My Pink T-Shirt
by Catherine Fournier
Last night, while doing one final chore before going to bed, (putting away clean laundry that was piled on my bed) I came across a T-shirt. It's a pink T-shirt with a message on it. My friend Valerie sent it to me for Christmas. When I finally had the laundry put away, I climbed into bed, thinking about that T-shirt.
I met Valerie in my first year at University. We sat beside each other in math class and played pranks on the professor. He was one of those earnest mid-thirty types who wanted to be our 'pal'. (In my mid-thirties now, I can sympathise, but at eighteen, we were having none of it.) We drew cartoons on our assignments, sat quietly at the back of the class with pencils sticking out of our ears, and tossed paper airplanes out of the windows. We didn't really disrupt the class, and since we were at the top of the class as far as the work went, there was nothing poor Barry could do. (He wanted us to call him Barry.)
I had never had a friend like Valerie before, someone smart and serious about school work, but with an convoluted sense of humour like mine, willing to poke fun whenever there was time for it. I don't think she had ever found a friend like me either. High school can be pretty bleak in the No Man's Land between the scholastic always-serious nerds and the timepassing never-serious other students. We blossomed in each other's friendship, and have remained close friends, even though we have taken very different paths in life.
Val mastered the alchemy of chemistry and went on to pursue a degree in Biophysical Chemistry. I realised at the end of first year that Chemistry was a mysterious realm to which I had no intellectual passport, and transferred to Arts, intending to get a degree in History.
By the time Valerie had her Honours degree and first job, I had two babies, a small house and a severe post natal depression. By the time Valerie won her first promotion and moved into an apartment in the trendy part of town, I had three children (our third is Val's god-daughter) and my husband finally had a regular job. By the time Valerie moved to a position in a government agency, I had four children, a townhouse, my father was dying of cancer, and since my mother and sisters were coming apart at the seams, I was the stretched bandaid holding the extended family together. Five years ago when Valerie moved across the country to a senior position, I had five children, was homeschooling, and building a house in the country. All my time was spend working for or thinking about my husband and children. Valerie was involved in politics, had a wide network of friends and a busy social life. Three years ago, when Valerie came home for a visit, I had six children, a nearly finished house in the country and in my rare hours of free time the beginnings of a career in freelance writing. In order to have an undisturbed conversation, Valerie and I went for a walk.
I had always secretly envied Valerie her life. Her apartment was neat, tidy and quiet. She had nice clothes and a leather armchair. She went out to dinner, planned surprise parties, knew how to deal with any social situation, and had an interesting job that actually contributed to society. She was a woman with the kind of life that feminists said all women wanted and deserved. When I compared myself to Valerie, I felt like a throwback, and wondered at the satisfaction I had found in my life. Was I fooling myself?
Now mind you, Valerie didn't have a husband or children. She had been engaged for many years, but it eventually became obvious that while he enjoyed the convenience of a fiancee, he had no intention of taking on the responsibilities of a wife. I could understand that she was occasionally lonely, and frustrated by her lack of family, but I still thought that perhaps she had chosen the more satisfying path.
"Oh, Cat," she wailed, trudging through the January snow, "I look at you and your children and I realise - I've wasted my life! I might never have children, I've completely wasted my time!"
It is not often you get an opportunity to see down 'the road not taken', but that is what I was given, an opportunity to see what I could have become. In all my struggles; with prayer, with pride, with Natural Family Planning, with learning to see the value of my work at home, with trust in God, with family troubles, even with having 'so many kids', I have always felt I was on the right path, but I've never known. There wasn't anything I could say to Valerie to make her feel better, I could only listen.
Last summer, my best friend Valerie married an absolute sweetheart of a man she met a year ago. Early last spring, I baked her wedding cake as I promised many years ago. She knows now too, that she was on the right path, or she never would have met Don. At last report, they are looking for a house, talking about having children and Don finishing his studies to become an Anglican minister. (Valerie will make a great minister's wife.)
And this Christmas, she mailed me a T-shirt. It says, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
At first glance, that sounds like a threat, a kind of modern woman demand; "I will be fulfilled, then I will take care of you guys." and this may have been why Valerie sent it to me. Her independent life has made it difficult for her to understand my entangled life, that it can be O.K. to put other's needs first. She worries about my health, and she's always telling me to take care of myself, not to let the family take me for granted. Last year she sent me a small box of gourmet chocolates with strict instructions that I was to eat them myself. (Don't tell Val - I shared them with Peter.) I don't mind her prodding, I figure friends are supposed to look out for each other, and chocolates or a pink T-shirt which I rarely wear is a harmless sort of comment.
And a message which I'm going to interpret in a Christian way. I realise that this is the biggest problem with most modern discourse, it says the right words, but it means the wrong things. Just think about it - does the National Action Committee on the Status of Women mean the same thing by the word Freedom as Mother Theresa? Does NATO mean the same thing by the word Peace that Christ did? How about Equality, or Responsible, or Life? Even the word Marriage is misused.
So let's think about the word Mother (or Mama) for a minute. Nowadays, we have biological mothers and surrogate mothers, birth mothers and adoptive mothers, working mothers, single mothers, foster mothers, honourary mothers, the Earth mother, and on and on. "Women are more," our modern rhetoric insists, "more than breeding vessels for the next generation."
And the problem is, they're absolutely right. Women are more than bodies in which to grow babies. Having this one idea right though, predictably enough, off they all run in the wrong direction. "Women need to find fulfillment beyond having children," they bay, "they need opportunities outside the home!" And if children could raise themselves, this would work, quite well.
How about the word Happy? I think, perhaps, the whole of human history would be a good deal less complicated if the bright spark who invented the word happy had dropped a rock on his foot instead. We would all like to be happy, but do any of us know what it is? Here again, modern thought has it half right; happiness is a personal responsibility, you have to be happy on your own. No one can make you happy.
Again, off they go, leaping over hedges and ditches in the pursuit of happiness, crying "Whatever makes you happy is right! Don't let anything or anyone stand in the way of your personal happiness!" And, if immortal souls weren't involved, this would probably work. I mean, how many unhappy rabbits or tigers, even, do you see?
Of course, mothers don't only bear children, we must also raise them. We need to feed and clothe them, to instruct them in language and acceptable behaviour, answer their questions and encourage them to learn. We need to give them our days and our nights. We need to make them the centre of our lives, give them all of our attention. By loving them we teach them how to love, and we open their eyes to their humanness, their relationship with God.
This is what makes us mothers, not the pregnancy and labour, but placing the concern of raising our children at the centre of our lives. This concern can include many things; running the home, caring for the family, the well being of the marriage, education, income, politics, charity, but however diverse the issues, they all relate back to the raising of our children to take their place in Heaven.
Happiness is not simply and solely a personal responsibility either. It isn't found in the solitary pursuit of satisfaction or success, turning inward for strength, and denying the moral consequences or repercussions of individual actions. True happiness is a personal responsibility that turns outward to share with others, accepting that our relationships and connections to others and through them to God, is what makes us fully human. Happiness recognises that we have immortal souls, an eternal relationship with God, and responsibilities and obligations as a result.
Beside my kitchen sink, I've stuck two little cards underneath the window casing. On one, a quote from Saint Augustine, "Thou hast made us O Lord for thyself and our heart shall find no rest until it rest in Thee." and the second, a quote by Georges P. Vanier, 19th Governor General of Canada, "We all have to fall in love with someone - Why not God? And through Him with our neighbour." This is happiness; knowing who we are, Who we belong to, and what we have been given to do.
But what does this have to do with my T-shirt? What does finding happiness in service to my family have to do with it? How can I agree that "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy?"
Are there some people who knew this intuitively? Are there some who leapt joyfully, wholeheartedly, and completely into the role marriage made for them? Is it only me and my generation that has had to struggle with the conflicting messages between divine, moral and natural law, and modern secular society? or does everyone to some extent have to struggle with the transition from childish me to adult we? While Valerie was studying, learning and working, I was working and learning too. It didn't come easily, but I eventually learned that the only way to place my family at the centre of my life was to place myself at the centre of my family.
Let's think about the word Centre for a minute. It's a very important word. Central themes, centre beams, city centres, everything else is built upon, rests it's weight upon, radiates from the centre. It is at once a responsible and a privileged position. Our hearts are at the centre of our bodies, the most protected place, but also the most accessible to every other point in the body. A mother is at the heart, or the centre of a family because while she is honoured by her family as the Queen of her household, both the children and husband constantly turn to her for love, life, guidance, inspiration, prayers, advice, food, attention, in a word; mothering.
We all know that if a heart beats weakly, or irregularily, and does not effectively and properly do the job it is made to do, the body becomes sick. We need to also recognise that if a mother does not mother effectively, placing herself at the centre of her family, and doing what she is made by nature and choice to do, the family will become unhealthy.
Since she is at the centre; the health, the atmosphere or personality of the family is determined by and radiates from, the mother. What Mama is, the rest of the family is. And since happiness is not separate from our role and relationship to others, but is found in those roles and relationships, it's not a prerequsite to motherhood, it is a condition of motherhood. What Mama feels, the rest of the family feels.
Mama doesn't have to be happy first, Mama has to be happy being Mama. Then everybody else be happy.
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