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Get Real by Abby Arnold

An ongoing series of unflinching commentary

July 2004

Mother Love

Lila Lipscomb, a mother whose oldest son is a soldier killed in Iraq, is the moral center of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. While she has personal qualifications that help to ground her this way— her hard work, devotion to her family and sense of obligation to her country serving as perfect foils to George W. Bush’s hypocritical, self-serving haplessness—it is Lipscomb’s motherhood that gives her the weight of truth she carries in the film. More particularly, it is her grief over her son’s death, and the anger and questioning his death generates, that moves us. Watching her, I longed to run home and embrace my sleeping son—the physicalness of her pain creating an equally strong physical need in me to touch my son’s breathing body.

(I didn’t of course: we finally had a babysitter, and as much as the movie made me long for my child, the desire to eat dinner alone with my husband, sitting down the whole time and talking without interruption, won out.)

There’s another woman in the film, an Iraqi woman who has lost four family members to US bombs. She screams in agonized rage, calling on Allah to curse America because of what we have done to her family. I don’t blame her— I would quite possibly do the same thing. Two other Iraqi woman, presumably a mother and daughter, are seen huddled together in fear as US soldiers raid their house on Christmas Eve, searching for a man they want for questioning.

In each of these portrayals of women bearing the emotional cost of war, we rarely see the men in the family (Lila Lipscomb’s husband sits with her for one interview, but she is the focus of our attention and the voice of the family’s anguish). The women, the mothers, carry the emotion.

I don’t doubt for an instant that the men in these families also feel unspeakable pain, their grief as unbearable as that of the women shown. So why is it only the women who we see? Why is it a mother’s grief that resonates so deeply? The unspoken assumption here is that a mother’s love is the truest, most powerful force in the world, the highest earthly authority which can be summoned in the fight against great wrong.

Intellectually, I want to deny this representation. I want to say— yes, a mother’s pain is awful, but so is the father’s, and the grandfather’s, and the sibling’s, and everyone else who loves. Focusing on the mother’s pain perpetuates the sentimentalization of motherhood, the social impotency of a mother’s love, which, while exalted is expected to take little action outside of the home. I want to speak out against the mother’s anguished emotions as supreme.

I want to, but I can’t.

I know how I feel about my children, and I can’t intellectualize that force away. I know my husband adores them, would die for them, would die himself on many levels if anything happened to them. I also believe— rightly or wrongly—that my emotional connection with them runs deeper, their physical selves are on one level an extension of my physical self, that our love contains us together in a way that nothing else can enter.

I believe as Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, “To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.” And vice-versa, I would imagine.

A part of me hates to recognize these feelings. They’ve been co-opted too many times before to validate the agendas of various political, emotional and social constructions of motherhood. Still, they are there, and the truth of those feelings, it seems to me, are part of what need to be acknowledged by those of us who want to change the way mothers and mothering are recognized in this country. In the same way that those of us who lobby for abortion rights would be served by saying that yes, a six week old fetus in the womb is also called a baby by those who are able to carry it to term, those of us in the mothering movement need to say that yes, a mother’s love for her children is a vital force, perhaps truly unmatched by any other emotion in human experience.

The truth of the intensity of mother love doesn’t mean there is only one way to mother, that mothers have a special moral state, that we are responsible for how our children turn out, that all women want to mother, or should mother, or are fulfilled by mothering. The truth of intense mother love is simply that, a truth. Not a moral force, but a living emotion.

Just the other night on the Larry King Show, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards, responded to a question about terrorism defense by evoking the ethos of motherhood. She worried about the Bush team’s response to terrorism because it left her, as a mother, empty-handed. They weren’t giving her any guidance on ways to protect her family in case another horrible event occurred— the implications being that it is her job to protect her children from terrorism and that her reaction as a mother carries more weight, both within her family and with the television audience, than her reaction as a smart, tough ex-lawyer.

I don’t believe this— I’d rather know what Elizabeth Edwards the person thinks about the Bush team’s response to terrorism than Elizabeth Edwards the mother. The woman has more information, contacts, skills to negotiate complex territory. Still, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. The emotional impact of her response rang true to me, no matter how savvy I am that this is just what it was meant to do. 

: mmo :

Get Real is an ongoing series of original essays and commentary by Abby Arnold. She is a teacher, writer and the mother of a 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter. She lives with her family in North Carolina.

Feel like getting real? Send your comments to Abby Arnold at getreal@mothersmovement.org

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