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Mother as a Verb

May 14, 2007

I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day, and why I and others, who are not mothers, identify with this day just as much as if we were. Of course, it’s partly because we owe our lives and love to our own mothers, but I think there is another reason. Even if we are not mothers, the noun, we may be mothering, the verb. Indeed, unless mothering is a verb, it is a fact but not a truth, a state but not an action. Think about it: As a noun, mother not only excludes half the human race, but is also limited by fertility and age and intention. In some societies, motherhood is honored only in marriage, or only in giving birth to sons. In most societies, a woman is encouraged to give birth to another person, but not to give birth to herself. As a noun, mother may be good or bad, willing or unwilling, on welfare or rich, worshipped or blamed, dominating or nurturing, accidental or chosen. Perhaps that’s why the noun mother is so easily taken over by profanity; or by war, as in “the Mother of All Bombs;” or by war-makers who honor Hero Mothers for birthing soldiers. But when mother is a verb—as in to mother, to be mothered—then the best of human possibilities come into our imaginations. To mother is to care about the welfare of another person as much as one’s own. To mother depends on empathy and thoughtfulness, noticing and caring. To mother is the only paradigm in which the strong and the weak are perfectly matched in mutual interest. Besides, one may be forced to be a mother, but one cannot be forced to mother. So perhaps what Julia Ward Howe had in mind when she created this day in 1870—a day of opposing war and uniting for peace—was not so much a Mother’s Day as a Mothering Day; a day that reminds us all, whether we are young or old, male or female, of the possibilities within us. I thank Julia. Forever more, we will be reminded that peace is not just the absence of war, but the presence and possibility of mothering. Editor’s note: This commentary was written by Gloria Steinem for the Code Pink Peace Festival on Mother's Day in Washington, D.C., and read to the crowd by Code Pink founder and Women's Media Center board member Jodie Evans.

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