Happy Mother’s Day to Momma Bears and Spartan Women

Fresno Bee, May 12, 2024

Mothers need to be tough in loving their kids. Shooting pet dogs is another story.

Let’s give a shout out to all of the tough mothers out there. These strong women work long hours away from the house and then supervise homework and housework. Tough moms keep you honest and teach you courage. They’ll wipe away your tears. Then they’ll kick you in the pants and send you back into the fray. They stand beside you for a time. But they want you to stand on your own two feet.

Mother’s Day can we be sappy and maudlin. The pastel cards and fragrant flowers make it seem that mothers are all sweetness and light. But a mother’s love can also be tough. The momma bear must defend her vulnerable cubs against a vicious world. But she can’t defend you forever. Her job is to prepare you to confront the world with bravery and integrity.

I’ve been reflecting on tough mothers while thinking about the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem. As almost everyone knows by now, the governor claimed she shot the family dog in a gravel pit. She explained that it was a “hard decision” but that she did it for her kids. She said, “I had a choice between keeping my small children and other people safe, or a dangerous animal, and I chose the safety of my children.”

The episode has generated a lot of heat. Comedians and critics have piled on. Some clever congressmen started a “Congressional Dog Lover’s Caucus.” But behind the backlash is a serious question for moms everywhere. Who or what would you kill to defend your kids?

The governor added, “Tough decisions like this happen all the time on a farm.” No doubt there is a lot of killing down on the farm — and elsewhere. And moms are part of it. Mothers in war zones around the world have to send their sons and daughters off to war. Tough choices are made by mothers whose children are starving and dying in places ravaged by famine and disease. Motherly love unfolds in a world that can be violent and cruel.

Some of the toughest mothers in history came from ancient Sparta. Spartan mothers were famous for encouraging their sons to be brave warriors. They would rather their sons die in battle than run away in cowardice.

Sometimes the Spartan mother has been turned into a cold and shrewish caricature. Plutarch collected a number of “sayings” of Spartan mothers, which portrayed them as mean, spiteful, and scolding. In Plutarch’s collection, Spartan mothers make fun of weak and cowardly sons in crude and insulting ways.

I doubt those Spartan mothers were as callous and cold as Plutarch makes them out to be. Men often mock strong women because they fear their power and independence. The Spartan women were more liberated than other women in the ancient world. They trained in athletics, owned property and engaged in public life. That’s a threat to men who want women to be soft, weak and dependent.

A saccharine ideal of motherhood disempowers mothers — and women in general. Sometimes moms need to get tough. This does not make them less motherly or feminine. This brings us back to Gov. Noem. It’s worth considering whether the backlash against her involves a bit of old-fashioned sexism. If it had been a man who killed that dog instead of a woman, would the judgment be different?

I’m not condoning shooting dogs. There are better ways to deal with unruly hounds. Spartan mothers don’t need to be cruel. Tough mothers can provide encouragement without being mean. They can defend their kids without being spiteful. The difficult balancing act for every tough momma is to be loving and strong, powerful and kind.

That’s not easy. In a culture that idealizes mothers as paragons of peace and softness, the momma bear will be viewed as unfeminine, and well, overbearing.

But everyday, tough mothers make hard choices, down on the farm and everywhere else in this cold world. This does not make them less maternal, feminine, orworthy of respect and admiration. Good mothers love us. But they also defend us, teach us virtue, and toughen us up. And for that we should be grateful on Mother’s Day.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article288441483.html#storylink=cpy

The gift of being born: Reflecting on natality and gratitude on Mother’s Day

Fresno Bee, May 14, 2023

Mother’s Day is for gratitude. Our mothers nurtured and supported us. We thank them for the fact of our own births. We should also thank our mothers for modeling the art of kindness, and the power of love.

Life is precious, rare and interconnected. It’s not accidental that we speak of Mother Earth and Mother Nature. There is no other planet that supports life. And life on this planet unfolds through a long chain of mothers, extending back into prehistory.

That process of generation and birth shows us the depth of our interconnected existence. We are not born alone. And life is not only a struggle for survival. It is also a warm embrace that pays itself forward. The nurturing arms that received us into this world show us the sustaining power of lovingkindness.

The Dalai Lama once said, “When we’re born, our mothers show us compassion. This is a natural response that has nothing to do with spiritual practice. Without that kindness we wouldn’t survive. So, our lives start with an experience of kindness and compassion.”

Philosophers have directed our attention to the importance of birth and being born. This is the idea of our “natality,” which is the opposite of mortality. We are mortal beings who die. But we are also interdependent beings who were born, and who give birth. Every human being emerges from the body of another, who literally carried us within her. Remembering this strange mammalian fact can make us humble, grateful and kind.

The concept of natality was brought to light by Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a German Jew who escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe. She arrived as a refugee in New York. She wrote extensively about totalitarianism and evil. The world is not all sweetness and light. And some people are born with cruel mothers, or their mothers are cruelly taken from them.

And yet, hope appears in the concept of natality, and the fact of our interdependence. Arendt celebrated the possibility of new birth and new beginnings. “The miracle that saves the world,” Arendt explained in 1958, “is ultimately the fact of natality.” When cruelty, stupidity and violence threaten to tear things apart, we can hope that new humans will be born and better ideas will arise. The terror of death is real. But so too is the promise of birth.

Natality involves hospitality. In some extreme cases, hospitality rescues refugees from cruelty and death, as in the case of those fleeing a genocide. But even in ordinary circumstances, we make the world better by welcoming strangers. Indeed, our mothers welcomed us into their bodies. They received us into the world, suckled us, nurtured us, and devoted themselves to us. That welcoming and receptive aspect of maternity is a central feature of our humanity.

This is not exclusively female. Men can welcome and receive. And fathers can be loving and kind. But there is humbling wisdom to be learned in the mysterious unfolding of maternity and birth.

Even the strongest king came into this world naked and defenseless. The first moment of every human life is an act of welcome. To be human is to be received, as a gift. We exist because our mothers loved us first.

Christianity makes natality a central part of the cosmic story. Each person is created in God’s image. And even the savior was born of a woman. The story also tells us that the savior and his mother fled persecution after his birth. The gospel of love grows out of the story of a refugee and his mother.

One need not be a Christian to understand this. It is discovered deep in the milk of human kindness. But we forget our interdependence. Too often, we refuse to welcome strangers. We build up our defenses, and exclude those who need our kindness. Maybe we are trying to fend off death. Perhaps we hope that in defending our turf, we might live forever. But death comes to us all. Mortality is a fact.

Yet natality is also a fact. Tomorrow, a new generation will be born. Our task is to welcome those newcomers, as our mothers welcomed us; to love our neighbors, as our mothers loved us.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article275327426.html#storylink=cpy

Mother’s Love: The Heart of Ethics

Fresno Bee, May 8, 2022

Motherly love is different from other kinds of love. Brotherly love is connected to the Golden Rule. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Maternal love is stronger and more intimate. It focuses on the unique personality of those we love.

Fraternal love is about reciprocity. It asks us to respect each other’s rights. But maternal love is deeper and more intimate. It is not always reciprocated. It is not about equality. Rather, it is concerned with the concrete needs of the one who is loved.

The language of brotherhood is common in ethics and politics. The French Revolution celebrated liberty, equality and fraternity. The UN Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

The language used here is gendered. Perhaps we should also say that there should be a spirit of sisterhood. Some go so far as to talk about “pregnant persons” instead of mothers.

But on Mother’s Day, we celebrate the spirit of motherly love. Motherly love is oriented toward the well-being of each particular child. Rather than treating all children the same, maternal love focuses on the uniqueness of each child.

Motherly love is emotionally stronger than brotherly love. It is also less egalitarian. Brothers are supposed to treat one another fairly and equally. But mothers love their children in a way that is biased and partial.

Mothers have special relationships with their own children that they simply do not have with other children. Of course, that special relationship works both ways. Most of us are biased when it comes to our own mothers. Toddlers seek their mother’s arms for comfort. And adult children give special care to their mothers.

I wrote about motherly love in a blog post last year on Mother’s Day. A friend suggested that this seems a bit sexist and old-fashioned. To say that motherly love is partial and biased may imply that mothers are ethically flawed.

But this only makes sense if we believe ethics is only about impartiality and equality. Motherly love is as important as brotherly love. Brotherly love gives us equality and respect. But motherly love gives us comfort, care and belonging. Each kind of love is needed.

The impartiality of fraternal love responds to inequality and intolerance. But a mother’s personal love helps us thrive in a world that is cold and indifferent. It is sexist to say that maternal love is inferior. The remedy is to understand that motherly love is important and that brotherly love is not the whole of ethics.

The Golden Rule of fraternal love remains a guide for morality. But what if we also said that we should learn to love other people as mothers love their children? That seems to be the heart of an ethic of compassion, to learn to care for others as our mothers cared for us.

And what about fatherly love? Well, our culture imagines a father’s love as that of a strict and dispassionate disciplinarian. Paternal love is the equality and impartiality of brotherly love taken to a higher level. The image of “God the Father” often portrays Him as loving us despite our failures, while reminding us that we need to straighten up and fly right.

But mothers don’t love us despite our failures. They love us because of our flaws, since it is our flaws that make us unique and special. Motherly love is focused on the personality of the one loved, while fatherly and brotherly love emphasizes the abstract personhood behind the personality.

We have to be careful in thinking this through. This gendered language includes stereotypes that can be hurtful and divisive. The truth is that men can love like mothers. And women can be dispassionate and impartial. We all have the capacity for each kind of love.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate motherly love. Let’s reflect on what our mothers taught us about love—and thank them for those lessons.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261144842.html#storylink=cpy