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  • Motherhood, Martyrdom, and USThe Author Responds
  • Kathleen Gallagher Elkins (bio)

As a way to get started in response to this thoughtful engagement with my book Mary, Mother of Martyrs, I thought it might be useful to describe how I came to this project. In a way, some of the questions and topics that were raised by the contributors are best addressed by talking about the development of the book.1 So, I’ll begin with its origins and use that as a way to address comments.

Origins of the Project

Mary, Mother of Martyrs is a revision of my doctoral dissertation; at some point in my doctoral studies at Drew University, my doktormutter Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre observed “you keep writing term papers about mothers in situations of violence. Are you doing that on purpose?” I stumbled a bit on this but answered no. I had not even noticed this pattern! I gave birth to my son during my second year of coursework, so the interest in motherhood was perhaps not that surprising. But I was not in a situation of violence, so I could not exactly account for that with reference to my autobiography. The thing that got me hooked on this topic and, eventually, these texts was the ways that modern discourses about motherhood in the United States so frequently frame motherhood as an experience of self-sacrifice. All the modern parenting books and blogs that I read as a [End Page 185] new mom assumed that being a mother meant sacrificing for your child: sacrificing sleep, sacrificing your own needs and well-being, sacrificing your cleaning standards, and maybe sacrificing your career. This issue even came up within my family and among certain friends: Was I somehow harming my child by putting him in a daycare setting to work on my doctoral studies? Was I selfish to pursue a career? Modern people seem to know somehow that being a good mother means being self-sacrificing. If you aren’t sacrificing for your child, you’re a bad mother. (This, of course, is an elite discourse that applies to higher-class white mothers in the United States; it cuts differently for poorer mothers, mothers of color, queer mothers, disabled mothers, mothers in colonized contexts, and so on.) This was the modern context in which I was reading these ancient narratives about mothers in situations of violence, not imagined harm that has more to do with cultural anxieties like those surrounding working mothers. I think this is not incidental to the work I ended up doing in my book, which focused on actual harm that is done to children and their mothers.

It eventually struck me that the ancient texts I was reading did not link motherhood with self-sacrifice in the same ways as modern discourses. This, despite the fact that the narratives I focused on included the death of children (in the case of Mary and the Maccabean mother) or the death of maternal figures (the Maccabean mother, Perpetua, Felicitas, and some of the maternal figures in Revelation). All of them focus on violence that is directed toward a mother-child relationship. And yet, the rhetorics of these texts did not assume that motherhood is bound up with self-sacrifice and loss in the ways modern discourses do. I wanted to know why that was. It seemed to me that if sacrificing mothers had a history, then we could imagine motherhood in a new way—one not naturally linked with self-sacrifice—in which mothers are not required to deal with the loss of their children to violent regimes. I argue that how the texts depict Mary and other Jewish and Christian maternal figures from the first three centuries CE played a role in sowing the seeds for the idea that motherhood and self-sacrifice naturally go together.

One connection all the contributors to this discussion share with my own work is the deliberate juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern. I see this most clearly in Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder’s When Momma Speaks and Sharon Jacob’s Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers.2 Like mine, these books consider ancient texts alongside modern experiences as a...


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pp. 185-190
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