Really Desperate Housewives

May 5, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Happy Mother' s Day. What a lovely holiday it is. Hallmark cards, brunches, some of that lumpy clay art that goes home with the kids, those well-intentioned hands with sparkles and the crayoned cards. How many of you got a little breakfast in bed?

And do I see any corsages?

Hello Mommies. Thank you for everything you do for us. Thank you for the lap time in the rocking chairs, for the times you cleaned up our vomit, for the countless rides to the countless games and band rehearsal and S.A.T. preparation courses and the play dates. Thank you for not looking in on us while we were sleeping and saying, "Tomorrow morning I' m going to get on a bus and head for Las Vegas. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese."

Although I know that if I asked around, I' d find out that some of you have occasionally taken off, and that some of you are the sons and daughters of mothers who took off, in one way or another, failing either partially or entirely to live up to the sweet, tender, nurturing ideal of motherhood that someone made up so long ago that we can never find them and beat them up in the parking lot for what they did! Most mothers, as you know, are not saints. They are somewhere between Medea and Melanie Wilkes.

The problem with saccharine-sweet, idealized versions of motherhood is that it just so happens that mothers are women, and thus they are humans, and thus, they are not angels. As I began to reveal to you last week, it has been my experience that women are a complicated, feisty, angry, and occasionally brutal, species. For many reasons, women have subdued their naturally complex, ornery and competitive aspects over the millennia, and tried to put it over on men -- and each other -- that by virtue of their biological ability to bring forth new life from their bodies, that they are inherently and permanently the more nurturing of the sexes.

I always wonder, is it more that women are naturally more nurturing, or is it that mothers go through such hormonal and physical hell bearing and raising children, they just have a more intense, driving compulsion to make sure that those babies survive? There' s really nothing soft and downy about that.

Last week we talked about the fact that there was a time where the Goddess was worshiped in many guises all over the globe: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Athena the Huntress, bringer of Justice. Hel, the bad-tempered Scandanavian Goddess of the Dead and the Underworld. Mother Kali, whose name I barely dare to speak aloud, as you should not – the dread mother goddess of India, who dances on a field of bones wearing a necklace of skulls, with her red, bloody tongue hanging out of her mouth. She is adored and revered among Hindus even today, her powers of life and death regarded with dread and awe and love. There is Pele, the Hawaiin goddess of fire who dwells in the volcano, and Ixchel, Mayan Goddess of the moon and protector of pregnant women, depicted as an old woman holding a serpent.

Where are these goddesses today? Gone, most of them, or thoroughly domesticated. Even Mother Mary, the human mother of Jesus, was taken off her donkey and placed on a throne – given one of the most Extreme Makeovers of all time by the artists of the Renaissance, who just couldn' t cast a little poor, brown Jewish girl with dirty feet as the Mother of God. By the time they got done with her, she was unrecognizable. This one remaining goddess figure in the Western religious pantheon was therefore sanitized, bleached blonde, and made a totally unthreatening archetype of ultimate womanhood for the faithful, and so she remains today (although in the Southern hemisphere she takes on a much stronger, more challenging guise as the champion and advocate of the poor…)

It is sad because it is so incredibly limiting. So few of our mothers were made in that image, and so few could live into that fantasy without harming the selves God intended them to be, in the fullness of their being.

You may know that a woman named Anna Jarvis is credited with the establishment of the Mother' s Day holiday. She got the idea from her own mother, also named Anna Jarvos, an Appalachian homemaker who had "attempted, starting in 1858, to improve sanitation through what she called Mother' s Work Days. Anna Jarvis the Elder organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides, and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Confederate and Union neighbors." Anna the younger took up the crusade after her mother' s death to found a memorial day for women, which was first celebrated in West Virginia in 1907, at the same church where Mother Anna Jarvis taught Sunday School. The custom spread, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson declared the first official Mother' s Day.

So this holiday, now entirely without its original mother lioness teeth and claws, came from women' s concerns for the moral and physical atrocities of war. It was a kind of precursor to our own Memorial Day, and began its life in the service of social justice and peace. There is a Unitarian connection in the establishment of this holiday, too. Anna Jarvis the younger would not only have known of her own mother' s efforts, she would have been familiar with the work of a Unitarian abolitionist named Julia Ward Howe (most famous for having written the "Battle Hymn of the Republic") who called women to organize a congress of action for peace in 1870. In this effort, which came out of her own sense of horror at the broad-reaching effects of the Civil War, and during the Franco-Prussian war, she issued a Declaration:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Now, does this sound like the kind of woman who cares about whether her corsage matches her dress? I doubt that she stayed in bed long enough for any one of her six children to bring her breakfast in it. In 1872, Julia began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood. In 1874, women in 18 cities in America held a Mother's Day for Peace gathering. Boston celebrated the Mother's Day for Peace for at least 10 years -- but the celebrations died out when Howe was no longer paying most of the cost for them, although some celebrations continued for 30 years.

In 1988, when a stamp was issued with Julia Ward Howe' s face on it, no mention was made of the Mother' s Day for Peace. You may also appreciate knowing that Anna Jarvis never had children of her own, and that she decried the increasing commercialization of the holiday she worked so tirelessly to establish in America. She called greeting cards (and you' ll love this), "a poor substitute for the letter you are too lazy to write."

Who are the fierce mother goddesses in our culture today? And how do we treat them? What names do they get called when they scream for justice, when they decry the destruction of wars, when they insist that children be clothed and fed and educated, and that this should be our national priority?

I look all the time for these mother lioness goddesses and I have a very hard time finding them in the mass media. I know they' re out there, but the popular media prefers to lead me to believe that mothers in this country think the most urgent priority is to have the right to a long-lasting, shiny hair color (because "I' m worth it") or access to a successful diet program ("Thank you, Jenny Craig!"). Marching mommy warriors, I don' t so much get to see. I know they' re out there. Julia Roberts at home nursing her twins, we get plenty of. Women behaving themselves, we get plenty of.

But wait. I forgot. The massive popularity of the show "Desperate Housewives" tells us that we do like to see mommies misbehaving, as long as they act out their power issues through sex, squabbles with husbands, affairs with hunky gardeners, and cat fights with other women. Flip the channel and you' ll find the other socially acceptable ways for mothers to express their complex nature: screaming with wild abandon in the studio audience of Oprah (who will invite you to get advice from Dr. Phil), engage in an intercontinental road race, get made-over by plastic surgeons (which I call "salvation by scalpel"), survive the various indignities of some reality show– perhaps inviting in Supernanny to correct your parenting skills -- or switching families with some other woman on ABC' s provocatively-titled "Wife Swap."

I get one big message in all of this. I get, "Mothers, there' s only way to do this right, and guess what… you' re not doing it right." You don' t look right, you don' t know what you' re doing with your kids, and you need to make several adjustments to your basic character and personality to meet the mother image we' ve all created from our collective needs and fantasies. Judith Warner's popular book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety suggests that, "in affluent America, mothering has gone from an art to a cult, with devotees driving themselves to ever more baroque extremes to appease the goddess of perfect motherhood. The author, who has two children of her own, made this discovery upon her return from a stay in Paris, where, she says, mothers who benefit from state-subsidized support systems -- child care, preschools, medical services -- never dream of surrendering jobs or social lives to stay home 24/7 with their kids. In the absence of such assistance, however, American moms are turning themselves into physically and financially depleted drones." (Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times, "The Mommy Trap," February 20, 2005)

I have had, since I arrived in Norwell, a fairly steady stream of mothers into my own study, wanting to talk about this phenomenon and asking with great poignancy, "Is it just me?" No Mom, it' s not just you. This section of South Shore is heavily populated with women trying very hard to be Perfection Mommies (not to mention men trying very hard to be Perfection Daddies). In this church we encourage all of you to find authentic ways of parenting that aren' t totally dictated by conformist values. We encourage you to encourage each other in this very challenging work, we encourage you to be real with each other, and to laugh together about the foibles of family life, and to minister to one another as mothers and fathers in all the ways you are mothers and fathers (and fathers and fathers and mothers and mothers).

In a previous era in our history, frantic mothers were medicated with massive doses of Valium, known then as "mother' s little helper." We cannot afford to look on that time as a joke, as it began a national habit of finding pharmaceutical solutions to the questions that every society should ask of itself and should legitimately try to answer, when necessary, with social change.

It is not enough to expect our mothers to love us. We have to love them in return: not only our own mothers but all mothers, who have suffered to bear and care for children, and who have a thing or two to say about the sacrifices all Earth' s children are going to have to make if we are going to make sure there' s enough food on every child' s plate, and a nice world for all children to play in, and opportunities for all children to make something of themselves.

In this work, let us listen to mothers, and let us listen to those who love as mothers love, with a mother' s generous heart and fiercely protective soul. And let us smash the wall of fantasy that we have imprisoned too many of our mothers behind, and let them step out into the air as they are: angry and irreverent and wild and funny, and messy and needy and cranky and unglamorous as they need to be. I' d like to close today with this poem by the Reverend Barbara Pescan, which speaks to the freedom, wildness and joy we wish for every mother:

The laughter
spills from the women' s workshop room
unbound guffaws
cascading peals
erupt from the windows
billow over the common
roll down the dune
to the roiling water

hot yuks
meet the tide
wave for wave
the ocean
slaps her knee
with one wet hand

Mother loves it
when we laugh. Amen, and amen.