Message 56, “Life Lessons from Women: An End to the Madonna”, 5-8-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 05-08-11

Jackie Kennedy once said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” And I hate to say this, with my own mom present, but she might echo Mrs. Kennedy and then also repeat the words of another famous American mother – Lillian Carter, mother of our former President, who once noted, “Sometimes when I look at my children, I say to myself, ‘Lillian, you should have remained a virgin!”

But seriously, my mother did a great job in raising her three kids.  Like many women of the 1950’s and 1960’s, motherhood was for her a defining role – a job to which much of society expected her and many other women to follow.  Married just before Christmas 1958, and thereafter honeymooning in Las Vegas, my mom was quickly surprised with an unexpected memento of her wedding trip.  What happened in Las Vegas did NOT stay in Las Vegas for her and my dad………. as almost exactly nine months to the day following their honeymoon, I was born.

And a sister and brother followed me a few years later.  My mom spent her young adult years as a housewife and mother.  She managed a home, was diplomat and advisor for my dad’s growing career as a surgeon and she was a mom to three suburban kids – guiding us through our formative years, getting us each through college in the requisite four years and then watching – and sometimes advising from the sidelines – as we embarked on lives that have not produced any Pulitzer or Nobel prizes but are nevertheless free of any major scandals or post office most wanted posters.  We are adults in our own rights with children of our own and jobs that influence, to some degree, the lives of others.  The many words of advice over the years, the sacrifices, the heart aches, and the work by my mom – and by moms the world over – are like pebbles dropped one by one into a still lake.  They create small ripples that fan out to reach distant shores and distant times.

My mom too often comments that she has not achieved much in life.  What has she done, she asks, that saved a life, managed a business or influenced others for the better?  While the answer to her question is obvious, she has helped change the world, her words highlight a problem I have with our culture and how it views motherhood, parenting and women in general.  Instead of embracing a religious ethic upon which our culture believes it is based – that all people are equal – I believe we demean women by foisting upon them the cruel choice of whether to be a mother and deny herself – or pursue independence and a career and deny being what our culture too often says is an ideal woman – a mom.  While men are not defined by whether or not they are a father, women too often are judged by whether or not they have been a mother.  Cruelly, in today’s world, women are then judged from the other side of that issue – what has a housewife and mother really done in life?

We idealize women who are like the Madonna figure – the one who is mother of god or Mary, not the one who sings and wears pointy cone bras.  In our evolving culture pushing for equality, however, we also expect women to now be like that other famous Mary in the Bible – Mary Magdalene who was a close friend and follower of Jesus.  Unattached, unmarried and childless, that Mary was an independent woman living as her own free agent.  While later patriarchal church fathers would elevate the Madonna or virgin Mary and denigrate Mary Magdalene as a prostitute – even though there is no evidence to say so – we as a culture the world over are still coming to terms with this issue.  It affects both men and women.  And our celebrations of Mother’s Day – along with that of Father’s Day – are symptoms, I believe, of our dysfunctional and schizophrenic gender standards.

It is an unwritten rule in Christian churches and among Pastors that of all the Sundays in a year, there are three in particular which demand special attention.  A Pastor had better offer a meaningful and heartwarming service on Christmas, Easter and…………..Mother’s day.  In many churches, sadly, it is women who are the heavy lifters in terms of volunteer work.  And, it is often women who make sure their families attend church.  So, according to this unwritten code among Pastors, if you make women happy on Mother’s Day, you have bought a lot of goodwill.

Before last year’s Mother’s Day and for the past few weeks I bought into this rule.  I stressed and worried and thought about what I would do to acknowledge and celebrate this day – and that is especially difficult here at the Gathering.  I may well not satisfy everyone with my message today.  While some see Mother’s Day as a part of their religious and family tradition, others prefer to ignore it due to personal distaste or bad memories of distant mothers.  By its very nature, the day celebrates a notion of womanhood that many believe is outdated and irrelevant – the perfect woman who raises perfect children, runs a perfect home, cooks the perfect meal, and is the all-loving mother and spouse.  And such an image comes directly from religion and, in Christianity, from the Madonna ideal.

For many women, they must choose to be either a Madonna or a Mary Magdalene – a nurturing and docile female who gives birth and raises a family or an independent, unattached and therefore uncontrollable woman of the world.

And so, to be blunt, I don’t want to worry about Mother’s Day or Father’s Day again here at the Gathering.  I don’t believe these days have spiritual relevance in terms of causing us to grow as people.  That does not mean I devalue the worth of any parent or that the issue of parenting will never again be discussed here.  What I propose is a new and more complex understanding of what it means to be a mother and how we can celebrate women no matter their personal choices in life.  Can a woman be nurturing, caring and fulfilled by being a mother?  Absolutely.  Should a woman be admired and honored who is not a mother?  Yes, she should.  And we should celebrate these choices if they are truly free-will choices based on a profound cultural shift in our attitudes and expectations towards both men and women.

Just last week I was at the beach in Florida when two men sat near me with an African-American toddler – he was probably only 2 or 3 years of age.  What struck me was that the boy was most likely adopted and was now being raised by two men both of whom proceeded to alternately play with and care for him.  It was a wonderful scene to watch.  Who was the mother and who was the father in this family?  While one could say there are two dads – that just defines the gender of the boy’s parents.  His maternal needs were met as the two men fed him, wiped sand off his face and worried for him as he got too close to the ocean waves.  And his paternal needs were met when he was chased through the surf and lifted up and playfully wrestled into the water.  What specific gender roles have anything to do with raising this boy?  Is that family celebrating mother’s day today?  I doubt it.   But perhaps they should.  This boy clearly seemed to be as much mothered as he was fathered.  Most importantly, he was parented with love by two men who did not care about gender roles and who were more this boy’s parents than his biological ones.  Having a gender specific mother or father is likely totally irrelevant to this boy who has found two people who deeply want him as a child.

And that is the kind of revolution I believe we need in our culture.  I hope one day that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will be abandoned – perhaps in favor of a simple Parent’s Day or none at all since we can and should honor parents each and every day of the year.

In a book entitled Maternal Thinking by Sarah Ruddick, the author states that women today still struggle with the idea of being mothers.  Our prevailing and still male centric culture says to them that in order to be a proper woman, they must marry, give birth and then serve as a mother.  Mothers, she writes, sublimate their thinking.  “Maternal thought,” writes Ruddick, “embodies inauthenticity by taking on the values of the dominant culture, abandoning one’s personal values in exchange for those of the families to which they belong and of the men with whom they are allied.”

Feminists and others often encourage women to reject such cultural standards and instead seek the kind of economic and social power normally ascribed to men.  Seek an education.  Pursue a career. Be strong and independent.   Motherhood will diminish such ways of self-actualization.  Young women, like my daughters, are encouraged to go to school, learn a skill, establish a career and put off being a mother until such things are accomplished.  Indeed, the subtle message is that being a mother is not as important as gaining the other skills.  Being a mother is subtly equated – like it was for my own mom – with doing nothing.

In the name of advancing women, which feminism has wonderfully helped achieve, we as a culture have also ironically strengthened the favored economic and social power that results from a career outside the home.  This, in turn, has helped to diminish ethics such as nurture, reconciliation, and cooperation – attributes necessary to effective parenting.  Aggression, power, competition and wealth are, in turn, elevated.  To be a successful woman, many argue, one must achieve in the out of home workplace.

For those women who attempt work outside the home AND be a mother, their career advancement and pay is often held back.  Adding further complication, their feelings about being a good mother are warped and filled with guilt because they spend so much time at work.  This woman tries to have it all but too often finds, not by any fault of her own, that she achieves nothing – scorned by tradition because she is not a full-time stay at home mom and scorned in a still male focused working world as not equal to those who forego parenting altogether.

For the woman who by circumstance or choice decides not to be a mother, she is barraged by cultural standards that sometimes question and even pity her motives and her life.  She is confronted by days like today and, while celebrated as a strong and capable woman who accumulates, on her own, economic and social power, she too finds herself unequal with men and with other women who are mothers.

Finally, men are victims too.  As is so often the case for those who perpetuate inequality, men suffer from the results of their own actions.  They are trapped in a role as worker and achiever that implicitly forbids them from being a major player in child rearing.  Men who devote themselves to full time parenting are considered less than men.  They cannot be caring, nurturing, introspective or thoughtful.  While science has shown that many gender characteristics are hard wired into us for the sake of our survival as a species, we should not be locked into biological determinism.  Men have been, still are and can be excellent full time parents who meet the needs of children.

We need, I believe, to re-imagine the gender structures and roles in our culture so that ALL parents gain more social and economic power.  As a culture, we can encourage men to be equally concerned about how they will manage career and parenting.  They must be encouraged to take months or even years off to raise children, to work shorter hours because of child rearing demands and to see work and parenting conflicts from the same perspective as women.  Employers will need to adjust their thinking to support and encourage flexible working schedules for dads and moms.   If both parents share equally in the task and roles of parenting – like the two men I saw where neither one is confined to a role of mother or father – then power will be more equally distributed.  I want to encourage my daughters to partner with men who are willing to fully share the parenting role.  They will be freed of the cruel role choice women must often make in their lives – Madonna or Magdalene.  They can make the decision based on other factors free of guilt or shame.  They will gain some of the power women have so long lacked.  And their husbands will also make career sacrifices because that is what parents do.  They, as men, will be freed by our culture to be intimately involved in child rearing.  Being a stay at home parent will lose its stigma as a dead-end or do nothing task.  Even more important, our society will learn to value parenting skills in general thus granting more status and power to single parents and same sex couples.  What we need are women who are not trapped by the Madonna or Mary Magdalene roles in life.  We should celebrate free choices in life for each person and honor those decisions.

Parenting is a blessing with unique and special rewards and challenges.  It has immense value.  But it is not a role which should define any person or any gender.  It is no better and no worse than any other role in life which adds to the fabric of social good.  For me, if we at the Gathering are to be the change we want in our world, then we should no longer celebrate, at church, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.  They are relics of a past that sadly enslaved us in roles that were pushed upon us.  We can do better.

I want to honor on this day free thinkers and free people who work for a better world.  Many mothers are and have been active participants in that endeavor.  It is said that the role of a full time parent is the equivalent of three full time air traffic controllers.  But, as one commentator put it, parental pay is often measured as among the highest in the world – that of the unconditional love many children offer. Even so, one cannot take that pay to the bank.

Parenting skills, therefore, must transcend those who serve in that role.  What we need are people in general who embody and practice such skills – like empathy, nurture, listening and gentleness.  I have a female friend who is not a mother but she nevertheless uses those qualities of parenting in her work, in her friendships and in life.  Ed, my partner, often sadly reflects that he is not a parent.  And yet anyone who sees how he effortlessly interacts with youth and knows how he has fought for the rights of kids as a teacher and child advocate attorney, they will see the heart of someone who has truly influenced children for the better.  I want to honor anybody who is willing to sacrifice pieces of themselves and pour them into the lives of others.  Whether or not we have reproduced, raised a child or not – these are irrelevant questions.  Have we embraced the choices we make in life and then given of ourselves to family, friends, colleagues and strangers in order to build them up and help them grow?  Have we dropped our own pebbles into a placid lake – knowing the ringlets of ripples we create will reach ever outward – into years well beyond our time – touching other lives with our influence, wisdom and love?  To that task, let us set ourselves.

I wish you all a very, very happy………. Sunday.