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The Actual Meaning of 'Mother' Is Foreign to American Women

Exhausted mother with laundry basket on couch with children using digital tablet and cell phone

Don’t get caught up in the superficial argument that “Motherhood Isn’t Sacrifice, It's Selfishness.” Karen Rinaldi’s op-ed in the New York Times merely provides further proof of Jonathan Malesic’s assertion that “our narrow moral vocabulary for describing non-professional pursuits is making our lives worse.” Rinaldi’s attempt to define motherhood in popular terms, to make it acceptable to modern feminist ethos, actually makes a very important point: The actual meaning of “mother” is foreign to today’s American women. And they’re already suffering because of it.

With women’s liberation, motherhood, along with marriage and all things relationship-related, was re-defined in terms of work. Marxist activists (the social justice warriors of a bygone age) forced us to view the world in terms of economic and social classes and taught us to demand equality based on these criteria with “job” being the great equalizer. Writing in The New Republic, Malesic explains how this Marxist newspeak has come to define and restrict our thinking:

Americans struggle to describe worthwhile, long-term activities without turning them into jobs. We can’t imagine a good life that’s free from workplace logic. This narrow moral vocabulary makes our lives worse: more stressful, more guilt-ridden, and less able to appreciate anything that’s not work. It also reflects and reinforces a culture in which citizens are dependent on, indeed at the mercy of, their employers.

Like Malesic, Rinaldi does not believe we should classify motherhood as a “job.” But hers is another case of changing the language, not solving the problem. Rinaldi does not view motherhood as sacrificial because women no longer sacrifice their “time, ambition, and sense of self” to the “higher purpose” of being a mother. Consequently, she asserts that motherhood becomes a “selfish privilege” categorized alongside other “responsibilities” to be “juggled” including career and relationships, the elements present in the classic feminist myth of having it all. Rinaldi then concludes that associating motherhood with sacrifice is anti-feminist because a woman shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice herself for another human life.

Motherhood is not a sacrificial dying but a devotional living. If we want to understand the act of being a mother we must call it by its rightful name: motherhood. Out of the 19 definitions of “mother” in Webster’s Dictionary, we must draw attention to the terms: “to give origin or rise to; to acknowledge oneself the author of; assume as one’s own.” Creator. Author. Owner. Rinaldi is correct to acknowledge that motherhood is empowering, but her reasons why are completely wrong. Motherhood isn’t empowering because it requires self-sacrifice. Motherhood is empowering because it is the only act on this earth in which we are permitted to experience a mere hint of the awesome power of God. In that it is sacrificial. In that it is humbling. In that it is all the millions of emotions and convictions undertaken by an individual entering a permanent covenantal relationship. Attempting to define motherhood as anything less removes it from God’s realm and places it under the auspices of mere mortals and their idols of clay, stone, economy, and social justice.

In Rinaldi’s dynamic, motherhood is not sacrificial because the narcissism that comes from a job-based outlook refuses to allow us to believe anything good can come from self-sacrifice. The inherent irony is that women who have fallen for the myth of a complete self as defined by career are willing to slavishly sacrifice marriage and children for the sake of professional success. Therefore, in American culture, Mother is not the icon but career is. The Virgin Mary has been replaced by The Holy Working Girl and now, just as we’ve turned gender into a social construct, we must re-work our language to both justify and sustain this new religion.

Following up on her original essay, Rinaldi clarifies that her original intent was not to support and defend motherhood, but to further politicize language to benefit feminist ethos. To this end, she ironically writes:

I strongly believe that the language we use and the stories we tell ourselves can be very powerful — for better and for worse.

In her attempt to contextualize motherhood in popular terms, Rinaldi illustrates the fact that we no longer live in a culture that comprehends the definition of “mother.” For the very worse, culture can no longer comprehend a devotional life, therefore, as Rinaldi argues, we must explain everything in terms of sacrificial death or even worse, narcissistic pleasure. Until and unless the terms “covenant” and “devotion” return to our vocabulary and inform our worldview, women will continue to struggle with and against the very empowerment we so desperately seek.