Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Defining motherhood

motherhood: (n.) derivative of the word mother 

mother:  (n.)  a woman in relation to a child(ren) to whom she has given birth; a person who provides the care and affection normally associated with a female parent

mothering: (v trans.)  to bring up (a child) with care and affection; (adj.) the state of being a mother

Could the definitions on which my research is founded be anymore vague?  Seriously.  There is no definitive manner in which to define what makes one a mother.  Yes, the definition indicates a birth right, but does giving birth truly equate to being a mother?  Also, what level of "care and affection" constitutes a mother?  As a teacher, I have encountered many mothers lacking the level of care and affection I believe mothers should exhibit; my son's teachers would attest that I demonstrate too much care and affection.  (Hell, some of my own family members disagree with my mothering of my son.) And so, as with most everything of importance in the world, motherhood is difficult to put into words.  But I'm going to try.

I start with a book I came across in my research entitled:  The Oldest Vocation:  Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Written by Clarissa Atkinson, the text illuminates history of Medieval motherhood in Europe, "where it's roots are inextricably entangled with the history of Christianity" (ix).  Atkinson clearly connects the ambiguous subjects of motherhood and Christianity in a manner that is thoughtful without being pious, making the reading easier to digest, especially for someone like me whose personal relationship with Christianity is ever-changing.

Because I don't want this blog to take a sermonizing turn (and because the entire text is worth reading), I encourage you to find the book and read it if you like.  (You can get it used at for $3.99.)  Some of the highlights for me are included here:
  • Medieval motherhood was constructed by persons whose primary ideology was Christianity:  Christian stories and moral teaching shaped their imaginative boundaries, their sense of self and world and their social, legal, and domestic arrangement.  This was the case even for those who were illiterate and relatively "unchurched."
    • The concepts of Christian motherhood are paralleled in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  Many of the mothers (mentioned in a previous blog) found their strength and identity in Christianity, especially the Virgin Mary.  Those familiar with the Bible read time and time again of mothers who suffer great loss with unexplainable grace and dignity, just as the mothers in the tales.  Again, I just can't conceive that I would handle harm upon or loss of my son with Christian decorum.  I am, however, subconsciously aware of the Christian stories and teachings I learned as a child, and I use them in mothering situations, either with students or my son, everyday.  This is not to say that I gather them around and tell them the story of Sarah, but I know that she was a hospitable woman who welcomed strangers into her home and shared her heart with them despite their hostilities toward her.  Those Christian tales guide more of my mommy-behavior than I imagined.
  • Until quite recently, motherhood had no history; it was identified with the private sphere of the biological aspects human condition.  Women's lives were organized and their capacities defined by their status as mothers, potential mothers, and non-mothers, but motherhood itself was not perceive as an institution shaped by culture and subject to history.  Styles of child rearing and other elements of family life in nonindustrial societies were accessible to cultural analysis, thanks to anthropologists. [But] most anthropologists regarded fatherhood as a social construction, motherhood as a natural or biological construction.  Not even practitioners of the twentieth century thought to study motherhood as a specific institution.
    • This explains why this research topic was so difficult.  I struggled to find valuable sources that could be feasibly read, analyzed, and applied in a little over three weeks.  The subjectivity connected to motherhood is not a modern, we have too many words in our vocabulary, problem.  As indicated by Atkinson, motherhood has been viewed for many years as little more than a natural behavior in the world.  And while much about mothering is arguably inherent (or natural), it is strongly shaped by the constructs of the outside world, making it social as well as natural.  The social influence of Christianity on motherhood creates the foundation of Atkinson's research.  For my research, I over-excitedly wanted to analyze everything about Medieval motherhood.  Over-zealous?  Absolutely.  But I'm okay with that!
  • Physiological assumptions are building blocks that define the moral, social, and emotional characteristics of motherhood.  What is known and believed about conception, pregnancy, and birth not only describes what mothers are, but colors expectations of what they should be.  Profound and powerful presuppositions about gender, sexuality, and parenthood color observations of maternity in its physiological as well as its psychological and social aspects.  This is not to suggest that motherhood or reproductive physiology was a primary focus of Christian thought and activity.  However, the absence of a Christian biology does not imply an absences of biological assumptions.
    • This chapter was the most difficult one for me to dissect as Atkinson seems to assert that the relationship between the physiology of motherhood and the social importance of motherhood are very symbiotic.  In other words, the cultural understanding of what makes a mother a "good" or "bad" mother is founded on that culture's knowledge of the biology of being a mother in conjunction with the knowledge of and participation of faith.  She addresses major physiological understandings about motherhood and all its facets--conception, menstruation (an astounding seven pages of the chapter are devoted to this topic), nursing, delivery, etc--as studied by Hippocrates, Aristotle, Plato, (and the like) and then contrasts them with the Church's moral and theological perspectives on the same topics.  Who even knew that the Church had a position on menstruation and nursing?
  • The idea of spiritual motherhood takes shape in the late fourth/early fifth century as Christianity is the established religion of the Roman world.  By the sixth century, the only people in Medieval Europe who can read are monks and nuns.  Nuns built new families to replace the families they left behind, bringing to the cloisters (and eventually to the world) a concept of motherhood based solely on spiritual genetics.  Women who aspired to holiness were restricted to forms of religious life in which physical motherhood was incompatible with devotion to God.  Holy women were the brides of Christ and mothers of holy communities, so they were not prohibited from the role of motherhood.  Spiritual motherhood was the only religious leadership permitted to women.
    • It's interesting to me that physical motherhood interferes with devotion to God, especially considering the fact that Mary, the physical mother of Christ, embodies Christian devotion and mothering.  However, I completely respect the concept of spiritual motherhood.  Religious conviction of such magnitude is not easy and I admire anyone that can manage it.  In reading this chapter, however, I was a little vexed by Medieval practice of valuing spiritual mothers more than physical ones.  The concept, as I understand it, indicates that the sacrifice of the spiritual mother is greater than that of the physical, thus she sits closer to God.  Seeing as how Jesus called the children to him because "the Kingdom of God belongs to these," I think the physical mother trumps the spiritual mother.  I'm just saying...
The rest of the text continues on to recount endless stories of miracles and motherhood, specifically the influence of Mary--not as a Virginal sacred vessel whose powers were meant only for the saints, but as a passionate mother of all children who shapes the hearts of mothers--that support the idea that motherhood is the oldest vocation and that it is founded on Christian ideology.  (Prior to this reading, I considered Mary peculiar and her status of motherhood unattainable by humans because of the whole immaculate conception thing.  But now I am intrigued by her genuine spirit and motherly devotion.)  Even if you are not a Believer, the text provides a thought provoking look at the ways in which all mothers are Christians.

There are worse things a mother can be...

Source:  Atkinson, Clarissa.  The Oldest Vocation:  Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, New York.  1991.

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