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.