The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood

Motherhood and the work of homemaking are accorded considerable sentimental value within Western culture. Every year on Mother’s Day—the second Sunday in May in the US or the fourth Sunday of Lent in the UK—the praises of mothers and their untiring and selfless work for their families are expressed in a myriad of greetings cards, sermons, and articles. In one of the most commercially profitable holidays of the year after Christmas, we acknowledge the emotional significance that our mothers have in our lives with flowers, boxes of chocolates, and syrupy sentiments purchased from Hallmark.

Yet this celebration is not without its measure of uneasiness and guilt. The saccharine sentiments of Mother’s Day may all too often function in part to palliate the dimly perceived injustice of a multitude of thankless impositions and burdens placed upon mothers over the rest of the year. As an inconsiderate husband may praise his ‘long-suffering’ wife, elevating her virtues as a face-saving mask for his own vices, our extravagant cultural celebration of the ‘self-sacrificial’ work of mothers may all too easily cover up the lack of honour in which we hold motherhood more generally. The gushing words and commercial expenditure notwithstanding, there is good reason to doubt whether the ‘sacrifices’ we claim to celebrate on Mother’s Day are truly held in esteem within our society.

Some attempt to highlight the injustice of the way that mothers are treated in our society by talking about such phenomena as the ‘second shift’ or women’s ‘unpaid labour’, casting the work of a mother as if it were a job, speculating how much it would cost to hire an employee to assume all of a mother’s commitments, or otherwise presenting the work of motherhood within the paradigm offered by wage labour. Within such an approach, preparing the family meal, reading the children their bedtime story, and vacuuming the dining room are all to be understood as if analogous with labouring for an employer. Yet there is a presumed deficiency of these acts relative to wage labour, because they are ‘unpaid’. More generally, the earnings gap between the sexes that largely arises from motherhood is lamented as a sign of ‘gender inequality’.

Yet within such a framework of understanding, many of the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood appear more like costs unjustly imposed, costs that enable their husbands and children to achieve their full potential in the market, but which hold mothers back from achieving their own. This framework, even while it alerts us to the marginalization and devaluation of the labour of mothers in our society, fails to question the fundamental values that give rise to this problem. Presenting mother’s work as if a deficient form of wage labour, a burden unjustly and unequally shouldered by women that prevents them from achieving their value as full economic agents, devalues mother’s work, even as it sensitizes us to our society’s mistreatment of women’s labour. The monetary values of the market remain the dominating and unquestioned frame of reference and mothers are either unjustly oppressed parties or beloved self-sacrificial victims, who give up their own dreams the better to enable the rest of us to achieve our own.

For those operating within such a framework, it will always be difficult to entertain the possibility that the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood may not merely be costs imposed by injustice or necessity or burdens willingly assumed on account of sentimental bonds. The possibility that such sacrifices might offer a passage by which a woman can establish and enter into a realm of human meaning deeper than that afforded by her individuality isn’t conceived.

It is not entirely surprising that a society such as our own should fail to perceive the true value of motherhood, for the value of motherhood so radically contrasts with the values that shape a society ordered around the neoliberal state and market. Our society is built upon abstraction and alienation, upon the escape from the bonds of the particular or the unique into the realm of autonomous will. Value is measured by the abstraction of currency, by reduction to pure exchange value. More generally, abstraction in conceptuality, technique, politics, production, social organization, and community are how we gain power. The more that we reduce the particularity of the world and humanity to fungible and malleable raw material, subject to the operations of abstract techniques, the more control and ‘freedom’ we possess. This dynamic is seen in everything from technocratic government, to the form of online social media, to the movements in fabrication towards mass production and digital replication, to the operations of algorithms on financial markets.

The mother’s labour is inalienable and cannot truly be abstracted, which renders it incomprehensible to a society ordered around alienation and abstraction. Motherhood involves a sort of labour and yields a sort of possession that is simply incommensurable with those forms of labour and possession that our society focuses upon. The ‘labour’ of the mother occurs within her own body and does not lend itself to being sold on the market. Although you can sell your house, you cannot sell your home on the market.

The logic of abstraction and alienation departicularizes us and cuts loose the bonds that bind us to each other, our labour, and our world. However, the work of the mother is invested not merely in the performance of generic service functions for prospective or current economic agents (which she could in theory pay another to perform for her), but in the creation of the world of the home, a world that is unexchangeable, a world that is uniquely hers, a realm of life of which she herself—in her embodied particularity—is the heart and the source.

While our society seeks power through abstraction and alienation, the power of the mother is in her uniting and integrating. A factory may produce delicious pre-packaged gourmet meals for microwave reheating, yet could never unite a family in the same way as a mother’s gift of home cooking, for instance. The significance of the mother’s labour cannot be reduced to its material outcomes or products, as through her labour the mother is giving her very self.

The labour of the mother in making her home is a labour of love, a type of labour driven by, bound to, and creative of something particular and unique, apart from and distinct from all other things in the world. You can’t mass produce or replicate homes. The mother is the spring of life at the heart of the home. Her very body is the site of union and our very first home. The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

The woman’s labour, as I have suggested, is a sacrifice and the meaning of the woman’s sacrifice will not be achieved apart from the labours of men and the commitment of society more generally to honour those sacrifices and secure their meaning. In his deeply perceptive discussion of the theme of sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal discusses the open-endedness of the past:

[W]hatever we accomplish in the past is at the mercy of future action. Future events, in other words, will define retroactively the meaning of what it is that we have done… The importance of the institution of the promise becomes clear when set against this condition of the fragility of the past. Think for a moment about a deathbed promise in which a dying author who has completed a magnum opus asks a friend to pledge that he will make an effort to publish it. The retroactive meaning of the author’s past is effectively at stake. He is essentially entrusting his friend with the meaning of the years that are gone.

In failing to perceive the true promise of the sacrifices of motherhood, society has failed truly to honour those sacrifices, or to order itself in a manner that commits itself to defending and securing their meaning.

Society has tended to view the sacrifices of motherhood as sacrifices from which women ought to be unburdened. The weakening of the family over the past centuries has in large measure arisen from the steady outsourcing of traditional family functions to external agencies, leading to its de-condensation:

Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices. It bound the generations together. It bound different families together. It related the sexes together. It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning. It connected sex with procreation. It connected private life with communal life.

The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Although many of these developments are very positive on balance, relieving women of some of the most onerous work of the household, no other agency or technology can ultimately substitute for the communion-establishing gift of self that the mother could achieve through her labour in her home. By their very character, techniques arising from abstraction and alienation cannot achieve the true integration of personal union and communion.

The mother herself represents a reality that resists the logic of abstraction and alienation. Abstraction and alienation approach reality as generic raw and exchangeable stuff to be broken down by and subjected to abstract technique. The mother, by contrast, represents the original material, yet personal, bond in which we all find our beginnings. It is not accidental that the words ‘matter’ and ‘material’ both derive from the word for mother, and it is significant that they present the reality of the world, not in terms of atomized stuff, but in terms of a primordial relationship and bond. The concept of the Earth as our Mother is also a biblical one: Adam is formed of the adamah. The woman is also particularly paralleled and associated with the earth in Genesis and elsewhere: she is the one from whom life comes and to whom it is bound (see also the parallels between the judgment on the woman and the place of the earth in the judgment on the man in Genesis 3).

Scripture presents the relationship between humanity and the earth as analogous in key respects to the relationship between man and woman. When we get one wrong, we will tend to get the other one wrong too. Without a recovery of the dignity of the mother at the heart of human society, our dysfunctional relationship with the world—our alienation from the world and reduction of the world to raw material for technique and power—will not truly be addressed. Conversely, a recovery of an ecological awareness offers peculiar possibilities for a renewed appreciation of the life-giving and communion-forming power of women.

As I noted earlier, modern society has not truly valued women’s sacrifices, nor committed itself to securing their meaning. A home or a wider realm of shared life in the world is a fragile thing and easily destroyed in a society that wishes to dissolve all bonds and free itself from all particularities in order to maximize power. The market’s drive to maximize production, for instance, has produced the conditions of ‘liquid modernity’ in which old bonds and stable structures are broken down and constant flux is all that remains. Michel Houellebecq comments upon the character of life in such a world:

Children existed [in the past] to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code, and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen, and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him; I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will have no value – he will live in another universe. If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then he accepts that life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience; the past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how we live now. For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless.

The individualism of modern society is unsurprising because the horizons of meaning established by women’s labour of home-making and communion-forming are closed by the relentless forces of abstraction and alienation, which increase our autonomous power by weakening the power of all of our bonds. Every generation is a revolutionary break from its predecessor and a decadent parent of its successor. As peoplehood collapses into atomized, anonymous, and fluid society, we know that we will leave the patrimony of our communities and countries to those who will be strangers to us.

In such a society, it takes a peculiar courage and faith for a woman to recognize the daunting powers of liquid modernity arrayed against all of the bonds that she will form and prayerfully to cast the bread of her labours upon those waters nonetheless. The revolutionary character of the sacrifices of committed motherhood should not be underestimated. It is through women’s courageous determination to make such sacrifices and men’s unwavering protection and service of them that the human future is formed.

Yet the guilt that laces our culture’s sentimental celebration of motherhood is amply justified. In idealizing abstraction and alienation, and the maximization of autonomous power we created a world that is fundamentally hostile to the labour of women. As we have sacrificed or weakened our bonds to the particularities of the world—to families and homes, to neighbourhoods and communities, to congregations and churches, to specific ways of life and labour, to our towns, regions, and countries, and to our natural environments—to increase our power and autonomy, the homeliness and hospitality of the world has guttered. To the extent that homes and communities remain, they have retreated into small reservations of sentimental domesticity where we consume things together. Despite the material wealth displayed within them, they are starved of much of the life that once animated them.

If our power is to mean anything, it must be exercised in service of life and community, placing the mother once more at the heart of the world. If we truly honour the mother’s sacrifice, we will commit our own labour and order our society to securing its meaning.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood

  1. katie says:

    Put all that on a Hallmark card and I might actually want one!

  2. Eric says:

    . . . but, ‘The Mother – the Heart of the World’ seems worth a Hallmark punt 🙂

    Thanks for the essay, Alistair. I can’t but help think that this denial, of the Centrality of Motherhood, is fundamental to the falling apart of any sense of our humanity. ‘Born of woman’ is, it seems to me, one of the very few Objective truths which unites all people . . . (along with the observation that everyone alive today or ever has both a mother and father)

    As I recall, contrary to the dominant understanding now, in the early years of the Church the Virgin Birth was taken to be witness to Jesus’ humanity, rather than a miraculous attestation of His divinity.

  3. jacobther says:

    Your article is a moving depiction of the traditional way of life. I appreciate it fully. But isn’t there an inherent tension between this form of life and the life in search of truth. Keeping aside all economic forces, the Christian or rather, the moral imperative to seek truth at all costs seems to have played an active role in weakening these traditional bonds. If my goal is to know the truth and not just to follow my parents in what they believed, that will lead to a break with the previous generation that has little to do with economic forces. I find both these narratives equally compelling but often at odds with each other. What is your opinion?

    • Societies have always changed in their beliefs, patterns of life, and practices. However, few if any have so consistently rejected and overturned the ways of the past than our own. It is quite possible to change beliefs without making a radical break with the past, while still honouring our fathers and mothers.

      Besides, most changes in belief don’t involve jettisoning either the wisdom of the past, but reappropriating it and building upon it in a different manner.

      • jacobther says:

        I agree that economic forces are the most important factor in weakening traditional bonds today. I also agree that cultures can change without forgetting their roots. But I think historically, cultural change was largely driven by non rational factors like wars, climate change, change in rulers etc. Individuals changing their beliefs or driving cultural change due to reasoned debate was very uncommon. For all the malleability in culture now, the traditional cultures had enormous control over past societies which provided for social stability and health but at the same time hindered any significant individual variation even if it was based on legitimate aims. The very lack of freedom was key to their social bond building within the ingroup. Also, I think the geographic separation between the different religions/ideologies is convincing evidence that these different cultures are not really built on the search for truth.

        For the medieval christian, Muslim living in a fundamentalist country or an Indian caught in the caste system these institutions provide a sense of belonging and community but at the same time, these are not really optional. To dissent to these systems for any reason is not taken lightly. The Mormon church of today is another example of a traditional culture leading to social good but based on unconvincing truth claims.

        My overall point is that there is a tension between traditional cultures causing enormous social good due to their ingroup dynamics but at the same time, and many times due to the same reasons, hindering the quest for truth..

  4. p duggie says:

    “reduction of the world to raw material for technique and power”

    Is “The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which encompasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there” a reduction of Havliah to a place of raw materials? Is it because these materials are presumably for garden beautification that its ok to reduce Havliah to a land of ram materials?

    It seems to me that the 19th century valorization of femininity and motherhood was exactly because the home was the bastion of particularity and domesticity that would be a bulwark against the necessary alienation of the growing industrial marketplace. Which says to me “this has been tried before” and it either didn’t work well enough, or it was problematic for other reasons. Is this a call to re-pristinate 19th century domesticity? What does it look like in a digital age? Can we actually heed a call to come down from our space suite that enable us to survive in space if almost everyone living will burn up on re-entry? [retrying post]

    • I see no indication that Havilah is reduced to a land of raw materials, to a mere reservoir of stuff to be wrested forth from the earth, to serve a form of life that exists in detachment from it. Human beings are called to transform and glorify the earth, which is a rather different sort of thing from treating it as mere raw material.

      The 19th century valorization of the home as a haven in a heartless world, a private sanctuary of female domesticity to which we can retreat, is much of the problem. The privatization and sentimentalization of the world of the home and family is the flipsiide of the pursuit of maximal autonomous power in public life and industry.

      So, no, this isn’t a call to repristinate Victorian sentimental domesticity. I don’t believe that there is any single model that will serve us in the digital age. We simply need to recognize the good and, within the constraints of our contexts, which typically greatly limit the degree to which we can attain to it, do what we can to work towards it.

      • p duggie says:

        I have difficulty seeing “liquid modernity” as qualitatively different rather than something of degree. One could easily say that cutting down trees and coating them with gold to make a house to live in is a kind of “detachment” and “alienation” from the more natural life of dwelling in a garden. and so it goes from there, and we continue to specialize.

        If “callings” are from God, but are culture and time specific, how can we say that the callings that make the modern world possible just really are not callings? Is the Petroleum Engineer as delusional about a call to do his best as a piano player in a whorehouse is?

        The preacher of Ecclesiastes seems as bothered by liquid modernity as we are. But he was not a modern.

        And I note that literally the only thing said about Havilah is that it has materials that are raw. If that isn’t a reduction, i guess its rather an acknowledgement that Havilah is really nothing BUT a place of raw material for human use.

      • Differences of degree matter too. It can be akin to the act of speeding up some music so much that it is no longer possible to dance to it. The life we create in the world has always been fragile and prone to dissolution, as Ecclesiastes makes clear, but this dissolution is far more radical and programmatic today than it ever was in the past.

        If you read my post, you should see that I don’t condemn abstraction per se. There are ways in which it is valuable and necessary. Abstraction and detachment are necessary means by which we transform our world.

        The problem is that our society has radically escalated the processes of abstraction and alienation, valorized autonomous power and will over all else, and detached them from commitment to something beyond themselves.

        Man was created to serve and rule the world under God, not as a despot to use it as he wills. Man is called to subdue and exercise dominion over Havilah. The riches of Havilah are to be brought into the garden, which the man is called to serve and guard. However, the pattern and life of the garden must flow out to Havilah, which is a unique named location that man must also serve.

        An idolization of the power that abstraction and alienation give us can lead us to dissolve all settled, rooted, and connected forms of life, to abandon our homes, families, communities, towns, countries, cultures, and ways of life so that we might produce ever more abstract value. This is a problem of idolatry.

  5. Geoff says:

    It would be interesting to see you trace motherhood through the lens of scripture more widely, than you have.
    For example considering motherhood along the lines of ,
    1 “Woman” and “Eve”
    2 From the fallenness of motherhood, to “honour your mother”, to worship the mother of God, to god the Mother
    3 Hagar and Sarah
    4 Motherhood redeemed, Godly motherhood. Just a thought- didn’t CS Lewis in the “Four Loves” write somthing to the effect that you can tell a mother who lives for her children, by the hunted look on their faces? Or is that fallen motherhood that worships their children as opposed to fallen motherhood that disdains children.

    But, perhaps, you think they are commonplace themes in Christianity and have been widely covered or preached.

    How about Suzannah Wesley as an exemplar of redeemed motherhood? Take a deep breath.

    “Susannah Wesley was the mother of 19 children, including John and Charles Wesley. Through much adversity, she dedicated her life to instilling a sense of Christian Destiny into each of her children. Her children went on to change the world.

    Here are 16 rules she laid down in her home.

    1. Eating between meals not allowed.

    2. As children they are to be in bed by 8 p.m.

    3. They are required to take medicine without complaining.

    4. Subdue self- will in a child, and those working together with God to save the child’s soul.

    5. To teach a child to pray as soon as he can speak.

    6. Require all to be still during Family Worship.

    7. Give them nothing that they cry for, and only that when asked for politely.

    8. To prevent lying, punish no fault which is first confessed and repented of.

    9. Never allow a sinful act to go unpunished.

    10. Never punish a child twice for a single offense.

    11. Comment and reward good behavior.

    12. Any attempt to please, even if poorly performed, should be commended.

    13. Preserve property rights, even in smallest matters.

    14. Strictly observe all promises.

    15. Require no daughter to work before she can read well.

    16. Teach children to fear the rod.

    Susannah Wesley believed that for a child to grow into a self-disciplined adult, he/she must first be a parent-disciplined child. To her, the stubborn flesh was the hardest battle for Christians to fight, and Godly parents would do well to equip their children to overcome it early.

    She writes:
    When the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is
    brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies may be passed by. I insist on the conquering of the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by reason and piety.”

    “Instilling a sense of Christian destiny.” Maybe that is the key, though application maybe a fraught topic

  6. I appreciate this reflection, Alastair!

    Your warning against assessing the “value” of motherhood by what we’d pay an au pair to do is really helpful: it does seem like a product of a purely economic mindset, where “Value” ONLY equals “What someone will pay for it.”

    In the strictest sense, the idea could be formulated, “If I cannot put a definite price on it, I cannot say it is valuable.”

    That seems to be based on the same pragmatic/skeptical principle of strong empiricism: “If I cannot experience it through my senses, I cannot say it is real.”

    It seems like what we need, in this case, is a stronger effort to help people see, imagine, and verbalize both the reality of our emotional ties – to home, to family, and to God – and the value of those relationships being strong. As long as we think of the actual relational dimensions of ourselves (my tie to my mother, to my God, etc.) as sentiments or mere imaginations, we won’t bother giving them attention because they have neither value nor “real reality.”

    (we can also point out the obvious fact that these things ARE real: each of us can say quite clearly how healthy our relationships with our parents are)

    This also makes me think of Lewis’ “Tao,” which – the way he explains it – seems to found its morality on an “ontology” of relational ties. That is, part of my morality is comprised of proper obligations to God; part, of proper obligations to my parents; to my children, my country, etc. I’m just reading “The Abolition of Man” for the first time, and his contrast of the inherited Tao vs. the whims of the Conditioners seems prescient in our current circumstances.

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  8. James Cr says:

    It is a privilege to read such perceptive and penetrating writing. Thank you. This passage in particular is gently devastating:

    “In idealizing abstraction and alienation, and the maximization of autonomous power we created a world that is fundamentally hostile to the labour of women. As we have sacrificed or weakened our bonds to the particularities of the world—to families and homes, to neighbourhoods and communities, to congregations and churches, to specific ways of life and labour, to our towns, regions, and countries, and to our natural environments—to increase our power and autonomy, the homeliness and hospitality of the world has guttered. To the extent that homes and communities remain, they have retreated into small reservations of sentimental domesticity where we consume things together. Despite the material wealth displayed within them, they are starved of much of the life that once animated them.”

    I like statistics too, though. Here’s some: in 1961 only 14% of households were one-person. In 2011, that had risen to 35%. In my city, Glasgow, it stood at 43% (and that’s with Glasgow’s low life expectancy relative to the UK average).

  9. Denice says:

    this is such a blessing. I”m thrilled it was written by a man!

  10. Thank you for this article. It’s brilliantly written. When I gave birth to my third child it occurred to me that God had given me an incredible gift and honor by allowing me to carry within my own body another being, body and soul, that was created in HIs image and for whom He died. Motherhood is a profound blessing that comes with immense responsibility and, at times, courage. But there is no greater vocation to be sure. Anyway, thank you for this article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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  13. Hi Alastair
    Much enjoying your curious cat postings.

    I’m doing a lot of work through this article which overlaps with my own interests to some degree. I’d be grateful for the source of the Houellebecq quote if you can source it readily


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