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Mothers Days

Mothers Days

We will reweave the world as a place of sharing and caring, of peace and justice, not a market place where sharing and caring and giving protection are crimes, and peace and justice are unthinkable.
Vandana Shiva THE HINDU, March 25, 2001.
Many of my generation probably remember Tom Lehrer's amusing and cynical songs one of which was about National Brotherhood Week. In that song he said that the reason we set aside one week for brotherhood is to free us up to hate our fellow man for the rest of the year. I am not convinced yet that we devote one Sunday to mothers so we can hate them for the rest of the year, but I do think how we celebrate Mothers Day polishes up a particular stereotype of mother which supports aspects of our culture I find disturbing.

Children are encouraged to shop for Mother's Day to push another injection of commerce into our greed-addicted society, and to make or buy presents for their own mother. Two popular customs, breakfast in bed and a family dinner in a restaurant, are rather ominous reminders of what is expected from mothers on every other day. Flowers, cards with sentimental doggerel, cosmetics, jewelry, silk scarves, chocolates, women's books, tickets to the ballet and memberships in fitness centres, in fact almost any consumer indulgence as long as it is highly gendered is is sold for her day. To see how gendered, compare these to the electronic and mechanical gadgets advertised next month for Father's Day.

The presents honour women for their feminine instincts for mothering, and underline her role as the focus of affection in a nuclear family, as a darling who always supports her children, and as an inexhaustible well of unconditional love. Even if our own mother did not reach this ideal, and we who are mothers fall far short, surprisingly few of us strongly reject a stereotype which, slightly altered, could equally well apply to the family dog. Fluffy with a diamond collar, or some noisy mastiff with her muddy paws on our shoulders, they are all expected to be loyal, seldom show a fang, love us unconditionally, and deserve our love and care in return. This is not a new thought. In J.M. Barrie's novel, Peter Pan, the mothering function was split in two; a wife who related first to her husband but feared for her children, and a nurturing, responsible nanny who really was a dog. The stereotypical mother, however we wrap her in hyperbolic flattery and sentimentality, is expected to be there for us as dogs are. To a young man making his way in our patriarchy, it may matter little that his mother is loving and loved like a dog, but it surely matters to a young woman thinking of having a child herself. If we are going to continue setting aside one Sunday a year to celebrate mothers, I think we should be looking around for a different and better stereotype.

Because in our culture the unconditional love expected of mothers is usually attributed to a mother's instinct, I would like to look briefly at mothering in some non-human animals. (I do this with apologies to my daughter, Hannah, who has forgotten far more about animals than I will ever know, and who reminded me, quite correctly, that using animals as metaphors for human behavior not only demeans non-human creatures, which, however odd we find them, have usually adapted to a complex world with a moderation and dignity humans so often lack, but also because our metaphors almost always rest on a profound ignorance of the natural world.)

Nevertheless, for the sake argument, let us glance at two familiar species, our national rodent, the beaver, and the Canada goose. Both mate for the long term, the goose for life, and the beaver until a mate dies; in both, male and female look much the same, both care for offspring, look after the family dwelling and show family affection. In loyalty, strength, competence, affection and playfulness both sexes are equal within something like a nuclear family. No gendering though. Stop anthropomorphizing, you say, It's all instinct. Perhaps, but my point is, that within this ocean of instinct, I see not one drop of the saintly devotion supposedly instinctive and very much celebrated in our stereotypical human mothers.

Beavers and wild geese I have only watched, but once for several months I had quite close contact with four domestic ganders. Because pairing is such a strong instinct in geese, the four ganders paired up with one another, two and two, until one died leaving his partner bereft. Quite soon we noticed the unpaired gander seeking the company of one particular sheep, even settling to sleep on her back at night. ( We, or should I say, with greater truth, my husband Dick, was looking after a friend's sheep farm for a few months). When the sheep eventually produced a lamb, the gander continued to sleep on her back, but at other times also marched up and down outside her lambing pen looking very responsible.

Inter-species affection is not infrequent. In a wildlife park in Kenya, a baby hippo orphaned by the South East Asian tsunami formed an attachment, to the apparent satisfaction of both, with an elderly, giant tortoise. We had a rabbit which for several summers, whenever he had the opportunity, would play chase and chase about with a neighbour's sheltie dog, and I have heard of domestic cats which play the same way with foxes. And so on. When you consider that no animal in nature can escape the web of predator and prey, it is astonishing that so often it is the affection and playfulness we associate with mothering that animals demonstrate in the world not the fear and aggression of nature raw in tooth and claw. There are human cultures, (like some in Africa in which children call all adult men and women father and mother) in which mothering, in which parenting, structures society, but in our culture we prize mothering as the treasured possession of one nuclear family.

Because we learn about mothers from our own, I will give you a sketch of mine, Norah Toole, who died more than 15 years ago at age 84 from a stroke. Her last, brief illness was her first stroke, so she went from life to death pretty much herself, a woman with a persistent and charming curiosity about the world, mostly from a scientific and political point of view, and hair a reddish brown colour which she dyed herself and set with beer. Even now, hair that colour on the back of a head makes Dick, my husband, and I expect to find my mother on the other side of it. The last coherent words I remember her saying were , Who will thread Martha's needles?, referring to a loved friend whose eyesight was fading. Recognizing the inevitability of her own disability or death, my mother was mourning the certain loss to herself and her friend of a mutual, loving exchange and responsibility, a very precious one, but just one of the many which were what living in the world was all about for my mother.

Norah's profession had been instructing university chemistry, but her work, of which chemistry and teaching were just a part, was trying to put right the injustices and wrongs fate threw at her feet. (Just two of the many successes she contributed to were changing the law that prohibited all women except those who owned property from voting in municipal elections in Fredericton until the 1940's, and persuading the phone company to change their policy and start installing phones in houses on Indian reservations). She got on with this work by luring friends and family together for meals and good conversation, by organizing meetings, phoning for hours (often to organize meetings), going to meetings, organizing organizations, writing petitions, briefs and letters, mimeographing, and stuffing and licking envelopes, always with the help of others, including my father and other men, but very often with other women. Surprisingly often, at least at the local level, they did nudge the world into better order, although, from a child's point of view, all she and her friends seemed to be doing was talking and laughing over tea or sherry or both as they endlessly shuffled papers on the kitchen or dining table, while we children sometimes joined in to stuff and lick envelopes and wield the stapler. I do not tell you this to praise and elevate my mother above others. What she was doing was simply a variation of what women have been doing for generations.

For example, in Scotland there was a tradition called waulking the cloth. To do this, a lot of people, often only women, sat on all sides of a large table kneading and thumping a spread out, constantly shifting bolt of damp tweed until its fibers came together to make the finished cloth wind proof. As they pounded in unison, they alternated choral responses with verses of vivd, personal poems, traditionally composed by women. . As all this went on for hours, there must have been children about, helping, or playing or studying or doing the dishes, as my father, brother and I did, in sight and hearing of a community of women contributing their work and thoughts to the world. My mother showed us that a mother is not merely the prop of one family's comfort, but that her place is at the always open door between family and community, showing her children by example how to be useful and at home in both. Not surprisingly, it is that image of mothering I would like to see celebrated on Mothers' Day.

International Women's Day, still commemorated by some on March 8, initiated in America by Julia Ward Howe with her Peace Proclamation of 1870 (read here this morning) was to be such a Mother's Day, a day when mothers, out of love for all children, said no to war. Many women today, working on an almost equal footing with men, are less aware than their distant grandmothers that the morality of mothering, the values needed to nurture sane children, often stand in profound opposition to the strategies leading to success in our society. Our official Mother's Day, celebrating the prophylactic encapsulation of mothers inside a nuclear family, is clearly not an endorsement of Howe's rejection of militarism, but rather a defence against it.

Julia Ward Howe's words are still cherished by peace groups., particularly women's peace groups. Sometimes a man asks to join the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, a peace group I belong to, and, although most members still feel it should remain a women's organization, there are women who feel this is just old-fashioned. They grew up to cries of New and better! and You have come a long way,Baby!, and find it hard to imagine that some changes in the status of women since the suffragettes are not as they seem, and may even be bad. Tempted to applaud Condaleezza Rice, a woman of colour who is US Secretary of State, they forget that outsider, criminal women, like Catherine the Great, have held power before. They fail to notice that women's liberation largely benefits the privileged, developed world, and that most women in the world are still poor, although they work, as they always did, both outside and inside the home. Dazzled by technical hoopla, women in the developed world usually fail to notice the total transformation now taking place as unique societies throughout the world are ploughed under and replaced by the monoculture we live in. It is a monoculture of level playing fields, but not fairness; of reputed equal opportunities and rights, but not of human beings cherished in all their frailty and difference. It forces us to participate in a weighted competition that discards losers and rewards with more those who already have. It claims to be the only true face of human nature. It is misogynist. It is always ready for war.

Residential Schools are the most egregious, but not the only examples, to show that children exposed unprotected to this culture do not thrive. That millions of children still do thrive implies that an alternative culture of nurture, caring, sharing, and fairness must exist. It is largely women, due to biology and custom, who perpetuate this necessary, peaceable culture standing as a perennial challenge to the monoculture's claim of being all of human nature. Unable to destroy its own children (although global resource depletion and nuclear weapons certainly suggest that this may be a possibility) as it destroys other alternative cultures, the monoculture constrains the threat at its heart by controlling women. When societies are most warlike, state interference in women's control of theirown bodies increases. In Canada, the Silver Cross Mother, honoured before the nation for bearing the greatest number of soldiers slaughtered in war, is a symbol of the state's interest in fertility, and a reminder that women's role is to breed cannon fodder. Julia Ward Howe responded to this role when she wrote, Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

That Julia Ward Howe's words provoke us after one hundred and thirty -seven years indicates how deeply we, men and women, have internalized the misogynist defense our culture makes to the affront that mothering presents to our core beliefs. An extreme example of this is the Montreal Massacre in which a gunman killed fourteen female engineering students after ordering the male students, who outnumbered the women by about 3 to 1, to leave. That all the male students obeyed orders and left, and that we do not question that they did so, demonstrates how deeply we have all internalized misogyny in our society. It does not cross our minds that, while the male students' deserting the women guaranteed their slaughter, staying, which risked, but did not insure, harm and possible death to themselves, might have saved the women. Taught by our culture, they left the women to be killed and saved themselves, and we, taught by our culture, call this human nature.

Of course being mothers is not what defines women who, like men, are unique, variously talented human beings, but until for all of us the first response to the threat of danger is to reach out to one another, as mothers and children do, I believe there is still a place for women-only peace groups. In them we can comfortably explore together the indigestible obstacle we women can be to the destructive aspects of the culture we live in. We can imagine a society in which, faced by that man with a gun, those male students, most of whom must have been good and brave young men, simply sat down.

As a footnote, I would like to compare the 76 year old professor, Liviu Librescu, who died at Virginia Tech holding his classroom door shut so his students could escape being shot, and our own General Hillier, who recently took the Stanley Cup to Khandahar, and speaks proudly and affectionately of our serving men and women. I think I heard ( I was unable to re-check this on the Inside Track podcast) the General (who apparently knows all the wounded by name) say on CBC radio last Sunday that he anticipated someday seeing maimed soldiers getting medals in the paralymics.

So on the one hand we have Hillier, proud of his trained soldiers risking death and maiming to kill other people, portrayed in the media as a great guy, a fatherly guy, and on the other hand we have Prof. Librescu (who probably also knew his students by name )portrayed in the media as an oddity, a holocaust survivor and escapee from totalitarianism, admittedly brave, but a puzzle reluctantly credited for his sacrifice. I think a culture in which Hillier is admired and Librescu puzzles us is crying out for what Julia Ward Howe, my mother and, I am sure, many of us here, both women and men, might call mothering.