Before I became a mother myself, I never really appreciated how difficult it is to be one. The role was not one I’d thought much about. Of course, I saw mothers everywhere doing their “mommy” stuff, everything from feeding and changing diapers to instilling manners, teaching life skills and trying to keep their kids safe and happy. I understood what it was that mothers do but I never considered how being a mother felt. It is such a complicated feeling – sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes both at once – as difficult to describe as the sensation of having a baby move inside of you.
For me, being a mother feels as though I will never be who I was because I never again will be just me. As Elizabeth Stone put it, “Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It is because of this divided, external heart and because of the large amount of work they do that I believe mothers are the largest group of unsung heroes in the world. All I have to do is look around and I can see plenty of mothers who are deserving of praise. These are the mothers who are there day in and day out; these are the mothers who make sacrifices in order to give their kids the best they have to offer.
While I applaud all mothers who work so hard, it is a different kind of mother whom I find truly inspirational. The mothers who haunt me at
night are the women who use their mothering status for social justice. They wear their title of mother as a mantle that gives them permission to step outside of themselves and change the world, not just for their children but for everyone else’s children too. Such undaunted mothers include the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who refused to allow the Argentinean government to abduct and murder their children without consequence. Starting in 1977, they gathered every week to protest on behalf of their children, often at great personal risk to themselves. Indeed, three of the group’s founders were murdered. However, their courage was instrumental in bringing about change in Argentina and it soon spread to other South American countries as well.
Other fearless mothers are the 150 Nigerian women who, in 2002, disrupted activity at the U.S.-owned Chevron-Texaco oil site for eight days so they could negotiate jobs for their sons, corporate investment in the local community and protection of the environment. In an area known for its violence, the mothers merely threatened to strip, a traditional sign of shaming men, if their demands were not met. While they were in no physical danger, the psychological damage of their families being shamed was a big price to pay yet the mothers didn’t hesitate and, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, their courage and persistence was rewarded.
A little closer to home, I found Cindy Sheehan’s evolution from a grieving mother to an influential anti-war activist quite inspirational. She took what began as private grief for her son Casey who was killed in Iraq into a campaign to bring all the soldiers home so that no mother would ever feel her pain. Sheehan’s work and her reasons for doing it are very similar to another mother who inspired me, Julia Ward Howe. Although she is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe also was the mother of six children and an accomplished author, poet, linguist (she spoke seven languages!) and activist. In her later years, Howe bitterly resented that her legacy was as the author of what could be seen as the ultimate anthem for war as she was an ardent supporter of peace. In fact, she was the original advocate for Mother’s Day in the United States, a day she envisioned as the time when mothers would protest governments sending their children off to war. Her 1870 Mothers Day Proclamation begins
Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
“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.
Thus, just like Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Nigerian mother protesters and Cindy Sheehan, Julia Ward Howe used her role of mother as a way to promote a better world. While she was never in physical danger for her activism on behalf of her children, Howe, like the other mothers, placed her well-being as secondary to what she was trying to achieve. All of them accepted the risks because taking care of their divided, external hearts was important and because protecting other mothers’ hearts was worth the effort. I hope that I can use their inspiration to do the same.