by Jeanne Gehret

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19th century mother with child

Motherhood and feminism have, at times, seemed poles apart. Today’s blog reflects those tensions.

Even though life with my own brood has never been better, this is not a hearts-and-flowers reflection on motherhood. It’s more like the blood-and-guts approach characterized by this quote from Debra Ginsberg:

“The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represent[s] just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”- Excerpt from Raising Blaze, by Debra Ginsberg

If motherhood demands so much of us, is it worth it?

That’s the question I asked myself as a young woman contemplating marriage and motherhood. Recognizing early my deeply empathic nature, I feared losing myself in others. Marriage to a man who cherishes my quirkiness provided early reassurance.

But with children, it was a different matter. They naturally prioritize their own needs, positioning their parents in a secondary role. I tended to take on their concerns so completely that I forgot my own. Thus, my experience with motherhood became a delicate balance between nurturing my identity and embracing my inner Mama Bear.

I tread carefully with my offspring, wary of becoming overly involved and then resentful, a struggle common among mothers. This journey of embracing passion while respecting boundaries has helped me grow immensely.

Motherhood has taught me some valuable lessons:

  • Recognizing others’ capacity to assist my children.
  • Mastering the art of involvement and withdrawal.
  • Remembering that the world needs my “non-mothering” gifts, too.
  • Seeking divine guidance when I feel inadequate.

In the words of Dr. Seuss, sometimes my mothering challenges arose because my head wasn’t screwed on just right, or my shoes were too tight, or – the most likely reason of all – my heart was two sizes too small. Motherhood has given me immense opportunities to grow through loving. And that reason alone -independent of the love that I receive from my wonderful children – makes motherhood worth it.

Motherhood can enlarge women’s capacity to love beyond our own families. That’s what I find in this quote from Charlotte Gray, a film about a woman in the French Resistance:

“Becoming a mother makes you the mother of all children. From now on each wounded, abandoned, frightened child is yours. You live in the suffering mothers of every race and creed and weep with them. You long to comfort all who are desolate.”

Contemplating my character Annie Osborn Anthony, I wonder about the imprints that motherhood left on her soul. Facing the loss of three children, did her heart scar irreparably? Did those losses – two of them in the same year – make her cling more tightly to the two survivors? Did her later advocacy for women’s suffrage arise from a profound connection to all mothers?

In my own life and Annie’s historical journey, I’ve seen how intense love and profound suffering catalyze growth, revealing motherhood’s transformative power. To me, that’s a story worth telling.

What Does it Mean to Mother?

For Susan B. Anthony, this question had a straightforward answer. Her mother, Lucy Anthony, not only gave birth to her and raised her. She also instilled in Susan the traditional roles expected of Victorian women. These included domestic proficiency and moral obligations aimed at maintaining the family and society’s fabric. (Susan’s father also played a significant role in her upbringing, but that’s a tale for another time.)

Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museumin Adams, Massachusetts

Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum
in Adams, Massachusetts

Susan was born in Adams, Massachusetts, in a home now transformed into a museum. There she assisted her mother in preparing meals for the family and packing lunch pails for eleven millworkers who lodged with the Anthonys. The museum showcases Susan’s domestic talents through a replica of the LeMoyne Star quilt she crafted, likely under Lucy’s guidance.

In addition, Lucy exemplified for Susan how to extend compassion to those less fortunate. Susan remembered with chagrin how her mother gave away her daughters’ new dresses to a needy family, believing her own daughters could make do with their old ones.

In contrast to Susan, Annie Osborn Anthony had a different experience of motherhood. Her biological mother, Eliza, passed away when Annie was merely ten years old. Shortly after, her father remarried, and Annie was raised by her stepmother until she reached the age of nineteen. However, it appears Annie received minimal guidance before leaving home.

When Susan visited Annie and her husband Daniel in Leavenworth, Kansas, six months after their marriage, Annie was expecting their first child. Susan assisted her in sewing the intricate garments required for a well-to-do baby’s layette. Annie’s daughter, Maude, later remarked that “Aunt Susan taught Mother everything she knew about household skills.”

Susan was twenty-four years older than Annie, who was born in 1844. Despite never marrying or settling down for extended periods, Susan bridged crucial maternal gaps left by Annie’s birth and stepmothers. She nurtured Annie, and in return, Annie reciprocated with warmth and hospitality whenever Susan campaigned in Kansas.

For that reason, on Mother’s Day I salute Susan as well as every other woman who nurtures, guides, heals, teaches, comforts, and motivates others to not just survive but to thrive and grow.

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