This was originally posted on May 9, 2016
When we seek immortality or spiritual “rebirth,” are we not saying that there is something wrong with the “birth” that was given to us through the body of our mothers? In She Who Changes and in “Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as Matricide and Theacide,” I asserted that our culture is “matricidal” because it is based on the assumption that life in the body in this world “just isn’t good enough.”
What is so wrong with the life that our mothers gave us that we must reject it in the name of a “higher” spiritual life? The answer of course death.
Can we love life without accepting death?
Can we love our mothers if we do not accept a life that ends in death?
Jesus was said to have encouraged his disciples to leave their wives and families in order to follow him. When he was told that his mother and brothers were outside and waiting to speak to him, he is said to have said:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matt. 12:48-50)
Buddha left his wife and new-born son in order to pursue enlightenment.
Some feminists, including Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rita Gross, view these incidents positively, stating that their meaning is that no person should be trapped in the conventional biological roles.
I have always experienced these stories as dismissive of women’s bodies, of women’s lives, of women’s work. When I went to college, I learned that all of the knowledge and insight about the meaning of life I had gained through the experience of raising a child with my mother was irrelevant to the university education I had embarked upon.
Among the things I learned was that it was “necessary” for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter in order to fight a war; that it was “wrong” for Clytemnestra to kill Agamemnon after he killed their child; and that it was “right” for Orestes and Ilektra to kill their mother. I learned through the study of Plato and other philosophers that the life of the mind was to be preferred to the life of the body. It was only in graduate school that it began to dawn on me that as a woman I was identified with the body in ways that men were not.
In her ground-breaking book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich distinguishes between motherhood as experience and motherhood as institution. She asks us to value the experience of motherhood while criticizing the institution—the ways the experience of motherhood is structured in patriarchal societies. This important distinction can enable us to celebrate the experience of motherhood and the values associated with it, including care, compassion, love, and generosity, without at the same time endorsing the isolation of mothers in nuclear families or the gender divisions and hierarchies that structure the experience of motherhood in patriarchal societies.
In “Dear Mum,” Jassy Watson describes her experience of being mothered:
You have never judged choices I have made in my life, only ever offered your support. We’ve had our ups and downs, but what relationship doesn’t? No matter what, you have always been there for me, sharing in my triumphs and tears. You have always encouraged me to be different and to follow my passions.
I am sure many of us who read Jassy’s words feel a twinge of jealousy. We were not all so lucky. My mother loved me very much, but she did not encourage me to be different and to follow my passions; she was afraid that if I did, I would not marry and have children, and I would be unhappy. Many of my friends speak of mothers who were depressed or angry or alcoholic or addicted to pills. These women did not experience love, care, and compassion from their mothers, or they experienced them intertwined with unhappiness, negativity, criticism, and bitterness.
One of the reasons many of us feel uneasy about celebrating Mother’s Day is our culture’s failure to criticize the institution of motherhood. If we celebrate Mother’s Day, are we endorsing the patriarchal nuclear family? Are we affirming the idea that women belong in the home?
In order to celebrate Mother’s Day with whole hearts, we must transform the institution of motherhood. We must affirm the right of every woman to be different and to follow her passions. We must ensure that motherhood is a choice, and that all mothers, including single mothers, receive the support they need. Most importantly, we must recognize this world as our true home. Birth through the bodies of our mothers is good enough: it is the only life we have.
Understanding this, we will feel gratitude to our mothers and to Mother Earth each and every day.
*For a different experience of motherhood, see: “Matriarchy: Daring to Use the “M” Word.”
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ