Mothering as Resistance

Last month Tammy Duckworth made history, becoming the first U.S. senator to cast a vote on the Senate floor with a baby in her arms. It took some doing; the Senate first had to change a longstanding rule that prohibited babies on the floor of the Senate, and changing Senate rules doesn’t happen easily. Duckworth and others worked for months to change the rule, answering questions like whether this would mean diapers could be changed on the Senate floor, or whether the baby would have to adhere to the Senate dress code. Ultimately, though, the rule was changed to allow senators to bring their newborns onto the floor and even to breastfeed them if needed. And so Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Senator and mom, cast a vote with her child right there with her.

Of course, the news media covered the moment with enthusiasm for its rarity. It was a rare moment in large part because of the limited number of women who have exercised privileges on the floor of the United States Senate. In the history of the body, only fifty-two women have been members; twenty-three of them serve today, an all-time high. So the sight of Senator Duckworth bringing her baby into the Senate was a symbol of the way tradition has been forced to evolve under the pressures of gender equity. But beyond the celebration of justice and progress, I was struck by the power in the juxtaposition—one individual holding together in a single moment four distinct identities: woman, veteran, political leader, mother. And the infiltration of mothering, with all of the connotations it brings—nurture, protection, love, sacrifice—into a body that frankly is regarded by many Americans as mired in futility, impotence, and destructiveness, spoke a word of prophetic protest to politics as usual. Insisting on bringing her young child to the halls of government, Duckworth did more than demand workplace accommodations. She offered a display of mothering as an act of resistance to disordered power.

This morning’s reading from the Book of Exodus (Exodus 1:13–2:10) also presents us with an example of mothering as political resistance. It is easy to read the story of Moses’s birth in other ways: as personal tragedy as a woman is forced to yield her child, as an illustration of the moral ambiguities in adoption, or as a testament to God’s providence. But it seems clear to me that Exodus offers us this story as an essential part of a tale of political resistance. We are told that the Hebrew people, who found refuge in Egypt during periods of famine, had grown strong in number over time. The Egyptian Pharaoh feared that these immigrants would crowd out, overwhelm, and threaten his good native people. Finding it too late to build a wall, he conspired instead to kill the baby boys born of the Hebrews. He tasked the midwives of the land with this murderous chore, but the women resisted, refusing to be complicit in Pharaoh’s schemes and deceiving him to spare the children.

Then Scripture tells us of one particular Hebrew woman who resisted the political powers of evil and death in her own way. She gave birth to a son, and in order to spare his life, she concocted a plan to have him “discovered” by the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Pharaoh’s daughter did discover, thereby saving his life. And when Pharaoh’s daughter then needed someone to feed and care for him, Moses’s own mother positioned herself to get him back. An artful and courageous act of care to ensure that her child would live.

But is that all it was? We know that Moses grew up to become the liberator of the Hebrew people, and it strikes me that Exodus tells this story as more than a sentimental tale of maternal sacrifice. In the story of the Hebrew people’s liberation from Egypt, Moses’s mother commits the first act of political resistance. In preserving the life of her child, aggressively and with righteous guile, she also thwarts a homicidal regime, fulfills her duty to her people, and makes herself available as an instrument of God’s justice.

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Celebrating Mother’s Day in the church, frankly, is wrought with opportunities to do something dumb. And to be honest, churches often avail themselves of those opportunities. I spent a decade in the South, where Mother’s Day is a national holiday of almost unrivaled proportion. (Think Earth Day or Pete Seeger’s birthday here in Vermont.) During my time in Virginia, I was part of at least one congregation that insisted on handing out roses to all of the “moms and potential moms”—which meant all of the women in the congregation. The problems with that are legion, of course. It collapses womanhood into motherhood, thus conveying the message that what is most essential about being a woman is becoming a mother, implying that the other things women might do—like giving your legs in service to the U.S. military, or becoming a U.S. senator—are distractions from a woman’s real reason for being. The sentimentalizing of motherhood ignores the possibility that many women choose not to have families. It runs roughshod over the reality that many women who do want to experience childbirth cannot. And it aggravates the pain that many people associate with motherhood—the loss of children, the loss of beloved mothers, or the estrangement from mothers with whom we might have difficult and disappointing relationships.

Another problem with the sentimental celebration of Mother’s Day in the church is the way we domesticate motherhood. But Senator Duckworth’s story and the tale of Moses’s mom insist that mothering can be an intense and important political act, a public display of priorities and virtues that are the best of who we are as human beings, and that stand in judgment against the worst of our inhumanities.

These days, in my teaching and writing, I think a lot about political virtues, or the traits of character in citizens and leaders that make for a healthy democratic society. I tend to focus on civility, a set of virtues that allows us to navigate disagreement in a pluralistic society like ours with respect and grace. But this week, the calendar’s invitation to think about Mother’s Day has me thinking that mothering, too, represents a set of virtues that may be essential to a healthy society, making the role of mother important not only to our families but to society as a whole. Think of the virtues we associate with mothering at its best, in the ideal: unconditional love; deep investment in the good of other human beings; an impulse to provide for others, to protect others; reliability; strength; nurture; self-sacrifice; and drawing happiness from others’ happiness. Are these not an apt description of what it means to be human at our best? Are these not the virtues that we Christians most associate with Jesus Christ, our quintessential model for living a life for God and others? Do these not strike us as character traits that, if nurtured in citizens and leaders more deliberately, would make us a healthier society? Like civility, mothering symbolizes a set of virtues we would do well to encourage as the bedrock of a better functioning society.

To be sure, we could expand our focus on mothers to parents and guardians more generally, and argue that these same virtues are ideally displayed by, say, fathers to their children. But in this particular moment, when cultures of grotesque hyper-masculinity are being pulled from the shadows, and when some powerful men are finally being made to account for their abuse while others evade justice, associating these virtues specifically with women who inhabit the role of mother stands as a potent contrast to politics and power as usual in this country. The virtues of mothering stand in judgment of destructive behavior we have ignored in the past or are normalizing in our present. The practice of mothering stands as an act of resistance to a culture of disrespect, dehumanization, and violence.

The virtues of mothering remind us what it means ideally to be human. To be invested in others, to help and nurture one another, to assume the best of one another, to give, to share, to help, to encourage. The virtues of mothering remind us of what it means to be human. And that’s what actual mothers and fathers and grandparents and guardians do, right? They raise us to be good human beings. They pass on to us the moral and social traditions of human being, making us capable of being good in our relationships and responsible in our citizenship.

If mothering—and by extension, parenting—is such a good, not just for domestic family life but for the life of the nation and the world, then we should celebrate it, not just as a private choice for individual fulfillment, but as a contribution to the common good. And if parenting is so valuable to the common good, we should not only celebrate it but also support it. That means investing in stronger economic safety nets for women and children, because we recognize that investment in family security is an investment in national security and global security. It means getting with the program to regularize paid parental leave, so women in particular don’t need to choose between caring for their new children and keeping their jobs. It means flexibility in the workplace, child care at the office, adoption benefits, and taking advantage of technology to challenge assumptions about when and from where we work. It means an end to the choice we still demand from women between professional progression and having a family.

For mothering (parenting) is not just a domestic experience but an act of citizenship and a contribution to the common good. The virtues that mothers ideally reflect are an increasingly rare glimpse into an alternative to the destructive political culture that currently surrounds us. So like Moses’s cunning mother, let us commit to raising our children as an act of resistance. Let those of us who are mothers and fathers, grandparents, guardians—indeed, the church as a family of faith—double down on our responsibilities to our children, through which we teach a better way and hope and labor for a better future. To commit to our children is an act of resistance. It is to subvert the inhumanities of the present, by investing in our children glimpses of the kingdom of God.