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What Happened to Motherhood?

By David Warren

We used to have the expression "motherhood and apple pie," to describe things that were so far beyond controversy, that no one in his right mind would think of challenging them. It was a way to say that certain things are simply part of our nature, and thus not within our power to change. Also: beautiful, if properly understood, by a mind that accepts human life as a gift of God, rather than as a cat's cradle of rights issues. Of course, anything that is beautiful can also get ugly.

I don't know where apple pie stands today (were the apples organic?), but it has been clear ever since contraception was popularized and "normalized" in the 1960s, that motherhood had become controversial. The link between sex and procreation began to be dissevered. And with that, the idea that motherhood could be at the centre of a woman's being -- that being a mother was an honourable and even glorious condition -- began "passing out of the culture."

The idea that a woman is "fulfilled" through her children; that her achievement in the world lives on through them, and through their children; that she is worthy of honour as mistress of home and family -- all that has passed. Not entirely, for there are still many million persistent religious believers, and even among the rest, human nature dies hard.

This ancient assumption was replaced by the notion that a woman exists to seek personal fulfilment, in and of herself. By the 1970s, when abortions were running at hundred-thousands each year in this country alone, children had become "an option". And moreover, an option that was likely to get in the way of the woman's career, by reducing her competitiveness with men. The emotional insecurities (or more positively, "maternal qualities") that are peculiar to being a woman, founded in nature by concern for the fate of her children, needed suppressing for her to get ahead. Equality in the workplace will never be compatible with the inequality of nature, which curiously allows only women to become pregnant, never men.

Needless to say, a civilization becomes extinct if childbearing becomes "an option" for the great majority of women.

Motherhood is the one aspect of female identity that does not seem to interest feminists, and probably cannot interest them, since motherhood itself must necessarily subvert the entire feminist project. For the woman in what I call "gliberal" society today -- postmodern, urbane, both bureaucratic and competitive -- carrying a child has gone from a glorious condition to an inconvenient and even shameful one, in the space of two generations. During which time, the birthrate has plunged to a degree unprecedented in history.

Last Sunday happened to be the date for the feast of the Annunciation, when according to the Gospels, Mary conceived the child Jesus, of the Holy Spirit. The image of Mary has been, throughout Christendom and therefore through the history of the West, at the centre of our conception of motherhood. The "Madonna and Child" is written into our psyches through two thousand years of Christian art. And that passage in the first chapter of St Luke, called the Magnificat, has rung down the same centuries -- that burst of sheer joy, joy in obedience, "for behold all generations shall call me blessed."

Now here is an interesting thing. A woman who is a "policy wonk," who had the task of defending motherhood in controversy, recently asked me to help her by finding passages in ancient literature and philosophy defending motherhood. Well, I am not so learned as she thought, but when I went looking, I soon realized, there are no such passages. The best one can find are sentimental things, written mostly from the Victorian age forward. All reducible to "Hallmark card" declarations, useless in debate.

Thomas Aquinas and many other great thinkers spent many pages and much effort inquiring into such doctrines as the virgin birth, and of the immaculate conception, and trying to understand them -- why? Because parthenogenesis, and sinlessness, seem contrary to nature; because such doctrines fly in the face of "common sense" and are therefore hard to understand. It would never have occurred to them that anything needed defending in motherhood, per se.

What an inversion has happened, in two scant generations; what an inversion of the wisdom of all the centuries that preceded! For we live in a time when the most irrational ideas are held beyond discussion; and yet everything self-evident is subject to debate. In which women are reluctant to be women, and men reluctant to be men.

otiosus@sympatico.ca

© Ottawa Citizen


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