me + mum | BALTIMORE ’88
This past Mother’s Day I was asked to speak at my church meeting, which I did, somehow, despite a whole lot of panic and procrastination in the weeks leading up to my ten minutes at the podium. Mostly my friends and family did not understand this. “What do you mean, ‘what do I speak about?’?!” they’d say. “It’s Mother’s Day! You talk about mothers! Why is this hard?”
Thing is, it’s just not easy. Mothers, motherhood, mothering. I think about this often, mostly confusedly, seeing as it is both my mortal birthright and eternal inheritance, and here I am in the middle of it, very much single and researching travel writing stints in Nepal. It’s a whole lot of in-between to fathom.
Which is all just to say that this was my first official time writing about motherhood, but it can’t possibly be my last. And if you’d like to read what I’m thinking, you can catch the full essay after the jump or download the PDF here.
When asked to speak on today of all days, I thought first of NPR. (Those of you familiar with their show Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! may know where I’m going with this.) Brother Wiest was the one to extend the invitation, and yet in my head I heard quiz show host Peter Sagal introducing a little game we like to call Not My Job, the part of the program where rather competent contributors to their own field are asked questions on something they know nothing about.
Thankfully that panic was immediate but passing, like those dreams where you’re frantically late for a crucial exam only to wake up remembering you left high school six years ago. Within five minutes I had remembered that I not only have a) a lifetime of living with and learning from the best mother I know, but b) been surrounded by outstanding examples of womanhood my whole life long. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say; rather that there was suddenly so much to say, and how. Another hour into this introspection and I remembered that I spent the last semester in a Marriage and Family class, where we devoted two weeks to the subject of motherhood and a woman’s divinity. In essence, I not only had the textbook answers, but a field study experience twenty-four years and counting.
However, I also remembered that those two weeks were hard for me. That I’d wrestled with the way some discussions wandered, that I’d winced and worried over a few required reads, and wept more than once. Yes, I believe that it is “the highest service to be assumed by mankind,”  that we women have “great strength, dignity, and tremendous ability.”
I have a testimony of the holy work of home and a fire for family past, present, and future. And yet. And yet. I’ll be honest with you. I have long been bothered by the concept of motherhood—what it was and how it worked and where I fit in. And perhaps more so bothered by the way we as a Mormon culture approach motherhood: as an end-all, an ultimate. It seemed to, in a way, erase identity. If “all” I’m supposed to become is a mother, what about the previous twenty-four years of my life? Do those count? And how?
It was not until I read this statement by Sister Patricia R. Holland that the storm began to calm. She said,
Eve was given the identity of ‘the mother of all living’ before she ever bore a child. It would appear that her motherhood preceded her maternity, just as surely as the perfection of the Garden precedes the struggles of mortality. I believe mother is one of those very carefully chosen words, one of those rich words—with meaning after meaning after meaning. We must not, at all costs, let that word divide us. I believe with all of my heart that it is first and foremost a statement about nature, not a head count of our children. 
Our motherhood precedes our maternity. Nature, not numbers. This quote’s effect on me was like water to science store dinosaurs, you know, the ones that grow 600% overnight? It was expanding, soul-swelling. I realized that the concept of motherhood bothered me because I had made it a concept, an abstraction—something that might happen, sometime, maybe even to me, definitely in the future. I had not accepted and explored it as a piece of me, a tangible trait you and I and all women own—right here, right now, no matter our state or situation. But motherhood is a matter of our make, as inherent to each individual as heads, shoulders, knees and toes—as familiar as that song you are all now finishing in your head (eyes, ears, mouth and nose). Reading those words in the wake of weeks riddled by both alarm and assurance, I felt like T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” which concludes:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
People often talk of the quest for “true self.” How humbling and heavenward to realize that we’ve had it all along. Because standing here, looking out across faces I know and love, I do not see (that dreadful phrase!) just mothers. Just fathers, just families, just friends. I see individuals, inimitable beings, full-fledged characters completely your own. And for that matter, who do we paint with more color than our own mothers? Mothers are truer than true. So now the question is, how do they do that?
Mothers are all verb, two of which I think are most paramount: mothers love and mothers serve — both of which require an object. Mothers love you, mothers serve us. Their action is always outward, and that is the key: we become our true selves only through others and, most importantly, serving others.
I thought of three things.
First, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a 20thcentury thinker who gave his life to developing a theory he actually called “The Other.” Essentially his thought revolves around the idea that we cannot become full-formed individuals without the help of The Other—whether that other be a spouse, a sibling, or simply someone you meet on the street. It all hinges on coming face-to-face with another human being. His theory is broken down into three steps:
1. Concern with what we should do (in particular, for others) is more important than concern with “what is” (knowledge about the nature or being of things).
2. Concern for others is more important than concern with my own being (my own survival; promoting my interests; etc.).
3. Relationships precede and make possible my own being and my awareness of and involvement in the external world (the relationship with the Other makes being possible).
Now. I am not going to pretend that I understood all this the first time I studied it, or even the second. And I spent the better half of this year trying to teach Levinas to my Humanities students with very little result. It was useful to apply the thought to Dostoevsky, Achebe, Darwin, and even Marx — but we didn’t appreciate its full import until we hit a bit closer to home, until we understood it in terms of a story fundamental to our worldview. So let’s try Levinas again, this time in the Garden of Eden:
a. Eve’s concern for what we should do (for others, for all mankind) was more important than concern with what was (This is the tree. Do not eat the fruit.)
b. Concern for others was more important than simple bliss of Eden.
c. It was the Other that preceded the ethics and decision of the Fall. God provided for Adam an Eve, who brought Adam to responsibility and understanding of the world at large, and put them both in a position to make choices. They had a responsibility to each other, to God, to all mankind (being extends beyond being), and only together could they become who they truly were.
Levinasian theory also maintains God is the “absolute Other,” the one who calls us to service and responsibility (and, ultimately, being) through people, scripture, and testimony.
I love this immensely. It fits perfectly with my understanding of God’s omnipotence and His grace; that we experience Him through Others, the people that He gives us (in turn, giving us responsibility and opportunity to act on that other greatest gift—agency). That He calls to us through the written word, both scriptural canon and literary libraries that open us to experience and empathy and epiphany. And finally testimony, which we feel — paradoxically — born within ourselves but from a source entirely outside.
It also fits perfectly with my growing understanding of motherhood, of a mother’s love and power. That a mother assumes her self when she answers the call of the Other.
Second, I thought of Wari Tri Atmi. Wari was a Muslim girl from the furthest reaches of Malang in rural Java. She left school at ten years old to work in a nearby cigarette factory until she had just enough money to make it to Singapore, where she only barely avoided the slave trade and ran to Hong Kong, where she worked as a “domestic helper” — slavery with a small salary — and also met the missionaries. She was baptized six months later, disowned by her family, and called to serve in the Indonesia Jakarta Mission, where I met her as her companion.
Over the next nine weeks, I came to understand just what President had meant when he said I had my work cut out for me. Sister Atmi had lived an extraordinary life, and she was extraordinarily broken.
In the beginning, I was frustrated — only three months into my own mission, I felt like I still needed to be figuring things out for myself, not to mention the rats wreaking havoc on our kitchen utensils and the sewers flooded to overflowing outside. How should anyone be expected to take charge of someone else in such a situation? What qualified me to teach confidence and direction when I had barely begun to learn it myself? And yet as I grew to understand Sister Atmi’s needs and pray for the love necessary to meet those needs, I noticed a strange truth: working for her want was fulfilling my own.
I tell you this story not to in any way put myself on a pedestal. Goodness knows there are things I could have done better and could be doing still. But they say to write what you know, and those few months still resonate with me as being transformative in my understanding of service and love. The time I spent with Sister Atmi solidified not only my sense of self as a missionary, but expanded my understanding of who I was as an individual. I felt a spiritual richness in living for others that to this day helps to center my soul when the world seems out of balance. I learned that in giving our all to others we are in fact shaping our selves.
Last week I had an email from Sister Atmi, addressed to me in the informal staccato of the Cantonese Ma. Mother.
Which brings me, ultimately and always, to Jesus Christ. Our Savior who promised those who lose their lives for his sake shall find it. Who, in the Gospel of John explains, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We believe the more we give of ourselves to others (and especially God), we become more ourselves than ever. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, not to our mortality, but it’s true. I will bear your burden, I will sing your song, I will do Thy will—what we give up returns to us a hundred-fold more. Christ is the greatest example of this. Who could be more Christ than Christ himself? I cannot imagine anyone more fully himself, and yet he is who he is because he gave up everything he was, to do the Will of the Father, to fulfill his purpose, to be true to his true self. Purpose is not always fun, or even pretty. But it will always end gloriously.
I am thinking of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. John 13 reads:
3 Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;
4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
5 After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
I think we would all agree that this scene is quintessential Christ; it is humble and gentle and sure. I love it for both its end—that last explanation, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” speaks so simply of the exchange inherent to service—and for its beginning. Verse one: Jesus . . . having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.
A few weeks ago I listened to my friend Moana speak about the word charity as defined in the Tongan language. Manava’ofa, she explained, is a compound word, the ofa meaning love but manava denoting the womb. We are born out of love, into love. We are born to love.
I have come to see that Motherhood is living religion, the word made flesh. It’s complicated, isn’t it? It’s glorious, and gut-wrenching, and deifying, and difficult. It is mundane and also magic, terrifying and then transporting. But I have seen for myself and in your faces the spiritual richness of this way. In Levinasian terms, you have been my ultimate Other, a mirror in which, face-to-face, we begin to understand our selves together.
1. James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75], 6:178.
2. President Gordon B. Hinckley, Women of the Church, Ensign, Nov. 1996.
3. Patricia T. Holland, One Thing Needful: Becoming Women of Greater Faith in Christ, Ensign, Oct. 1987.