Too many experiences to live through
First of all I shall dare to say something about the loneliness of women, that loneliness which they have not chosen and which applies to all women: There is a particular anxiety involved in living on a planet where, at every latitude and for millennia, it has been decided that women are worth less than men and sometimes even nothing at all. And so it is that there is always something extra for women to add to the hard efforts that affect everyone under the sun: the need to show a priori that they count, that they are count, that they are competent and trustworthy. Today, moreover, they must defend themselves from the false and tiresome myth of youth which imposes worries and absurd expenses on them. Advertisements still use young and glossy women to promote products.
In Italy, still today, for women to affirm their own subjectivity outside the model of the couple with children means swimming against the tide, making an effort all on their own even within the circle of their loved ones. What until yesterday was the humiliating condition of spinsterhood today causes women to be suspected of selfishness. Yet there is often also loneliness in the most normal of life’s experiences – motherhood.
There is one saying of Jesus which shows the attention – completely against the tide – that he pays to women. When he speaks of the disaster which was to strike Jerusalem, he says “Alas for those who are with child and give suck in those days” (Lk 21:23), as well as “Blessed are the barren” and “Weep for yourselves and for your children”. Jesus was thinking of the Pietà in reverse, with the Mother as the subject of loving sorrow. Jesus’ compassionate attention always found the poorest people, the loneliest of the lonely: and for him they are women, and foremost among them those who are pregnant or breast-feeding. In the general catastrophe a double amount of terror and pain is reserved for them: for their child and for themselves, so indispensable to the other.These are words of a shattering timeliness: every day we see the dreadful tribulations of peoples fleeing, and that women are still the poorest of them, subject to extra tortures and humiliations, frequently pregnant and breast-feeding and with little ones to save.But what catastrophes increase exponentially is already happening, hidden from our sight, in everyday life.
Motherhood, which until a short time ago was considered the one greatness and duty of women in the West too, their sole identity and role, is still enveloped in a rhetoric which renders women voiceless.And thus women live all that this involves in solitude: the turmoil of the loss of their identity and their previous freedom, the tremendous responsibility for the life of another and the reawakening of their own experiences as daughters, as well as the effort of providing care without respite.
In a society which uses work to divide the majority of people into redundancy or semi-slavery underpaid and blackmailed by precariousness, women are still the most disadvantaged group. In Italy the rhetoric on maternity is not accompanied by any assistance that protects it and combining work and motherhood is frequently impossible. It is always a challenge. How can women have children whom they cannot maintain if they have a 95 per cent chance of losing their jobs in the case of maternity? The confirmation of this is the case that got into all the Italian papers: an employer engaged a woman in the ninth month of her pregnancy! This is truly the exception that proves the rule. And how exhausting it is when there are both work and children. Then if the job is of a certain standard and involves journeys and conferences women are more alone than ever in the clashing demands of their career and motherhood. This loneliness is full of doubts and scruples: inevitably they never feel themselves to be adequate in both situations: they have too little time at home and too little availability at work in comparison with their male colleagues. And women have to be three times better than men if they are to succeed!Men do not have the slightest knowledge of this inner conflict which afflicts and exhausts women who have a job, whose price they alone pay.
And motherhood in itself is also a situation that is not at all straightforward. Social spaces for reception, counselling and discussion are needed, where it would be possible for every mother to tell the truth freely about her own efforts and distress. Although the human sciences have warned us of the contradictions in maternal love – as indeed in any kind of love – it is hard for a woman to express herself freely on such a subject when her own feelings are painfully contrary to the common rhetoric; and this voicelessness constitutes loneliness. Then if maternity occurs in situations where the couple’s affection is precarious, which is often the case, without the help of a responsible partner who shows solidarity in care and is not absent, a mother’s experience is distressing and painful. And now widespread awareness that her child will grow up and develop healthily only thanks to the good attachment to a welcoming mother simply makes the situation worse.It is unacceptable that society should leave mothers without help in their solitude and that the future health of society should be such a burden to them, weighing almost entirely on their shoulders, without the requisite social support: places for meeting and dialogue, long maternity leave, a long guarantee of their place at work, crèches and financial support if necessary. How much attentive listening mothers would merit; how many efforts could be made for mothers who, if they find being listened to a help, might not act as tyrants dominating the lives of their little ones.
And women would be less lonely if only the public media did not hammer away on motherhood using leaden words with shameful lightness. All rhetoric on motherhood, which mystifies it by reifying it, or, on the contrary, debases it and trivializes it, is their enemy. The saddest example of public words disrespectful of women is the way the burning subject of abortion is treated: one only has to think of all that is shouted from the rooftops.A dramatic and intimate reality such as this is even used as political propaganda. There is no respect for the loneliness that goes hand in hand with the anguish of the woman involved, the torment of the intimate contradiction of her whole self, the desolate drama of a pregnant woman who believes that she cannot accept and bring up the new being whose presence within her has been announced. Even knowing, as we all do, family situations that are emotionally wretched, no respectful and silent effort is made to imagine what induces a woman to prevent herself from begetting in such conditions for the new being: for it is not enough simply to give birth to him or her. Whether the decision is imposed by the woman’s partner, by the family, by the risk of losing the only job and the only income to support herself and her progeny, by the high probability of a serious malformation of the foetus or by an affective powerlessness, her own or that of the environment, it is in all cases a form of violence that wounds us in body and soul and that cannot be erased from our corporal and moral affective memory.And often the culmination of the solitude in which this tragedy almost always occurs is the absence of the partner with whom the woman could share the heartbreak.
However, in God’s Church there must be a completely different kind of awareness, a fidelity consisting of co-responsibility between the parents and a brotherly solidarity in the community which must protect prevent women from suffering the worst dramas of motherhood in solitude. Since not even the Lord God imposed motherhood on Mary but rather asked for her trusting consent, men and women must ask each other’s consent before procreating, given that we endeavour to make ourselves imitators of God. And with the assistance of laws and social services which help both women and employers who do not blackmail them, this would make motherhood more desirable, possible and human, and would make the tragedy of abortion a very rare exception.
And there is the loneliness of women who have fallen ill or have reached the weakness of old age. Used to looking after others and not themselves, if in the family the idea of looking after them does not spring to mind they are saddened by this loneliness, which convinces them that they are merely an instrument for the good of others.
Maria dell’Orto, a Sister of Bose
St. Peter’s Square
July 17, 2018
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