Empty Altar Essays: Dreams of Our Mothers


All around me I see moms praising their own mothers for their sacrifice. I see folks talking about how their mothers gave up everything for them and how their mothers lived for them or through them. The child’s accomplishments became the mother’s because the mother had no dreams left.

We must begin to think more deeply about these norms and whether or not they are healthy. Is it healthy to ask a human being to relinquish all sense of self in service to another? And if that is not truly what we mean, then shouldn’t we stop saying things like:

“My child is my whole life”

“It isn’t about me anymore, I live for them”

“Motherhood is sacrifice”

We see this rhetoric all the time. We tell mothers when they are pregnant or adopting that their lives no longer matter and that the point of their life is now that child. We don’t stop to interrogate if that is true or if it is healthy for mother, child, or family.

If your life stops when you have a child and becomes their life, then what is your child living? And does this mean that when your child becomes a parent they must also ransom their lives against the lives of their children? That they must wait and hope and pray that they can pick up a thread of their own existence after their child has moved on from the home?

In this scenario, who ever gets to live fully? Childless people? Fathers?

And what of the child who has all of the hopes and dreams of one or more parent placed on their tiny shoulders? How do they flourish under that weight? How do they learn to be their own, whole person?

The idea is that when motherhood begins, personhood stops. Motherhood is seen as binary.

But life is not binary. Life is not either/or. Life is both/and/also. Life is continuous, shifting, changing, and never truly ending.

So, what are the both/and/also versions of motherhood? We see the mother and daughter who graduate college together and their story goes viral on social media. What if instead there was the mother who has her child AND has a college experience because she has a community of care around her to support both her and the child. That’s one way the story can be different. But we don’t talk about that because it would require such a deep shift in our current system. The types of communities that lead to the healthiest mothers and children do not flourish in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system because each of those determinants is binary and humans simply aren’t.

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