Yesterday I finished reading “War is Not Over When It’s Over” by Ann Jones of the International Rescue Committee, a stunning book that chronicles the often invisible difficulties women in war zones continue to face after hostilities have ended. There’s one particular quote that has stayed with me, and rings even louder in my heart this Mother’s Day. Annie in Liberia, one of the places Jones visited, spoke of a custom in their culture where women must walk on their knees in the presence of men: “And we did it, too, because we always do anything to feed our children. But now we stand up.”
In the two decades I have researched at the intersection of gender and security, I have come to realize that the love of mothers for their children is what keeps the whole world revolving. The social fabric of a group is woven, in the first place, by the efforts of women. Women make day-to-day living possible for men, women and children, weaving the strands by growing and processing food; obtaining water and fuel; managing clothing and cleaning; performing reproduction, lactation and child care; nursing others through infirmities and old age; sharing information and coordinating efforts with other women in their families and communities; storing emergency provisions; being the primary investors in the human capital of the family’s children; and so forth. What women do is the foundation of human security in every society.
And yet their very love for their children is what puts mothers in such a vulnerable position — and by extension, our world. Mothers are willing to walk on their knees if it means their children will be safe. And yet when we make mothers walk on their knees, literally or figuratively, we imperil humanity. Those who care the most are those asked to work without a safety net and without a voice. No funds for a social services budget? No worries; women will pick up the slack, and take care of the children, ill and elderly. Women’s caring labor for others is assumed to be both inexhaustible and free, like the air we breathe.
Furthermore, we assume this caring labor will not be affected if women are oppressed by social customs, or if we completely ignore their insights and concerns by shutting them out of decision-making. Even under the worst of abusive conditions, we assume women will still provide their free caring labor and keep society running from day to day.
And they will — because they would do anything to keep their children safe. Not only every good custom or policy, but also every bad custom or policy, can depend on mothers to keep it all going. Who bound the feet of little girls in China, breaking the bones and turning them under so that the foot would be no more than 4 inches long? Their own mothers did this to them out of love — yes, love — so that their daughters would be able to become wives and mothers themselves, that is, so their daughters would be safe in a social sense. Which was more cruel — what was done to the daughters, or what was done to the mothers that they would choose this for their beloved daughters?
“But now we stand up.” What I think Annie of Liberia meant is that the mothers there discovered that walking on their knees did not keep their children safe after all — it just perpetuated knee walking. That if their children were to really be safe, their mothers would have to stand up for them and help re-make and heal the society in which they would grow up. What would happen if the mothers began to stand up?
This Mother’s Day, don’t reach first for the chocolate and flowers. This Mother’s Day, let us as a people ask mothers for their insights on how to heal the world, and then let us really listen. And as mothers, let us reflect on what we would say if we thought we would be heard, and then let us stand up and say it boldly ... because we love our children.
Valerie M. Hudson is a professor and George H.W. Bush chairwoman of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.