Motherhood and Relationality

Modern reproductive technologies have broken maternity into shards: genetic, gestational, social

With Mother’s Day in the rear view mirror and fresh events crowding the daily “news” cycle, the controversy some retailers generated this year by offering women an “opt out” of Mother’s Day mailings and specials will likely soon be forgotten — until it returns next year. I’ve tried to showcase that controversy because I think it highlights one of the multiple cultural pathologies left behind by Roe v. Wade, debilities with which the United States will likely struggle for many years after Roe’s demise. I’ve argued [here] the problem is that Roe shifted American thinking from motherhood as something significant and valuable in itself to motherhood as significant and valuable insofar as a particular woman deems it significant or valuable. If she is a mother happy to be a mother, great! If she is a mother who isn’t, well, we even pretend she isn’t a mother and talk only of a “blob of tissue.” If life “depends” on the attitude of one’s mother, why wouldn’t retailers join in redefining the value of motherhood based on individual taste, preference, or “choice?”

Now, as Mother’s Day and Mother’s Day “opt-outs” recede for another year, I want to raise another question haunting this discussion: the question of relationality.

Motherhood is ineluctably a relational term. There is no such thing as motherhood without relationality, because one cannot be a mother except in a maternal relationship to another person.

To speak, then, of “privatized” or “individualistic” or “atomized” notions of motherhood is logically absurd (not that that stops anything in today’s irrational world). Motherhood cannot be understood apart from community, from a communio personarum, which means that neither party can define the relationships unilaterally, “on my own,” or as “my truth.”

Roe did enormous harm to that truth, but its cultural antecedents run deeper than the mental abortions in Harry Blackmun’s thinking fifty years ago. I’d even argue it goes back to nominalism and its transmission to American thought through its perpetuation as one of Protestantism’s roots.

It’s almost impossible to imagine today’s America without nominalism, without a philosophy that denies recognition of “things as they are” in favor of “things as we name or label them.” Life is a lot easier in a mental world in which one can bypass the heavy lifting of hard thinking to discover things as they are in favor of subjective thinking about things as I label them to be. It’s especially appealing in a culture immersed in euphemism (or, as Paul Greenberg aptly christened it, “verbicide”), allowing one to maintain the shells of language and values we’ve inherited from Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem while totally eviscerating them of what they meant to those cultures. As contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski puts it in Clash of Civilizations, the West’s problem is not with the rest but with itself, with an Occidental culture suffering from internal schizophrenia as to its own roots. Modernity has deposited its own cuckoo eggs in the nest of Western civilization while attributing to them an undeserved paternity.

I fear this nominalist heritage is now coming for parenthood. Modern reproductive technologies have sliced and diced maternity into shards: genetic, gestational, social. If today’s “leaders” pretend one needs professional credentials to define “woman,” then I ask [here]: Can we define “mother” today, in this era of gender ideology?

Nor is it just nominalism. A substantial swath of modern and contemporary Anglo-American philosophy has undermined the natural social orientation of the human person. Starting with the social contractarians — as radical as Thomas Hobbes or as “moderate” as John Locke — Anglo-American thought has watered down the idea that human beings are naturally social and, thus, are deformed when they retreat into radical individualism.

Perhaps those thinkers did not work out the lethal threats their social contractarianism posed for women because women were not on their political radar nor the understanding of the female role in human reproduction in their knowledge. Erika Bachiochi has done yeoman’s work in recovering the lost vision of Mary Wollstonecraft who in the 18th century recognized that when it came to sex and parenthood, rugged individualism allowed a man to walk away from his child in ways a woman could not — and that needed to change. And by “change,” Wollstonecraft did not mean “why can’t a woman be more like a man,” the credo of Roe: if a man can abandon his offspring, then why can’t a woman as a fundamental prerequisite to her “equality?”

Our culture — from Horatio Alger’s “bootstraps” to the Marlboro Man sitting alone atop the Grand Tetons — glorifies that radical individualism at the expense of human relationality. Indeed, in his own mental abortion penned to defend abortion, Anthony Kennedy penned his risible claim that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (emphasis added).

Kennedy’s full-throated defense of radical individualism is itself logically contradictory. “Meaning” must be shared to mean anything. Take the word Gift: it means profoundly different things to a German and an English speaker. If Wolfang promises you some Gift, run; he’s offering you poison, not a present. Meaning must be shared. It is inherently relational.

But a society that has been so nourished with rugged and radical individualism that it eventually learned to bowl alone now wants to parent alone. Essential elements of parenthood — relationality, physicality, bearing a child — are now treated as merely interim steps that can be technologically facilitated in any number of ways, as long as loving “parents” (for dare we impose the dread “gender binary” on those who want children) get a kid. Parenthood thus ceases to be a relationship — the reason why “a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh” — and becomes instead a state of mind, an intentionality, and a legal fiction.

I recently wrote [here] about looking at the Blessed Virgin Mary as an exemplar of humanity, noting that one of the formative theologians in my thinking — William May — began writing in the area of Christology. He recognized that much of the confusion in modern moral theology (especially the body-person relationship) was a reflection of confusion in Christology (the nature-person relationship in Christ).

Well, let me suggest that efforts to separate mother from child, maternity from relationship apart from mother’s intention, brings us back to some of the most basic problems of Trinitarian theology. “Father” and “Son” are not just “titles” deriving from “patriarchy” that imposed them on the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. They are not just named “Father” and “Son” but they are Father and Son because of their relationship. Indeed, far from being our “labeling” of God, human appropriation of the titles “father” and “son” represent our approximation in space and time of the Paternity “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Eph 3:15).

What’s at stake is nothing less than seeking to efface the image and likeness of God in humanity by denying the normativity of real relationships (those based on actual parenthood) while reverencing “relationships” of the mind, grounded perhaps in legal fiction in lieu of biological fact. It undermines the self-giving that is essential to a communion of persons (see here). It attacks the Christian truth that Self-Giving, and not self-identification, is the key to true personhood. It is a denial of Trinitarian relationship to worship the ultimate individualist whose cold pride chills the very depths of hell (see Inferno, canto 34).

So, the next time wokeness threatens to reduce maternity to the views or emotions of individual women, let’s recognize what the threat is really targeting: that motherhood is a relationship and not a subjective viewpoint or feeling.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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