The Metamorphosis of Motherhood

Don’t tell my sainted mother, but tomorrow I plan to blog a tribute to her. For now, here are some articles of more general interest.

Here, my Patheos colleageue Pat Gohn discusses, the psychological, moral and spiritual transformation that goes with becoming a mother:

The sacrificial side of motherhood first becomes evident during a pregnancy. A woman yields her body and wellbeing that a child may take shape and develop, as it changes her shape and her calendar forever. While a biological mother conceives and gestates and gives birth, it harkens to the fact that all mothers experience the physicality of sacrifice as they nurture and rear their children. The shedding of blood, sweat, and tears is more than an apt proverb.

Yet, motherhood is also a life of deep joy and renewal. Mothers are routinely awed and delighted by their growing children, as well as buoyed by their smiles and achievements. Often, when we lovingly gaze at our children, we are transported by belief in all that is true, good, and beautiful. And that is a very good thing. It bespeaks an encounter with the Holy.

If we yield to it, the immense change that is wrought by motherhood is that we ultimately become better lovers in the most complete sense. We are able to love more deeply, more unconditionally, more unreservedly, and more heroically. More like Jesus.

Looking back, I can think of two good female friends of mine who were transformed out of all recognition — and in a good way — by unexpected pregnancies. The first was — well, not exactly my high-school sweetheart, more like my high-school dream. In my dork eyes, Moira, as I’ll call her, was Jennie Churchill, Lucrezia Borgia, and Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, all rolled into a pair of Guess? jeans. She had sophisticated friends, and pursued sophisticated amusements. Forget about the football team — at the age of 15, she was selecting her dates from the student body at Columbia’s law school. (I used to imagine her going about the task in the manner of Madeline Kahn in History of the World Part I, but I have no confirmation of this.)

Long story short — she got pregnant. As soon as the child arrived, she got pregnant again. In the space of exactly nine months, she managed to evolve from femme fatale to earth mother. She retired early, and undefeated, from the party circuit. I lost touch with her around the time of her first pregnancy — the father and I had no use for each other — so I can’t say for sure what kind of mother she made. My hunch is, she’s an outstanding one. When Moira wanted something done, it got done. I’m sure all of her kids were fluent in Gaelic by age five, and are now in some pre-med program.

The second was Ellen, a girl who moved into the apartment complex where I lived as a student. I can only describe her as a West Texas goth. When she said, “Hah,” she was greeting you, not laughing at you. Like her fellow Texan, Howard Hughes, she had a consuming horror of germs and illness. “When ah git medical insurance, first thing ah’m-a do is go to the doctor and git a clean bill of health. Nothing like a clean bill of health, tell you what.” That was Ellen’s goal — to be judged free of disease. She was wise beyond her years.

Astonishingly, given her repugnance for human effluvia, Ellen got pregnant, too. Overnight, she began applying her obsessive nature toward a positive end — her child’s welfare. When the child was born, I could almost see the rotors sprout from her back. Ellen was normally one of those people who thought nothing of walking to Circle K in pajama bottoms and bedroom slippers; whenever I saw her son playing in the sand pits, he looked like he was dolled up to pose for an Oshkosh B’Gosh ad. I lost touch with them around the time he turned two, but I have no doubt that, within a year, Ellen had him irretrievably hooked on phonics.

By now, you’ll have guessed that both of these women were — and probably still are — a bit off. That’s why I chose to write about them. Motherhood may not provide any guarantees, but it seems — under certain circumstances, at least — to offer a positive outlet for eccentricity. Not all women are called to motherhood — for the record, I’m pretty sure I’m not called to fatherhood — but it doesn’t take a Donna Reed to answer the call smartly.

Ever since Cook made Tahiti, the institution of motherhood has been inspiring men — and more recently, women — to transform themselves in a very different way, Noreen Malone (who, something tells me, might have been Catholic at some point in her life) ponders the history of the “Mom” tattoo:

Maternal tattoo tributes might have entered the pop imagination thanks to a relatively modern American sailor, but they’ve been around probably as long as the art of tattooing. According to Marisa Kakoulas, who writes the tattoo culture blog Needles and Sins, there’s documentation of mom-explicit tributes going back to the late 1700s on these shores, but tattoos, whether in ancient civilizations or hipster Brooklyn, have always been about identity demarcation and often about allying oneself with a clan; the mom tribute is a version of that.* Nick Schonberger, co-author of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, says that up through the 1920s, mom tattoos were often in memoriam, and based on iconography from mourning art, like religious lithographs or even needlepoint designs. Weeping willows, crosses, and cemeteries were common; they were part of the visual language in which artists were fluent, just as the more cartoony, streamlined look of the Sailor Jerry design reflected the pop aesthetic of its era in turn—though the scrolling word banner was common to both. (And for our full-circle, Postmodern era, there’s Bart Simpson—a cartoon character—getting inked with the cartoon-inspired heart design.)

A friend of mine had his (freakishly large) bicep decorated with portraits of both his parents. It came out photo-perfect; I could recognize them from across a room. The only problem was, he already had a strand of barbed wire running through the same space. Without meaning to, he ended up sending mom and dad to Auschwitz.

– Max Lindenman

  • Warren Jewell

    Max, you ever opt for fatherhood – a role we gents can share quite literally with a God we know – and you will have to have all your shirts re-done with a big power “S” for “SuperDad” imprinted on them. Your unique – umm – swagger, if you will – coupled with what probably will become a storyteller role of Aesopian proportions will make you unforgettable, and too lovable to your kids for words beyond “I love you, Dad”. No matter what else happens to them in their lives, that you happened to them will always refresh their joy.

    And, you will likely be forever wed to the one lady whose love for you your kids will envy.

    Great piece, about what the wonders of motherhood can do to transform a woman. But, remember, behind every most-successful Mom is a Dad who is her mate of mates.

  • Bernadette

    I’ve been thinking about this post while I’ve been away from the internet this weekend, and it makes me want to write a post of my own titled Why Quirky Mothers Are The Best. My own mother is gloriously eccentric, and although there are some ways that my upbringing was far from ideal, one gift that she gave me was the freedom to be myself. After spending so many years watching her breeze through societal conventions like so many cobwebs, becoming thoroughly my own person was rather a given.

    This has been true for my whole rather numerous family. When one of us announces, for example, that she is going to travel to Africa to teach, or going to live at an orphanage in Honduras, or gets arrested for protesting a politically despicable law, her main reaction has been, “How nice, how can I help?” The one we worry about is the one with a very nice office job at which she works too many hours. But then, she’s becoming thoroughly her own person in her own way.

  • Max Lindenman

    Warren: I do believe that’s the kindest, most generous comment anyone’s ever left. Thank you.

    You know, it’s funny: my mom is the professional writer, but my dad was by far the better off-the-cuff storyteller.

    Bernadette: Quriky moms ARE the best. Write it in the biggest letters you can find.