Motherhood: The Common Thread of Our American Quilt





Since I was a young girl I have loved to sew. Much like my other interests, sewing is something that relaxes me. I learned how to in Girl Scouts and in fact I earned a badge for sewing, which I promptly sewed onto my Girl Scout uniform sash by hand. I still sew most things by hand including a quilt I am currently working on for my mom for Mother’s Day. For anyone reading this who might know my Mom, you are sworn to secrecy. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

This quilt I am making for my mom involves my children’s hand prints and is a mash-up of different fabrics, mostly made up from clothes my children no longer wear. Jeans that have been handed down at least a few times and are no longer acceptable for donation to the Salvation Army or St. Vincent DePaul Society. Scrap quilting is my favorite form of quilt because it pieces together different fabrics to create a beautifully unified mosaic.  Quilts have long been used to strengthen family ties, preserve memories of old friends, and mark notable events. Thoughts of scrap quilts conjure up images of thrifty pioneer housewives piecing elaborate patchworks for their families or a brightly colored scrap quilt made by a grandmother or aunt during the Depression. Even though quilting has been around for a long time in different countries, the popular image of the quilt is American.

American quilts make for a perfect metaphor for America itself. Quilt researcher Laurel Horton once said, “We Americans have adopted quilts as a symbol of what we value about ourselves and our national history.” In fact, throughout history, Americans have used the art of quilting for many diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate their homes, to express political views, to remember a loved one and, especially, to tell stories about themselves and the cultural history of a particular place and time. The quilt metaphor, to its credit, suggests that many and varied pieces can successfully be assembled and stitched together to create a beautiful and functional whole without any of the pieces losing their distinct characteristics. Jesse Jackson is noted as saying, America is not like a blanket-one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt-many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” We are many different fabrics but all part of the same quilt, all united by the same thread of American values. An integral part of the quilt of America is motherhood.

A South African proverb states ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the nation and controls its destiny”. American mothers have had an important role in shaping this country since its inception and carefully crafting our destiny as a nation. Our founding mothers, women full determination, creative insight, and passion like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams raised our nation using courage, pluck, sadness, joy, energy, grace, sensitivity and humor — to do what women do best, put one foot in front of the other in remarkable circumstances, and carry on. Martha and Abigail were two mothers who sacrificed for their own families and for us today, the “unborn millions” to come as George Washington called us. These women lived loudly for liberty and wove together their different American experiences through the common thread of motherhood. Motherhood and their distinctive seasons in life influenced the decisions they made.

By the time George Washington became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, his wife Martha was an empty-nester. Three of her four children had died. Jack, her last living son, was grown and married. Martha hoped George would return to Mount Vernon by the autumn of 1775. When the leaves fell from the trees and Washington was still not home, Martha made her choice. She would join her husband in camp for winter, forcing her to endure a month in a carriage over risky rough roads from Virginia to Massachusetts. Traveling put her in greater jeopardy for catching small pox or being kidnapped by the British.

But she did it, year after year, dividing her time between Mount Vernon and being with her husband in camp. She agonized as she missed family celebrations, including the birth of her first granddaughter in August 1776. Yet she prioritized being with her husband, even when her sister and mother fell ill and could have used her help. Historians estimate that Martha spent 50 percent of the war with George in camp or close by.

Abigail faced a different scenario. Once again, her place in motherhood influenced her choice. Unlike Martha, Abigail’s children were young and dependent. In 1775 her oldest of four children was ten; her youngest, three. She became an income-earning mother, sacrificing companionship with her husband in Philadelphia to care for their children and land back home. When John Adams left Boston to join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he gave up his law practice, half of their income. Abigail rose to the occasion, offering to manage the other half—their farmland—in his absence. She became an income-earning mother, sacrificing companionship with her husband in Philadelphia to care for their children and land back home. She stitched together solvency to keep them from the poorhouse. “I hope in time to have the reputation of being as good a farmeress as my partner has of being a good statesmen.” Abigail faced numerous hardships: labor shortages, tenants who abandoned their crops, counterfeit money schemes, and inflation, among others.

Why did Martha and Abigail sacrifice so much? Love and patriotism. Motherhood not only perpetuates civilization, it defines it. We do the same today, we mothers sacrifice much whether we work outside the home or work at home. Mothers provide invaluable benefits to all, and their work is priceless. As Ann Crittenden wrote in 2001, “The very definition of a mother is selfless service to another”. She cites two old sayings in connection with motherhood: A Jewish adage says, “God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers”. And an Arabic proverb puts it this way, “The mother is a school; if she is well reared, you are sure to build a nation”.

I wonder if there were mommy wars during the Revolutionary War period. Do you think Martha used to complain about Abigail’s parenting style to George? Do you think John Adams had to hear about how Martha never worked a day in her life? Somehow, I doubt so. These women among countless others were too busy with the business of helping support and fight for the cause of freedom. Their families were birthing a nation.

So why are we so concerned with how a mother decides to raise her family? Why the desire to fan the flames of a fake Mommy War by the media and political pundits?  For the past twenty-five years since Former First Lady and current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton famously snapped, “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” the talking heads have tried to cause division among mothers in this country and tear at the fabric of our American quilt.  The salvos have varied through the years.  From Secretary of State Clinton and the cookie conundrum, to complaints that Governor Palin makes being a mother look too easy, to Hilary Rosen’s sharp barb at Ann Romney implying she never worked a day in her life despite being a mom to five sons.

Do the media honestly think that by devaluing the parenting skills of First ladies, Vice Presidential Candidates, or wives of candidates, they will help to divide America and tear apart the common threads that unite us as a people? Do visions of Tiger Moms versus Slacker Moms or Helicopter Moms versus Green Moms or Stage Moms throwing it down on the school playground dance in their heads?

Being moms in the real world not the media swirl is not anything like that.  I honestly NEVER hear this ridiculousness on the ground from real actual women. In my children’s classes, the mothers are well-off, struggling, solidly middle class, biological parents, adoptive parents, single parents, working full-time, staying home full-time, working from home, working part-time, and perish the thought – we even have a stay-at-home dad. WE HAVE NEVER, NOT ONCE, HAD A WAR. Nary even a battle. No arguments about who is good, better, best, bad, or worst at parenting. We all help at school, drive on field trips when we can, arrange play-dates and sleepovers, meet for coffee, help each other out when we get in a jam, and volunteer.

Last Sunday, in fact, I witnessed this unreported phenomenon of mothers actually helping each other first hand.  I have made some new friends recently. One of them was going to run a race and didn’t have child care for her children. My other friend stepped up and watched her children. She not only did that, she brought those children to where their mother was competing so they could watch her cross the finish line. These two moms take time to encourage each other and me every week. I love them for it and it makes the job of ‘mommying’ much easier.  These amazing women I am proud to consider friends take the time to affirm that they ‘see’ each other and me for that matter. Even though we might choose to raise our children by different methods, we still appreciate each other as Moms who are doing the important work of shaping our nation through our children’s lives.

My relationship with my mom is a lot like that too. We chose to raise our families in different ways. My mom earned a degree in economics and worked full-time as an elementary school teacher. I earned a degree in Computer Science but elected to stay home to raise our six, yes six children. Even though our choices are different, my mom continues to be proud of me in the choice I made.  In the family room of my parents home sat a simple framed saying. It read

 Suddenly, or not so suddenly,
A woman discovers her MIND,
Her ability to ACHIEVE,
Her ability to SUCCEED.

And her life will not,
Cannot,
Ever be
The same.

I used to love to look at that simply framed statement because it always reminded me of my mom. My mom is the strongest woman I know. She taught me that hard work and integrity build a woman’s good name.  She sent me a copy of this saying to encourage me as I raise my family.

So, I would like to ask a favor this Mother’s Day. How about instead of focusing all of our energy tearing down the women who get up every day and “suit up” to play and keep this nation from falling to its knees, whether it be in a full blown business suit or yesterday’s spit-up covered yoga pants, but who openly acknowledge that what they are doing comes with great sacrifice, we laser focus in on growing the economy, rather than trying to bribe voters, and in the process saddling our kids with tons of debt? Support families, and then let those families, especially mothers make their own choices. We know best, not government. So stop trying to manipulate mommies. Recognize that regardless of whether or not mothers’ work is paid or unpaid, the work of caregiving is important to us all and should be valued. That’s right: Mothers’ work should be valued.

It isn’t widely known, but there is powerful precedent for declaring the quilt metaphor to be the best descriptor for America. During the Civil War, Henry W. Bellows of the U.S. Sanitary Commission compared women’s work to a “great national quilting party.” At this party, American women created a National Quilt of “many patches, each of its own color or stuff”, he wrote, which were “tacked and basted, then sewed and stitched by women’s hands, wet often with women’s tears, and woven in with women’s prayers.” Bellows predicted that the new quilt that would emerge at war’s end would “tear anywhere sooner than in the seams, which they have joined in a blessed and inseparable unity.”

We live in a time of discord. Politicians berate each other uncivilly in the halls and chambers of the Capitol, while pundits scream at each other on so-called news shows. Americans seem more polarized than ever, divided into red and blue camps, yet we long for compromise and cooperation for the good of the country and everyone in it. Most of us want to believe that Americans can come together to create a functional whole, just as numerous pieces of fabric can be joined to form a beautiful quilt. We want to believe that we can still pitch in together to accomplish tasks that need to be done, as we did in mobilizing all sectors of our society to win World War II. Most Americans do care about what happens to others, honor our heroes, and believe that we can air our disagreements and come to compromise in a cooperative and civil manner. For all these reasons the American quilt has become both cultural icon and national metaphor. That is appropriate, for in their various forms, both elaborate and humble, they give visual expression to deeply held values and traditions we think of as American at the core. Americans shouldn’t be working to tear apart the common threads that unify our nation, they should instead be making the threads that bind our national quilt together, especially that of motherhood, even stronger.

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