Mothering Within Patriarchy Mary Stromer Hanson
Amazing how motherhood memories from forty years ago do not disappear! I have looked for the opportunity of this writing prompt for a long time. Unfortunately, my experience still describes what is going on in the lives of young mothers today who are trying with all their strength to conform to patriarchal ideals of motherhood. This is the unvarnished view of motherhood in a patriarchal church a few decades ago and persists today.
My husband and I were still attending a testosterone charged church when our kids were babies. This is the environment where women are carefully monitored from early age for reproduction potential. “A woman’s highest calling is motherhood,” is the repeated mantra. Childbearing is the be-all, end-all of female existence. Unmarried women cannot be allowed free-range. “You are going to make some lucky man a good wife.” A girl’s worth is entirely tied up in marrying as a virgin. Women must be reined in under the leadership of a man in matrimony. Once married, the hints start flying about starting a family. Shortly after the first arrival, “When will there be a little sibling?”
These churches offer loads of lip-service to the dignity of mothers and pour on the traditional verbal bouquets on Mother’s Day, but that is meager compensation for 364 days of otherwise being ignored. One Mother’s Day I sat in church at 9:30 am after being up since about 5:00 having changed two sets of diapers, bathed, dressed, nursed a newborn, fed a three-year-old, oh yes, hurriedly dressed myself, and now I was receiving a rose. It felt like a cruel joke. And I had a supportive husband who probably made Sunday dinner and loaded up the car.
Cheap accolades were the last thing I needed, but the care of two youngsters was not the hard part. I screamed to be heard! If only some mighty elder or the pastor would just ask me about anything! I was talked around, talked down to, and talked over when I had a baby and toddler on my lap. I had no voice. The men looked straight through me, and women mostly discussed childcare details. No one cared about my mind. I was reduced to biological parts.
Did I turn in my brain when I was handed a baby? Now the hierarchy had me where they wanted me: sleep deprived, brain-dead, and breast feeding. All female threat is subdued! Their idea of the perfect woman is compliant with no energy to assert herself. Don’t ask her to take on any responsibility, she has her hands full now. Post partem depression was not a thing−just be thankful the baby is healthy. What more do you need? It really devalued me when within my earshot men felt free to expound on topics in which I had a college degree−without giving me the slightest nod. This church erased every blessing that motherhood could have offered me at that stage of my life and instead replaced it with a sense of hopeless entrapment.
Here is the main point of this sermon: God was distant to me in the far reaches of sleepless nights of motherhood. I was convinced that God, like the men modeled in that church, was only interested in my part in reproducing. When delivery was accomplished, their interest in me evaporated. I realized later that this skewed experience of motherhood is yet another injury that the distortion of patriarchy inflicts. When Godlikeness is tied with all things masculine then human male behavior is confused with God’s attributes. Explained another way, the behavior of the men in our environment is ideally to mirror that of God, but men not being God, are going to fail. If the men in a male-dominated church are aloof, then God must be aloof. It is a big mistake to equate their posture with that of God. Big mistake. This estrangement is the toxic by-product when God is modeled only by earthly men, and female is not acknowledged as a valid model for God.
By the time my daughter was a few years older, I was introduced to CBE and feminist theologians. I realized that she, as well as my son, needed to be removed from the poison of patriarchal influence. My shredded faith was renewed, and I started to recover from the damage inflicted by churches of my youth.
When I stepped into female-affirming churches, a cloud was lifted. I was amazed to find in progressive churches that not only were women in the pulpit, but women with young children were in church leadership. Imagine that! Motherhood does not strip a woman of her brain; she still has her B.C. (Before Children) skills. The realization developed: if the patriarchists were consistent in their “high” view of motherhood, then the insights that mothers bring to the board table would be acknowledged as necessary for the positions they so jealously guard against sharing with women.
For purposes here, I am discussing what churches and the Christian community can do for mothers. I won’t go into the extra supports that could be put into place by legislation, but if you are in a position to promote more paid leave for mothers, workplace flexibility, on-site childcare, stipends for preschool, and whatever else, then do it.
The first most important thing is to not relegate mothers to child-related activities and assume they do not have the energy and brain cells to contribute in other ways. Mothers were people with more than one identity before they had children, they still have their other identities, and will for many years beyond childbearing years.
Motherhood is not promoted when these same women are never considered for any decision-making opportunities. We certainly agree that not all learning is from books. (I am saying this after I earned a seminary degree well past my motherhood days.) I enjoy academics, but the lessons of motherhood go into another dimension. The physical toil of motherhood and the nights nursing a newborn bring wisdom beyond textbooks. Day to day management of resources, scheduling, prioritizing, multi-tasking, negotiating . . . the list goes on and on . . .are the skills needed in any field. Beyond that there are the qualities of patience, selfless love, humor, persistence, and endurance that grow when nourishing a little human. Those years are not dead space in the resume. Acknowledge this experience and nominate mothers the next time an election occurs.
Further discouragement to motherhood occurs when in Bible study and sermons the examples of biblical mothers are undermined, the mothering attributes of God are hidden, the mothers of church history are footnotes. Many resources for further study in these topics are available and today there is no excuse for not supporting parents with this knowledge.
Motherhood is elevated when mothers are encouraged into the spaces normally occupied by the childless. Quite practically, it offers some head-clearing fresh air necessary for mental health and well-being to do a better mothering job. If for no other reason, Mothers will be better mothers if they get a frequent change of activity. They may not recognize they need this. In fact, be quite insistent to young mothers that their babies will be OK if someone else rocks them for the duration of choir practice or a consistory meeting. Can you imagine a sign-up list for nursery care duties with the note, “Mothers stay out. You enjoy the mental health break for worship.” Fathers, grandparents, childless folks, and teenagers can take over childcare responsibilities, so mothers can take part in non-child related activities, not just for a photo op, but for the long haul. You will note how isolating it is and how “out of the loop” it feels among the cribs and toys. The babies will survive some clumsy diaper changing and surprise, the lessons learned in caring for children will also rub off on nursery novices!
In addition, if children see their mother’s example of empowerment outside the house, boys and girls are better equipped for their own life experiences. Returning to familiar mantras. Don’t pacify mothers with “You are already doing the most important job; you should feel no obligation to take on more.”
God’s relationship with children is modeled by Jesus in Luke 18:15-17; Mark 10:13-16; and Matthew 19:13 where he welcomes them against the disciples’ protest. Men, if you want to be Godlike, then follow Christ’s example by this hands-on service. Patriarchists, if you really thought motherhood was the most important job, you would be hoarding diaper-changing duties for yourselves! I don’t see that happening.