Archive | 2:26 pm

Scarf Face: A Mothers Day Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 May

Among the many odd and exotic things hanging in my apartment is a folk painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, part of her face covered by a red scarf.

People who see the painting generally find it intriguing but also see in it a revolutionary theme – including a somewhat odd blending of deep Roman Catholic devotion and Zapatista political fervor.

The painting in its entirety represents for me a liberation moment of a different and perhaps less overtly political sort, a juxtaposition of themes that allows this rendition of the Virgin Mother – an image that is greatly exalted, overly ritualized and highly circumscribed within a male religious hierarchy – to breathe and embrace some needed complexity.

The scarf signifies for me, not an attempt to hide something, but rather a gesture of resistance to an unfair and overly-scripted world, even as the Virgin Mother behind the scarf signifies (at least to most of her devotees) deep piety and spiritual predictability.  Many of us ‘honor’ the Virgin but don’t necessarily learn much from beholding her countenance, nor can we emulate her path to any significant degree.  For starters, any teenager who comes home and announces a forthcoming virgin birth would set a Guinness record for the longest “grounding” ever, alongside a visit to the psychiatrist and heavy doses of anti-psychotics.

Indeed, eliminating teenage pregnancy (by whatever means) is now high on the agenda of many women’s rights advocates and health professionals.  Generally it is better for children to have mothers who know and understand themselves a bit better.  It is also critical for girls to have time to explore personal and career options and find their own meaningful connections in the world before deciding to take on (alone or with a partner) the ultimate full –time job, managing an infant. After all, unlike the Virgin of Guadalupe, few women have access to “angels” tending to their every need and making the early years of child nurture a relatively painless affair.

There is currently a clever ad in the NYC subway that goes something like this:   “I can’t believe how little room a baby takes up, said no one, ever.”  The ad is trying to sell storage space but the message (inadvertently or otherwise) goes beyond salesmanship. The physical “room” that children occupy is often shocking to new parents, but this pales alongside the vast emotional spaces that children fill.  Especially for most mothers, there is little space of any sort that is not also and even primarily overwhelmed by progeny.

For all of the anxiety that can accompany motherhood, all of the unsolicited advice one is forced to endure, all of the social rules that dictate educational and health priorities, it is terribly important to find ways to convey to our children that there is more – far more – than one way to be successful in the world as a woman or a man.  We can experience deep connections with growing children without indulging the related need to control (and limit) their adult outcomes.

Mothers sometimes still fall into what might be thought of as a “Guadalupe trap” – predictably attentive and self-sacrificing, ‘helping’ even when no help has been requested, projecting a moral purity that is as much image as substance, allowing their role in the lives of loved ones to become ritualized and too often taken for granted.

For me, the scarf is a reminder that we all – mothers and others – are more complex than our caricatures and the needs that others heap on us. Too many of us have neglected hopes and longings that shouyld be helping shape the parents we seek to become.  At the same time, mothers (including those who seek to attend to their children’s every need) recognize that this complex and sometimes crazy, painful world bears the potential to undermine virtually every facet of our actions and influences as parents.

In that sense, raising children will always be risky business.   Parents may be able to control the contents of the television shows their children watch, but the often unsettling state of global affairs does not respond to prompts from our remote devices.  For many adults in the making, it’s not easy out there.  The moment one challenge is laid to rest another takes its place.   I have had several young people at the UN, men and women, say to me something to the effect that “no one really prepared us to be adults.” To the extent that this reflects reality (and I’m not entirely sure it does) I can only urge that we reconsider a slight tinkering in how we do our parenting business.  Our collective goal here should be strength and engagement, not bewilderment and dependency.

Indeed, the world needs children who grow up to be passionate, reflective and flexible adults, grown up people with multiple skills and a certain distance from gender caricatures and restrictions masked as “honoring.”   In the case of girls and their mothers, this is not a recommendation designed to add burdens, but rather to add complexity.   My sense of feminism, perhaps a bit outdated, is that it is a movement to free gender from its pervasive and phony stereotypes, to allow people to decide for themselves what makes their lives meaningful to themselves and others.   It is about encouraging the flexibility of an incarnate spirit, not substituting a new, socially acceptable straightjacket for an old, worn-out one.

Especially on this day, mothers, wear your scarves proudly.   Show off your complexity.  Be skeptical of ritual honoring and its easy pathways.   Your daughters (and likely sons as well) will appreciate the space you help provide to develop the flexibility, skills and emotional resilience that this next phase of social and global affairs will surely require of them.