We live in a kaleidoscopic time. Social diversity accompanies globalization and technologization. We seek shelter with similar others only to encounter difference in every excursion. The tension between diversity and unity has never been greater. We are unique, equal, and still one humanity. Building diverse togetherness entails intricate stitch work – small threads of different colors creating a whole cloth. Mothering – as practiced by women, men, artists, educators, scientists and healers of all kinds – can expertly thread that needle.
Mothers keep a family together, listen to kids’ problems, and support children. They feed, transmit values and build character. Mothers create the organizing themes that enable individuals to connect, relate and form the bonds outside of family.
While parents of all races, incomes, and cultures love their kids powerfully, strongly and differently, many people have also become our cultural mothers. When we struggled to cope with years of poverty and inequity brought on the great depression Langston Hughs wrote “Let America Be America Again” :
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek – / And finding only the same old stupid plan /Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
The Broadway musical “Shrek” encouraged quirky storybook creatures to “let their freak flag fly” and “Kinky Boots” demonstrated how a drag queen and an English midlands shoemaker could rejuvenate a stagnant shoe factory.
When Lady Di died in a tragic car accident, people from every nation yearned to make sense of the dissonance between tradition and modernity as lived out by the “people’s princess.” Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral and soothed the many who felt outraged by her life’s complexity. John Lennon’s “Imagine” become the song that galvanized people torn apart by war and competing political ideologies.
As the world turned dark with terrorism and fear, J.K. Rowling invented a world of wizards into which adults and children could simultaneously escape and process their terror; a world in which good ultimately prevailed over evil.
In a climactic scene, Mrs. Weasley, the chunky disheveled and loving mother caught Bellatrix LeStrange about to harm her youngest child. She aimed her wand and killed the villainess exclaiming, “Not my daughter, you bitch.”
Mothering love is not all gentle, but also ferocious and binding. The tenacity of the fight to care can be as grand as any war battle, yet maternal victories go unmarked. I knew a mother who saved her daughter from heroin addiction literally carrying her to rehab. I know a dad who started a school so that his kid with learning differences would have a chance to learn. Parents have worked extra-jobs, fought with institutions, and sometimes left their kids in order to create a better life for them. Mothers tell the stories that protect kids from shame and pain, shoring up their confidence and courage.
The mothering life has always had to fight for respect and honor. Mothers and all those engaged in the practice of mothering do influence society. Yet their achievements can often seem to count less.
As women have entered the workplace, accentuating so-called “male traits” to get ahead, they simultaneously created an important power base and vacated the mothering life – often not by choice. The flight from mothering legitimizes a society that dissociates from and devalues nurturance. Activist women measure successes by the percentage of females who become CEO’s, not by how many healthy children have been raised.
The devaluation of mothering plays out in communities differently. Mainstream culture eschews cultural and ethnic traditions that emphasize nurturance. Families or single parents have to choose between caring for children or earning money. Poor kids have no one at home, rich kids have someone else at home, and the middle class straddles this by having two parents who often work from home and parent from work.
Yet there is no greater value to our society than those who raise children, care for the elderly, educate our citizens, stimulate our creativity and maintain communities. This work can’t be outsourced. The greater the diversity, the greater is the need for the mothers of diversity, people who can integrate many stories into shared but complex narratives.
A balanced society needs both power and caring. A balanced society also supports people choosing the roles that best suit their temperaments and talents rather than being relegated to a role because they fit into a predetermined category.
We have affinities yet no one affinity can or should be dominant. How do we create an equitable, just and productive society – different but equal? We listen to our mothers – parents, teachers, religion, artists, doctors, therapists, counselors and coaches – who steadfastly buttress humanity’s better self.