Feminism

"Captivating" Review: 170-187, "Mothers, Daughters, Sisters"

victorian mother

Out of all the chapters we’ve been through, I think this is the one that has the most I’ve agreed with. She focuses on relationships here, and on the whole I don’t think that what she describes and teaches is all that far off base. She encourages love, forgiveness, patience, and adaptability; all are good things.

However, while many of the ideas are fine, it’s how she chooses to describe and frame them that bothers me the most.

All women are not mothers, but all women are called to mother. To mother is to nurture, to train, to educate, to rear. As daughters of Eve, all women are uniquely gifted to help others in their lives become more of who they truly are– to encourage, nurture, and mother them toward their true selves. In doing this, women partner with Christ in the vital mission of bringing life. (179)

All women are called to give birth. Women give birth to all kinds of things– too books, to churches, to movements. Women give birth to ideas, to creative expressions, to ministries. We birth life in others by inviting them into deeper realms of healing, to deeper walks with God, to deeper intimacy with Jesus. A woman is not less of a woman because she is not a wife or has not physically borne a child … When we enter into our world and into the lives of those we love and offer our tender and strong feminine hearts, we cannot help but mother them. (181)

I appreciate elements of her definition of what it means “to mother.” I’ve had two “mothers” in this fashion, and I still deeply care for them both. They’ve had a huge impact on who I am today, and they’ve been great encouragers. But that’s just it– I have my own mother, who is beyond wonderful and I love her dearly, and I have two other women who have done what Stasi describes. Two. I’ve met a lot more than three women in my entire life, and not every single woman has “mothered” me this way. In fact, I would be annoyed if every woman I went to church with tried to do this– it’s a special relationship, and I do not want to have this relationship with this many people, and that has nothing to do with whether or not I like them.

Much of what Stasi describes is actually fairly superficial– in many ways, she’s simply describing what it means to be a decent human being. Describing “this is what it looks like to be a nice person” isn’t a bad idea, but framing it terms of “being a nice person equals mothering everyone” I disagree with.

She moves on from relationships that have a power dynamic (mothers/teachers) to relationships where you’re on more equal footing, which she describes as “sisters.” She makes it clear that not every last (female) peer you have should be your bosom friend, that there are levels of intimacy, but then we get to this:

To have a woman friend is to relax into another soul and be welcomed in all that you are and all that you are not. To know that, as a woman, you are not alone. Friendships between women provide a safe place to share in the experiences of life as a woman. Who but another woman can understand PAP smears and mammograms, PMS, the longing to bear a child, and living in a world that feels run by men?

I think this is the first and only time Stasi will ever even hint and the existence of patriarchy, and it amused me a little.

And, to an extent, Stasi has a point with this. There’s a reason why diversity in representation is so important, and it’s because every group has their own perspective based on their experiences; people of color have a fundamentally difference experience than white people, and women have a different set of experiences than men, which gives them a different perspective. So yes, sometimes, it’s nice to talk to someone who understands what it’s like to feel a grody amorphous blob that exudes congealed, dead blood and wants nothing more than to eat her weight in chocolate once a month.

However, some of the closest friends I’ve ever had have been men. My partner, for one. He definitely “welcomes all that I am and all that I’m not,” and I believe that I do the same for him. The first time I developed a friendship with someone that I felt complete and total acceptance? Also a man. My closest friends all through graduate school were men. They supported me through emotionally difficult times, met me at Starbucks at 5 am to work on our papers together, took me to the airport in the middle of the night so I could catch my flight to my grandfather’s funeral … we bonded over diets and drama and broken hearts and falling in love. It was a man who helped put me back together after my rapist broke our engagement– most of my friends who were women had abandoned me.

I think Stasi and John would condemn all of those relationships as inappropriate, or at the very least as ill-advised and dangerous. I’m a woman. I should only have deep, meaningful, intimate relationships with my husband and women friends. That I’m bi and just as likely to develop romantic attachments with women as I am with men probably wouldn’t even phase them.

This is one of those times when I find gender essentialism disturbing, because I believe it robs all of us of our ability to have amazing relationships with other people, or to even see ourselves clearly. Not every woman is a “mother,” and telling women that the only way they’re capable of having relationships is by either being a “mother” or a “sister,” and then setting limits on what those relationships can look like and who you’re allowed to have them with is harmful.

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  • I’ve always envied women who can be ‘just friends’ with other men. I have never been able to do that without me or the guy developing some kind of unrequited feelings for the other…but that probably speaks more to my choice of male friends than male-female friendships in general. Interestingly, now that I’m engaged I have more male friends…not sure why this is.

  • Colinde

    Your experience with having male friends was very similar to mine. After about age 12/13, into adulthood my closest friends were guys. Same thing: I was loved, supported and empowered through them. We all stood back to back as fast friends. It’s funny how society is so ready to write my own life experience off instead of admit, maybe PEOPLE can just be friends, regardless of sex.

    This chapter though… uhg. I think this one would have been too hard for me to read. The ‘mothering’ and birthing thing in particular (I had trouble actually reading it) is a huge sore spot. I am definitely not a mother, nor am I intended to be one. I just don’t have it… Unfortunately most people around me (friends/family/SO) can’t seem to accept that, even though I’m an adult. They see me care for one sick animal, or extend one bit of kindness to a down friend and it’s all “SEE! See? You have NURTURING skillz! You must drop this silly idea about not having kids!” X_X

    Oh, and yeah, Staci’s hint about patriarchy actually made me snort. I was highly amused by her admission (considering her constant denial otherwise).

    • Courtney

      I can definitely relate to this! I knew before I was even legally an adult that I probably never wanted to have children. Ten years later I’m happily married and I know I never want children. Every time I play with one of my nieces or nephews, though, everyone starts telling me “You’re so great with kids. It’d be a shame if you never had any of your own.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself (1) “What makes you think it’s OK for you to comment on my reproduction?” and (2) “I suspect there’s more to raising children than playing together for an hour at occasional family gatherings. Are you offering to take on the other 10 million responsibilities of child-rearing, such as dirty diapers, schooling, and all expenses?”

      I really can’t fathom why people think it’s acceptable to comment on this aspect of women’s (and men’s) lives. My husband and I test drove a car yesterday, and even the salesman joked about how the car had room for car seats. He’s a total stranger who met us for the first time yesterday!! I don’t want children. Ever. Period. It is not my purpose in life, nor will I ever be obligated, to birth or raise children.

      • Courtney

        Just wanted to add, too, that “no kids” was a non-negotiable for me when my now-husband and I started seriously dating. I told him that if he wanted kids in the future then there was no need for us to take things any further. Luckily for me he was on the same page!

  • wanderer

    Stasi’s whole thing about having female friends you can talk about PAP smears with was super off-putting to me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve talked about that with another woman.
    I “bond” with other women because of shared experience the same way I “bond” with people who attended the same college, or are from my hometown, or have been in any given unique situation with me. It’s not because of their gender that they are more special to me.
    It strikes me that Stasi is still trying sooooooo hard to make generalizations that she can force to apply to everyone.
    I have no desire to mother anyone. And while I appreciate TLC when I get it, I would sure as hell be annoyed if all my women friends tried to (s)mother me.

  • Anyone can, and should, nurture. Trying to make it conform to certain rules demeans the love that sparks it.

  • One of the joys of being an adult (and out of the fundamentalist movement) has been the ability to make friends (professional and personal) with women. It’s so much easier once you are able to look at them as fellow humans rather than sexual threats.

    I also find the whole “mothering” thing to be demeaning to both sexes. There is nothing “female” about “encouraging” or “nurturing.” I can say both my parents did that for me. In my own marriage, I am the more natural “nurturer” of our children. It’s my personality, and I embrace it. However, gender essentialism would say that I am acting like a girl, I suppose, when I cuddle a sick baby, or encourage my children to be who they can be. Certainly, guys like Owen Strachan would call me a “man fail.” Again, demeaning to both men and women.