Simply MJ

by Pam Palmer

Mothers. This one word evokes a multitude of meanings. Books, journals, TV shows and countless conversations have been filled with confessions about mothers, complaints and compliments, stories of the joys of motherhood and the worries that come with the territory. Mommy. Mama.

March is National Women's History Month.

If you research "notable women," you'll find information about athletes, Congresswomen, artists, scientists, actresses, suffragists, CEOs, musicians and saints. More than likely, none of them will be your mother. What category would you put her in, if you wrote an addendum to the history books? Would she be an actress, because of the way she could hold you in awe as a child, or because of the way she "put on a face" to hold back her true feelings in a particularly stressful situation? Would she be a saint because of an act of courage you witnessed along the way?

If you look up "women's firsts," you'll find a list of prominent women, including the first woman in space (Sally K. Ride), the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (Jeannette Rankin), and the first woman presidential candidate (Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872), among others. If you could add your mother to that list, what would it say? "My mother was the first woman to..."

Decades from now, if you could magically add the unlikely or improbable to the list of women's firsts, what would it be? Imagine reading about the first woman to earn a salary as a homemaker. What if that were an option? Of course, the questions abound. Who pays her? Who is her boss? Is she entitled to health and retirement benefits for all the time spent working in the community as a tireless volunteer while nurturing her children at home? Can she be fired?

To many of us, studying "history" has always meant memorizing dates of important political events and knowing something about the people (mostly male) involved in shaping those events. As the field of history has changed, a whole new array of subjects are open for discussion in history and "herstory" circles. Today, a student's research paper for history class might evaluate the history of housework or child-rearing, rather than the key events leading to the start of the Vietnam War. Students of women's history, in particular, may study daily lives and ordinary occurrences. The personal is political, and small acts of courage do change the world.

In 1944, the Dutch minister of education urged people to keep letters and diaries, explaining that history "cannot be written on the basis of documents and decisions alone." (The Norton Book of Women's Lives, ed., Phyllis Rose, 1993) Women, of course, had been keeping diaries for a long time before that, such as these words from the diary of Sophia Tolstoy in 1910:

July 7, morning

"Rain, wind and damp. I have proof-read The Fruits of Enlightenment and finished sewing Maria Aleksandrovna's skirt."

Today we call it multi-tasking, but the diversity of women's work has always been with us. By learning and reading about other women, and by getting to know the women in our own lives a little better, we are better able to shape our own paths.

January 1, 1959

"I got out of bed at 4 am and went to carry water, then went to wash clothes. I didn't make lunch. There is no rice."

-- from the diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, Brazil

If you are like most of us, you want to live a full life, one with meaning, full of love, and with lunch on the table.

So, in celebration of National Women's History Month, take this opportunity to have a conversation with a mother. It could be yourself, your own mother, a grandmother or aunt, or your next-door neighbor. Find out what makes her day and what hopes she has for the future. Ask if there is anything that can be done to help make her job of motherhood a little bit easier or less hectic. What does she think and feel? When does she laugh and why? What are her dreams?

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee." Marian Wright Edelman, Families in Peril, 1987

This week's commentary is written by Pam Palmer, filling in for Mary Jane.

Publication date: 03/13/03