There is a reason that a mother’s love, in its purest form, is visceral and even violent. This same reason explains the volatility of relationships with our mothers and why they often don’t make sense in logical terms. The reason is this: We are doomed by the nature of biological cycles to never be able to thank them enough for having facilitated our existence. For reasons I’ll explain, there exists a permanent deficit of appreciation toward our mothers.
Picture the moment you begin to grow in your mother’s womb. You have no speech to greet her although she’s probably talking to you already in whispers and in her thoughts. You are a kernel of futurity. You occupy her mind constantly, and many of her activities involve preparing for your arrival. She changes her diet, she reads about what’s best for you, she imagines what kind of person you’ll be. She watches the news and worries about bringing you here, to this death-drive civilization. People give her constant unsolicited advice and turn her into an alien yet holy allegory. You’ve changed her from a woman to a mother, which brings with it all kinds of unanticipated social consequences. She worries what you will do to her body. You are indifferent; you stretch it. Your presence changes the status of her relationship with her partner; something about you growing in between these two bodies alters the way they relate to one another.
Your arrival is marked by a tearing of flesh, something no one wants to think about. This physical pain will be an ellipsis in your mind when in your twenties you hastily scribble her a greeting card in the car outside her house on Mother’s Day. This is not what you think about when you respond with a couple of lines to her long, detailed, and grammatically meticulous emails. In the thoughts about your mother, you naturally omit the labor and blood of your own coming into being because you have no personal recollection of it and because it’s unpleasant to imagine. You cannot conceive of your conception nor of your birth. You cannot make the cognitive jump between the stretchmarks on her body and the very existence of your own. My own mother told me a joke once about a man who comes home to his pregnant wife sitting exhausted on the couch. He asks her, “What did you do today?” and she replies, “I made a lung.” This simple joke helped me realize an obvious fact that I’d never considered before: My mother grew me. Her body was the site and the circumstance of my being. Her bodily expenditures meant that I could live.
Were the resources she shared with me given or lent? The baby is in some sense a parasite that feeds off its host until it can live on its own. It can also be imagined as a plant or a pet or a project, a beautiful thing in which all energies and attentions are invested. This remarkable process of one person growing inside another like a matryoshka doll complicates our sovereignty as individuals. We know ourselves only as autonomous beings, but she knew us first as an extension of her own body. This smudging of the line between self and other must also contribute to the strange pulls and pushes of the mother-child relationship. A mother must wonder how something that sprang out of her own body could ever turn renegade.
So now you’ve made your entrance. You exist. But you cannot care for yourself. Your parents mobilize their energies and give you all the necessities for survival. For this reason, fatigue is a key feature of parenthood. As a miniature autocrat, your small will controls their world. You stink. You are cranky and needy, but they still bow to your authority. They would even kill on your behalf. Your mother’s body gives you food, warmth, and the sounds, smells, and textures of comfort. You still cannot say “thank you” yet. This continues for some time, but even when you finally acquire language, thanking your mother is probably not the first thing you do.
This first and constant postponement of gratitude is the principal cause of all motherly turbulence. To have a mother is to be in perpetual deficit of thanks toward her. This missing gratitude is a kind of high-interest loan that can never be paid back. She is asked by society to forgive this loan, to love you unconditionally because she chose to bring you here and because it’s her duty to give without taking. However, to be a mother is to be relentlessly, albeit often subconsciously, aware of this deficit and to try to balance the books over a lifetime in sometimes alarming and counterintuitive ways. Some mothers withhold their love; others triple or quintuple their love and attentions, if only to make the terms of repayment even more daunting. The belatedness and insufficiency of our gratitude could be one of the reasons that our interactions with her differ so greatly from our interactions with our father. Good fathers certainly sacrifice something of themselves in our early years, but their initial biological contribution to our existence was the most fun part of bringing baby into the world. They forego the nausea and epidurals.
Mother love tends toward maximalism and excess, with peaks and troughs and unpredictable, fearsome swerves.
Love is no accounting sheet, but somehow economic language (deficit, loan, repayment, interest, expenditure, investment) seems particularly well suited for describing the terms of our sentimental encounter with others. While what I’ve proposed here may sound like an economy of guilt, it is rather the plain recognition of a fact: We can never catch up in giving thanks, which shouldn’t produce feelings of guilt but rather a surrender to the permanent discrepancy that will separate us from our moms.
I am not a mother, but I have verified the truth of this assessment in every mother I’ve ever known, particularly those with children in their teens and older. Mother love tends toward maximalism and excess, with peaks and troughs and unpredictable, fearsome swerves. There are undoubtedly calm and even-keeled mothers around, but the default mother mode seems to be one of unruly fluctuation. What can account for this? The laziest way to deal with the phenomenon is to simply call them crazy, a statement that is commonly and casually blanketed on all women. This term has been called into question in recent years, and rightly so. Someone’s use of the label “crazy” has more to do with that person’s incapacity to understand the one they judge than with an actual psychosis. It is also irresponsible to attribute motherly tempestuousness solely to hormones in flux. Hormones undoubtedly play a role in the moods of the mother, but the deficit of thanks I’ve described could better explain the high degree of maternal intensity and volatility.
With awe, I watch my friends and colleagues who are mothers trudge through their daily lives with composure and terrifying competence. They do far more than is necessary in their professional and motherly lives. They take on tasks that no one else will, they aim beyond perfection, and they look great while doing it. They will be denounced as martyrs, visibly suffering and self-sacrificing so that others will have to notice their exertions and consent to sanctify them. One colleague in particular impresses me every day with her collegial spirit and her level of commitment to her teaching, research, and university service. I watch her with her son and see that she loves this boy with fury. She glides from faculty meeting to soccer practice to seminar to violin lesson with a kind of ethereal grace, all the while looking like a Greek goddess. How can we make sense of such a woman? How could years of gratitude from her colleagues, friends, partner, and child ever be enough? She is beyond our thanks.
Everyone’s mother is different and I suspect some examples of your own mother’s zeal have come to mind by now. My mom’s takes form as unrestrained giving. If you mention in passing that you like chocolate-covered cherries, you will receive several boxes of chocolate-covered cherries from her for every occasion for the rest of your days. As another example, she gave me a printer’s tray for my birthday, which I planned to fill with little souvenirs from places I visit in the future. I won’t have the chance: A month later, I got a box in the mail full of dozens of little trinkets she’d found somewhere. In one fell swoop, she filled my entire printer’s tray herself. She invents new family traditions every time I see her. She talks more and faster than anyone I know and laughs hysterically at things no one else finds funny. She is a talented florist and she insists on making the casket piece for any member of the family who should, unfortunately, require one. You look at these jaw-dropping masterpieces she’s spent hours creating by herself in the middle of the night, despite her mourning, and you know she has infused them with her soul. She works herself to exhaustion at family holidays so that everyone else can have a nice time even if the extra work puts her in a foul mood. She would die for her children without hesitation.
This essay is a roundabout way of thanking my own mother and acknowledging that I know any thanks I give her will always be belated and insufficient. I’ve noticed in recent years that the slightest gesture of gratitude on my part toward my mom is welcomed with an understandable insatiability. In my younger years, I mostly saw what displeased me in her and what didn’t correspond to my own values. However, over the past few years, all of her beautiful quirks, talents, sufferings, and sacrifices have become suddenly obvious, glaringly so. We will always be behind in thanking our own mothers. But thank them anyway, excessively, and thank every mother you know. While the deficit will never dwindle, we can join them as partners in excess.
Christy Wampole‘s essay collection, The Other Serious,is forthcoming from Harper, in July, 2015.
Sacrifice: An Unexpected Answer to Family Challenges
In this world it is not what we take up, but what we give up that makes us rich. –Henry Ward Beecher
Michael Ruse and Julie Dodger had been engaged for six months, but the closer they got to the wedding, the more concerned they were about the marriage. Julie was willing to move to a new location, and Michael was willing to attend all of her family gatherings. When they did the math, it should have worked out. But according to Julie, Michael didn’t earn enough, didn’t listen well enough, and didn’t compromise. And according to Michael, Julie was intolerant, disorganized, and high maintenance. They worried that their differences were irreconcilable.
Through discussion, Michael and Julie came to realize that although their problems were very real, their strengths were real as well, and they showed those strengths best when they sacrificed for one another. Julie felt like it was easier to appreciate Michael when she cleaned her apartment for him and when she forgave his imperfections, and Michael knew from experience that his love for Julie grew when he sacrificed his evening sports show to hear about her day. By focusing on sacrificing for each another, the couple gained the courage to move forward in their relationship. They learned that mutual love grows as we serve and sacrifice for each other.
A Contrary Culture
The popular and professional literature seems to miss the real sources of strength in marriage: the shared goals, the necessary struggles and sacrifices, the calm joy of teamwork, and the comfort in two people carrying out mundane tasks together. All of these elements forge the profound bonds that characterize strong marriage. –Blaine Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness
Michael and Julie’s experience illustrates that sacrifice can be a positive influence in family life. The couple was surprised at first that a simple principle like sacrifice provided a solution to their problems. We can understand their skepticism. American culture doesn’t value sacrifice as much as it values individuality. Society places such a large emphasis on self-fulfillment and independence that scholars call modern marriage the “individualized” marriage (Cherlin, 2004). Although individuality isn’t necessarily bad, too much focus on self can lead us to forget about sacrificing for others, which leads to families being less effective.
In addition, sacrifice is usually seen as a religious rather than an academic principle. Self-care and science are the songs of our day, not sacrifice!
But things are changing, and sacrifice is gaining importance in the academic world. It came onto the scene almost by accident. In 1998, a team of researchers discovered that sacrifice has positive outcomes. People who sacrifice are happier and have a better outlook on life (Pargament, Zinnbauer, Scott, Butter, Zerowin, & Stanik, 1998).
Although it may seem strange that giving oneself away makes a person happier, both research and religion teach us that this is true. In Christian tradition, we are most familiar with the words of Jesus: “[H]e that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).
The Sacrifice Paradox
There is a certain inevitability that as one struggles to foster someone else’s growth, one’s own growth, in one way or another, is also fostered. –Dag Hammarskjold (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001)
Sacrifice is a “willingness to forego immediate self-interest to promote the well-being of a partner or relationship” (Van Lange, Rusbult, Drigotas, Arriaga, Witcher, & Cox, 1997, p.1374). We often see this kind of behavior family relationships. For example, a new mother sacrifices sleep to feed her baby. A husband sacrifices his weekend plans with friends to take his wife on a date. Or a child sacrifices his lunch money for his younger sister when she forgets hers. Sacrifice is so common in family life that we sometimes fail to notice it.
Sacrifice can be active (doing something for someone you love) or passive (not doing something in order to please someone you love). Scholars call sacrifice a “transformation of motivation” because it changes how we relate to others. We replace self-interested desires with concern for the people we are with (Impett, Gable, & Peplau, 2005). Rather than leaving us empty, sacrifice actually makes us full.
Research shows that greater sacrifice leads to happier, longer-lasting relationships (Van Lange et al, 1997; Stanley, Whitton, Sadberry, Clements, & Markman, 2006). Scholars include it with other “transformative processes” like forgiveness, commitment, and sanctification (Fincham, Stanley, & Beach, 2007). Though the reasons why sacrifice is so important to families have not all been identified, some researchers have noted that “sacrifice has surplus value, yielding positive consequences for the partner above and beyond any direct impact on experienced outcomes” (Van Lange et al, p.1376). However it works, it is obvious that it does work!
A Responsibility and a Reward
Family relationships provide countless opportunities to sacrifice. Parenting, in particular, requires more sacrifice than most relationships. In the case of childrearing, sacrifice is not just a nicety—it is a necessity. The Family: A Proclamation to the World describes some important parental sacrifices:
Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.
Husbands and wives have important responsibilities to each other and to their children. Fortunately, sacrifice is easier when spouses are unified. “For those individuals who have a strong sense of couple identity . . . and are therefore more interested in the well-being of the couple unit than their own individual gains, it is theorized that acts of sacrifice will be easier because they do not feel like they are as much of a sacrifice” (Whitton et al., 2002, p.174). Mature individuals realize that caring for one’s spouse is actually to one’s own benefit because doing so fulfills a deep human need to belong and to nurture. Sacrifice thus becomes a blessing rather than a burden.
Children benefit from the sacrificial examples of their parents. As recipients of their parents’ sacrifices, they learn how to sacrifice in return. In this way, sacrifice makes it more likely for family members to reciprocate good behaviors. The result is a more generous, hospitable home atmosphere (Whitton et al., 2002).
To care about someone . . . means devoting them to the person and taking joy in doing so; in the end, one feels richer for one’s efforts, not poorer. –Tzvetan Todorov (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001).
Not all sacrifice is created equally. Researchers often categorize sacrificial behaviors as having one of two motives (Impett et al., 2005):
· Approach motives seek to obtain positive outcomes. We call them “approach motives” or “appetitive motives” because the purpose of sacrifice is to gain a reward. For example, a man could buy flowers for his wife because he loves her and wants her to be happy. He is using approach motives because he is seeking the reward of his wife’s happiness and well-being.
· Avoidance motives seek to avoid negative outcomes. Avoidance motives (or “aversive motives”) are so-named because the goal is to avoid some sort of punishment. For example, the same man could buy flowers for his wife for Valentine’s Day because he knows that she will be mad if he doesn’t. He exemplifies avoidance motives because he is seeking to avoid her anger.
Research shows that approach motives are better than avoidance motives (Impett et al., 2005). It’s easy to see why. The man who buys flowers for his wife because he loves her will be happy about the gift. He’ll probably feel like a better husband, and he will be confident that his wife will return the affection that he feels for her. In contrast, the man who buys flowers for his wife to avoid her wrath probably feels a little stressed, having to tiptoe around her. He might be mad about the money that it costs, and he will expect her to be ungrateful or undeserving of the gift. Rather than bringing the couple together, sacrificing with avoidance motives has the potential to drive them further apart.
Emily Impett and her colleagues did a study to show the importance of sacrificing for the right reasons. They asked 161 college students to keep a daily journal. For two weeks, students wrote about their romantic relationships and their sacrificial behaviors, including whether or not they were sacrificing for avoidance or approach reasons. The results were impressive:
“On days when participants sacrificed for avoidance motives, they experienced more negative emotions, lower satisfaction with life, less positive relationship well-being, and more relationship conflict…Further, the more often participants sacrificed for avoidance motives over the course of the 2-week study, the less satisfied they were and the more likely they were to have broken up 1 month later…” (2005, p. 340).
Impett’s findings echo a common theme in the Bible: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Given grudgingly, sacrifice doesn’t benefit the giver or the receiver nearly as much as when it is given willingly (Van Lange et al., 1997). Approach motives and avoidance motives boil down to the principle of sincerity. Approach motives tend to be sincere, while avoidance motives tend to be insincere. Sincere, heartfelt sacrifice benefits both the giver and the receiver. Author Philip Hallie helped explain why sincerity is prerequisite to sacrifice:
[There is a fundamental distinction] between giving things and giving oneself. When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded . . . both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become . . . féconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life” (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001, p. 1241).
Rather than feeling degraded or used when they sacrifice, people who sacrifice with approach motives (sincerely trying to bless someone else) actually feel like beneficiaries. They profit from the possibility of reciprocation, from feeling needed and useful, and from growing to know what is needed and how to meet those needs (Bahr & Bahr, 2001).
To Make Sacred
Sacrifice has found acceptance in academics, but it is also an important religious principle. The roots of the word sacrifice literally mean “to make sacred” (Burr et al., 2012, p.83). A team of Brigham Young University scholars explored the link between sacrifice and sacredness. They found that “perceiving parts of family life to be sacred gives them a unique, unusually powerful, and salient influence in families… [Thus] the greater the sacredness of sacrificing, the more unique, powerful, and salient the effects of the sacrificing are on other family processes and valued family outcomes” (2012, p. 82).
So, for people who believe that sacrifice is a sacred principle (of special, even transcendent, significance), sacrifice in family life may be more meaningful. For example, the man who believes that fatherhood is a divine duty will probably be more willing to sacrifice work hours for time with his children than the man who thinks little of his fathering efforts. When sacrifices made in the home are considered sacred, we expect individuals and families to sacrifice more often and with purer motives, leading to better family outcomes. We thus recommend that couples and families view sacrifice from a sacred lens, and see family life as directly benefited by religious beliefs.
Learning to Sacrifice
Learning to sacrifice is more than a to-do list. Since motivation matters, sacrifice must be delivered with an attitude of love and appreciation. It is less of an action than it is a process of becoming. So although the following suggestions may help, remember that sacrificing requires a change of heart, and not just a change of behavior:
· Sacrificial Speech: Sometimes sacrifice means biting your tongue. When your partner or child makes a negative remark, don’t respond unkindly. Instead, select a calm and caring reply. This is called accommodation or editing (Whitton et al., 2002).
· Sacrificial Stance: Researchers recommend that rather than focusing on how our family members can change, we should shift our attention to something that we have more control over, such as how we can bless them (Stanley et al., 2006, p. 301). In the spirit of President John F Kennedy, we ask not “what can this person do for me?” but “what can I do for this person?”
· Sacrificial Sight: Change your heart by changing your perspective. Researchers suggest that we should focus on the things that we want to create in our relationships rather than things that we want to avoid (Impett et al., 2005). See family members’ needs and interests as important as your own (Bahr & Bahr, 2001), and notice their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
· Sacrificial Savoir-Faire: Savoir-faire is the ability to act with grace and tact. Sometimes this requires sacrifice. Choose your battles wisely and be willing to set aside personal interests when they conflict with couple or family well-being (Van Lange et al., 1997).
Word of Warning
Sacrifice is wonderful for families, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Research says that sacrifice is most helpful when it is voluntary, when it is given in moderation, when it is reciprocated (given in return), and when it is accompanied by commitment (Stanley et al., 2006). Sacrifice could easily become harmful if given in the wrong ways. Consider the following circumstances and note how sacrifice could be unhealthy:
· Allie and Mark have been married for three months. They love each other, but Mark feels like Allie asks too much of him. She gives him a “honey-do” list every Saturday, and she is constantly nagging him to do things her way. He is happy to do whatever it takes to make theirs a happy marriage, but sometimes he wishes that he could do things for her without being pushed into it.
Mark’s sacrifices would better if he didn’t feel pushed to sacrifice. Remember, the most beneficial sacrifice is given willingly, with approach motivations rather than with avoidance motivations. Allie could help the situation by being less demanding, more grateful, and by doing a good turn for Mark on a more frequent occasion.
· Although Melissa is smitten with her boyfriend, her family is not so fond of him. They affectionately call him “Dan the Dud.” Mel has been dating him for nearly 18 months now, and she does everything she can to convince Dan to marry her. She regularly sacrifices social events and school demands to spend time with him, but he doesn’t seem to reciprocate. In reality, she knows that he really is a dud. She is convinced that things would be better if they were married.
Melissa is right in one respect—sacrifice and commitment do go hand-in-hand, though it is foolish to believe that Dan’s behavior will change after they get married. Research shows that for men especially, long-term commitment is related to greater willingness to sacrifice (Stanley et al., 2006). Sacrifice is always most advantageous when it is reciprocated. Only then can sacrifice contribute to a relationship climate of mutual support and generosity.
· Karen and Tanner have three children. Karen has a giving heart, and she rarely considers her own needs. She spends so much time serving her family that she sometimes finds herself crashing, feeling exhausted and burned out. Tanner tries to convince her to take a break to rejuvenate, but she feels guilty about taking care of her own needs.
The answer to Karen’s problem is moderation! Moms are especially susceptible to burn-out. The problem isn’t sacrifice, but how much sacrifice. We all have finite capacities, and we can only give from what we have—in time, energy, or materials. Even mothers have limits. When Karen replenishes herself, she will be more effective in sacrificing and serving others.
Church leader Gordon B. Hinckley wisely defined love in sacrificial terms: “True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well-being of one’s companion” (1971). Current research and personal experience support Hinckley’s words. When it comes to family relationships, sacrifice is the vital key to individual happiness and family unity. Kenneth Boulding said it well: “[W]ithout the kind of commitment or identity which emerges from sacrifice, it may well be that no communities, not even the family, would really stay together” (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001).
Written by Jenny Stewart, Research Assistant, edited by Justin Dyer and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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