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This article was originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Fall 1996, volume 6, no , and is used with the author’s permission. To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author by clicking on the author's name link above.
More honorable than the Cherubim
And more glorious, beyond compare, than the Seraphim,
Who, without corruption, gave birth to God the Word,
The very Theotokos, we magnify thee.
The tune I've learned that goes with those words --- Syrian, I think--- is ancient. And the words, coming down to us through at least 16 centuries, may be more ancient still.
More honorable than the Cherubim / And more glorious, beyond compare, than the Seraphim. What beautiful and mysterious words. What could they mean? Could they be referring to Motherhood? To one miraculous Mother, yes;[ but also to the Mother of God as a pattern and prescription for all human Motherhood.
Who, without corruption, gave birth. "Corruption"--- what's that all about? Without the products of sin: death and decay. Childbearing without pain and violence, tearing, bleeding, crying out in anguish. But doesn't "corruption" also refer, by way of metaphor, to injustice?
I write of "Mothering and Justice," and yet I must confess I feel a certain dread when I hear those words. "Mothering," I dimly suspect, as something to do with gender, of which there are a great many in some languages, but in sex there are only two. (There! Two genders! Call me a Fundamentalist!) And "justice" likely has some angle that's arguably political: this refers to the way people organize themselves to get things done. And thus I have a sinking feeling that if I start out writing about Mothering and Justice, I'll end up sliding into the snake pit of gender politics, from which nobody has been known to emerge alive.
In one account of the Beijing Women's Global Powwow, I read that some of the nationality groups present were perplexed because their languages had no word for "gender." My eyes light up. Really? What nationality? Where? Let's go there!
Besides, who am I to write of such things? A parent or grandparent with more children, more experience, would have more natural authority than I to deal with Mothering. An a genuine Catholic intellectual, nurtured on the writings of Edith Stein, Elizabeth Anscombe, Karl Stern, Sigrid Undset, and the rest, could give the topic real multicultural and interdisciplinary depth.
I am the worshipper of one God, the wife of one husband, and the mother of one son, six and a half. I love God but often feel I am a barely baptized pagan. I know more of Erma Bombeck than of von Balthasar; my daily search for Truth is generally limited to verifying the fiber content of snack crackers. And I am weary to death of the whole blasted jiggery-pokery jargon of Gender Perspective, which for the past 25 years has been verily a vexation to the spirit as well as a pain in the neck.
So I intend to avoid politics and Gender Perspective as much as possible, and instead look into the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of mothering. We get mothering wrong sometimes. We get it wrong with sexism and with feminism. We get it wrong with sentimentality and utopianism and cruelty. And when we get it wrong, a conversation with one good Mother can help us get it right again.
The Annunciation: Conception
John Paul II said that the Annunciation, the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, is a high point in the history of the human race and of the Universe.
Conception is the beginning of Mothering, and it reminds me of how women's bodies are different from men's.
Men are often tempted to think that their bodies were made for their own use. To a great extent this is true for everyone: your hands, Sir, are yours, they are for your use, and mine are for me. This is the basis of the concept of autonomy. Your hands, your heart, your blood, bone, and brain: it's you, and it's yours, and it's for your use.
A man can indulge this illusion of autonomy even further by supposing that even his genitals are there for himself. They're a source of --- at time--- almost compelling drives and, certainly, intriguing sensations. Even his testes are useful for him, in the sense that his hormones produce certain secondary sexual characteristics which he hay have an interest in maintaining.
But a woman's body, by contrast, has all these nooks and crannies which are no use to us but which evidently were put there for someone else. Don't get me wrong: we women have our pleasure doodads and our own hormonal self-interest as well. But then, well, there's the womb. That's not there for me. I can do without it. It was obviously put there for someone else. The same is true of mature mammary glands, rich with branching ducts and reservoirs, as they are found in nursing mothers and as they are not found in childless females, however nubile and Partonesque they may be.
Our female bodies are connectors: inter-connectedness is not just a concept, it's built into us. This gives us the sense that we find in Mary's Magnificat, of being, within our own bodies, the living link between past and future.
Behold, all generations will call me Blessed…
His mercy is on those who fear Him, from generation to generation…
As He spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Mary sees ancestors past, and posterity future, linked in the center of her being. Her person --- her body, her soul, her faithful heart --- is the connector. She who is more spacious than the heavens.
This make autonomy, as an ideal, a poor fit for women. Women have a special gift, even a genius, for bondedness.
In conception and pregnancy, the mother and the child form a kind of multi-personed continuity. They are kaleidoscopically interdependent. To me, its somewhat perverse even to imagine a pregnant woman and her unborn child separately.
I saw an ad in the Christian magazine for a book called "The Wondrous Story of Where Babies Come From." The cover shows the bold and Crayola-colored image of a human embryo projected, as it were, on a huge movie screen, while a stereotypical Mom, day, and Two Kids gawk and point. All I could think of was some low-concept science fiction movie ("Look, Buddy! The Killer Embryo From Mars!") It had none of the heart-catchingly fragile and translucent beauty of a real embryonic child, and worst of all, there was no sense that it was inside of a woman. The woman had disappeared. And it was not wondrous. It was monstrous.
In any case, if Power Rangers express some aspect of the masculine ---- and they do, at least, for my six-and-a-half year old --- the corresponding image for the feminine would be the Matreshka doll: babies inside of women, people inside of people, generation nestled in generation. Autonomy? I don't see it in me. But I do see another paradigm: "Trinity." A multipersoned continuity. The Supreme Being Who is always giving, land always receiving, the Love which is Himself. For love is the only power which can unite persons without destroying them.
It seems to me that when a woman marries a man, she has a right to expect children--- or at least an honest go at it. I had a friend, Callie, with two children, Mark and Sophie, 5 and 2. Callie was a fine homemaker, the picture of happiness nursing her strong and vigorous little daughter, and obviously good at mothering. One day she told me she felt blue, because she knew Sophie was her last: after her, there would be no more babies.
"Callie, that's so sad. What's the problem?"
"I always wanted four kids or so, but Burt (that's her husband) only wanted one. I kinda sneaked past him with Sophie. But when she was born, he insisted that I should have my tubes tied."
Tubes tied at 28.
Her eyes brimmed up, and I could feel the tears start in my own eyes too, tears of sympathy, but also tears of anger. It's as if, instead of saying to her, "Callie, I dearly cherish what you are as a woman, a wife and a mother," her husband had said, "Honey, I'd like you a lot better if I could get you surgically disabled. Motherhood? Let's cut that out right here. Let's cut you down to size."
I met two dedicated activists in the prolife movement whose private grief was that their husbands refused to let them have children. These women--- I'll call them Susan and Rose---- were attractive, warm women who would not submit to sterilization or to contracepted sex, so their husbands refused to have sexual relations with them at all. I was deeply saddened to learn that it was possible for things to be that way between husband and wife. I wonder how widespread this could be?
For any married person, husband or wife, to refuse their spouse children is a shocking injustice. For a husband to tell his wife, "I hereby condemn you to have no more babies for the rest of your life," is to strike a humiliating blow to her sexual identity. If the child-rejecting spouse intended from the beginning to deny his partner's reasonable right to children, surely this would be grounds for annulment!
I have a lot of stories. I used to do a lot of traveling and speaking on a very low budget, which means that I slept on a lot of peoples' couches and mooched a lot of car trips from city to city. It's simply astounding what people will tell a virtual stranger who's strapped into the car next to them for a couple of hours. So, on the subject of conception, one last story.
A horse-trainer and acoustic guitarist was giving me a ride from one end of North Dakota to the other. He related that he and his wife had had two children early in their marriage, and then practiced various forms of contraception for 10 years. Then they experienced a crisis which threatened their marriage, followed by a mid-life religious conversion and reconciliation. They decided to put their lives in the hands of God. Specifically, they decided to thrown away their jellies and jams and diaphragms, and rely on Natural Family Planning.
This man told me it was stunning how much difference it made to them to be aware of their fertile times. Before, time, so to speak, was flat: one day was like another. Now time had texture, topography. You're approaching fertility. You're fertile. Hold your breath. Now you're past the peak: not fertile anymore.
He admitted that before, when they had disabled their fertility, he was getting bored with sex. It was same-old same-old. It seemed inane. Now, looks and gestures had drama. Touches, advances could turn out either way. Sex and longing loomed bigger, took up a more significant chunk of emotional energy. He wasn't sure he wanted sex to take up that much space. But he realized that his wife was taking up that much space. His wife. His wife. He found himself thinking about her as he had never thought about her since----well, since they were courting.
And one night, knowing they were fertile, with great awe and trembling, they decided to make move anyway, come what may. "You know," he said, staring straight ahead at the North Dakota Interstate, "After 15 years of marriage, you don't expect it to involve trembling anymore."
"So? What happened?"
"So, we got pregnant. (Laughs.) Of course! (Laughs more.)"
"And it's unquestionably--- unquestionably---- the best thing we've ever done. Our hearts just opened and melted. We had a wonderful --- wonderful---here, let me show you a picture." So he pulls off the road and shows me pictures of his wife and baby. Laughs again.
This is truly a joyful mystery. Right and just, proper and helpful, the Yes to Motherhood.
The Visitation: Pregnancy
In the Gospel of Luke, when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, what happens is one of the most delightful moments recorded in all of Scripture. It is a veritable white-water-rush of the Holy Spirit. Mary, with the Godhead literally bubbling within her like a spring of living water, calls out to her dear old kinswoman, and the Spirit cascades from Mary's lips through Elizabeth's ears and then into her unborn child, who springs, leaping for joy for the dot, the dab, the Deity inside of Mary: a triple cascade from woman to woman, from Spirit to spirit, from Babe to babe.
Pregnancy is depicted in Psalm 139 as a season of divine activity, as the Creator knits a child in his mother's womb. What does a child need at this point? Only his mother, his Paradise. Mary is often called the New Eve, but she is also the New Eden. Her body is her child's garden of delights, and her love radiates to her little one every time she sings, or prays, or breathes its name.
In his philosophically rich and cheering book, Mother and Infant (Reviewed in C&T Summer 1996), Fr. William Virtue describes a lovely touch-encounter between parents and their unborn child. The parents reveal to the child that he or she is a source of joy by placing their hands on the mother's abdomen in a prolonged welcoming touch; and as early as 4 ½ months gestational age, the child can actually respond by drawing close and nestling in the palm of the hand.
A child needs to love and be loved, even before she or she is born; and meting this need is both the simplest and most satisfying thing in the world. But the mother's needs may be complex. Every mother in the world needs good food and pure water. She needs reassurance and cherishing love from those around her. She needs to be protected from anxieties and stresses so that she can experience pregnancy with calmness and confidence.
Unfortunately, much of our society seems to conspire against pregnancy as a season of divine and womanly creativity.
One out of three children in this country is conceived in a way that marginalizes hem even before they are born. I'm not speaking here of our cultures' ugly custom of abortion. I'm speaking, rather, of children being conceived outside of the pregnant covenant of holy matrimony. This means that the parents did not even care enough to commit themselves to a durable attachment of love.
Every child is precious, even if the circumstances of his or her conception were fornication or adultery, prostitution or rape. But to begat a child in such a way is to demean him even as he is brought into existence. To have sexual intercourse outside of marriage is, in itself, an injustice: because the child who might come needs a covenant, deserves a covenant, ahs a right to a covenant. Every child has a right to married parents.
Two out of three babies born to unmarried teenage mothers were fathered, not by teenage boys, but by older men. In other words, by statutory rape. The sexual use of schoolgirls by adult men is a crime which cries out to heaven for justice. But how this justice is to be done, I do not know. It would help, I suppose, if statutory rape laws were enforced. But that would require that the girls bring criminal charges against their so-called lovers, and put them in jail. And when I was a crisis pregnancy counselor, one of the most distressing things I observed was that the girls don't even know in their hearts that they have a right not be used and discarded by men. I could encounter girls who had had their bodies savagely violated by abortions pressured upon them by men, and I was tempted to say, "Honey, you should have killed your boyfriend, not your baby."
OK, I know that's wrong. And what's more, it wouldn't work. But I wonder what would work/
A woman with child who does not have the man who begot the child by her side, is poor no matter how much money she has. She is poor because she and he baby need him. "It takes a village," some say, and pregnancy support services can do a lot, village-wise, to generate friendship and assistance for pregnant women. Amen to that. But when the door is closed and the lights are out, and the pregnant girl wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, she doesn't need a village, a helping-hands ministry or a hotline: she needs a husband.
I don't mind telling you that when I was pregnant with my little boy, I was, mood-wise, hormonally haywire. Hat I needed was the steadying presence of my husband (who proved to be the maximum blessing of my life), and also the friendship of women. What I did not need was regular infusions of anxiety administered by the medical profession.
Especially when you’re an older first-time mother, as I was, but increasingly for all women, pregnancy is turned into an ordeal of doctor-generated worry and foreboding. Real, whole-hearted acceptance of the living, developing child is withheld as the mother is run through a gauntlet of prenatal tests which are superfluous at best and pernicious a worst. I personally thing that AFP and CVS (alpha fetoprotein and chorionic villi sampling) should be banned. The same goes for about 90% of the amniocentesis. It has very little therapeutic value, it puts the mother through a lot of anxiety, and it constitutes a kind of hostile surveillance against your prenatal neighbor.
Women have a right to experience pregnancy as a season of grace --- even if we have to restructure personal relations, the medical profession, and society at large, to make it so.
The Nativity: Childbirth
Cut to the chase: childbirth stories!
My own birth story isn't that hey-golly inspirational (emergency cesarean.) Still, all's well that ends well: Ben and I did fine. But I can't deny that I was disappointed that my son was denied his proper rite-of-passage: the thrust, the stress, the success of real birth; and that I was only an observer, not a participant, in the arrival of my only child.
Childbirth, as it's supposed to be, is an intense bodily experience shared by the mother and the infant. An awake, alert mother, even amidst waves of contractions, is aware that her child is being thrust downward, squeezed, massaged, turned, molded, shaped, stimulated, and pushed toward the light by the hard, hard labor of her body. The child is like the soul in this dark valley of existence, moving or being moved we know not how, straining toward the Light.
Mothers who have had both cesareans and normal childbirths, say that there is a real spiritual difference. When a mother gives birth in a conscious, un-drugged state , the child is not "taken from" her, but rather she gives; and if she is a believer she gives, mindfully, in the presence of God. It is not unusual for a Christian woman experiencing waves of pain to unite her suffering to that of Christ on the Cross: the blood, the profound exhaustion, and even the fear: "How much more can I take? How long can this possibly go on?"
Each is different: childbirth can be quick and slippery, or harrowingly prolonged: it can be hysterical, orgasmic or serene. But however it comes upon a woman, it comes upon her as an episode of blood and valor, a kind of single combat or monomachy, life and death locked in battle. A birthing mother will remember this for the rest of her life: the panting struggle, the ecstasy.
At some times and at some places all of this had a certain passivity and inevitability about it: whether you bled to death or your bled to life, birth was birth: as a woman, your birthright. But now, when a woman during pregnancy can take responsible steps to minimize the chances of complications, and when she can--- not always, but often--- choose a natural birth over obstetric intervention and a knock-out drug, the whole experience has the potential to be more conscious and more deliberate.
And what's in it for the woman if, the best of her ability, she chooses to be "there," undrugged and alert, for childbirth?
For one thing, she has a far greater chance of delivering a baby who is also undrugged and alert. This can make the initial bonding a far more fierce and tender and hotly-forged experience. And she has a new view of herself, of what she can do and endure. Midwives tell me that whoops and howls of victory at parturition are not uncommon, even for a woman quiet, small and meek: she went into it a scared girl and she came out of it a conqueror.
I would argue that the unmediated bodily experience of childbirth also gives a woman authority.
Consider the following passage from the Second Book of Maccabees. The pagan king Antiochus has ordered seven Hebrew brothers and their aged mother to eat the flesh of a swine, and thereby renounce both Israel and Israel's God. The young Jews, who refuse to deny the One True God, are, one after another, tortured to death by being flayed alive, dismembered, boiled in oil.
As the king confronts the youngest of the brothers, he urges his mother to persuade him to give in and renounce his faith in God.
The mother was especially admirable and worth pf honorable memory. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman's reasoning with a man's courage, and she spoke in her native tongue as follows: "My son, have pity on me. I carried you for nine months, suckled you for three years, fed you and taught you to the age you are now, and cherished you. It is the Creator of the world, ordaining the process of man's birth, Who in His mercy will surely give you back both life and breath. I implore you, my child, do not fear this butcher, but accept death, so that in the day of God's mercy I may get you back again with your brothers."
This mother appeals to God's power, and moreover--- with "a woman's reasoning"--- she buttresses her argument with her own authority as birth-giver: since I, who obeyed the process ordained for man's birth, brought you into this world, giving you life and breath, surely God (like a birth-giver) will give you back both life and breath in the Resurrection of the Just.
The chapter in its entirety (2 Maccabees 7, well worth reading and pondering) shows her complete submission to God's far greater authority; moreover, in a remarkable away, the authority of the woman is both contrasted and compared to the authority of God. Like Abraham, who knew what a "just man" was and (in re: Sodom) reminded God that He, too needed to be just, this Maccabeean mother knew what giving life was all about, and insisted that since she was a birth giver here, God would be one hereafter.
Be aware, though, that the dignity of the birth-giving woman is certainly undermined by anything that treats her as if she were an impersonal incubator or a passive invalid, anything which robs her of her "ownership" of the process. I am not arguing here for a complete rejection of modern obstetrics (since my own life was probably saved by it), but for the recognition that birth is a woman's work. And if this work is taken away from her without a compelling medical necessity, she and her child lose a primal experience of struggle and bonding which is "ordained" by the Creator and which is the birthright of the race.
One naturally wants to draw a veil of modesty over the actual birth of Jesus from the womb of the Virgin. It was what Eve's childbirths would have been like, had Eve and her husband never fallen: "without corruption," without the pain and tearing and mess and stress and weakness and fear which are the result of Original Sin. I am convinced that for Mary this birth-giving was an intense spiritual/embodied climax of love: surely she was taken to the limits of human experience, and beyond.
No mother ever bonded with a child as Mary did with hers. For the Good Mother of the Good King, the Holy Theotokos, full of grace, grace does not replace the embodied experience of childbirth, but brings it to perfection.
Breastfeeding: "The Abundance of Her Glory"
The traditional Dominican rosary does not include a Joyful Mystery on breastfeeding. Maybe it belongs with the "Glorious" instead. Because there is this: Sacred Scriptures refer over and over again to the Promised Land, Eretz Israel, as "the land flowing with milk and honey." In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Ezechiel, the phrase is repeated more than a dozen times, the Espoused Land, the land which is "My Delight," flowing with milk and honey.
If Mary is all that to God--- if she is His espoused, His delight--- then her motherly nurturance reflects in some way the succor Israel hoped and longed for over the ages.
This longing for maternal comfort finds rich expression in the culminating chapter of Isaiah:
Rejoice, Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her!
Rejoice, rejoice for her, all you who mourned over her!
That you may be suckled, filled, from her consoling breast,
That you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory!
For thus says Yahweh…
At her breast will her nurslings be carried:
You shall be carried upon her hip,
And fondled in her lap.
Like a son comforted by his mother, will I comfort you:
You shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
What a splendid paean, linking the abundance of milk with the abundance of glory, the shekinah of God Himself! Maternal Jerusalem, the Holy City, Daughter Zion: the prophet grants us a real boon here, a Marian and eschatological consummation of history!
Does a mother have a duty to provide sustenance for her child from her own body? A strong affirmative case could be made on the basis of nutrition alone.
Lactation supplies the perfect nourishment for the newborn and the infant, one which can never be duplicated by artificial formulas. Human milk, unlike that of cows or goats, contains factors which stimulate optimal brain development. Moreover milk, like blood and semen, is a living fluid: it is rich with active, living cells and specific "custom-made" antibodies which protect the infant from digestive and respiratory infections, and which may confer a lifetime immunological benefit.
If God Almighty came to you and said, "I Myself have designed a special food which will strengthen your baby's body and develop his brain, which will comfort him and cheer his heart, and lay the foundation for his lifetime health and well-being. I have given this food into your keeping: I) have placed it in your body: it is My loving provision for your child"--- who would reply, "No thanks; no divine gifts; I'd rather give him a can of Similac"?
But there's more. Personally embodied nourishment is not only good for the body; it is good for the soul; it is proto-sacramental.
Pope John Paul II urged the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to "heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding so necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother's breast as a picture of God's care for man (cf. Psalm 22:9). So vital is this interaction between mother and child that my predecessor Pope Pius XII urged Catholic mothers, if at all possible, to nourish their children themselves (cf. Allocution to Mothers, 26 October 1941). From various perspectives therefore the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with the sanctity of life and of the family (L'Osservatore Romano, 24 May, 1995)."
Mama-milk promotes sanctity?
From the infant's point of view, yes. Look at it this way. What are we here for? What is the purpose of human life? It is "to know, love, and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next." It is to love and to be loved.
And how do young humans learn to love? One would think this would be one of the core concerns of theology: studying, with sustained attention, on our knees, the process by which a child learns to give and receive love.
How does the child learn? Where are the foundations laid? At his mother's breast.
According to the research brought together in Fr. William Virtue's Mother and Infant, breastfeeding teaches the tiniest infant some immensely important lessons: (1) that the Universe is good, (2) that he has personal power: the power to elicit a response, and (3) that his deepest needs and appetites can be satisfied in a committed relationship with one loving person.
Did I say "the Universe"? From the infant's point of view, yes, indeed! Research has shown that the newborn's sight, generally hazy and undefined, is designed to come to a focus at one specific distance: 8 to 12 inches, not much more and not less. Why 8 - 12 inches? Because that's the distance from a nursling's eyes to his mother's face while he is being cradled at her breast. Increasingly, within weeks of birth, he's not looking at her breast. He's looking at her eyes.
She fills his whole range of vision: she satisfies his hunger and thirst, succors him with warmth and comfort; the timbre of her voice (the higher female tone) is precisely the range of frequencies his ears are fine-tuned to hear. She is his Universe: to the nursling, she is the Immensity.
Saint Elizabeth Seton once wrote of "Jesus on the breast of Mary, feeding on her milk! How long she must have delayed the weaning of such a child!!!!" (All the exclamation points are Seton's.)
And William Virtue, referencing Dr. Herbert Ratner's wonderful research on the significance of facial expressiveness in mother-baby interaction, goes on to say that "Mary nursing Jesus is a moral exemplar of the first formation of a loving bond," and that this is the natural prototype of the Eucharist.
Breastfeeding is not just a connection between a mammary gland and an alimentary canal. It is a relationship of a person to a person. It is not just nutritive. It is unitive.
If it is wrong deliberately to sunder the unitive and procreative powers via contraception --- and I am convinced it is--- then I would also argue there is something wrong about separating the unitive and the nutritive powers via the artificial bottle-feeding of the young infant.
I don't say that every use of a baby bottle is intrinsically immoral (as a contraceptive would be.) What I do say is that if a mother knows the physical/spiritual benefit of nourishing her baby at the breast, knows that her child has a right to her milk as a proto-sacramental gift of embodied love, and is able to nurse (even at a considerable personal sacrifice) --- but chooses not to --- she has greatly wronged her child.
And if a woman does not know about breastfeeding, or is made incapable of doing so by grave familial or social or economic pressure, then, in her education or in her circumstances, the woman herself has been greatly wronged.
"It is thou, God, who took me from the womb,
And kept me safe upon my mother's breasts." (Psalms 22:10)
So says the Psalmist, speaking prophetically of the divine care and protection to be enjoyed by the Messiah. And what mother, loving her own baby, would want it any other way?
Finding the Child Jesus in the Temple: Life at Home
In the Fifth Joyful Mystery we see joy commingling with sorrow. This is love-in-tears: Jesus was lost, or so Mary and Joseph thought, but now He's found. Truly the Temple of the Lord is Jesus' own home --- it is "his Father's House"--- and yet He went down with Mary and Joseph, "came to Nazareth and was obedient (subject) to them."
The narrative goes on, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man."
Now, why would the King of the Universe, who had a rather pressing job to do, saving the world and all, want to be obedient to two of His lowly creatures and be "subject" to them in their home, for, as far as we know, the first thirty years of His mission on this problematic planet?
There can be no irrelevance here, since every event in Jesus' life is given to us as a sign and a teaching for our salvation. Jesus went back to the Nazareth household, we can rightly suppose, because He highly valued living with His family. This is how Wisdom increased in wisdom. This is how God found favor with God!
How's it going with family living these days? In the United States, as we all know, not too terribly well.
Since we've all been living with the statistical decline of the American family, it won't surprise any of my readers in the slightest to read that 55% of infants and children under the age of five are not at home during the day with their mothers, fathers, or grandparents,, but are being raised in a non-family substitute care arrangement.
I can't say that all of this is a purely modern phenomenon. In former times, an aristocratic mother might have farmed out her babies to a peasant's wife for wet-nursing, and relegated the day-to-day raising of her sons and daughters to her serving-women. So because of "custom among the nobility," the interior offices of mothering were distributed to others and exteriorized.
If anyone thinks this is a fine system, I suggest a close reading of the family history of, say, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England. The domestic and diplomatic annals of the European ruling elite show a serious deficit of natural affection among their families: spousal betrayal, palace intrigues, and a shocking absence of inter-gender and inter-generational trust, spilling over into fratricidal and patricidal warfare.
I'm probably exaggerating if I say that the aristocratic family system, with the mothers absorbed in courtly affairs and social life, and the fathers away with their incessant military preoccupations, and the children abandoned to the nursery staff, bred dynasties of sociopaths. But I wouldn't be exaggerating by much.
The much-idealized middle-class Victorian household of just one hundred years ago had a staff of servants --- nannies, cooks, governesses--- to undertake the nurturing, caring, and teaching of the family's children: this, followed by boarding school. What's different now, is that some of the most depersonalizing features of the elite lifestyle have now been "democratically" extended to all the classes of society.
Motherhood is, after all, not a "job" or a loosely-associated set of "roles," but an intimate embodied relationship and the foundation of every other relationship, human and-- inasmuch as it touches us--- divine. And the alienation from the spiritual, personal; body-presence of mothering is almost total in some sectors of American society today. From routine cesareans hospital nurseries and bottle-feeding, to sitters, TV, and daycare, mothers have marginalized their own little children, and have themselves been marginalized as the living centers of their own families.
I have seen the sociologists' claim that in many households, the mother spends less than eleven minutes a day talking to her children, with most of the "conversation" consisting of corrections, commands, one-word and one-sentence interchanges. You've got speeded-up, stressed-out working mothers trying--- really trying--- to relate to their speeded-up, stressed-out school-age children, mothers serving in the main as appointment secretaries and chauffeurs, shuttling their kids to supervised after-school activities, mothers whose role mainly consists of interfacing between their kids and other adults.
And fathers! Even fathers who care to be fathers, find themselves merely brushing past their children en passant during the week, and them abjectly courting them--- if they can wrest their attention away from the Mall or the computer screen --- on the weekends.
Such are the blessings, so to speak, of living in an advanced industrialized society. Most of the world--- or so they tell us---would like to live this way. But the centrifugal family, while giving its members unparalleled levels [of individual mobility and material choice, does not in the end satisfy our deepest natural hungers for attachment, for belonging, for sharing intimately with other persons. And little or none of this actually advances us toward the ultimate purpose of human life, which is an intimate union of love with God forever.
Are such children "advancing in wisdom and favor with God"? Or are they gaining "the whole world" and losing their souls?
Many a mother says she would like to be more centered, more in touch with her children, more the "Mater et Magistra" within her own home, but cannot see the way clear because of the need to bring home a paycheck. I'm generally inclined to think these mothers are telling it like it is. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (perhaps surprisingly) that families with full-time mothers are found within every income-level of society.
Think of what that means. It means that there are women devoted to full-time mothering whose husbands are underemployed or who make $10,000 or $15,000 or $29,000 a year, all the way up to--- well, kaboodles of money.
How is it that some women with a family income of $15,000 can afford to stay at home with their kids, and some whose husbands make three times as much say they can't afford it? How is it that some husbands can support a wife and four homeschooling children on a $22,000 salary, and others at twice that salary say they can't survive without their wives going out and joining the ranks of the wage-earners and bring home a paycheck?
I realize I'm treading on dangerous ground here. The rest of this essay was about religion and sex, but now I'm dealing with something people get really touchy about: money.
Yet I can't escape the conclusion that the difference between families with absentee mothers and families with at-home mothers has less to do with what they earn than with what they value.