

  50. Matt Evans on May 12, 2005 at 8:56 am

    Kristine,

    I think the modern emphasis on placing people at the center of our lives, especially our spouse and children, are a natural consequence of civilization’s increasing prosperity, and that Victorian ideals were simply an early manifestation. For most of history, people had to spend their energies ensuring they’d they’d be above ground next spring, but as societies grow prosperous, and the concern for daily sustenance no longer demands constant attention, other concerns displace survival as the central focus. I see four concerns that compete to replace survival at the top of our priorities: (1) pursuit of pleasure, (2) development of self, (3) communion with God, and (4) relationships with others. Because Christianity says that (3) and (4) are ultimately the same thing, Christians promoted the virtue of the other-centered life. And as Christians survey the landscape for people they should serve, children catch their eye for their vulnerability. That’s why, I believe, so many people believe their obligation is to nourish and protect children.

    However, while I believe our obligations are greatest to children, I believe adults should be emotionally fulfilled by adults. I think some mothers make children their emotional centers to escape the complex interplay of complicated adult personalities — in the same way some children prefer make-believe characters like Elmo to real people. Because children are immature, without full-personalities, the adult projects on the child a personality, making the relationship appealing but superficial. The child can’t know the adult — the child is incapable of knowing an adult, seeing only the equivalent of a one-dimensional figure — and their love is not for the adult but for the fraction of the adult they know. (One can’t love that which one doesn’t know.) Everyone needs and deserves to be loved, but only mature people can do that.

    While I don’t think we can be emotionally fulfilled by children, children can be emotionally fulfilled by us (at least as well as they’re going to be in this telestial world — even the most mature mortals resemble children on the great spectrum). And for that reason I think it’s crucial that parents be physically and emotionally available to their children.

  51. Rosalynde Welch on May 12, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    Roann, Julie and Kris: the industrialization hypothesis is compelling, and I think it accounts for the particularly alienated flavor of modern women’s discontent with the social conditions of contemporary motherhood. (Which is rather elegantly ironic, of course, since the contemporary housewife performs one of the few remaining forms of unalienated labor–although it’s currently “unalienated” only in a technical sense, since household is becoming more and more a site of consumption rather than production: buying is the modern housewife’s mode of production.)

    But I think there’s a danger in romanticizing pre-industrialized motherhood, because it can collude with certain reactionary forms of anti-modernity (listen, I can critique modernity as well as the next woman, but I don’t want to go backward, either). Even pre-industrialized mothers expressed discontent with the limitations and deprivations of the socially constructed conditions of their motherhood. Even when women worked alongside their children overseeing the households that, great and small, were the centers of family wealth, most were still barred from self-determining participation in the structural features and processes of public life. Whereas today women are told that they oughtn’t participate in public life because motherhood is more important, pre-modern women were frankly told that they may not participate in public life because motherhood (and femaleness generally) rendered them unsuitable for such participation: women were the weaker sex, and the difficulty and danger of pregnancy and childbirth signs of their moral and physical inferiority (via Eve’s curse). At least the pre-modern theory of gender has the virtue of being self-consistent.

  52. Rosalynde Welch on May 12, 2005 at 1:38 pm

    Matt, thanks for your comments. I like the way you frame adults’ relationships to children as obligation, rather than as fulfillment: I think that’s a helpful way to think about most family relationships, more sustainable and more truthful but no less compelling.

  53. Julie K on May 12, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    IMHO, producing functional adults is a pretty significant cottage industry.

  54. Rosalynde Welch on May 12, 2005 at 2:55 pm

    LOL, Julie, I think so too!

  55. Daniel on May 12, 2005 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks, Jack.

    Kristine,
    I’m struggling to understand your comment. I apologize if I gave offense. Let me explain:

    I noted with some irony some of the articulate, intelligent, educated comments that some of the women make on the FMW website about wishing that they could be out using their education to TEACH. I found it ironic because my wife and I are struggling with the decision about what to do with our oldest son, slated to begin school next year, having received a very specific prompting that we should NOT send him to public school. She is great in some areas, but doesn’t feel adequate in others, and there are advantages to not being the only person influencing a child when that child is your own. I was wondering to myself why more faithful families are not banding together to provide education for their children rather than sending them to some of the cultural and moral cesspools that constitute our present day public schools (and I am thinking specifically here about some of the incredible wives and mothers I know in my ward and have felt somewhat helpless to influence them to try, as it comes off so radical and different).

    “If it were Danielle, I’d suggest that she make a comment on the other blog and participate in the women’s discussion, not talk about them and what they should be thinking.”

    My intention was to raise the question, not to snidely sit on high and think that I could not condescend to possibly talk to the womenfolk. Gender was not even really a part of my comment, yet it seems to be the primary consideration in your response. (In fact, I was really trying to email Jon, and when not able to because of a stupid spelling mistake, simply copied over my email to him here. For that I apologize.). Being a newcomer and without access to the blog, I was trying to suggest, perhaps not as delicately or as clearly as one might hope, that Jon get the ball rolling on this issue, as I’ve been thinking about it and would like to hear others’ comments — particularly those of the articulate, etc. women that populate that site. I sincerely apologize if you interpreted my comment that way.

    You said, “Y’know, Daniel, they seem perfectly capable of getting things into their own minds, and figuring out the source of their yearnings all by themselves, without your benevolent tutelage.”

    I wonder what is wrong with my ability to influence your thoughts and the thoughts of other FMW’s, since you have influenced mine quite a bit of late? Aren’t we all here influencing each other? Or is your comment really directed at the fact that I am male and therefore not entitled to influence your thoughts? Isn’t one of the purposes of this site so that we can influence each other, regardless of gender? I know that is my reason for coming here. Of course we can all turn to personal revelation, but at least for me, that revelation is often triggered by a comment someone else makes to me (and not directly from the Spirit–that is the exception rather than the rule. I usually have to work it out in my heart and mind first.). The only possible motive I can find for your response is that somehow you assumed it was a gender issue — and I was not thinking of it in those terms at all. I guess sometimes that is my problem with feminism and other -isms. They become a hobby horse of sorts (I’m not saying this is you, Kristine), and people tend to see everything in life through that lens and that lens alone — it colors their every judgment. As a result, they have hostilities that are unwarranted and read motives into people’s words and actions that simply aren’t there. Having been quite guilty of this at times myself, I understand how that can happen (I’ve got a hobby horse or two of my own sometimes).

    I’m just not sure how to take your comment, Kristine. Are you implying that I should refrain from posting here or on FMW, lest I influence you or others there? You have influenced me quite a bit and gotten me thinking about some things, and I sincerely appreciate it. I’m sorry if I arrogated to myself the belief that it was designed to be a two-way street. I can’t help but come back to wondering if it is not because of my gender. I’m a newcomer to blogland, and I have really appreciated this “fellowship” of Saints, so I assumed that was the way it worked. Are you suggesting that I refrain from making comments that might directly or indirectly have some chance of suggesting things that you already know? I don’t know how to interpret your comment. Please explain, Kristine, because I am sincerely interested in knowing how to interpret it.

  56. An Alien Sister on May 13, 2005 at 1:27 am

    Daniel,
    I hope Kristine explains, because I couldn’t understand why she objected to your comment either. I thought you suggested an interesting idea in a complimentary way. But then, I am “An Alien Sister.” (See following paragraphs.)

    Rosalynde,
    “Even pre-industrialized mothers expressed discontent with the limitations and deprivations of the socially constructed conditions of their motherhood.” I wonder whether the percentage of mothers discontented for the reasons you give has always been the same as it is today. And I sometimes wonder how high the percentage is now, could we but hear from every mother alive in the world today (including those who still live in pre-industrialized societies), rather than mostly from well educated and articulate women in first world countries.
    After living many years in third world countries in Latin America, and associating mainly (but not exclusively) with less-educated LDS women, I feel comfortable in saying that most of them have very little interest in “self-determining participation in the structural features and processes of public life.” All the reactions that I’ve seen to the Proclamation on the Family have been positive, even amongst those who have to work to keep the family from starving.
    I have only recently begun to read some blogs like T&S, Millennial Star, BCC, and FMH. The intellectual stimulation is incredible, but sometimes I think I am visiting another planet. One where there is incredible stress between the sexes; where men are often afraid of offending by word or deed; where women are constantly fighting the compulsion to feel guilty for not measuring up. A planet far, far away from the lives of the hundreds of millions of women (and men) who manage to live relatively contented lives within whatever cultural restrictions they were born into.
    A planet where the Church is trying to help each mother escape those restrictions, but to do so without becoming a “mater abscondita” when her options are increased. This seems to me like a good thing for all concerned. But, what else would I say, since I’m visiting here from that planet?

  57. Kristine on May 13, 2005 at 5:01 am

    Daniel, what got under my nails about your comment was precisely that you directed it to Jon and not to the women whose thinking you wanted to influence. And yes, it’s because of your gender that it bugged me–I have a strong negative response to two men conspiring to enlighten a bunch of very smart, articulate women. I think it’s also a little bit arrogant to imagine that the idea of banding together to help teach each others’ kids hasn’t occurred to any of the thousands of LDS women who teach their kids at home–I’m sure if you’d broached the idea at FMH, they would have told you about various cooperative and collective homeschooling group experiments they’ve participated in.

    Anyway, I’m sure I overreacted, and I’m sorry for being pissy. I’m glad you’re here, hope you’ll stay, and look forward to reading your thoughts.

  58. Julie K on May 13, 2005 at 6:04 am

    Thank you, Daniel and An Alien Sister for your astute observations.
    Your perspectives have provided a welcome reality check!
    I, too, look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  59. Matt Evans on May 13, 2005 at 7:51 am

    Hi Alien Sister, thank you for your comment. Please continue to participate, we need perspectives like yours!

  60. Rosalynde Welch on May 13, 2005 at 9:01 am

    AAS: Thanks for your comment. You raise an interesting—if ultimately unanswerable—question about relative proportions of contented/discontented women currently and historically. The voices and perspectives of the overwhelming majority of pre-modern women are unrecoverable, at least directly, because in their illiteracy they left behind no historical record. We just don’t know what they thought about the material conditions of their lives. Access to education seems to exert a treatment effect on women, currently and historically, fostering awareness of and, yes, often discontentment with the ways their lives are socially shaped by gender. (You can draw your own inferences about why this is so, and what the implications may be as LDS women, through President Hinckley’s counsel and the PEF, seek more education.) So the women who did achieve literacy and left behind documentary evidence of their attitudes tended to be dissatisifed to various degrees, and this, in the hands of a careless literary historian, can create a skewed vision of women’s attitudes generally. Of the few women who did leave behind writings and other artifacts, not all were unhappy with their lot, of course; and whatever their attitudes, all creatively adapted to and manipulated their local conditions—the “microphysics of power”—in order to serve what they saw as their own interests.

    As for the present situation, you’re absolutely right that most strands of feminism originated among privileged Western women (although now there are a number of powerful third-world—particularly Latin American—feminist movements that have germinated, not surprisingly, as those women have gained access to literacy and education), and too often its objectives and concerns have served the situation of privileged women. I fully take your word on the attitudes of the third-world sisters with whom you associated—although it sounds like, if many of them worked and (I assume) all of them had the vote, etc., they *did* in fact have access to the structural components of public life that I mentioned. I’ve made no claim that a majority of women now or historically hold a particular attitude; in fact, I generally dislike sweeping characterizations of women’s attitudes or natures. It does leave one with a difficult question, though: if education does tend to increase women’s dissatisfaction with, say, the Proclamation (to use your example), should the church discourage women from pursuing education? (I’m not arguing that the premise is true, just going on what you’ve observed.)

    All that said, you seem not to be responding primarily to the specifics of this post, but to a generalized sense that blogified women are angry, bitter, discontent, et al. On this I’d caution you: the nature of blogging is such that it can present as skewed a vision of people’s whole attitudes and orientations as fragmentary historical records can. If one only read the blog, for example, one would expect that Gospel Doctrine classes regularly degenerate into brawls between, say, graduate student welfare queens and anti-welfare crusaders—but we know that that’s not an accurate depiction of an entire dynamic. I can only speak for myself, but your final sentence, “A planet where the Church is trying to help each mother escape those restrictions, but to do so without becoming a ‘mater abscondita’ when her options are increased,” sounds great to me, too—in fact, the purpose of the original post was to reflect on how the Church members can do precisely that more effectively.

  61. annegb on May 13, 2005 at 9:27 am

    I’m not a feminist, I’m just sort of onery. I was onery before I found blogging. But if I were (was?) a man, maybe you men would say I was just strong and opinionated. Which is also true.

    Somebody on a blog somewhere wrote about how women should be soft and nice and feminine (I forget the exact words).

    Another subject, but I wonder how much of our reactions-interactions here are influenced by gender. The men on this blog seem to be more enlightened than most, but still, it seems to come down to gender.

    I still get the reaction from men in my ward that I should be seen and not heard. They should be so lucky.

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