Heroic Motherhood

This post was originally published on December 12, 2005.

Cassatt_bath_l I’m really not much of an art aficionado, but every now and then a picture really grabs my attention–particularly when it tells a story. I have always loved this painting by Mary Cassatt (1884-1926), called The Bath. Cassatt is well-known for her pictures of mothers and children, but something about this picture really speaks to me. The first time I saw it, I was deeply touched by the sight of a mother gently washing her child’s feet–the ultimate picture of servanthood. Surely she must be the most tender of mothers, right? Maybe she patiently washes her child’s feet every day, eager to give of herself to this cherubic little being.

Or maybe not. Let’s look at this picture again…

This is probably a two-year-child, and clearly some event has required that this mother strip her daughter down to nothing and scrub her feet. Potty training? A stomach virus? (You know it’s bad when it makes it all the way down to their socks–admit it, we’ve all been there). And the background doesn’t look a nursery, but more like a parlor or living room. Why would you strip a child down to her skivvies in the living room unless circumstances required it? Circumstances such as, say, tracking mud across the carpet? Or maybe paint? And while the look on this mother’s face could be translated as tender selflessness, it looks as though there could be a little jaw-clenching going on. Maybe even a little muttering ("I-brought-you-into-this-world-and-so-help-me….")?

But still she washes her daughter’s feet. I’m sometimes tempted to think of the truly heroic mothers as the ones who always stay calm, patient and unselfish. But sometimes the most heroic moments of motherhood come when we’re at our worst–when our child has pushed us to the very edge of our own limits of patience…or confidence…or sanity, and still we just deal with it. We suck it up, swallow our pride…or irritation…or comfort, and we deal with it. THAT is heroicism, plain and simple.

So if there is a naked two year old in your living room today, or a disrepectful 13 year old, or a heartbroken seven year old, my hat is off to you. You are dealing with it, and you are a hero.

9 thoughts on “Heroic Motherhood

  1. Joy says:

    This is a very interesting post. I like the painting a lot, and your have some very goo insights into our role as a mommy. Oh, to be that every patient, always quiet spirited mom.

  2. Chappyswife says:

    Thanks, Shannon. I guess I’m a hero, what with having a sometimes naked two-year old & a sometimes disrespectful thirteen-year old. The deal is I do not feel like a hero. No way, no how.

  3. Antique Mommy says:

    I missed this the first time around. This had me laughing, not just as a mother but as a person who has taken a lot of art history classes! Thanks for re-posting it.

  4. Jennie C says:

    No, that’s a patient mother. She has a pitcher, implying no running water and therefore no need for a “bathroom”. But more importantly, that child is too relaxed. She rests easily in her mother’s lap, content and watching, one hand on her mother’s knee for balance, but no tension. If the child is calm, so is the mother.

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