Accepting a mother's work - in any form
Wonder how she can just kiss her baby and go off to a risky job?
Before the American invasion of Iraq, a friend and I watched a TV interview with a new mother about to be called up for war duty and whose husband was already in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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My friend was horrified: "How can she go to Iraq when she just had a little baby?"
I admit, the question wasn't far from my mind either.
More than any previous American conflict, the war in Iraq has been a war fought by women: 1 out of every 7 American military personnel in the war is female - and many of these women are mothers.
When mothers leave their children for any reason associated with life-threatening danger - to pursue ambitions that might be dangerous - many of us ask not so secretly if they're being selfish. Fathers, of course, leave their children all the time for such reasons - as social news, a fatherless family is a dog-bites-man event. But the departure of a mother - the great resilient nurturer who offers the milk of herself to her child, no matter the cost - unsettles us more deeply.
We were moved - and disturbed - by images of servicewomen crying as they kissed their young children goodbye before shipping out to Iraq. Then we were gripped by the fate of the nation's female prisoners of war: Spc.Shoshana Johnson, the single mother of a 2-year-old girl, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, andPfc. Lori Piestewa, a divorced mother of a 4-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl. When a Special Operations team rescued Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, they also retrieved the bodies of nine other American soldiers - including Private Piestewa's. So it was a mother who was the first US woman soldier killed in the war.
Add to these dramas the death of a mother in another dangerous realm of endeavor - space. In February, flight surgeon Laurel Clark, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, was one of the seven crew members killed in the breakup of the Columbia shuttle.
It is clear that American mothers have taken on the mortal career risks long associated with men. But we're torn by this progress in women's advancement. Most of us applaud the risks such women take. And in the next breath, we ask how, in good conscience, a mother could leave her kids and deliberately put herself in harm's way: What are they thinking? They're mothers!
Mothers pay a high price for our ambivalence. A woman who chooses to pursue a dream or duty that could leave her children motherless can be accused of being heartless. (The language we use is a clue: A nonsupporting father is a "deadbeat dad"; a mother who leaves home "abandons her children.")
While such women are sometimes celebrated for their daring, mothers have painfully learned that venturing into the world and trying to "have it all" remains a problematic aspiration.
Society in general perceives the presence of the mother to be so essential to a child that when a mother dies, the tragedy seems somehow greater than the death of a father. Interestingly, in the aftermath of the shuttle disaster, the media exhibited less preoccupation with the 11 children who were left fatherless by the Columbia explosion. Nor have there been lingering mentions of the children whose soldier-fathers died in Iraq. We think it's a tragedy when a child loses a father, but when a child loses a mother, it feels like a calamity of a higher order. But when the death results from the mother's willingness to take risks still not typically assumed by women - such as flying into space or going to war - we can feel that some order of nature has been violated.
Most American mothers leave their homes daily to go to a job, and many face physical danger. They work as police and construction workers, fly for NASA, and serve in the military - like Maj. Rhonda Cornum, aflightsurgeon who was the mother of a 14-year-old girl when she was one of two servicewomen captured by Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War. Women such as Johnson, Piestewa, Clark, and Cornum value their roles as mothers and cherish their children as much as any mother. But - as for so many women - having kids isn't their only life purpose any more than it is for men.