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The Good War of Motherhood

On dying to oneself.

Beatrice Scudeler is a doctoral student in English at the University of Notre Dame and a Sorin Fellow at the De Nicola Center for Ethics & Culture.

I learnt what it means to die to oneself when I gave birth to my son, my first child last year. After the unbearable pain of labour came the unbearable fear of an emergency caesarean, by which my son was eventually delivered. As I prepared to give my body up to the doctors, and my husband waited outside the operating room praying, I remember thinking that I had never been so vulnerable in my life. While nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming joy of welcoming a child, the aftermath of birth was equally fatiguing. The first night at the hospital, I sent my husband home to get a little sleep, but soon realized that meant being left excruciatingly alone. My son demanded to be fed every hour, but my body was weary from labour, my C-section scar was aching, and my legs were still numb from the anaesthetic. I could not reach into his bassinet to hold him except with the greatest strain. When I called for a nurse to come and pick him up for me, I was told all the nurses were busy. I was on my own.

Much of that night is blurry, but I do remember using the very last of my strength to lean over just enough to take up my son and place him on my chest. It must have been the early hours of the morning, and I lay on my hospital bed, my son weeping in my arms, not allowing myself to drift into sleep for fear of dropping him. I stared at the curtains, waiting for any signs of the rising sun, when my husband would return to the hospital. I remember praying for help to come. I remember never being so thankful to God as when I finally saw my husband’s face again later that morning.

The nightmare of the first two nights was thankfully followed by our return home and a swift recovery. As the physical aspect of dying to myself ended, the spiritual one began. As all parents will know, there then followed sleepless nights and constant worry for us to endure. We had no time to—or for—ourselves any longer.

When our son was around two months old, we managed to fly to Italy to see my family. One day at a restaurant a jovial middle-aged man approached us to congratulate us on our newborn. He asked how we were sleeping, told us that his daughters were both absolute terrors as newborns, and bid us farewell by wishing us a buona guerra, or “good war.” The phrase immediately struck me as bizarrely appropriate. Who exactly were we waging a war against? Against our son, who could not help his neediness, his clinginess? Then it struck me that by giving birth to him, my husband and I agreed to engage in a war on the self, the atomized, independent, and self-sufficient self. I have lost count of how many times well-meaning people have told me over the years not to fight who I am, to “be myself.” I now realize how unutterably selfish and impractical that sort of advice truly is. If every day I were to decide not to “fight my authentic self,” I would be a neglectful mother.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes the following about humility:

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

I was proud before motherhood began. I spent years thinking poorly of myself and failed to realize just how much time I wasted thinking poorly of myself. In fact, thinking poorly of myself was just what made me conceited. Now, I am called to die to myself spiritually by loving my son more than I dislike myself.

I am writing this during the first few months of a Ph.D. I began at Notre Dame. Becoming a mother at first filled me with a sense of guilt at the idea of returning to university which will inevitably mean time away from him. But I realised that pursuing my interests need not harm my son: a busy mother is not a bad mother, but a self-absorbed one certainly would be. When not studying or writing papers for my courses, I cannot afford to lose precious time worrying that I’m failing either as a Ph.D. student, a wife, or a mother. As my child becomes more and more conscious of the world around him and in turn of the thoughts and emotions of his parents, I do not want him to think that my insecurities are more important than his needs. Every moment I spend playing with or taking care of him, it is my duty to be fully emotionally available. I need to fight the urge, not to think too much of myself, but to think of myself too much.

While re-reading Jane Austen’s works recently for doctoral research, the many failures of her parental figures struck me in a way they had never done before I became a mother.

A few, notably Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or General Tilney in Northanger Abbey, are downright vicious or mean spirited towards their charges. But most of them fail by being ineffective, and their ineffectiveness comes from self-absorption, from lack of attention. Mr. Bennet is affectionate towards his eldest daughters Elizabeth and Jane, but too oblivious to notice that his youngest daughter has become incorrigible. Mrs. Dashwood, though a kindly and well-meaning mother, is similarly unaware of her daughter Elinor’s suffering because she is too busy nursing her own wounds. A few parents—the Morlands in Northanger Abbey or Mr. Woodhouse in Emma—are simply not present enough to have any sort of spiritually or ethically beneficial effect on their children. They fail not by poor care, but by the want of it.

Thinking of my own first days as a mother, I see now how apt it was that we were wished a “happy war,” one in which we have only finished the initial skirmishes.