Ch. 5 A Maternal Theology

Chapter 5 of Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

The time has come to call the Great Mother back from the edge of existence, to call Her back from the edge of our perception of reality; that She may restore our humanity, as we restore Her divinity.[i] What it means to me to call Her back is that we all must become “mothers”, we all must develop a priority on the “holding” of life[ii] -as against the acquiring of it, a priority on our actual material reality – to believe in the life in our bodies, in the trees, in the plants, in the air.

We have been denying Her, so that we can use Her, standing on Her so we can see other “higher” realities, etherealising Her; cutting Her down to size and pasting Her on women.

Men have sat and theorised about salvation and destruction as if life –real flesh and blood life- were an expendable commodity, as if we will all go on existing even though they blow the world up, as if Life were a reality exterior to matter.

The ones to whom it has been given to nurture life have sat back, -sometimes for lack of choice, sometimes not- and participated in the folly by their absence. Each, as mother, was and could be “the consciousness of the nation” because she had no responsibility for running it.[iii] Being above the battle, like royalty, she could afford to be quite tender, nurturant. Being at the bottom of the battle, her hand was too busy rocking the cradle travailler pour l’armee,[iv] to be ruling the world. She has in effect been “a hand-maiden of the macho world.”[v] Decisions of great importance to the children she bears and rears have been made without her involvement. She didn’t see for so long that perhaps one of her maternal responsibilities was the learning how to acquire and use power.

Monique Wittig, radical feminist, calls for a return of the warrior amongst women. She speaks of a time when mothers were not distinct from amazons, when “they lived in harmony and shared pleasure … hunted together … gathered together … wandered together.” Then there came a time when some mothers “began to stay in the cities and most often they watched their abdomens grow. In vain their friends asked them to join them in their travels. They always had a new abdomen to watch. Thus they called themselves mothers … at that time the mothers stopped calling themselves amazons and (they) and the amazons began to live separately”[vi] In Les Gureilleres, Wittig pronounces that “those who call for a new language (must) first learn violence.”[vii] She describes a birth-scene wherein “when the child is born the midwife begins to utter cries like women who fight in battle. This means that the mother has conquered as a warrior …”[viii] Wittig’s exhortation is to a notion of wholeness in the mother –a return of the Virgin and the Creatrix-Destroyer of whom I spoke earlier.

If women refuse (as they are beginning to do) to play the narrowly described mother role, then maybe we can all find a way out. Mary Daly describes the initial confusion on the part of women who experience “becoming rather than reflecting”[ix] … “what to copy? What model to imitate? Where to look?”[x] and the confusion of men who are forced “to look at women, instead of reflections.”[xi] Herb Goldberg celebrates “the powerfully beneficial aspects of the female’s emergence as an openly assertive, aggressive being,”[xii] because what it means is that men can let go of the fantasy image of her as fragile and dependent, and his perception of himself as ever-strong and independent. He can (like she is) re-enter (re-entering) full emotional reality.[xiii]

For a while, in the feminist movement, there was a feeling and articulation that women would need to give up motherhood altogether.[xiv] Shulamith Firestone defended the notion of artificial reproduction in the hope that it would “strip parenthood of … other functions”[xv] (functions such as “the attempted extension of ego … in the case of the man, the ‘immortalising of name, property, class and ethnic identification, and in the case of the woman … the justification of her existence, … (the) child-as-project.”[xvi] Whereupon she suggested we would find “a real instinct for parenthood even on the part of men, a simple physical desire to associate with the young.”[xvii] Marge Piercy wrote poignantly of a future in which there is no pregnancy or childbirth for women –artificial reproduction was her dream too.[xviii] One of her characters from the future, Luciente, explains it to the heroine from the present this way:

“It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanised to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.”[xix]

Of Piercy and Firestone, only Firestone seems to be aware of the fact that somebody would be in control of the technology and she has to admit to suspicion of any attempt by current scientists “(few of whom are female or even feminist)” to ‘free’ anybody.[xx]

For all of us to become “mothers,” women done need to give up biological motherhood (though some may chose to), nor do “we” all need to be women (as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland). Men can be “mothers” too, right now.

But according to Marc Feigen Fasteau in The Male Machine, caring for a child is “not the kind of experience men are taught to value. It does not lead to power, wealth or high status.”[xxi] Sandi Darlington says, “it’s a big surprise to many guys to realise that when they raise kids, they’re working hard at something and yet not getting paid. … Take away that constant dollop (of approval and pay), leave us with the sinking feeling that we’re merely alive but not presently building empires, and we get really upset.”[xxii]

James Levine points out that men as fathers, have not largely been regarded as the ‘real’ parent, by ‘experts’. He cites various sociological and psychological studies on the American parent, wherein only mothers were interviewed.[xxiii] “A survey of family research found that, in 444 papers published between 1963 and 1968, only eleven relied on data from husbands or fathers.”[xxiv] And where are the national statistics on the number of working fathers, the research into the effects on children when their fathers work? Levine notes that up until now researches have defined ‘father absence’ as occurring, not in families where fathers are constantly working overtime or away on business trips, but only when men are separated from their children by divorce, death or wartime service” … and even then they have been singularly concerned about the development of male sex-role identity in the son of the ‘absent’ father.[xxv] Experts in the past have actually warned against too much participation of the father in child care.[xxvi]

But there is indication that the tide is turning amongst researchers, and Levine cites quite a few instances.[xxvii] He says that “some researchers make it sound as if they have discovered a new creature – it doesn’t lactate and it doesn’t have a uterus, but it shows a surprisingly warm response to its offspring.”[xxviii] Researchers Greenberg and Morris speak of an “engrossment phenomenon” which has often been prevented from occurring between father and child, by our child-bearing practises which perhaps impair “the biologically based responsiveness that men have to their children.”[xxix]

It has been said that it is the self-revealing nature of parenting “that most men refuse to take on” … the need to be able to accept failure, vulnerability, uncertainty, letting go of control –trusting the life process.[xxx] But these are the very things that men are realising they miss[xxxi], … “they feel that they are missing what remains one of the few deep personal experiences our society leaves us.”[xxxii]

And what precisely is the nature of the changes that the trend toward more generalised “maternity” will hopefully bring about? Perhaps what needs to be asked is what precisely is it that women have developed from their maternal practise that it might benefit the rest of the world to develop? Feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick believes that there is a distinct kind of thought that arises out of child-caring practises, which she calls “maternal thinking,[xxxiii]” and for which “biological parenting is neither necessary nor sufficient”.[xxxiv] There is a discipline that the mother/child-carer engages in that affects the intellectual capacities she develops, the judgements she makes, the metaphysical attitudes she assumes, the values she affirms. “The discipline of maternal thought consists in establishing criteria for determining failure and success, in setting the priorities, and in identifying the virtues and liabilities which the criteria presume.”[xxxv] To describe these does not, Ruddick says, presume maternal achievement, but it describes a conception of achievement –and conceptions which are quite different from dominant public ones.[xxxvi]

It is necessary then to look closely at the demands and interests of maternal practise to ascertain the thought particular to it. Ruddick is able to identify three basic demands of children that the mother is interested in satisfying –the demands for preservation, growth and acceptability. She points out that these interests are often in conflict, so it is illusion to thing one can achieve unqualified success in the realising of all three (or possibly more).[xxxvii]

In the preserving of children’s lives, a mother has to deal with temptations to excessive fear and excessive control – (and excessive control as a liability contrasts with the situation in scientific practise).[xxxviii] In response to the knowledge of the fragility of life and the desire to preserve, protect and repair it, a mother develops the metaphysical attitude of “holding” – as against acquiring, because one knows one cannot – damage and death are irrevocable, everyday facts. This knowledge in turn, together with acceptance of “the facts of the independent and uncontrollable, developing and increasingly separate existences” of the lives one seeks to preserve, gives rise to a humility, not humility as self-effacement, but humility as a “selfless respect for reality.”[xxxix] Ruddick speaks of a “cheerfulness” which is honoured in maternal thought, which is “a matter-of-fact willingness to continue, to give birth and to accept having given birth, to welcome life despite its conditions.”[xl]

In the interests of fostering growth, the mother who “holds” must at the same time be open to change. Permanence, clarity and certainty must e preceded by innovation, disclosure and responsiveness. Objective reality, in relation to the progressing life of a person, is not the same is it is in relation to “the world described by science.”[xli] The child, who is in itself an “open structure,” demands an ability to respond to its irregularity, unpredictability and often its mystery.

The third interest to the mother is to produce a child that is acceptable, this present a problem in a society where the mother is relatively powerless and unable to determine social values. Most often, at this point, Ruddick says that maternal thought has opted for “inauthenticity,” which she describes as the construction and assumption of a world in which one’s own values don’t count.[xlii] Mothers may actually “endorse and execute inimical commands” so as to be ‘good’.”[xliii] But on the other hand, this interest in acceptability of one’s own child/child-in-care may provide “special opportunities for mothers to explore, create, and insist upon their own values, to train their children for strength and moral sensitivity.”[xliv] Ruddick declares that for this to happen, either collectively or individually, maternal through has to be transformed by feminist consciousness. Feminist consciousness is described as “the experience of coming to know the truth about oneself and one’s society,”[xlv] coming to understand certain features of social reality as intolerable, learning new ways of living without betraying woman’s past, without denying obligations to others.

Finally, and most centrally, Ruddick articulates a notion of “attentive love” – attention, which goes on all the time, even at empty and everyday moments; and love –of children- an intense attachment, but also “a detachment, a giving up, a letting grow.”[xlvi] This work is a discipline requiring effort and self-training – to learn to love a child without using or owning it, “to see the child’s reality with the patient, loving eye of attention.”[xlvii]

These then are the possible “virtues” that the greater sharing of maternal practises can multiply in the world. Perhaps, when men are willing and able to share equally and actively in maternal practises, we will no longer identify them as “maternal,” rather parental –and “there will be no more ‘mothers’, only people engaging in childcare … there will be no more ‘fathers’, no more people of either sex who have power over their children’s lives and moral authority in their children’s world, though they do not do the work of attentive love.”[xlviii]

To bring men, the ones who hold public power, back into the experience of care for the young, “back to earth and the realistic experience of care for living substance”[xlix] is, I believe, to profoundly change our Western cultural consciousness – perhaps even to divert us from a path of self destruction, but at least, to begin to knit together some of the painful schisms, between home and work, nature and culture, women and men. And if children were dependent on people of both genders and established an individuated sense of self in relation to both, then masculinity would not be tied to denial of dependence and devaluation of women, feminine personality would be less preoccupied with individuation. There would be no fears of maternal omnipotence and expectations of women’s self-sacrificing qualities –thus reducing men’s need to control social and cultural spheres, and helping women to autonomy,[l] and the release of their power and creativity from domestic limits.

A maternal theology consists in an end to the myth of privatised motherhood; the release of women from uterine worth; the release of children from situations where love and relationship are “a scarce resource controlled and manipulated by one person only”[li]; the release of “the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination, and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult, but freely chosen, work.”[lii] According to Rich, “the mother’s battle for her child –with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life- needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival.”[liii] Not only would this affect our own culture, but it would affect our response to other parts of the world community –for example, the problem of world hunger. Would a people, who valued life above all, continue to withhold resources, waste and misuse protein, use food as a tool of international pressure –would such a people continue to forcibly sterilise “expendable” groups of other people “instead of finding ways of supporting human life humanely on the planet, instead of controlling the expansion of corporate power and profiteering in agriculture ..”?[liv]

A maternal theology will affirm those qualities symbolised by the Great Mother –an assertive, whole motherhood- in all human beings. And it will affirm the “maternal” reality –the material reality- as continuous with the spiritual reality, and vice versa.

(c) Glenys Livingstone 1984


[i] The image is taken from a poem by Elizabeth Brewster “For the unknown goddess”.

“… we invoke your name

Which we no longer know

And pray to you

To restore our humanity

As we restore your divinity.”

[ii] An expression of Sara Ruddick’s. See ‘Maternal Thinking’, Feminist Studies 6, No. 2 (Summer 1980), p. 350.

[iii] Jessie Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, p 356.

[iv] An expression used by a woman speaking to Adrienne Rich, in hearing she had three sons: Of Woman Born, p. 11.

[v] Jessie Bernard, Future of Motherhood, . p 349.

[vi] Monique Wittig and Sandra Zeil, Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, pp. 108-109.

[vii] Monique Wittig, Les Guerilleres, p. 85.

[viii] Ibid. p. 72.

[ix] Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 197.

[x] Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 197.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Herb Goldberg, The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Though still others are experimenting with going in the opposite direction, going the whole way with parthenogenesis. See Grace Shinell, ‘Woman’s Primacy in the Coming Reformation,’ Heresies 5 and Baba Cooper, ‘Changing Our Image of the Future.’ Womanspirit 23, Spring.

[xv] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, p. 260.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 259-260.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 260.

[xviii] Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time.

[xix] Cited by Elaine Hoffman Baruch, ‘A Natural and Necessary Monster: Women in Utopia’, in Alternative Futures, Winter 1978-1979. P. 75.

[xx] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex

[xxi] Marc Feigen Fosteau, The Male Machine (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975), p. 98. Cited by James Levine, Who Will Raise the Children: New Options for Fathers and Mothers, p. xvi.

[xxii] Sandi Darlington, ‘Co-Parenting’, Express 2, No. 40, August 1, 1981, p. 5.

[xxiii] James Levine, Who will Raise the Children, p 8-9.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 9.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] James Levine, Who will Raise the Children, pp. 1-2, with Dr. Haim Ginott in Between Parent and Child, pp. 168-169, exclaiming that there was a “danger that the baby may end up with two mothers, rather than with a mother and a father.”

[xxvii] James Levine, Who will Raise the Children, pp. 10-15.

[xxviii] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 11.

[xxx] Penelope Washbourn, Becoming Woman, p. 126.

[xxxi] As Levine describes, Who Will Raise the Children, pp. 132-133.

[xxxii] Nancy Chodorow, Reproduction of Mothering, p. 213.

[xxxiii] See Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, pp. 342-367.

[xxxiv] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 346.

[xxxv] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 347.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 349.

[xxxviii] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 350.

[xxxix] Ibid. Though Ruddick notes on p. 354 that “holding, preserving and repairing can degenerate into fiercely fostering the growth of one’s own children, regardless of the cost to the other children, or into frantic accumulation and storing”.

[xl] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 351, citing Irish Murdoch, Sovereign of Good (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 98.

[xli] Ibid. She notes on p. 354 that this can degenerate into “cheery denial”.

[xlii] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 352 citing Irish Murdoch, Sovereign of Good, p. 26.

[xliii] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 355. “This may mean training her daughters for powerlessness, her sons for war, and both for crippling work in dehumanising factories, businesses, and professions (in which case, she) … betrays the very life she has preserved, whose growth she has fostered.”

[xliv]Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 356. And in On Lies, Secrets and Silences, p. 270, Adrienne Rich asks “whether the experience of motherhood under patriarchy is finally radicalising or conservatising. In attempting to give our children the security, the stability, we know they need, do we become more obedient to a social order we know is morally bankrupt … or do we discover in motherhood, the coarse, the bitter, bedrock truth of the way things are, the callousness of patriarchy, its hatred of women, its indifference to new life, even to youth itself, that supposed idolatry of American life.”

[xlv] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 356, citing Sadra Lee Bartky ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness’, in Feminism and Philosophy eds, Mary Nuttuling-Braggen, Frederick Elliston, and Jane English (Towata, N.J.: Littlefield Adams, 1977), p. 22.

[xlvi] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 358.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, p. 362.

[xlix] Naomi Goldenberg, The Changing of the Gods, p. 109.

[l] Nancy Chodorow, Reproduction of Mothering. P. 218.

[li] Ibid., p. 217.

[lii] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, p. 286.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Adrienne Rich, Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergency, p. 267.

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