“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
…If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. . . . In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in.’ It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. . . . Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny.’ All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. . . . The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
The Devouring Mother comes in many forms. We must be conscious of our own tendency to over-protect and control our children, but we should also look outside the home for other “Devourers” of free-will. These Devourers may be well-meaning and concerned for our safety, but the end result is the same – the stifling of self-determination. There are times which may necessitate such stifling, but as parents we must make choices for our family, not out of fear or control, but based on truth and the quest for goodness. A world filled with free agents is often a dangerous one, but the alternative is bondage.
This story is for independent women out there: the ones who think travel and new adventures are the height of fulfillment, that wanderlust is a deep-seated craving that must be fulfilled. You may not picture yourselves in a traditional role, ever—it would be too constrained, too much of a sacrifice, too much boredom and compromise. You are too unique to be confined by such a small, conventional model.
That was exactly my mindset…. and why shouldn’t it have been? The picture of a traditional feminine role is nowhere glorified. Try it yourself—do a Google image search for ‘drudgery’. Even without prompting from other keywords, the most commonly recurring image is a worn out woman, surrounded by housework.
I am from a liberal, progressive-values family and a liberal, progressive-values city. My family was, however, somewhat traditional; parents never divorced, bills got paid, the kids played sports, we all ate dinner together. That was about it for family culture, though. We had no organized religion (that was for people who couldn’t think for themselves), no larger community involvement, no large family tree. We were, well, nuclear.
Both my parents worked full time. To me, this was perfectly normal—but I point it out to mention that I did not have a mother who stayed at home with children. My mother did everything well, or tried damn hard. She had a career, a beautiful home. She was, and is, a creative. Everything she makes—food, art, clothing, floral arrangements–puts Instagram to shame. She was the epitome of the Martha Stewart feminine, where women can and should do everything and do it well. She used to iron the sheets….…yet I also remember that she didn’t want to play. She was tired. Most of the time her craft space was filled with stuff that needed sorting, laundry, bags of junk. She was on hold, while she raised us, worked full time, and made everything appear lovely.
At 17, I left for college and hardly ever returned. I wanted nothing to do with the security of ‘home sweet home’. I exploded into freedom and adventure after adventure. I wanted to try everything and go everywhere, read everything, and never be held back. I worked outdoors for the US Forest Service in the summers, traveled in fall and winter, then enrolled in school just long enough to qualify as a student for rehire the next summer. I backpacked alone, road-tripped to Central America, jumped out of planes, ran a marathon, met a goal and then picked another and tried to reach it.
I was concerned with ideas too—traveling showed me a very different world than I had been raised in and I became interested in inequality, environmental problems, governmental corruption, and global politics. I was busy having fun, but I wasn’t a hedonist. I wanted the world to be better and I was willing to work at it.
However, I really struggled to curb my enthusiasm for all things and pick one. I was worried that I would have to leave things I loved behind and that I would lose out on new or better opportunities. Jordan Peterson has a brief clip on what that feels like—the process of moving from pure potential into a being that is disciplined. He equates it with moving from childhood to adulthood, where, after a period of ‘narrowing’, the sky opens again and your transformed being can accomplish much more than it could as an unformed entity. You become ‘somebody’ rather than potentially ‘anybody’.
When I was 21 I was married for the first time—rather impulsively. I fell in love, and believed that was the key to a successful relationship. I dropped out of school and moved to follow my husband’s career. I was isolated though, and quickly unhappy—we lived on the far edge of an island in the middle of the Pacific. He worked sometimes 16-hour days and had our car all day. I paced the apartment, then the bit of beach nearby and the tiny strip mall. I had no job, no friends, no purpose.
I found out I was pregnant and when I told my husband, he just said—no, we can’t. Years later I still don’t quite know how to understand that, but I relented and scheduled the procedure. (It may sound I am glossing over the fact that I had an abortion- it’s a point in my life I have tried very hard to forget, or maybe to not see, so I apologize if I sound distanced. It is not because I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t wanted to let myself for so long.
That marriage ended rather quickly in divorce. I was treated more as a roommate and not as a wife. There was no priority it seemed to make a life together, only to have fun. He did not want children yet, and so I returned to college. I realized that my intellectual needs were not met, and that it was already as good as it was going to get. There was not room for growth. I thought I could do better, and at 24 I certainly had time to look around. And it seemed to me that before I was married, before I tried to rely on someone, I had done more, had been more of a real person. I felt invisible after a few years of marriage
I initiated the divorce by having an affair with a close friend of his. Because I was a rather modern lady, and relativistic in my thinking, I thought that breaking social conventions wasn’t that big of a deal. I was very wrong. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of suffering I caused, not only to others but to myself. Peterson has been ripped in the press for discussing an idea called ‘enforced monogamy’ and he takes pains to clarify that he means ‘socially enforced monogamy’, not legally enforced monogamy. It is the idea that we reinforce the social codes through our reactions to others when they break them. I can tell you firsthand that this is a real thing, and if you break social conventions, at least one of the big ones (think Ten Commandments), you are going to pay.
It was the first time I saw that the code of social norms was a real thing, that I couldn’t simply make up the rules and ignore the ones I didn’t like. Once you’ve transgressed in a big way—you can’t just shrug it off. You inhabit a different mental space than other people, and your encounters with the social world are colored by that transgression as well—you are handled differently, even by those who love you. There were only two people who treated me the same despite my behavior, and knowing that someone thought I was redeemable absolutely carried me through that time. It was the first time I ever considered the notion of redemption, or that I might need to be forgiven to be able to clear my own head and heart and move forward.
Not only did I feel myself separate from the social fabric, I had somehow also proven to myself that the conventions I had followed weren’t useful– love doesn’t conquer all, marriage is a trap where your soul dies, and if you try to escape and manage it badly, you will suffer all the more. I couldn’t see a way to move back into anything like a traditional lifestyle–it didn’t make sense to try and make something work that just, didn’t work. I would try to live outside the norms instead.
I reasoned that I would be better off if I stayed unattached romantically. I spent the next five years being ‘free’: traveling, moving, seeking, studying, saving nothing, planning never farther ahead than the next few months, and living in a sort of amoral wilderness of my own making. Marriage had proven unreliable, so maybe ALL the conventions of dating and loving another person were up for examination, Maybe they could be discarded. I dated serially but never wanted to commit to anyone. It just didn’t seem safe. I might lose myself again.
I moved around a lot, to different apartments, different towns. I drove up and down the coast and studied at different libraries just to escape. I finished another degree. I studied literature, but what I recall most were heaping doses of critical theory, postmodernism, deconstructionist thinkers, etc. I mention the imposed philosophical leanings of my time at university because I believe they entrenched my sense of being lost even further. I was steeped in the idea that no version of a text, or a life, was better or more valid than another–and that truth claims were just patriarchal voices drowning out those they had colonized.
It was an elaborate study in nihilism and the unraveling of western culture’s belief in itself. For someone already existing on shaky ground, this was not a good footing. Literature had seemed a place to find an historical exploration of big ideas, of truth. But then, under postmodernism’s gaze, nothing was objectively true. I couldn’t claim that I found anything true or good at all: my job was to dismantle the text, to criticize the writers for their withered attempts and point out the obvious class divisions, the sexism, racism, etc. After I finished my master’s I walked away. I didn’t read another novel for six years.
I lived in different states and two different countries, traveled here and there, and just could not find a way to rest my head or be found. I loved cities, I loved the country, I loved people, I had a great time. But I was lost. I was using the serial shift in spaces and in relationships to cover the fact that I was not okay. Yet I don’t think that I ever gave the impression of being unhappy in a deep way. I appeared to others as a free-spirited wanderer, a lifestyle highly prized by modern cultural standards. I don’t think anyone looked at me, ever, with pity. Most of my oldest friends would comment that I had all the fun, while they worked, stayed in one place, lived more conventional lives.
My ‘last hurrah’’ was still rather interesting– I was living in New York City, in the middle of endless options for fun. I was working multiple part-time jobs, having crazy adventures, and I even had a plan. I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school. My application essay was on my goal to be an immigration lawyer and offer clinics and services in the US and Southern Mexico, so that families who had loved ones trapped in the legal system in the US could make sense of what their options were and how to navigate the immigration process. I had many close friends from Mexico who struggled with immigration issues and was truly passionate about my plan.
I was offered an interview for a chance at a full ride scholarship and I got it. And when I received the offer letter, I was thrilled. But then something just felt wrong. I did a quick bit of mental math that had honestly never occurred to me before. I was 29. If I started law school in the fall I would be finished at age 32. I would need to prove myself at a firm or establish my own, find capital for my project, dedicate myself to it for at least 3-5 years just to get going. That put me at 35-38. I realized I would probably never have a family. Was that what I wanted? If I became a successful lawyer, would it matter to me that I never had a family? I sent a thank you email and declined the offer.
In this short clip, Peterson discusses the shifting priorities of women who DO find success as lawyers and professionals. Once they become mothers, they focus on parenting rather than climbing a ladder. Even highly competitive, career-minded women who choose to become mothers prioritize that role.
A few months later I packed up a rental car, quit everything and moved home to my parent’s basement. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I just wanted to start from a sense of the known. I still was having trouble ending my wandering patterns and didn’t have a way of orienting myself. Often I felt like a worldly, educated failure.
I went online and wrote a dating post and kept it simple and honest. I am looking for a partner- not just fun, not serial dating. I want children, I want goats, I want acreage. That was about it. The first person I went on a date with was my husband of now going on 7 years. We have three children, 60 acres, goats, sheep, and projects from here to eternity.
I have to say, I wonder at the absolute miracle of finding the kind of partner I did from a single dating post. I was looking for a man who was not only responsible enough to have children, but successful enough to be able to support them and me, educated enough to keep me interested, serious about rural living AND capable at it, conscientious yet also open to new things, empathic but also masculine enough to attract me…. and who was ready to have kids RIGHT NOW. Not everyone on a dating site would fit that list. When I met my husband for the first time I liked him, but the impression I most remember is: ‘this is an adult’. I wasn’t even one by my own standards— but that was coming.
Here is a clip of Peterson describing what women at 29 who want families are up against:
Switching over to being a wife and a mother was very difficult for me, because of my own attitudes toward those roles. I was still highly suspicious of conventional life– for years. I refused to get married until our second child was on the way. I was adamant that I would keep my independence, so when I had our first and second child I didn’t quit my job, in fact I ‘leaned in’. I wanted to feel competent and to keep up with my husband’s schedule. I saw the measurement scale of worthiness as one of productivity. I never valued the work I was doing in our home.
The real failure of the model of ‘strong women can be anything a man can be’ is that it reduces the true value of what women as caregivers bring to the table, to zero. Women then internalize that model. People often try to ask if you do something besides parent, or are you ‘just a mom’? I’m not offended by this–I just think it’s time to move on from this standard of measure.
It’s ridiculous to assume that since there is no monetary value there is no actual value to home and child-focused labor. Is there any greater spiritual task than supporting lives with your own? Seriously– no yoga teacher, no trip to Bali or India, will get you to the level of self-awareness that having children can. There is no way not to see yourself clearly- all your faults and limitations- when your child reflects it back to you, or pushes you to your limits, day after day.
My notions of independence crumbled when I left my job to stay home with our kids—once there were three of them. I had been clinging to my identity as a ‘modern female’ through work outside the home. I did not really relate to moms who loved being home all day with their children. It didn’t ‘fit’ me. I liked my kids, I loved them. But I did not love monotonous days of food prep, clean up, poop, bathing, laundry, etc. It felt, often, like I was suffocating, like I was dying a bit today, and a bit the next, and that every day was going to be like that.
I felt powerless and started to act strangely—lashing out and starting fights with my husband for seemingly minor issues. He would bring home groceries on his way home from work to help me out and I would loudly criticize the brand of lunch meat he’d purchased (So sorry honey). To him it was just ham, to me I had lost control over every part of my life. All of a sudden the food I put into my body became a war for the last thing I had any control over.
It sounds Cray-zy. I know. I did seek counseling soon after. Then we went to counseling together, and then we worked out a basic schedule that went like this: Tuesday night was date night, Wednesday was mom’s night out, Thursday was dad’s night out. We both started to get some freedom back, and our kids still had a set schedule they could rely on.
I know now that the dying a little every day was true. It was the formation of someone else coming into being. I was narrowed, limited, feeling that old self losing out to someone who was more patient, less willing to run from difficulty. I could stand to do something day after day for a longer term payoff, for another person’s well being. My former self just couldn’t exist side by side with the person I needed to become. I hear other moms talk about ‘getting their groove back’ and I’m happy for them. But that’s not how I feel. That lady died. And now I’m here. I don’t miss her life, and she never would have been able to handle mine.
I discovered Peterson’s lectures in 2015, after hearing his first Joe Rogan podcast. When I listened to them, I felt like I had already lived through so many of the psychological realms he explores. Archetypal stories often sound archaic to the modern sensibility–do they even function?? But anyone who has lived through a day with toddlers knows that ‘beating back the chaos’ is very real. Anyone who has watched themselves lose their temper with a tiny person who can’t possibly defend themselves can understand the need to integrate the shadow, and learn to manage their own inner monster.
There was a lot I already sensed, the magnitude of the shift for example, yet he could articulate it in a way I hadn’t been able to. I found the lectures on suffering, the lectures on mythology. The Maps of Meaning series totally changed how I see the function of religion. It helped me move from a period of intense re-formation to a point where I could begin to see a bigger arc in my own life, and to talk about it.
A few years ago we sold our farm and moved across the country to live nearer to my husband’s family. We found a small church we love. We reorganized our priorities. The sense of life as drudgery has lifted as the kids have become a bit older and I can see the enormous potential of what we can make of our lives, and the self respect that comes from shouldering a heavy load.
We bought another farm and are now shepherds, homeschoolers, and run a small plant nursery. We have taken on the animals and the nursery because that fits in with our goals of supporting our community through sustainable farming, and for me of being a (mostly) full-time mom to our children. The nursery is open two months of the year and that two months is electric for me. I get enough adult interaction to counteract that lingering sense of being ‘just a mom’.
I am a creative type and a homemaker like my mother, but it takes last priority after family, farm, and exploring faith. I still struggle with limiting myself to a few tasks, and I often have to re-calibrate and push some things off the table. Long trips, long books, backpacking and brunch still don’t get on the schedule very often. I try not to get so overbooked that I can’t do the first things well.
At the same time we were leaving our other farm, my family went through a particularly difficult time. We lost my nephew just before he was born, and my sister in law was very ill. The gift my nephew gave me was a realization that I was able to carry others through hardship. I found that I was a lot stronger because of the work I had done- the caring for others, the limiting of my own impulsivity and personal desires for a longer term plan. It was incredibly helpful to have heard Peterson’s lectures on the nature of suffering. There is a point, maybe the most important one from that time, where he says something like this: that who you might want to aim to be is the most together person at a funeral. Here is a bit of that lecture:
That time completely changed the landscape and the way I view myself in regards to others. I saw that I could simply do more now, that I had come through fire, that I was tougher. I am no longer outside the social fabric- I create it and uphold it when others need it. Becoming a mom did that–not having a classroom, or a job outside the home. I already had confidence from my earlier life experiences. I had sought my own capabilities but I never found their limits elsewhere. I have never felt more fully capable, or less limited, which is testament to that strange paradox of the narrowing of your potential selves into an actual future self.
Peterson has said that we are at a point where the feminine archetype needs to be re-articulated, where the woman who is not ‘simply a caregiver’, so to speak, must be accounted for. I also think he is sensing it should come from women speaking about it themselves, and has hesitated to attempt it himself. I appreciate having that space to move into. Many women end their thoughts on the feminine at the idea that it has been historically oppressed and requires reclaiming, but then they reclaim it in reactionary ways– hating masculinity, disrespecting women who embrace traditional roles, or justifying their own hedonism in the name of a grand cause; aka chocolate, wine, and shopping as an identity.
There is something else, something deeper than consumerism and a ‘you deserve to have it all’ lifestyle. I’ve offered here a look at what that original transformative process of the feminine might still hold for modern, independent women. It is still valuable to let yourself be narrowed and re-formed, even if you end up at your wit’s end arguing over lunch meat. It is still a valid pathway for women to find challenge, meaning and purpose, and a career is not necessarily an equal substitute. (And how on earth could it be?)
A second look at motherhood, as invaluable for the mother, is necessary before we can modify that archetype. Modern feminism is not helping, proposing models that undermine the traditionally feminine and women who make life choices on that spectrum. It does very little to ‘revivify’ the culture, as Peterson often says, and more often tears at the social fabric in ways I find unsettling.
Thank you so much for reading. I want to thank Ally for inviting me to share some of myself here. After some correspondence we found that, although we agreed on many things, we were coming from two very different backgrounds— I was not planning a traditional family or marriage and ended up with both. I could not have arrived at where I am without the love, trials, and inner searching that was becoming a mother and a wife, even with–and perhaps especially because of– the drudgery of staying at home when I pictured myself as ‘so much more’.