Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Universal Mother…

Some mothers I have known...

There was the young mother who ran into the dressing rooms screaming “Ada! Ada!” when her toddler was missing at the department store. Five frantic minutes later, she was found playing with a doll in the toy section and her mother was on her knees, holding her daughter in a desperately grateful embrace. They seemed to melt together, the little girl smoothing her mother’s hair like she was the child as her mother sobbed against her.

Just as vividly, I remember the mother walking toward me on the sidewalk at a street festival with her little boy, revelers all around us. In one horrible and totally ordinary moment, the mother’s sudden shriek cut through the air: the hard candy her son was sucking on became lodged in his throat and this completely lively boy was a minute or two from choking to death. The crowd froze around them – What’s happening? What’s the matter? - and the woman thumped her son’s back. The candy ball shot out and the boy started wheezing. She picked him up and deeply exhaled, her eyes squeezed shut as she held her son to her, another desperately grateful mother.

Just last summer, I was talking to a friend at a pool when she abruptly flung her cell phone onto the tile and, with a huge splash, dove in, fully dressed. I didn't realize it at the time but she’d jumped in after her five-year-old, who had gone under water. He didn’t know how to swim. My friend surfaced with him seconds later, both gasping for air, her glasses floating a few feet away. She told me that she didn’t let go of him for the rest of the day.

For me, there was that gasping moment when my normally cautious son got caught up in trick-or-treating mayhem and suddenly darted into the street before I had a chance to stop him. Racing after him, I screamed as loud as I could with my arms up in the air as a driver slammed on her breaks within a foot of him. With the next breath I took, this one with my son in my arms, I felt like every emotion that motherhood activated inside me was ringing and pulsing: the deep relief, the naked gratitude, the profound vulnerability. Also, the understanding that I was moments away from the worst kind of horror imaginable to a mother.

From a child’s perspective, I distinctly remember that fear-in-the-pit-of-my- stomach feeling when I was separated from my mother as a three-year-old at the Museum of Science and Industry. I remember the disorientation, being lost in a dangerous sea of unfamiliar, hurrying legs going every which way, and feeling such utter relief when my mother’s calves and shoes appeared, I thought my heart would explode. Although there are always exceptions, mothers and their children reach for each other, seek comfort in one another, do not feel safe if one is unexpectedly missing. This is natural.

One does not need to be human to feel the deep-seated instinct to protect her babies, to seek the warmth of one’s mother. When animal advocates point out the obvious – that mothers and their babies suffer profoundly when they are separated, that harming one’s baby causes emotional trauma to the mother – we are accused of anthropomorphizing. We are portrayed as having centers as squishy as marshmallows, as having naive, sentimental, childish minds. In fact, it is a cold biological imperative, not just an emotional one, that drives a mother to want to nurture and protect her young: entire species would be wiped out if not for a mother’s instinct to defend her babies. I think, though, that it’s highly arrogant and self-serving to presume that humans alone have an emotional stake in their babies’ livelihoods.

Dairy cows, with a gestation of around nine months, have their calves taken from them shortly after birth, destined to become forcibly impregnated milk producers and cheap meat like their mothers if they are female, veal flesh if they are male. The dairy cows bellow and moan, as any mother would, calling for their lost babies. The mother cheetah my son and I saw driving predators from her vulnerable cubs in the “African Cats” movie had the same fierce devotion to her babies that any other mother would, putting her own safety on the line to protect them. Hens show a physical response when they sense that their chicks are in distress: their heart rates elevate, they cry out to them. It is natural for the hens to do this. They are not machines. To claim that emotions are the sole province of the human species is committing the very crime that animal advocates are accused of time and time again: it is sentimentalizing.

One also doesn’t need to be a mother to be deeply driven to protect another. Long before I ever had a baby, I felt the same kind of adrenaline surge when someone intentionally whipped a hard rubber ball at my dog as I would have if he had done that same thing years later to my son. I chased that guy down the beach, screaming at him, and he ran away as if his life depended on it. Maybe it did. I’m a non-violent person, but you don’t mess with the ones I love.

For Mother’s Day, I propose that we honor this natural drive within all of us to protect the ones we love, the ones who depend on our consideration, by not consuming the products of exploitation and cruelty. This common thread of wanting our babies to thrive is natural and noble, a key part of our essential being. Whether we are men or women, children or adults, human or hen, that universal mother is in all of us. Let’s celebrate without exploiting another innocent mother who had not only the autonomy of her body but also her babies stolen from her for our appetites. Let’s connect to that profound mothering spirit that links us together. She wants her babies to be well and protected from harm. I think we can understand.

Happy Mother's Day to everyone.

20 comments:

MO said...

What an excellent Mother's Day post!

Shiva said...

How have I never been to this amazing blog before? Marla, I adore you. MO, thank you for putting up the signpost that brought me here.

Rhea Parsons said...

Beautiful, beautiful post.

Barbara said...

Beautifully written. Many thanks!

Jean and Eddie said...

Beautiful. Happy Mother's Day.

Kerry said...

What a terrific Mother's Day post. Thank you so much! I'll be sharing this far and wide.

Marla said...

Thank you, beautiful people! I really, really appreciate it.

Proud Womon said...

as usual marla, beautifully said...

BlueButterfly said...

Beautiful post! I shared this on Facebook!

Candy Beans said...

Wondetful. Thank you.

Marla said...

Thank you, Proud Womon, BlueButterfly and Candy Beans. I need a better name!

BDC said...

Happy Mother's Day to one of my favorite Earth moms! Hugs to you and yours!

Ami said...

Hello Marla,
I'm a young vegan who just stumbled on your blog recently, and I want you to know, that I find it both inspiring and challenging - in a good way! I love that with every entry, I come away feeling like I have learned something new about the world and about myself. I love that you write things that make me think 'Yes! Finally! Somebody else who gets it' and feel less alone in the world, and I love that you also write things that I disagree with, that help me establish my own beliefs. Most importantly, when I disagree, I don't feel that you're wrong, just different from me. It's a great thing, and I'm really thankful that you have taken the time to do this.
Saying that, there is one exception, and I hope you can tell that I don't mean this as an attack or an insult - but your use of ableist words such as 'crazy' or 'insane' as adjectives and, in some cases, insults is damaging and engaging in oppression. Language is such a powerful tool in shaping our culture, all of us should be responsible with it. I'm not saying that you believe in discrimination against the mentally ill - I don't believe that for one second. But here, you are doing unintentional harm. As a person with a mental illness, I actually flinched when I read you, I believe, describing PETA as 'putting the lunatic behind the wheel' and an animal abuser as 'demented'. These are words that are used to attack people like me, and seeing these powerful words of oppression trivialized and normalized like this hurts. It helps reinforce the deep-set cultural belief that the mentally ill are dangerous, criminal sub-humans. And I tell you this because I believe you were telling the truth when you said you were against all animal oppression, human and non-human, and I hope that by reading this, I've helped you take another step towards rethinking your impact on others, as you've helped me.

Marla said...

Ami, thank you so much for your very thoughtful post here. I have just recently become aware of how I do this and how wrong it is. Mental illness is an illness like any other: would I use terms that are derogatory toward those who are blind, are paralyzed, etc.? Of course not! But I think terms around mental illness are somehow up for grabs and I'm not sure why that is. In my personal case, having had some family members who were probably bi-polar, I think I probably got too comfortable using these terms as a way to distance myself. Within the last couple of months, though, I have become more and more aware of how discriminatory and insensitive it is to just throw around these words like they don't hurt. Thank you, Ami, for reinforcing that and helping me to strive toward more compassionate communication. Thank you for all your feedback, too. I really appreciate it!

Carol said...

Just wonderful, beautiful, inspirational. Also, your thoughtful response to Ami's comment shows the awesome intelligence and humility you possess in spades. Marla, I wish we could clone you somehow! ;-)

fw said...

If I hadn't already been adopted, I might just pick you Marla! :) Happy Mother's Day, everyday. :)- Fireweed

Marla said...

Wow, Carol, thank you for your kindness. I really appreciate it.

Marla said...

Aw, thanks, Fireweed! I'd be proud to be your mama!

Michael Nestor said...

Just reading this for the first time today and must tell you how impressed I am with your writing. So well said, I can only echo what others have already posted here. I agree with the cloning and adopting sentiments already expressed. I look forward to reading your future posts and will share this on FB today - I could not have said it better!

Fran Costigan said...

Marla
Thank you for expressing so beautifully what we all really know. Thank you for you!

love
Fran