By Peggy O’Mara
My oldest daughter left today on a jet plane. She’s the first of our family to go to Europe. And, as the first child, she and I have shared many new adventures together. When she was born nearly 27 years ago, I was swept away by my love for her. People had told me about the difficulties of a new baby. Few had whispered of the wonder. I was astounded by the immense love I felt for her, amazed at my utter devotion. It was as if I were in love for the first time; my past life seemed mean-ingless and unimportant in retrospect.
Out of that wonder and astonishment, I wrote an article entitled “In Defense of Motherhood.” I was shocked that something as totally delightful as motherhood could have gotten such a bum rap. I knew it had a lot to do with the times and the culture, but at least I wanted to tell other young women what a joy they had in store for them as mothers. I sent the article to Redbook and to New Age, which both rejected it. Finally, it was accepted by Addie Eavenson, founder of the fledgling magazine Mothering.
I had spotted Mothering in an Albuquerque health food store months earlier, and I was so happy that there was a magazine with articles and letters about the things I was interested in as a new parent. I wished I had started the magazine. Soon after Addie offered to publish my article she also accepted the poem “Time Still,” and then, several months later, she asked me to be an editor. I could hardly believe my ears. As it turned out, our family was moving to Albuquerque, where Mothering was located, and I began to work for the magazine.
“Began to work for the magazine” is a bit of a euphemism as that “work” consisted mainly of frenetic meetings in which we talked excitedly as we fed and cared for our children. With three children under five, I quickly realized that I couldn’t really work. A year later in 1980, however, when Addie decided to sell Mothering, my husband and I were able to take it on as a home business.
I like others to know what grassroots beginnings Mothering had because this good fortune has made everything else seem more possible. As young parents, we never dreamed we’d have such a fabulous opportunity. We’ve been able to produce a magazine that reflects the real-life experiences and questions of its readers and provides a forum for sharing experiences and for receiving information and support. We’ve learned to be business people, first as a home business when the children were small and then at a small office where staff met weekly while our children were present, either nursing or playing with the other children.
This integrated way of viewing the workplace comes from my absolute conviction that mothers and babies need each other. I feel as strongly today as I did nearly 27 years ago that the inherent integrity of motherhood is something that should be continually honored and celebrated by the culture and that we sell ourselves short as women when we see motherhood as oppressive. It’s customs that make motherhood oppressive, not children.
The following is from “In Defense of Motherhood,” first published in Mothering no. 7, Spring 1978:
As a mother, I feel as if I am investing in the character and peace of mind of an individual and that thus I am ultimately investing in the future of civilization. How can I begrudge my children that they go gently through the night, that they need me all of the time for a good many years? To hurry them off to weaning is to reduce the intensity of human emotions that they can experience. It’s as if, in infancy, one’s program is planned, the foundation is laid, and the stage is set. The more supportive, satisfying, and comfortable one’s beginning is, the more one expects of the universe and the more one can become.
There are days and moments when this conviction wavers. I think that maybe I should be allowed to sleep through the night, maybe my husband and I should be able to spend more time together, maybe I really should get more done. I begin to try to enforce my will on the family. And I end up frustrated that things do not turn out my way. I become irritated and short with the family, and we all end up grumpy. After some time, I realize that I am the mother and I set the mood of the house. So I have to stay high. What a responsibility. I have to stay high for everyone. What an honor. As I begin to remember this, I cheer up. I’m nicer to everyone, and all of a sudden the days begin to run smoothly again, and I can’t remember if the kids got better so I feel better or if I feel better so the kids got better.
This balancing act of figuring it out as we go along is what parenting is all about, and it’s this that teaches us to trust our own inherent wisdom. In much the same way, I’ve figured out the magazine as I’ve gone along.
At Mothering we have provided flexibility so that mothers work at home at times, and babies are in the office at times. Children come and go, and we are open to the concerns of mothers at the same time that we have to keep deadlines and maintain boundaries appropriate to a business.
We are concerned about all who work for us, regardless of whether or not they have children. We are investigating what it means to be a family-friendly business, to be a socially conscious business, to be an environmentally friendly business. These are not easy inquiries, but important ones that are ongoing.
How satisfying to realize that something I followed out of love has taken me so far. The explorations of my business are the same ones I engage in with my children as we fashion the ethics of our family, learning to value each family member as an individual.
Sometimes readers will ask how they can make an impact as individual mothers and as advocates for what they hold dear. Start with what’s in front of you. In the early years of family life, it is challenging enough to focus just on the family. It’s all about modeling and living the life you want to see, being the change you want in society. Being a householder is activism in itself.
To create a supportive birth environment, for example, takes tremendous courage and self-confidence. But the baby provides the impetus. The baby gives us courage and self-confidence. Likewise, to ask questions and make informed choices about homebirth, circumcision, prolonged breastfeeding, vaccinations, and so forth requires the willingness to go against the crowd. But the baby makes us want to make wise choices. Such choices as expressing anger honestly in the home and giving up spanking take much effort but can transform us. There is hardly any greater activism than consciously meeting the challenges of mothering.
Beyond that, as the children grow older, one can look around one’s neighborhood or community to see where need exists. It will be easy to find. We’re so accustomed to national and worldwide news that we have to refocus on the needs of our local community and then ask ourselves honestly what we could effectively do as an occupied parent. Most of the time I have found that I have to say no to things outside the home if I am truly going to have enough time for a life at home.
People ask me how I deal with the frustration of swimming upstream, but I never think of it like that. I didn’t set out to change the world. I just wanted to change my world. My children showed me a new way of seeing that world, and I followed them. I didn’t aim to do things differently. I just wanted to respond to their needs. The “right way” is reinvented with each new baby. Nature means for us to be led by the baby, which is why the baby is irresistible.
This hasn’t changed in 25 years. The baby is and always will be irresistible. It’s reassuring to remember that there is an inherent wisdom in nature far superior to our human cleverness. This we can trust at any time or in any place. Sometimes it seems difficult to live in response to inherent wisdom when parents of conscience can be considered suspicious or irresponsible. But then I remember the way it really is. A lot of good things are happening.
My coworker Ashisha and I talk a lot about the good things that have happened and about the changes still to come. We have worked together for nearly 19 years, and recently we got together to talk about 25 things that have changed in the last 25 years, some good, some not so good. Here is our list:
Less antibiotic use
More breastfeeding and more cultural support of breastfeeding
Increase in midwives at births
Legitimization of homebirth
Increase in prenatal testing and medicalization of birth
Development of doulas
Increase in the number of freestanding birth centers
Integration of alternative and complementary medicine
More advertising aimed at children
Increased violence in media
Increased violence in schools
Popularity of slings
More fathers involved in carrying babies and caring for children
Increase in fathers present at birth
Vaginal births after cesarean
Controversy over mercury in dental fillings and in vaccines
Growth of term “attachment parenting”
Baby-Friendly Hospitals in US and internationally
No change in number of families living in poverty
Increase in the understanding of bonding and the importance of the early minutes of life
Increased use of water during labor and/or birth
Appreciation of kangaroo care for premature babies
Ashisha and I also talked about some of the changes we would like to see in the next 25 years:
Health care for all families
Paid maternity and paternity leave during the early years
More and longer breastfeeding
No medical circumcision
No child poverty
A living – not just a minimum – wage
No more genetically engineered food
Lots of inexpensive, locally grown, organic food
Mothering centers and groups all over the world
Midwives as primary birth attendants at most births
Homebirths as commonplace
No more advertising to children
Commercial-free television and radio
More days off
All paper recycled
Lots of biking
Renewable energy for home power
Long-term studies of vaccinations
Growth of home businesses
Teachers valued more and paid more
Public schools exemplary
Cesarean rate decreased to 12 percent
Rates of medical intervention in birth supported by medical research
Our country as a baby-friendly, child-friendly, and mother-friendly society where motherhood is celebrated
These are big dreams, and 25 years is a long time. Most of these things will occur, although society changes slowly. By contrast, my family has changed quickly. In the last 25 years, my children have grown up.
During one of our conversations, Ashisha asked me what I would say to the mom I was 25 years ago. I would reassure her that she is a good mother. I would ask her if she is expecting too much of herself. I would encourage her to be gentler on herself and her children.
What really is important at any time is how my family is doing. I can change the world a little perhaps, but it is a mystery much bigger than myself or my good intentions. My family is also a mystery, but it is a universe that I can inexorably affect by my presence. When the world troubles me, I come home to my family, and I am soothed.
When I despair,
I remember that all
The way of
Truth and Love
Has won, always.
Peggy O’Mara is the mother of four grown children. She has gained international celebrity as publisher, editor and owner of Mothering Magazine. She is also the author of four books: Having a Baby Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, The Way Back Home: Essays on Life and Family, and A Quiet Place: Essays on Life and Family, all of which can be purchased in the Mothering Shop. A dynamic speaker, she has lectured and conducted workshops in conjunction with organizations such as the Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche International, and Bioneers. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Earth News, and Utne Reader.
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