Guest Post by Claire. I am always thankful for Claire’s thoughts, and especially glad that she has brought up a subject which I can only dance around.
About a year ago I read an essay by an anthropologist about the preparations Western women make for their unborn children. I found it fascinating to back up for a second and consider the cultural practice of making or collecting blankets, cribs, booties from more of a critical distance. We mothers will go to great lengths in order to ensure that our children are adequately outfitted for life, even before they leave the womb. Well, more than adequately—we want their surroundings to be comfortable or even lavish; it’s just that we have different ideas of what that means.
Clarke writes: “Provisioning an unborn infant requires choices and expertise in an unfamiliar arena where the stakes could not be higher–for every object and every style has attached to it some notion of a “type” of mothering or an expression of a desired mother/infant relationship.” (From Chapter 3, “Maternity and Materiality: Becoming a Mother in Consumer Culture” by Alison Clarke)
Huh. I hadn’t thought about it like that before. If this were true, then we mothers are all doing this in one way or another, the only difference being how we are going about it.
I put down the book and sat for awhile, revisiting my own preparations for the arrival of my first baby, and my own “provisioning” for her before her birth, and then afterwards. I couldn’t help but remember how very important it was to me that my daughter own very little in the way of clothing or toys. Just the basics are enough, please, I told friends and family; we don’t want all that baby gear or clutter.
It was as if I wanted to reverse what I perceived as a harmful trend to smother the “purity” of a new child with too many things—objects which I considered to carry a kind of polluting force. Even though the reality was that I couldn’t afford anything else, I was proud that we lived in a small and humble space where the baby would share a bedroom with us; I was happy to know that we were ready and willing to “make do” with less stuff. Looking back on it, I can’t help but think that what I was really doing was trying to prove to myself (and anyone else who cared to notice) that I–her mother–would be enough for my baby.
But I made a mistake. Because these days, in the US, owning lots of stuff is not a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Even someone of modest means can acquire baby toys, exersaucer, swing and so on… The mother of a toddler is often only too willing to pass along her used items if only to clear a space through the living room not to mention all of the resale stores that are just brimming with cheap and barely-used stuff.
These days, in a lot of ways, it’s really up to us what we want to acquire and how much.
So what do we want to be able to provide for our children? Clean and cute clothing or toys? A nice indoor play area so that they are stimulated in the proper ways to foster proper development? A good house and a good education? One thing I have not heard anyone say—one thing I do not say—is that they want to raise deprived children. No one says that they want their family to be—or to remain—poor.
But what I have heard from faithful and devout Catholic women is that they want their children to grow in holiness, to learn to love unselfishly, and to experience beauty. To some, “experiencing beauty” might mean to get themselves and their children outside, to take walks and go on hikes and enjoy Nature. And then there is music and books and any number of other human creations of beauty. But beyond that, the search for beautiful things begins to trouble me somewhat. Let’s be honest, sometimes “bringing beauty into the home” is really just an excuse to spend on decorating or entertaining. Sometimes enjoying beautiful things means to eat elaborate or expensive meals.
Is that so bad, though? After all, we want our children to have good memories and anyway those guests need to be comfortable.
I’m Catholic, right? So sooner or later someone expects me to start talking about Mary. Let’s just jump right to it, then: when it comes to provisioning for our children (born or unborn), when it comes to wanting them to live fully and richly, to experience love and beauty—where does the poverty of the Holy Family come in? What do we make of these Christmas season meditations on the stable, the shepherds and the Magi and the night flight into Egypt that made Jesus and His Mother into homeless refugees overnight?
How are we to understand that Jesus was not given a comfortable place to sleep—even for a single night—and that instead of the riches of wealth He was instead given a pure and holy Mother? This, the only Mother that was truly enough for her Child.
It is almost the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Mary’s Son was born into our poverty and then baptized, taking on our sinfulness. This week I am asking myself: what are the Things of Beauty that I, a Christian mother, should invest in for my children’s sake? For my own?