Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mothers Know Best

Personal note: With the semester re-beginning I must curtail the frequency of my posts. I'll aim for one a week.

Does motherhood make women smarter? An interesting article on the The Maternal Brain (full text requires subscription). From the overview:

  • Studies of rodents have shown that the hormones of pregnancy trigger changes not only in the brain regions governing maternal behavior but also in areas that regulate memory and learning.
  • These brain changes may explain why mother rats are better than virgins at navigating mazes and capturing prey.
  • Researchers are not investigating whether human females also gain mental benefits from motherhood.

Whether or not motherhood makes women smarter, it's definitely true that, being made to nurture life into the world (in a broad sense), smart women will choose to follow their calling.

That physical motherhood is generally women's calling is inscribed in their bodies. As Juli Loesch Wiley writes in this month's Touchstone about the difference between men's and women's bodies:

Men are often tempted to think that their bodies were made for their own use. To a great extent this is true for everyone: Your hands, sir, are yours, they are for your use, and mine are for my use. A man can indulge this illusion of autonomy even further by supposing that even his genitals are there for himself. They’re a source of at times almost compelling drives and intriguing sensations. Even his testes are useful for him, in that the hormones they produce provide certain secondary sexual characteristics he has an interest in maintaining.

But a woman’s body has all these nooks and crannies which are no use to us but evidently were put there for someone else. Don’t get me wrong: We women have our pleasure doodads and our own hormonal self-interest as well. But then, well, there’s the womb. That’s not there for me. I can do without it. It was obviously put there for someone else. The same is true of mature mammary glands, rich with branching ducts and reservoirs, as they are found in nursing mothers and as they are not found in childless females, however nubile and Partonesque they may be.

The vocation to motherhood is all-important to society. Think about it: why does society exist? Is it for producing better cars, or raising armies, or building bigger sky-scrapers? Or is the purpose building smarter computers, or devising more elaborate scientific theories?

Or does society exist to support the human person?

And where do humans come from? The heart of the family: primarily from their mothers, of course!

Fulton Sheen summarized the societal importance of mothers this way: "If parents surrender responsibility to their children, the state will take up the slack. State power is the effect of the breakdown of family authority. Mothers more than politicians are the preservers of freedom and democracy."1

The beautiful Touchstone article concludes with a pangyric of motherhood's centrality to society, which I've excerpted (slightly secularized):

[S]plendid, dedicated mothering is, naturally speaking, the central activity of human history. Everything is supposed to serve this. Everything. Husbanding and fathering. Church and state. Tax law. Zoning. Corporate culture. The broadcast media. Market mechanisms. Cybertechnology. Foreign and military policy.

Nothing can replace mothering and the family life it makes possible. Nobody has a right to break it up and distribute its functions hither and thither. Nobody—not the state, or the culture, or business, or schools, or husbands (remember Callie), no, not even mothers themselves.

Cultural Conditioning

With all this importance, why have so many women abandoned motherhood for the office? Another Touchstone article explores the success of The Feminine Mystique. As Beth Impson quotes Betty Friedan, "Each suburban wife struggled with [this vague dissatisfaction] alone...afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—'Is this all?'" Friedan asserts that a woman who stays at home "stunts her intelligence to become childlike, turns away from individual identitiy to become an anonymous biological robot in a docile mass. She becomes less than human, preyed upon by outside pressures."

Impson describes the effects of the rising "self-reliance" after World War II as including a sense of independence from God. She writes, "As the self increasingly became god, people began chasing psychologist Abraham Maslow's ideal of 'self-actualization'; a phantom achieved solely by using all one's potential and creativity in some venue of public activity." (That's Maslow, not to be confused with Pavlov of trained-dog fame.) Impson finds the kernel of truth in Friedan's observation of women's unhappiness,

It is true, as Friedan claims, that the woman who "lives for" her husband and children and house, who finds the meaning of her existence in their perfection, lives in a world bound to collapse. But this is the human problem, not a problem of oppressed womanhood: When we live for the primary purpose of self-fulfillment, we will be disappointed.

The victories of this world are fleeting; they provide no lasting happiness. Our souls' desires are boundless. The attempt to draw lasting meaning from finite things can only end in disillusionment.

"Home cannot fill that need—but neither can the office. However we live, we must live for the One who created us 'to glorify him and enjoy him forever.'"


1. The January issue of Touchstone also features an insightful review of the history of family issues in the U.S.:

Allan Carlson, "The Family Factors," Touchstone 19:1 (January 2006), 23-29.

One gem:

Testing this theory in the United States, researchers found the spread of state schooling to be closely related to fertility decline in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, even in rural school districts, each additional month of a public school year resulted in an average fertility decline of .23 children: The state schools consumed children.

Craig Howard Kinsley and Kelly G. Lambert, "The Maternal Brain," Scientific American (January 2006), 72-79. (full text requires subscription)

Juli Loesch Wiley, "The Well-Connected Mother:The Centrality of Motherhood Is Not Just an Idea," Touchstone (January 2006), 34-39. (Part of this article appeared previously in "Mothering and Justice" in Caelum Et Terra.)

Fulton J. Sheen, "Women Who Do Not Fail," Life Is Worth Living, Second Series (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954), 176-177.

Beth Impson, "Daze of Our Wives," Touchstone (January 2006), 10-12.


alaiyo said...

I'm late to finding this reference to my Touchstone review, but thanks! It was most interesting revisiting Friedan and seeing much more than I had earlier, though my opinion of her influence only got more strongly negative.

I've been browsing RealPhysics and enjoying it, though some of it is beyond the limited background knowledge of this English professor. I'll be back, I'm sure; good writing is at a premium.


Lawrence Gage said...

Dear Beth,

Thank you for your very kind words--and meaningful praise!