We entered together, but I found the lushest dress in the store: crinoline flowers, bright blue, and floor length. We had gone to get my mom something. After medical school and a grueling residency, she was graduating. She didn’t find a dress and, in my memory, she wore a pink shirt-dress from her closet to the celebration. I, six years old, wore the new blue dress.
In She Who Is, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Elizabeth Johnson argues that we need many names, including Mother, for God. The most profound truth we have about God in the Abrahamic traditions is that there is one God, and that God is greater than any of us can imagine. Our most beautiful prayers, sacred rituals, and compelling icons—these merely point to God. As soon as we take them to be absolute, we have reduced God, and made an idol for ourselves. The irony of praise is that we must sing out—we reach the fullness of our human nature when we praise God—and yet our song is a limiting expression God’s ineffable nature. The holiest name for God, YHWH, Aquinas’ five proofs of God, Islam’s 99 names for God—these all attempt to express the greatness of God in tension with the limiting nature of human language. Johnson argues that male language for God has become absolute in Christian histories and societies, and has therefore come to function as an idol. She is not arguing against the use of male-language, God the father. She argues against exclusive male-language as idol-making. God is our Father, but God is not only our Father. God is Father and is more than Father. We need many names to resist idolatry, rending us open to the ever greater, ancient, and always new God whom we worship. Johnson plumbs the bible, and finds a rich plethora of names that point us toward God, including God as woman, Wisdom-Sophia, and God Mother.
My great-grandmother, Busha, lived with my family from the time I was seven until I was about fifteen. I remember her hands vividly, swollen and bent with gout and arthritis. Her thumb was cut to a nub from a factory accident. I can see them floured and kneading dough, stirring at the stove, folding laundry, ironing everything. My low-rise seventh grade jeans had the creases of adult business slacks. She never stopped working and moving. A ploy, it felt, to shame me for my laziness. It was.
She grew up the middle child of twelve on a farm in Michigan. Good at math, her father had her run his illegal moonshine still. She was nine. They all worked the farm, but while her siblings went to school and learned to read she was at the “business.” They teased her mercilessly for her illiteracy. Until I was about ten or eleven, I slept in her bed. That way, she couldn’t yell and shake her crooked finger at me to make my bed better. Busha’s hotel corners there stayed crisp and beyond reproach. In her bed, under her wall-busts of Mary (bleeding heart with knife) and Jesus (bleeding heart with thorny crown), she “snuck” me popsicles. She recited prayers. I read to her.
The origin of her motherhood is disputed in my family. She was unmarried when she conceived my grandfather in the 1930s. Her roommate was apparently a prostitute. She had a string of pearls from her factory boss that she kept wrapped in velvet in her dresser drawer. The baby lived at the farm with his grandparents until he was seven, when she married the man who always claimed to be his father. Everyone has a different theory. I can’t guess, but I know for certain that it must have been hard for her.
The son my Busha raised, my grandfather, was abusive and violent. My grandmother was sixteen when she married him. They had three daughters, my mother the oldest, born about ten months after the wedding. As my grandmother tells it, she loved having children. After my mother and two aunts, she had three more daughters, all of whom were stillborn or died just after birth. In her thirties, she left my abusive grandfather, escaping to California. Her boss at the time pursued her, following her to California. She became pregnant with my uncle just before annulling her previous marriage and marrying this man, her second husband, in Nevada. She gave birth to my uncle, and a few years later had a second son, also stillborn. Patterns of cheating and abuse plagued this marriage, too. My grandmother worked for him for thirty years at their mutually run delis, but never got a paycheck. When they divorced she had put nothing into savings or social security. My mom has supported her since.
Because medical school and residency are time consuming, I spent an infinite stretch of childhood days with this grandmother. She was only forty-seven when I was born. For my mom, I think my grandmother was a Betty Draper type, preoccupied, abused, sometimes violent herself. But 30 years later, for me, she was magical. Like a Disney princess, she could talk to the animals who flocked to her yard. She always took dirt roads. She had five happy little dogs who followed her everywhere with a tumult of tiny clicks on linoleum. Her nails are always done in bright colors, sometimes with patterns and jewels. She still likes to show them to me, moving her fingers in a gentle wave, pinky to thumb and back, delighted with their magic. She always had errands at small stores to buy particular things for her hand-made dolls, treats, and meals. She can fit everything that happens into a story that makes her laugh. She assured me we were never lost, always on an adventure. I felt safe. I understand now that she was lost, but I don’t think she ever saw it that way.
Whether through genetics, or the Gabriel Garcia Marquez-style return of identity through generations, all of my Busha’s offspring reiterate her fire, at our worst and at our best. My grandmother, her daughter-in-law, is different. At her best, she is a cool languid pond. All the people around her, all on fire for something more, are exuberant and bellicose. I think all my grandmother ever wanted was to enjoy the cool and stillness, to be surrounded by animals and children, happy and simple creatures and delights, to have someone take care of her, to be content. When she got breast cancer last year, it was far from the worst thing that had happened to her.
There is tremendous social pressure on women, particularly religious and Catholic women, to “fulfill” their identity by becoming mothers. And yet, once a mother, it’s an incredibly limiting category. We expect that moms are humorless, sexless, nagging, and soft. It’s a rock and a hard place: if you’re not a mother, you’re not fully a woman; if you are, well, you’re a woman, but you’re just a mom. And even then, my motherhood often feels like it is valued as the material reproduction of my class or race, which is to say, I often feel my motherhood is valued because of the white, blue-eyed children I’ve made.
When my first child was born, they placed him on me, still connected by umbilical cord, blood-covered, crying, trying to latch. I began to understand, for myself, what it meant to be a mother, and for the first time, why we address God as a parent. Before, I had always thought that parents are in charge, parents make you, and so God is in charge, God makes us. It makes sense that God is our Father. Then I held my crying child. He had no discernable content other than that he was alive, and needed me to love him. Of course, I have failed in execution, but faced with that need, I loved him wildly. What does it mean to love someone when there is nothing yet to know? I did not know yet what toys he would prefer, or how his toddler lisp would carve English so sweetly. I don’t know how, or even if, he’ll get through the trials and joys of growing up, or what his adult commitments, triumphs, and failures might be. What I understood when I first held him is that it doesn’t matter, I’m there for all of it. All he needs is for me to love him, and in response, my life rings with the fact that I love him, simply because he is. What I began to believe in the first moments of my own parenthood, is that to be a mother is not be transformed into more or less of a woman, it’s to be given the responsibility to love someone completely at their most vulnerable. If we call God Mother, we can’t just mean that God is in charge or made us, though those things are true of mothers, and it’s good to say them about God. Calling God Mother, I confess my own vulnerability. I need to be loved. I depend on others for the love I need to survive. Calling God Mother might also be a way of believing that at my most vulnerable, I am worth loving and, even more, am loved.
Elizabeth Johnson argues that when we fix our theological error, when we use more words for God in order to keep our language from being literal and idolatrous, we also have the power to shape society. Our words and symbols, prayers and icons of God, she argues, all function in society. They shape what and who we see as holy. Our language about God can shape and create a more just and good society. In a world that so often and in so many ways denigrates and violates the humanity of women, our theology and praise to God can help us celebrate women, resisting and reshaping a status quo that is violent to us. But what I wish to convey is that, in a society that valorizes independence and fortitude, calling God Mother can also help us accept and celebrate our dependence on one another for the love and intimacy we each crave and deserve.
My mom is a surgeon. Everything is a problem she can repair with the right tools. My mom is the only person I’ve ever known who is better than her circumstances. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. I don’t know what force of grace made her think she could become a doctor and forge a completely new life for herself, for my sisters and me. This was a dream no one else hoped for her, and one that most resented. But I can see her thirteen-year-old self, working at a nursing home, making beds—hands sweeping down Busha-taught hotel corners—wearing the 1960s’ white shoes and pinafore, making a plan. Framing the problem, coming up with the solutions, figuring out the tools she needed.
It was around this time that my Grandma escaped to California. My mom and her sisters were home alone with their dad. One evening she heard him, drunk, on the phone responding to my Grandma’s request to send her girls to California. I’ll send them to you in coffins, he shouted. My mom, a child herself, packed up her younger sisters lead them, three girls hand in hand, down the miles of Telegraph road to Busha’s house. She takes care of everyone around her, less with warmth than with brute force. Her goal is not just to make you feel better. Like she did her own life, she will fix you.
It was very unlike her then, it struck me, to do something gratuitously, with no problem to fix. Twice, in my memory, my mom brought out a medium yellow plastic bowl filled with hot water, hand towels, and a kit of half a dozen small steel tools. She sat across from Busha, and manicured her hands. Whether it was the impenetrable vanity of my teenage brain, or my habituation to understanding my mom’s actions as goal-based, I remember being perplexed. I remember their hands together, both strong from work, Busha’s red and pained but extending just a bit in the heat of the small bath, my mom’s swift and sure, a surgeon’s hands. Why would she manicure hands so obviously beyond repair?
If God is Mother, if our worship and theologizing includes maternal language, perhaps we can value motherhood in what it means for each of us to be human. Mothering doubles-back, skips between, and reaches beyond generations, because, over and over again, we depend on each other. We need to be loved. We love each other in ways both bold and intimate that our culture does not see or respect. If God is Mother, can we aim to mother each other regardless of our relation or gender? If God is Mother, we confess how deeply we need and depend on one another for love. Amid the suffocating tribulations of life, if we affirm that God is Mother, we affirm, too that we depend on one another, intimately together, and we are loved.
My daughter was stuck. I exhausted myself pushing, but could feel in my back that as I did it torqued her neck and made it harder, not easier, to be birthed. She was in a position they call “posterior.” After each contraction, I leaned back and grasped for breath, looking out the window at the dark. Then, I saw the dawn light. In my mind, I saw earth exhale, sigh, and from its horizon give up the sun. I stopped pushing, and exhaled with my whole body. I gave myself over. She came up, radiant and screaming. I named her after my mother.
Brianne Jacobs, PhD is a post-doctoral fellow at Fordham University. She writes and teaches classes on sex, gender, theology, philosophy, ecclesiology, politics, and Catholic Social Teaching.