Mothering, Beauty, and Possessions

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?

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12 thoughts on “Mothering, Beauty, and Possessions

  1. Joshua Michael

    Those are great questions. I know that I would be tempted to buy tons of sumptuously illustrated books “for the kids.” And while that might be great for them, in reality it would mostly be for me.

    Trying to distinguish between the things we want for others and ourselves can be really difficult, especially if we get to decide what’s good for them. :-)

    1. Claire

      I totally hear you! Books are so beautiful and useful AND they can be handed down to grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, AND by buying them one can support starving writers and artists. So MANY good reasons.

      Also good reasons to continue to support our local and national libraries. :)

  2. Michelle

    What a great post! I do think sometimes as parents we get caught up remember what we might have liked to have had as a child. Or maybe we disliked something we had as a child to the extent that we completely avoid and neglect anything that might bring that sort of thing to our children. I think sometimes as parents we forget to view our children as their own little unique selves.

    It’s hard to stay grounded and remember that providing an environment where our children can learn to know, see, hear, experience their Creator in their lives is really the most important thing.

  3. Rae Post author

    Even though I have never thought of it in this way, this is one of the gnawing questions of my life. A few months ago I mentioned to Josh how we should really be taking advantage of this stage in our lives, because it would have to change when we had children. Children=stuff in my mind.

    And it is a double-sided, self-compounding, slippery slope, however you want to say it issue. On the one hand, children do “need” things in a way that adults do not (and when writing of St. Elizabeth, Edith Stein seems to imply that it may even be right for Saints to renounce their children in order to allow the children to continue on with material blessings while the Saint lives in self-denial). And on the other hand, children are themselves a material as well as spiritual blessing which set up a whole new framework for family life and even as they teach self-sacrifice, they seem to inherently create self-indulgence.

    Your emails and this post gnaw at me because I know that you are completely right, but I don’t know anyone else who thinks this way. Everyone else simply takes children as a justification for a focus on material beauty without questioning. And so it seems unthinkable for American parents to choose to live in a not-so-great neighborhood, go without furniture, give money to those who would otherwise starve rather than buy organic food or meat, etc. etc. To some extent I am sure the question will be solved for us because I can’t imagine passing a home inspection with only a desk and blankets on the floor. But how to stop the natural cyclone from getting a couch to a larger apartment to nice floor rugs to an expensive house? I fear that we only have freedom because we do not yet have the option of having all we might desire.

    1. Claire

      Thanks for letting me share your space here, Rae! You make it so comfortable for us to all share our thoughts freely and it is so lovely, too. (Har har. That was terrible, I know.)

      I actually did grow up in a community where people intentionally chose to live in impoverished (and often dangerous) neighborhoods. Before moving to the Third World, my folks moved us to a terrible neighborhood in Philly. As practice, or something. It was awful—just awful, and yes, very dangerous. They were part of a group of people who were doing this and there are plenty out there who still do. I’m not sure I really understand all their reasoning although my parents believed they were doing God’s will. Anyway, I have had my share of struggles as I think through this and make my own choices now as a parent.

      I just can’t get away from the fact that the saints, without exception, embraced voluntary poverty in some way or another because they linked it to holiness and that these are the very people held up by the Church as examples for us to imitate. It isn’t right to deny ourselves the experience of pleasure of beauty in the created world, but I am starting to believe that there is a big difference between public places of beauty (parks, churches, plants and trees and the Great Outdoors) and the creation of private spaces of beauty that are intended primarily for personal consumption and enjoyment. The first reflects as well as inspires generosity. I’m just not sure that the second does so as effectively and might even hinder it.

      And yes, every housewife knows that a dollar spent on a decorative flower is one less dollar to send to a local food pantry, and no one’s arguing that the flower isn’t beautiful!
      But I am not sure the same economic principle applies in all areas of parenting. I don’t know what Edith Stein said exactly, but I hear that she had some funny ideas about children and family life causing women, especially, to close in on the family unit at the expense of the outside world. I don’t like that and I don’t agree, but that’s a topic for another day!

  4. Kathleen

    Rae, as with everything else it’s a matter of balance. Ecclesiastes is clear that things are good. God created a world full of beauty and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it. But it’s easy to stray too far toward the things replacing God. We were driving around at Christmas looking at lights and seeing these ginormous houses. And I thought of my own modestly-large house at not-quite 3000 square feet, and how hard it is to keep up with, even though I’m at home. And I thought, what do people sacrifice to have these homes? What’s the purpose of having a ginormous, lavish, gorgeous home if you have to spend all your time away from it working to pay for it? Isn’t it more important to LIVE in it? To spend time in it?

    I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that. You’re far too self-aware and brutally honest to fall into that trap. You’ll struggle with it just like we all do, but the struggle is the point.

    To answer Claire’s question–I think it’s a very profound one. I guess I’d have to say that what I want to give my children is experiences. And by that I don’t mean meeting the President or going on big, expensive vacations. I mean I want them to experience beauty (meaning God) in ordinary places. In the creek behind the house, in family time together, in horseplay on the floor and so on. I want them to know the beauty of love.

  5. Joy

    So much to think about here. (Lovely place to find, by the way- found via Elizabeth Foss.)

    So interesting to read this today after pulling out the very few things I had purchased for my baby this time- #6 and a girl- due in just one or two short weeks. I was thinking back to my first child (a boy) and also my first girl (#3) and all the stuff I just had to have at the time—and as Claire pointed out—all the inherent ‘ideas’ that were wrapped up in that. I had a thought yesterday that I really, really ought to get ready for my baby girls’ birth- to find the clothes and blankets I had purchased. It really struck me just how little I had purchased this time- it barely filled up a shopping bag. After four boys, there were definitely a few things needed. I had purchased it way back in the early fall, so I had almost forgotten what I had bought. And the fact was, (after five children and the experience it brings), the things I had selected were beautiful, well built, quaility, inexpensive things. And reading this post makes me think about how the ‘ideas’ that go with the stuff have changed to that outlook as well- from baby #1 to baby #6 and what I have learned about mothering, about parenthood, about needs- and am still learning - and it really comes down to those questions presented in Phil. 4:8. Is this good? Is it noble? Is it true? Of course this changes for each mother and each family, I think. But it’s like Kathleen said- there is a balance as Ecclesiastes points out- and it is interesting to peer back over the last few years and wonder at the changes, wonder if I am stepping in the right direction.

    Lovely, lovely. Thank you both Rae and Claire, for sharing your heart!

  6. Claire

    There is a reason there are more questions than answers in this post–I’m still just working through it all in my mind and I appreciate the comments here so much.
    Originally, I emailed Rae about this because of something I had read by another mother where she was (without realizing it) equating home and family with the comforts of home and family. It bothered me a little. It seems that that robs children of something. It seems that it robs parents, too. Like we’re cheating ourselves out of something better, implying that if the very same family still had each other and yet were suddenly to find themselves in different surroundings or circumstances, they would be impoverished. Well, yes. And no.
    Basically, I came away from that discussion with the conviction that I don’t want my children to feel that it is normal to be comfortable. I don’t want them to think that it is weird abnormal to feel or to be UNcomfortable. We Catholics believe we’re not quite home yet. Furthermore, I don’t want my children to cringe at ugliness or to visit other people’s homes and feel that those people are dirty or lazy (because they own less, or because their parents care less about creating so-called spaces of beauty). That wouldn’t be fair to my kids if I even implicitly did this, and I believe it will even rob them of some of their sensitivity to that beauty of love Kathleen was talking about.

  7. Joy

    What a wonderful and interesting discussion ~ I agree it is a difficult balance to seek to give your children everything they need versus want when society has differing ideas about what constitutes a need.

    One other thought ~ I have for many years (even before we had our first child) sponsored a child and have recently wondered if now that I have two ~ should I sponsor a second, in sense pairing my first world and third world family. Anyway praying on it ~ thank you for letting me join the discussion.

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  9. Craig

    So funny! “I’m Catholic, right? So sooner or later someone expects me to start talking about Mary.” Had to stop reading for a minute. Funny.

    But this – this… The investment of true beauty in the lives of your children. The heart of a Christian mom, enveloping that role with intention – just continues to leave me in awe.

    Thank you much for this – and to you and yours I really do pray blessings today.

  10. Melody

    Maybe we’re talking more about tangible things, but I feel the most beautiful gift a mother and father can give their child is to have a good marriage. It is a gift for children never to have to worry about splitting their time between two homes; never to have to feel that loyalty to one parent comes at the expense of the other, never to feel that one parent hates the other (even if it is unspoken).
    Of course we want a comfortable, safe place to call home and raise our families; I don’t think we need to feel guilty about that. Not that people need McMansions . But reasonable comfort is just about health and safety for one’s children.
    As far as tangible things, I think it is nice for a child to have something that was hand-made, that can be passed down. I think of my Baptism dress, that my mother made from the same embroidered organza that her wedding dress was made of; she had just enough fabric left for that. My grandmother made the christening gown (I don’t dare call it a dress!) that my sons were baptized in. It was used for my granddaughter, Emma, a couple of years ago. We tried to use my little dress, but I had been born 3 weeks early and it was too small for Emma. My mother-in-law crocheted an afghan for Emma before she passed away which the family will cherish. She made another one which is packed away in the cedar chest, for our other son and his wife when they start their family.
    For some reason it all puts me in mind of the lullaby “O can ye sew cushions, and can ye sew sheets, and can ye sing Ballaloo when the bairnie greets.”

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