It’s 2013. Why is motherhood still so controversial? Why are the young women who choose “retro” lives making such a fuss about it?
Why are the elder feminists so fearful of it, as though the choice of childrearing by intelligent young graduates could annihilate every single one of their historical contributions? Why does it ignite the ire of liberals and the legislative impulse of conservatives with equal intensity?
Because motherhood is a source of power.
Until we better understand the forces at work in giving birth, nurturing children, and creating home and community Mother’s Day will remain big business for flower shops and another way to keep women’s power shrouded in peonies and pleasantries. Just as the conversation about where women choose to spend their time (nursery and/or boardroom?) veils us from the much more relevant questions—what is the nature of women’s power and how can we access more of it?
The power of motherhood includes all women, whether we have given birth or not. All women carry a unique, creative power, integrated into our bodies and our energy systems, a transpersonal portal capable of bringing in and expressing life beyond our individual sense of “self.” Motherhood is the promise and potential of an earth-bound adventure that at the same time expands our consciousness beyond anything we’ve ever known; it is dangerous, creative, life-giving and life-taking power.
When we talk about motherhood, we acknowledge a gendered body as the seat of power. This is frightening territory for two reasons. First, we admit that gender makes a difference. And even after 30 years of knowing that women speak “in a different voice,” that voice still seems hesitant and hushed. Issues of gender are taboo in business, admits two of the country’s most “powerful” women, Oprah and Sheryl Sandberg in O Magazine’s April interview.
And at the end of her March New York Magazine feature “The Retro Wife,” Lisa Miller only tentatively considers
Sadly, most women still fear the historical reality that “different” means “less than,” which is an indication of our failure to know and celebrate what makes us unique, a true sign of our continued powerlessness.
Secondly, and perhaps more frightening, discussing motherhood as a gendered experience puts us right back in our bodies—the same bodies we can hardly stand to look at. The same bodies that have been violated and denigrated for centuries, that have been left far behind in the necessary academic, intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
But embodiment is the final frontier, the Holy Grail in the search for women’s power. To a large degree, it’s the yearning to discover embodied power that fuels the drive of many third-wave feminists as they trade intellectual accomplishment and the capacity to buy more stuff and return to traditional roles of mother and home-maker. Women know motherhood is a creative act in which the body cannot be left behind. In a patriarchal world that so imbues the mind with spirit and degrades the body as base and irrelevant, women can find it a relief —and a great joy —to follow the culturally acceptable invitation to motherhood right back down to earth where undiscovered instincts and pleasures await.
Our Body our Spirit
Feminists have long recognized the body and the earth (our shared body) as victims of the patriarchy. Owned, violated, degraded, and used up, the body in its many forms has been subject of patriarchal power dynamics that seek to control and dominate all things that even hint at the entrapping, fecund, dark and non-intellectual forces of nature. And women are close to nature by the very activity of child-rearing which compels us to prepare and remain in a secure nest, by our menstrual cycle that reminds us that we united with earth and tides in relation to the far-away moon, and which in many countries still keeps us from venturing out to school and community, and by that mysterious vaginal cave that absorbs all visitors deep within it, igniting in them such desire as to forever eclipse their other freedoms.
Women, each in our own self-sacrificing way, have dissociated from our earth-bound-ness to fit into a culture that does not see, know, or honor the body for what it truly is—not a trap, but a vehicle of spiritual expansion. It is this distancing that has kept us from knowing, celebrating and living our power, fully. Except for that small window, framed by patriarchal structures to allow just a bit of light in, but what a light nonetheless—the light of giving birth.
What an irony for a world that has stripped the body of its spiritual dimension that women, by becoming pregnant and nurturing children, are given what the saints and seekers pray for—opportunities to consciously experience the unity of spirit and earth, to suffer the meaning of unconditional love and devotion, and to be ushered onto a life-long path of sacrifice and service.
Many new mothers experience the spiritual realities of motherhood, which calls forth our power to create and nourish, to be transformed—and to transform—through love and intimacy. Motherhood is a gift of consciousness, a way to expand beyond the personal into the transpersonal forces of the universe. It’s the paradox of a distant spirit coming so close, so deeply into matter, that it shares our blood and our heart beat. It is the hidden purpose of the breast, which miraculously becomes food for a child—a natural template for how life feeds itself, a way to be part of life’s abundance.
Consider this account from a Seattle mother:
“I grew up in a fairly religious but not particularly spiritual home. We had a strong sense of our religious identity and morals, but no true connection with God or higher power. When I had my first child however, I was overwhelmed by the bond I felt with her during breast-feeding. It wasn’t just the physical connection. Giving life and nourishment to her, and watching her grow over the weeks and months, was miraculous. But what threw me was the emotional response. It was joy, wonder, devotion, and hope rolled into a connection shared only by the two of us.”
What more could you want?
Well, you could want more of it. You could want to have this experience not just with your own child, but out in life, in the world, with strangers, co-workers, and with nature. Is that too much to want? No. Women should want this experience to continue. And not only that, the rest of the world needs it to.
Unfortunately, women have generally believed that being at home and raising children is personal and without value to the world at large. But when we understand that our bodies are the seat of creative power, then we take our motherhood with us. This is the next step in women’s empowerment. Not to choose home vs. work, or motherhood vs. being single, but to choose to live the spiritual power that resides in our bodies everywhere, all the time.
Our culture has little acknowledgment of its need for women to live their creative, nurturing, embodied power wherever they are. We still stare and shame breastfeeding moms into tiny bathrooms or back to their houses with crying children in tow. We prefer a breast for sex rather than enlightenment. But non-Western spiritual traditions understand the various roles of women’s spiritual power in community, and the interdependence of this power with the body. Let’s explore:
Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, Taoist Chi Gong teacher, researcher, and founder of Seattle’s Institute of Qigong & Internal Alternative Medicine, has been working with energy and healing for thirty years. From his Taoist perspective the breast has a spiritual capacity beyond and within the mother’s milk:
“Breastfeeding naturally activates a chakra, an energy point, near a woman’s breast, which allows energy to flow with the breast milk to the child. This helps the child grow just as much as the milk itself. This chakra works with the heart. It sustains the child and it also protects the child.”
In the tradition of Sobonfu Somé, Dagara elder and shaman from Burkina Faso, the power of the breast reaches further—into the whole community:
“The breast is a sacred source of energy that enables life to continue. In our tradition the breast is used to welcome people and restore balance. Women in our tribe go topless, not as an invitation to intimacy, but to help the psyche receive what is life-giving.”
The notion of spiritual power hidden in women’s bodies shows up in many different traditions. Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee from the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya lineage sees women’s reproductive capacity as a reflection of an esoteric power that serves life itself:
“Women carry in their spiritual centers the sacred substance, which has to do with giving birth. When women honor this in themselves—this sacred essence that connects them to life—they can feel how it nourishes them. It also nourishes life directly.”
This substance even has a name, says Vaughan-Lee: virya shakti. It’s purpose, not so different than the purpose of the breast in Dagara tradition, is to restore and nourish life.
And for Ilarion Merculieff, indigenous elder from the Pribilof Islands, women’s bodies are energy fields that connect women to an even greater cosmic force:
“A woman’s body contains the same field of energy that is found at the center of the universe. It’s a field of infinite potential. It is the formless void.”
Yes, it’s all a bit esoteric. A “sacred substance” in women’s bodies, “energy points” in our breasts, a “field of energy” in our wombs. Not easy to believe from inside a culture that has left the body—and particularly women’s bodies—behind in the transcendent search for membership in a distant heaven.
But it’s food for thought on this post-modern Mother’s Day as women—so weary of absolutes but in need of common ground—struggle to uncover the meaning of being women. Until we consider that there are, and always have been, unique powers and capacities within women that allow us to give birth and nourish children, create homes and sustain communities, we will be celebrating a shadow of holiday. Our mother’s of the future—our daughters today—deserve more.
They deserve a serious inquiry into the possibility that motherhood is a source of unique, creative power with great spiritual significance, and they deserve an invitation to explore and express that power everywhere they go.
© Hilary Hart
No part of this article can be used or reprinted in any context without permission from the author.
photo credit: Dorie Hagler
Hilary Hart writes and teaches about women’s spiritual empowerment and its role in our collective evolution. She is author of three books on women’s spirituality and the sacred feminine, including “Body of Wisdom: Women’s Spiritual Power and How it Serves.” Hilary attended Yale University and earned a Masters Degree in Philosophy before turning her attention to the traditional spiritual search. She has extensive training in Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism and dream-work and is founder of Women’s Power Wheel, a network of women’s circles around the globe designed to help women uncover, honor, and live their power. When not teaching, she works as a child advocate in Taos, New Mexico. Learn more about Hilary: hilaryhart.org
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