- Self-Sacrificing or Victimized?
Dealing with the concept of motherhood as found in both ancient theological texts written in patriarchal cultures and modern incidents experienced in a patriarchal world, the intent of Kathleen Gallagher Elkins’s book was to interpret motherhood beyond traditional church and patriarchal interpretations. Underpinning her analysis is the concept of self-sacrificing, which has stuck in my mind. The three positive characteristics of motherhood she outlines—continuity, community, and pathos or danger—running through the eight case studies she examines make sense and are true.1
The last paragraph of Gallagher Elkins’s book summarizes her overall argument. “If political or religious causes depend on the sacrifices of mothers (and others),” she suggests, “[then] we can look to the broader social circumstances that seem to demand their suffering. Because maternity is often linked to sacrifice so naturally, interrupting this inherent association enables us to interrogate the larger cultural forces that label all mothers as martyrs.”2
Suggesting we see motherhood in a wider scope of experiences and perspectives, Gallagher Elkins connects motherhood with not only self-sacrifice but also martyrdom. She analyzes the social circumstances and larger cultural forces surrounding the women she examines to broaden her analysis and interpretations of their self-sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom. This approach caught my attention [End Page 171] and interest. However, after I finished her book for the third time, questions still remained unanswered for me. Although these questions were blurry at first, I came to realize that they had surfaced because they reminded me of my own experience.
First, I examined what Gallagher Elkins means when she refers to the social circumstances and larger cultural forces that cause mothers’ self-sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom as expressions of “violence,” which sometimes involves political power. Questions kept arising for me: Why is it a mother’s “self-sacrificing” self that encounters violence and must resist it? How is self-sacrifice interlinked with violence and resistance? What causes this violence? To me, one needs to discover, locate, and describe the cause before making the leap of logic to directly connect self-sacrifice and resistance. How are these concepts related to each other? How are they related to violence?
I was six years old when the Second World War ended. As far back as I can remember, our father, a professional general in the Japanese army, was hardly ever home, and our mother took care of me and my four siblings. In those days, it was ordinary to find no men over a certain age in neighborhoods or towns. Fathers and brothers were away in the military, and every child knew that the boys among them would leave home at age fifteen to become soldiers.
In these times, mothers were encouraged to give birth to more boys that could be sent to the front lines as soon as they came of age. Due to war shortages of many kinds of goods, mothers were also expected to help one another feed children, cultivate land, and share what little food was available communally. Often putting the nutritional needs of others before their own, malnourished women suffered additionally during pregnancy and childbirth. I saw with my own eyes and experienced the three characteristics—continuity, community, and pathos or danger—of mothers Gallagher Elkins elucidates in her book; they were the norm during my childhood. Mothers participated in the nation’s war agenda by nurturing children with what scarce food they could access, aiding each other in a fatherless community to maintain solidarity with each other and the state, and wishing above all else for their husbands, brothers, and sons to come home unharmed. Even at the tender age of six, I intuitively knew that the mothers in my community—including my own—did not necessarily support the war. Of all people, they knew best the tragic futility of sending their sons, brothers, and husbands off to either kill or be killed while bringing new lives into the world. After the war ended, many mothers, including mine, joined various peace and social justice movements. Thus, I learned early on that warfare was a male thing and, through women’s responses after the...