“One day someone calls her “Mother”. That is what she remains for the rest of her life.”
What a profound quote. And one which is open to many interpretations.
What does it mean to you? You women who are mothers, and who are not? Men who have known Mothers in your life? What feelings rise to the fore as you read these words – joy, sadness, fear, resentment, uncertainty…?
My initial reaction was one of cynicism and somewhat scornful. So, this statement of popular sentiment became a subject for reflection.
I don’t think Cao’s statement was intended to be limiting or denigrating to women. Here’s the context:
Cao was an 18th century Chinese writer whose novel “A Dream of the Red Chamber” is considered a literary gem and was pronounced one of the Four Great Works of Chinese literature. The book was a romance novel on its face but represented a social commentary on family and social life within the Qing Dynasty. His book was, as Cao stated, “a memorial to the women he knew”, and the female protagonist though rebellious was a representation of aristocratic women of the times, restrained and fragile, and their unfortunate fate in feudal society. Cao’s awareness of the plight of women in a patriarchal and largely mysogynistic society suggests his sympathy.
So back to my less than enthusiastic reaction to this quote.
Like Cao, I am of Chinese origin. Unlike Cao, I am a modern woman and one who straddles two worlds – a woman who has lived in and thus familiar with a reserved collectivist Chinese culture and who now lives in a liberal individualistic ‘Western’ culture. I am a working mother of two, and myself a daughter who has experienced a version of ‘mother’.
Therefore, Cao’s statement is bittersweet.
The ‘bitter’ part of Cao’s statement is a suggestion on its face – that once a woman becomes a mother, that’s all she’ll ever be for the rest of her days. Her identity is entrenched in the role of ‘Mother’ and obliterating the other facets of ‘Woman’.
It brings forth the perceived universal ideals of ‘Mother’ – loving, caring, nurturing, protective, giving, selfless. But is it? These ideals have served to homogenise varied experiences of being a mother; they bind women in their expression of mothering. What of the mother who struggles to love her children, what of the mother who does not care or nurture according to societal expectations, what of the mother who ‘fails’ to protect, what of the mother who also takes?
Do these ideals give space for the “good enough” mother? I certainly prefer to operate on the ‘good enough’ principle, though my actions are informed in part by these ideals and will continue to do so, I’d imagine. I choose not to be bound by these ideals, and to celebrate the uniqueness of my individual children, my relationship with each of them and thus my mothering.
Cao’s reference to “Mother” may of course be intended to embrace the many faces of a mother. Of this, I will not know. Suffice to say, the ideals of ‘Mother’ are likely to be barriers to women’s social, economic and political empowerment. But only if we allow them to.
Am I a mother for the rest of my life? Yes, and with a joyous heart, I accepted this role many moons ago. I cannot unlearn what is within me nor do I want to. My children will always know me as mother and for that, I am grateful.
Am I the ‘Mother’? I don’t think so, and I am pleased.
Am I more than ‘mother’? Yes. As my children grow, they journey with me and experience me as a woman, whether they would be prescient to know this. They experience the mother as I am, and I fervently hope, a good enough mother.
Perhaps one day my children will see me as ‘Woman’ first, notwithstanding my mothering role – a woman who loves, who provides, who supports, who fights for those she loves and for her beliefs, who retreats to create peace, who forgives, who challenges, who celebrates her achievements, who creates. Perhaps one day, they may also forgive the woman who criticises, who gets angry because she was in a mood, who prefers to read instead of talking to them, who says ‘no’ without reason or explanation, who makes decisions without discussion. One day, they will see the complexity of the human experience, and that which I embody.
Woman is a ray of God: she is not the earthly beloved.
She is creative: you might say she is not created.
[Edited 25 Nov 2016]
Chineseculture.org, ‘Cao Xueqin’ at http://www1.chinaculture.org/library/2008-02/08/content_23134.htm
Wikipedia, ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_of_the_Red_Chamber
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