Fridays with Fred: Motherhood
Every now and then my articles are au courant and on trend. One might say: current and cool. On occasion I’ve written about topics such as Chris Pratt’s speech upon accepting the MTV Generation Award and even Avengers: Endgame. Up until now, however, I’ve avoided pop stars. Generally, avoiding contemporary music and those who peddle it is best practice—your ears deserve better. But reading about the online kerfuffle over recent a comment by Katy Perry connected too well with a point made by Friedrich Nietzsche for me to ignore. I mean, how often do you get to mention Katy Perry and the great German philosopher in the same sentence?
For those of you who aren’t tracking the incomparably significant developments among America celebrities, Katy Perry is a judge on American Idol. Before performing on stage, a contender by the name of Sara Liebe shared that at 25 she’d had three children. Hearing this, Perry dramatically pretended to swoon. In response, Liebe bravely attempted some banter, making a remark about Perry lying on the judges’ table. And to this, Perry retorted: “Honey, you been laying on the table too much.”
Now, we might chalk this off as harmless ribbing on Perry’s part. But the inrushing of comments—both critical of Perry and supportive of Liebe—should cause us to do so slowly. In fact, more than simply touching on an oversensitive nerve, I believe the backlash against Perry’s comments are indicative of an increasingly pervasive mood in contemporary culture. Rarely vocalised, this mood deems motherhood a second tier vocation for women. To help us think about that, let’s read some Nietzsche.
Nietzsche: Is Motherhood Truly a Selfless Sacrifice?
In his Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes: “The mother gives the child what she takes from herself: sleep, the best food, in some instances even her health, her wealth” (§57). Watching my wife enter into full-time motherhood back in 2017, I am convinced Nietzsche doesn’t go far enough. For it is rare that motherhood does not cost women dearly—not only in the ways Nietzsche mentions but in tremendous and mostly unacknowledged suffering. Indeed, mothers give to their children from themselves. The cost is not external to them but self-expending.
Believing sincere or sheer selflessness an impossibly—owing to his idea of the person as a dividuum—Nietzsche argues that by striving to be a mother a woman loves something in herself. Any sacrifice is therefore to give up one part of herself for another, such as a successful career. In Nietzsche’s conception of morality, we merely divide ourselves up. Then out of preference for certain parts we kill off others. This is an interesting idea and one that I think Nietzsche gets profoundly wrong.
Sure, if we’re ruled by Dawkins’ “selfish genes” then it tracks. But that is a desperately bleak view of our world and the human creatures who inhabit it. Genuine altruism or selflessness may be an impossibility within an evolutionary framework or materialistic worldview, but we can refuse that ticket.
Whether we go all the way with Nietzsche or not, he’s correct in his assessment of motherhood. Its demands are immense and costly. A woman sacrifices more than even those closest to her perceive. It’s in light of this that Katy Perry’s comment makes a lot of sense. For Sara Liebe understandably gave up most of her halcyon years, from the late teens into her early twenties. Surely she could have achieved so much more. Maybe she could have become famous or influential. Wouldn’t everyone much rather have ‘successful’ writ large across their CV, than stay-at-home mum? Evidently not.
Motherhood is a Meaningful Vocation
Motherhood isn’t an interruption to more significant endeavours. Whatever a woman sacrifices in becoming a mother isn’t more valuable than investing in another human person. It may not be impressive or powerful, at least not from the perspective of many. Yet it is no less meaningful than any other vocation.
British theologian Christopher Ash, puts it well in his Married for God. He writes, “Never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God. For many, especially…mothers, what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering career in the eyes of the world.”
Let’s conclude with Sara Liebe’s later response to Katy Perry. She says, “I did want to take this opportunity to just say that I think that women supporting and uplifting other women is so cool and I think that mom-shaming is super lame and I think that it’s hard enough to be a mom and it’s hard enough to be a woman. And I also wanted to take this opportunity to say that I see all of the young moms and just moms in general who have commented on all of the videos and posts and everything and I just wanted to say that I see you and I hear you and I am grateful for you and you’re worthy and keep loving your babies.”