Monday, 29 April 2013


Mothering Sunday

Well, of course on Mothering Sunday we want to remember mothers and what they risk and sacrifice for us. Yet it’s odd that a church that not only celebrates motherhood but also thinks of itself as Mother Church and sometimes directs its members to venerate Mother Mary is also the church that has identified the deity as exclusively male and often exhibited a distressing misogyny. There is something deeply ambivalent about the church’s attitude to motherhood, which suggests that we at once honour motherhood, desire more mothering, and yet resent mothers.
Many a church prominently displays a statue of Jesus’s mother, Mary, often with her baby close to if, these days, not actually at her breast. This is often regarded as symbolic of maternal devotion but I’m not so sure. One of St Paul’s significant encounters took place in Ephesus, the home of the cult of the goddess Diana. Her temple there housed a massive statue of the goddess, and its most striking feature was the multiplicity of breasts. This is often seen as a celebration of bounty, but, again, I’m not so sure. Among the most popular of medieval Europe’s saint-cults was that of Agatha, pictured carrying a tray bearing her sliced-off breasts. This was intended to be understood as a symbol of her religious devotion, but here too I’m not so sure. Turn to Page Three in any edition of the Sun newspaper, and you’ll find a nubile young woman displaying her breasts. This is often read as pandering to the sexual voracity of men, but, once again, I’m not so sure. We could all easily multiply examples of how our society seems to have a fascination with that most functional of things, the mammalian breast, a fascination not shared by other mammals, not even the sex-obsessed bonobos.
                The early chapters of Genesis are concerned partly with the emergence of agricultural society from it predecessor ways of life, of which the hunter-gatherer life-style had been by far the longest lasting and the closest to nature. Genesis understands that leaving these old ways behind came at a price, whatever satisfactions and enrichments newer life-styles could offer. Its authors may not have been aware that among the things we began to lose when we abandoned hunting-and-gathering was every baby’s access to its mother’s breast on demand. We now know that hunter-gatherer mothers give the breast whenever their babies want it, which means three or four times every waking hour for the first three or four years of life. That is the level of maternal service that every baby is born expecting; its denial is what practically every baby born today has to learn to get over. The extent of this denial has been growing ever since agriculture arrived, and today it is sometimes total: in the industrial world, a significant proportion of today’s new born babies never get to suck at a breast at all. They get fed, sometimes very well fed, but they don’t get what they were born expecting. This means us, of course. Most of us probably did enjoy at least some breast feeding, but I’m sure none of us enjoyed it on demand for several years. All of us, I suspect, live in the shadow of that first and therefore perhaps greatest disappointment.
                Disappointment has to be dealt with. At first, that’s not too difficult: a baby’s disappointment is easily pacified by giving it a dummy nipple to suck. It’s a first lesson in how to bear disappointment: you learn to redirect your desire for satisfaction from the denied breast to something else. Depending on how this redirection is socialised as you grow up, you might eventually express it in anti-social behaviour; you might assume your life will be permanently disappointing; you might discover an ambition to succeed in the world; you might participate enthusiastically in society’s cult of the breast; you might turn to Mother Church or Mother Mary for comfort. Any such substitutes can only ever be exactly that: the original disappointment can never be wholly expunged, and I suspect that it is this disappointment that has fuelled a lot of the resentment that has traditionally been directed at and accepted by women, not least in religions.
                One of the unfortunate things about the way Genesis deals with the expulsion from Eden is that it tends to make us feel guilty. It would be easy, and wrong, to misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not saying that mothers should feel guilty if they don’t give the breast to their babies on demand. As Genesis makes clear, we can’t go back to Eden, in this or any other sense – and in any case would not really want to: despite difficulties and disappointments, life beyond Eden offers too many satisfactions, both material and spiritual, for us to want to return. And it’s not simply mothers’ selfish choices that cause our collective disappointment. It’s society as a whole that is responsible for maintaining and deepening our disappointment: parenting books, medical advice, the requirement to work outside the home – all these conspire together, and most of them are largely the work of men. And because we as a society have issues about breasts and breast feeding, we’re not comfortable with babies being given the breast in public, which only makes matters worse.
                But even if we can’t go back to Eden, hunting-and-gathering and breast-feeding on demand, we can at least face up to the situation in which we find ourselves. We can name the difficulty and acknowledge the various ways we try to deal with it. We can try to see that the disappointed desire for satisfaction is redirected in positive ways. We might at the margin try to encourage breastfeeding, and do so for this reason among others, that it will reduce the impact of disappointment. We might even perhaps wonder whether the church’s cult of female virginity might be in part a way of giving special honour to women who are not, as all modern mothers inevitably are, in a significant way a disappointment to their children.  These are ways of redeeming, of making sense of and overcoming, this particular aspect of the ‘fallen-ness’ of humanity expelled from Eden, a fallen-ness that is not about ‘sin’: it’s just the price we have to pay for progress along the path our distant ancestors set out on and irrevocably committed us to. That baby sucking the dummy is just beginning to learn the price of progress; let’s hope adulthood will bring the positive satisfactions thus expensively bought.

No comments:

Post a Comment