“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
This witticism has seeped into the consciousness of many young women since its first utterance in 1970. It may seem harmless, and even helpful in developing confidence in young women. However, this belief has, in fact, had a devastating effect on children. An independent young woman may feel she is getting along fine without a man – but if she has a child – she needs him, and so does the child. Single Mothers are capable of miraculous feats – but very few, in their honesty, would claim they wouldn’t welcome help from a loving and competent father of their child. Now, oftentimes that loving man isn’t a reality, and that is the fault of the man. However, it is important for young women to see that their future children do need their father and they should adjust their “fish and bicycle” view of the world. Men and women need each other, and what a beautiful thing that is, for we all crave connection and love.
This article from The Art of Manliness shows the harsh reality many fatherless-children face.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
A scene in the TV series “The Last Kingdom” has stayed with me since I saw it. The series follows King Alfred, a medieval king of Wessex and a devout Christian who sought to convert his subjects to Christianity. He was forced into exile due to the advancement of the brutal pagan Danes. He was protected by the warrior Uhtred. King Alfred is standing alone in a flat featureless marsh where the protective Uhtred finds him and asks:
“Were you worried that I would lose my way?” asks the King.
Uhtred says, “One path looks like another.”
Alfred asks, “What do you notice about this place?”
Alfred says, “There are no horizons. No sense of something beyond. My priests have visited here once or twice to preach. The people are oblivious to God.”
I pondered that a bit – A simple yet profound exchange. Why would a horizonless landscape produce such a faithless mentality in its people?
An open and featureless plain does not give our eyes a place to rest; it provides no quest or goal to yearn for.
Featureless horizons do not direct our attention, or call us to a destination, or produce a beckoning. Our soul looks for beauty; it longs for the hope found on a path leading towards a beautiful destination. The more worthy the destination, the more joy we can hope for in its attainment. Boundless potential and subjectivism produce oblivion. If we are capable of anything and everything, and all roads are of equal worth, we are easily lost in the marshes of life.
For all of human history a woman’s purpose has been tied up in her biological capacity to have children. Now, she has more choices – limitless potential paths.
As King Alfred learned – with no sense of a horizon, it is easy to become lost – and not even know we are lost. Today women are lost. Women are less happy than their grandmothers, despite our freedom and opportunity.*
So how do we follow a path that leads towards something worthwhile when our culture is increasingly unwilling to point us towards such a purpose, and instead actively discourages us from looking to our female progenitors for guidance? Ironically it seems that our path is often found more easily in what we reject than what we choose.
“Creation means rejection…for a man cannot make statues without rejecting stone.” **
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.”
We all strive to create a beautiful life. And yet, we must understand that in every creation, we are rejecting another potential creation. I remember the difficulty of deciding whether I should attend a prestigious graduate program or work to help my husband finish his undergraduate degree. When I made my decision, mostly out of financial necessity, I pictured my future potential-self, a graduate of Cambridge, blowing away in the wind, like a victim of Thanos.
The act of creation through rejection is evident in many aspects of a woman’s life, and it is a painful process. It is never easy to forgo a passion or to prioritize one thing over another. It is difficult to turn our backs on potential; we are often unsure if the path we have chosen will bear good fruit.
The archetypal feminine is often depicted as Mother Nature. She has the power to destroy and create. The death of plants in Winter will eventually give rise to Spring. Lighting strikes and burns down an old decaying forest – a new one grows in its place. There is suffering in those destructions, and hope.
Women create – often through mysterious and chaotic ways. We create new life; we renew humanity; we produce beauty in the world around us – this is a terrible and beautiful thing.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
What Is Beauty?
“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”
Sir Roger Scruton
We know beauty when we see it. Encountering a sculpture such as Michalangelo’s David is a truly spiritual experience. Beautiful art is truth revealed to an artist, and each artist produces unique work. We don’t judge Monet for not painting like Van Gogh – both their works are masterpieces.
As we look to our own horizon, we must decide what to discard to create our beautiful life. Some things that might be beautiful must be cut out to reveal what is more beautiful. Smaller truths must be overcome by ultimate truth. Worthy desires must be forgone for greater purposes. As the artist we are the ones with the chisel; we discard these lesser beauties to unveil our creation.
Some would say that art is simply in the eye of the beholder, there is no real beauty or true art. They say that any choice can lead to a beautiful life because all is subjective. These opinions come from those living in the featureless plains spoken of by King Alfred. Those who subscribe to this view of life will find it hard to find a horizon to fix their gaze upon. They will turn this way and that with the ever-changing winds of passion and emotion.
As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, there is objective beauty and truth and we know it when we see it (assuming this perception has not been brainwashed out of us). No one standing before the sublimity of a waterfall can question its awe-inspiring beauty.* No one walking under the dome of St. Peter’s can say it is equal to the local community center. No one seeing a devoted mother hold her precious newborn baby can doubt the goodness in their embrace. So there must be some creations more worthy than others.
A Rejection of Motherhood
Recently an actress was awarded a Golden Globe. She was emotional as she spoke of her gratitude at being able to make the choices necessary to receive such an award. She was referring to her choice to have an abortion. She felt having a child would have blocked her path to this “great” achievement. This is obviously a creative and talented woman. However, she allowed her drive to create and her ambition and desire for recognition to limit her potential. In her desire to be the author of her life, she aimed too low – she settled for less. She made many choices and those choices led to what seemed to her a necessity – if she were to have the life she wanted. She chose to reject the creation of a life and instead to receive a lifeless golden substitute.
The actress wanted to, “Recognize my handwriting all over my life…A life I have carved with my own hands.” She declared, “we should make the world look more like (women) who are…seeking their own self-interest.”
She created and rejected what she desired so her life became what she wanted. This is the mantra of modern life, I want what I want in life, all else be damned. But is the art this produces beautiful? It seems unlikely when its creation is based on wandering desires and self-interest. Beauty comes from truth and virtue – not desires. Many now regret the choices they once yearned to make.
“The idea of beauty is the fundamental idea of everything. In the world we see only distortions of the fundamental idea, but art, by imagination, may lift itself to the height of this idea. Art is therefore akin to creation.”
A great artist attempts to create beauty that can lead to many and varied creations – but they will leave many lesser creations unmade. This actress left a greater beauty unborn.
Every statue Michelangelo chiseled meant another statue was never born. But what if instead of a beautiful statue, he could make a man? What if he could build up a real David, capable of conquering armies and raising a nation? Would that not be more glorious than the man made-substitute we must now be content with? But only Nitzevet, King David’s mother, had the power of bringing David into the world. When comparing the beauty of a statue versus the beauty of a human being, do we want to live in a world that would choose the former?
So when we embark on this journey to create a masterpiece – the carving of our own beautiful life – we should not carve out a statute as imperfect as our own desires, as weak as our own failings, as ugly as our own selfishness. Rather we should be true artists, seeking out beauty and truth to guide our sculpting. Otherwise, we produce narcissistic and disjointed art that is not a reflection of truth but an idol of self-worship.
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”
We are often told, as women, that we can have it all, and in the next moment we are shown we must choose between a child and success – and that the latter choice is the more worthy one. A beautiful life requires no victims to achieve, only the discarding of our own pride and weakness.
I want to make this clear – Not every woman can, wants to, or will have children – and they are no less of a woman and no less capable of creation than a mother of seven. Mother Teresa, John of Arc, Julian of Norwich- these and millions more women never had children and created lives worthy of admiration. They gave up their own “self-interest” and progressed toward a greater hope – one we can all look to. When I write of motherhood this is not limited to the act of raising biological children- all women become mothers-of-humanity as they create beauty in the world.
“It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict.”
Sir Roger Scruton
True femininity is not limiting but expansive. Yes we must reject much, but we gain much. Women can’t do it all at the same time, we must put first things first, but life is long. We don’t have to drop passions- we can integrate them into what is most important. What version should we accept – the one that tells us we must end a life to live the one we want? Or the one that tells us that bringing life, bringing love, and sacrificing self for others supersedes any man-made glories?
Michelangelo carved an even greater statue than his David. This other masterpiece is his most acclaimed and admired. This statue has drawn millions of pilgrims to stand before its awesome beauty. It is not like the David; it is not of a man that defeated giants or conquered nations. It has a much more remarkable subject – a mother and her child – a humble and poor woman, deemed inconsequential by most in her time. It is of a woman gloried not for her accomplishments but for her sacrifice – for her rejections: the rejection of her reputation as she carried her child; the rejection of comfort as she journeyed to Bethlehem; the rejection of a safe and simple life as she accepted her role as the Mother of God; the rejection of good for better, of pride for humility, of wickedness for righteousness. It represents the rejection of a “life of self-interest”, to make way for a creation that makes all rejections trivial – the Savior of Mankind. The beauty and majesty produced by these rejections is clear to any standing before this masterpiece – this horizon of stone.
**“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.”
I highly recommend reading the linked piece by Michael Matheson Miller. He examines the ideas of great thinkers on happiness and virtue.
We all just want to be happy, but paradoxically our most ardent attempts to be happy seem doomed to failure. Yet, when we simply go about our day – without rumination on the presence or lack of joy- we play with our baby, we enjoy a meal with loved ones, and happiness is there.
As Frankl said, “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue…It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.”
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
About a year ago we got chickens. We bought them as little chicks and miraculously, they all survived to adulthood. Our two little girls adored them. They would rush to the coop every morning to see their chickens. We soon realized that one of our little chickens was a rooster. Once the hens started laying, the girls loved gathering the eggs in their basket. However, a few months ago our rooster started lunging at the girls and pecking at their feet. They became too scared to visit the coop. I wasn’t to sad too see their visits cease, I was scared of the rooster myself. However, my oldest daughter, tough girl that she is, invented an ingenious solution – she showed her younger sisters how to swing a stick at the rooster, forcing him to run off. Her younger sisters became experts in “Rooster Baseball”. They started eagerly tending to their chickens again.
A few days ago we had a little friend come over to play with the girls. They were excited to show her their chickens. However, they were quickly disappointed to discover their little friend was afraid of chickens and didn’t want to go in the coop. My youngest ran up to me and said in amazement, “Mom, she was scared of the chickens!” How quickly she had forgotten her own fears. I explained to her, “She isn’t used to chickens.”
My girls aren’t any more brave than their friend, they have just learned through experience the skills needed to raise chickens. They now feel a sense of control and power, developed through consistent exposure and by overcoming difficulty when chicken-raising got tough. Their sister, and a stick, helped them gain that confidence – and now their fear is a fading memory.
“The way that you make people resilient is by voluntarily exposing them to things that make them uncomfortable.”
When we raise our children, we build for them a life full of experiences and these experiences become their reality. If we are intentional, we can develop a environment full of resilience-building habits, consistently encouraging our children to push beyond their comfort zones.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
As Seneca points out, there must be “daring” at some point. As parents we must dare – dare to point our children toward adventure and not mourn where difficulty arises. But rather see it as a chance to build resilience and perspective. With every new experience comes new dangers – new worries for a protective mother. However over-protection can leave our child fearful and weak. Dare to risk a peck or two at your children’s feet.
Adversity and worry are a part of life. But we can raise a child that is capable of facing these fears. We can “dare” them to do the difficult and unfamiliar and encourage them in appropriate risk-taking. And give them the space to invent Rooster-baseball.
“During the first period of a man’s life, the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”
“Children need to sit alone in their boredom for the world to become quiet enough so that they can hear themselves.”
Dr. Vanessa la Pointe
Boredom breeds creativity, it frees up the mind to see the beauty we are usually blind to: the majesty of a tree, the sound of a cricket, the cute mannerisms of a toddler, the insights and revelations of own mind. Our children, and we, are too often distracted by phones, video games, or the urgency of life to discover the reality that surrounds us. As parents, we know those forts don’t get built while Fortnite is on, that spontaneous obstacle course in the front lawn would not have happened if they were huddled around a screen. As we face the long-days of summer, it is useful to see boredom as an opportunity for our children – and something we should try and produce in our homes.
“Certainly work (and play) is not always required of a man. There is such a thing as a sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.”
The article linked explains the utility and blessing of boredom.
If you want a simple way to start enjoying parenthood and your children more – start involving your child in your joys and interests. Yes, your kitchen will be messier if they help you bake. Your fishing trip will be less serene with a questioning toddler at your side. But you will be sharing with a beloved protégé , and building a relationship of common enjoyments. The experience and perspective your child gains is more valuable than a clean kitchen or solitude.
A mother took a piece of clay And idly fashioned it one day, And as her fingers pressed it, still It moved and yielded to her will.
She came again when days were past, The bit of clay was hard at last. The form she gave it, still it bore, And she could change that form no more.
She took a piece of living clay And gently pressed it day by day, And molded with her power and art A young child’s soft and yielding heart.
She came again when years were gone; It was a man she looked upon. He still that early impress bore, And she could fashion it no more.
The influence our mothers have had on the shape and quality of our lives cannot be overstated. As the great George Washington expressed for all of us, “All I am I owe to my mother.” Thank you to all the loving mothers who sacrifice self and comfort to mold their children.
“Mother is the name for God in the mouths of little children”.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
In Vanity Fair, Thackeray describes the lives, sorrows, and triumphs of two women: Amelia and Becky. Anyone reading this book immediately sees Amelia as the good-natured, kind, and spiritual woman. Becky, on the other hand, is clearly selfish, manipulative, and hard-hearted. As the novel progresses, they both become mothers. Becky has no natural affection for her child and her son is left “worshiping a stone”. She is cold and heartless towards the child. Amelia, on the other hand, is the picture of the “perfect mother”. Her husband dies and she is left in a state of perpetual mourning. She devotes herself completely to her son.
Thackeray shows a deep understanding of human nature. Rather than portray Amelia in the way typical of many Victorian authors – as the delicate and angelic woman who is the model for all women – he shows that Amelia’s dependence and softness are not her virtues. Her weakness and over-nurturing lead to as much turmoil as that caused by Becky’s detachment and pride. Amelia is helpless without the love and support of family and friends. While Becky’s son worships a stone, Amelia’s son worships a puppy. Their sons’ personalities and world-views develop around these mother-imposed perceptions. Becky’s son resents the coldness of his mother and he becomes detached. Amelia’s son becomes spoiled and is disrespectful of others.
The power of literature lies in its ability to allow us to see ourselves in both heroes and villains, to realize that we are all a bit of both, and to change our own course as we see the consequences unfold in their lives. We can pull-out the virtues found in both Amelia and Becky, and avoid their lower natures.
On the other side of every weakness is a strength. While a nurturing and attentive mother is crucial in raising a strong child, so is a strong and independent woman. Amelia’s humility and kind-heartedness help her gain the love and admiration of those around her. Becky’s strength of will and independence allow her to succeed where others fail.. A sensitive mother, like Amelia, can dwell in self-pity or emotionality, or she can be conscious of the joys and potentials which are oblivious to the less-sensitive. A woman, such as Becky, who is independent and strong-willed, can narcissistically disregard the needs or desires of others, or she can be an example of confidence and resilience to her children.
What is worth having?
Vanity Fair was “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”
Amelia and Becky, despite their seemingly opposite natures, were doomed by the same vice – Vanity. In modern English, the word vanity most often refers to pride or a focus on appearance. However, vanity has a second meaning, and Thackeray’s book was an ode to this form of vanity: futile effort. Amelia’s life became a vain attempt to feel secure and happy through the love and protection of others. Becky’s life was a vain attempt to feel secure and happy in money and prestige.
As mothers we must recognize what it worth having, and the best way to get it. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Rather than depending on others, or using others for our own ends, we actively seek out the good of others. As mothers, (recognizing that a “mother is the name of God in the mouths of little children”), it is crucial that we give them a proper view of God. We are not dependent on others, and we do not manipulate others. We love, we serve, but we are strong and capable. As we examine ourselves, we discover we are not perfect – we most likely have aspects of Amelia and Becky in ourselves. It is vital to recognize these weaknesses. That is where healing begins and hope emerges. Only when Amelia saw the damage she had done by her dependence and over-nurturing, could she change course. As mothers progress, so can their children. We have never ruined our chances with our children. The most powerful thing children can witness is their mother recognizing her weaknesses and determining to change; such attempts will not be done in vain.
“In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, even though it be covertly, and by snatches.” Herman Melville
We must continually seek out these glimpses of Truth – wherever there is art, beauty, goodness – we will find truth reflected. It is easy, in our modern materialistic and concrete environment, to stop believing Truth even exists. Our culture is degrading into subjectivism and nihilism – modern art and architecture are often either narcissistic or coldly utilitarian. If we take the time to read a novel by Dostoyevsky, listen to a Sonata by Beethoven, read Fairy Tales with our children, travel to and discover a unique culture – we will “snatch” some of these glimpses. Seeking and finding this “scared doe” can bring faith and hope to our perspective.
“For they (art and music) are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
“We need to understand the role of art, and stop thinking about it as an option, or a luxury, or worse, an affection. Art is the bedrock of culture itself. It is the foundation of the process by which we unite ourselves psychologically, and come to establish productive peace with others. As it is said, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). That is exactly right. We live by beauty. We live by literature. We live by art. We cannot live without some connection to the divine — and beauty is divine — because in its absence life is too short, too dismal, and too tragic. And we must be sharp and awake and prepared so that we can survive properly, and orient the world properly, and not destroy things, including ourselves — and beauty can help us appreciate the wonder of Being and motivate us to seek gratitude when we might otherwise be prone to destructive resentment.”