Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
August 9, 2017
“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”
Barbara Kingsolver (1955-)
American novelist, essayist and poet
“Each child is biologically required to have a mother.
Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact.”
P.J. O’Rourke (1947-)
Political satirist and journalist
A late spring day a few years ago: The car in front of me has stopped. I am on Neck Road, a hundred yards north of Smith Neck Road in Old Lyme. The woman who had been driving is standing outside her car. On the side of the road, a fawn stands on three legs – the fourth dangling uselessly and painfully. It is the mother deer, the doe, that grips my attention. She stands helplessly, a few yards away, unable to do anything. Instinct (and devotion?) would not let her seek safety. Mothers are mothers, no matter the species.
Obviously, I have no first-hand knowledge of motherhood, but I have a lot of second-hand knowledge. I am the grandson of two mothers, the son of a mother, husband to a mother, brother to four sisters who are mothers, father to a daughter who is a mother, and father-in-law to two daughters-in-law who are mothers. I have six granddaughters who I pray will be able to become mothers. As a child growing up with horses, goats, chickens, dogs and cats, I have been witness to innumerable births. As an adult, we had a goat give birth to two kids and cats that had kittens. Like many, I have witnessed mothers in the wild. Motherhood is a marvel to watch, as natural and as old as life itself.
“But first and foremost, I remember Mama.” That is the opening sentence of Katrin Hanson’s book, Mama and the Hospital, and the closing line of the movie, “I remember Mama.” For those of us of a certain age, Irene Dunne, as Marta Hanson, epitomized motherhood. She played Mama, the mother of a poor, immigrant, Norwegian family in 1910 San Francisco. She was the glue that held the family together. As viewers, we identified with this hard-working, devoted woman who so adored her children that she once got a job mopping floors in a hospital, so she could visit her child who was recovering.
Mothers abound in literature, and not all are good ones. Remember Medea who skewers her child because her husband Jason wants to take a new wife, or Prince Hamlet’s mother Gertrude who marries her husband’s killer, King Hamlet’s brother Claudius? Or what about Joan Crawford as depicted by her stepdaughter Christine, in her memoir, Mommie Dearest? But many mothers in literature are good. Recall the Biblical story of the two harlots, and how Solomon discerned the right mother? There is Mary, mother of Jesus, and Hester Prynne, heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. We read of the socially clumsy Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Scarlett O’Hara who was torn between her real mother and her Mammy in Gone with the Wind, a subject Kathryn Stockett wrote of decades later in The Help.
The most tortured mother in literature, in my reading, was Sophie Zawistowski, the eponymous heroine of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. Sophie, with her two young children, as we learn toward the end of the novel, had been years before confronted by an SS officer at Auschwitz who demanded: “You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
It is often said that men marry women like their mother. People who knew my mother and know my wife would be unable to see the similarities, except in one important way – both raised happy and successful children. My children, in my unbiased opinion, were especially fortunate in their mother.
Today, in America, and in most democracies, we are treated as equals, regardless of religion, race, heritage or sex. Such treatment is as it should be, equitable and civil. But, we must not to muddle what makes us individuals – our physical, mental and emotional characteristics. Tolerance and respect are critical to civility, and that means tolerating and respecting our differences. With emphasis on sameness, we should not lose sight that it is our differences that allow us to become who we are and to evolve as a species.
One of the biggest differences between females and males is the instinct a mother has for the child she has borne. Males have no such aptitude. As Karen Rinaldi recently wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times, fathers sometimes complain about having to “babysit” their children. However, she notes: “Has a woman ever ‘babysat’ her own children?” It is not that as fathers we do not love our children. We do. But we cannot have the same sense as does a mother when she first clutches to her breast a living, breathing being that moments before had been in her womb. That knack is not exclusive to man. We see it in the bitch as she licks clean her new-born pups, and in the mare as she gently helps her new-born foal to her feet. It is not cruelty when a mother bird nudges her young out of the nest to test her or his wings. Even instincts that we might see as barbarous are usually acts of survival – chickens will sometimes eat eggs whose shells are deficient in calcium, and polar bears will sometimes kill and devour the smallest of their young. A friend who has a farm in Provence recently told me that his goose, who hatched two goslings (when one is typical), was not overly wrought when a hawk took away the smallest.
Love for a newborn is eternal, even among the haughty who conceal their emotions. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote of Lady Dedlock when she first realizes that the little girl she thought had died in her first moments was alive: “O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me; but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, my child!”
Being mothers has not impeded women from careers. History is replete with women who have done both: Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, Julia Ward Howe, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Indira Gandhi. Far more have careers today: Hillary Clinton, Nikki Haley, J.K. Rowling, Sheryl Sandberg and my daughter-in-law, the author Beatriz Williams. In fact, today’s labor participation rate is higher for mothers (70.5%) than for the workforce as a whole (62.8%). Nevertheless, motherhood takes effort and time. It takes an understanding of needs of newborns to grow, to fledge, to swim on their own, to feed, to fear predators. In humans, mothers are the first responders in loving and nourishing their children to become productive, responsible citizens who will, in time, love and nourish their own children.
In some quarters, the concept of motherhood is under attack, or, at least, not being accorded the respect it deserves. Over the past several decades, young people in Western societies have delayed marriage and children. Getting a good education, starting a career, financial independence and the desire to prove one’s independence – all valid explanations – are cited as reasons women choose to delay childbirth. The consequences, in developed nations, have been birth rates below what is necessary to sustain population, without immigration. Ironically, it is in poor nations – those that can least afford children – that childbirths are above replacement rates.
Since Thomas Malthus, in the late 18th Century, warned that population growth was exceeding agriculture’s ability to sustain it, Cassandra’s have repeatedly warned that the planet is overcrowded. For over two hundred years those doomsayers have been proved wrong. Will they be right at some point? Perhaps. But what economists and prophets ignore is the creativity and industriousness of men and women – how productive they have made the land we till, and how innovation has made our lives more comfortable, including the ability to plan families. This is not to suggest we should disregard the limits of nature’s resources. We should not. But we must acknowledge our abilities to conceive, create and adapt. Conception, keep in mind, is the ultimate expression of optimism.
In the Times article quoted above, Karen Rinaldi, an author and founder of the Harper Wave imprint of Harper Collins, wrote, “Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege.” I agree, but it is more. In passing one’s genes to the next generation, motherhood may be selfish, as Ms. Rinaldi asserted, but that is not the thought I would have had, and “privilege” is not the only word I would have used to describe motherhood. In my opinion, birth is a blessing of divine proportions. When we consider the odds against being born – the right sperm and the right egg at the right time – it is as much a miracle as a physical happening. Science has made giving birth safer and easier, but it has neither altered the process nor changed the consequence. Motherhood is also a duty. Without it, we would become extinct.
Motherhood, as my wife reminds me, is above all an emotional challenge. Good mothers understand the awesome responsibility that is theirs – that, in bringing into the world a new life, they must ensure that the baby they bore, the child they reared, the teenager they argued with and advised, becomes a self-sufficient, caring, respectful, responsible and productive adult. Motherhood is unlike any other experience. There is nothing that equals it in importance. Donald Trump may be leader of the free world. Xi Jinping may be president of the world’s most populous country. Bill Gates may have more money than anyone. Wernher von Braun may have developed the mathematical models that helped put man on the moon. Elon Musk may build a New Hyperloop allowing one to travel between New York and Washington in 29 minutes. But none could bear a baby. None can create the future. None can claim motherhood – a miraculous privilege, duty and responsibility, critical to all species.
Hats off to all mothers!