Friday, January 7, 2011

What did Solomon know about motherhood anyways?

There is a famous story in the Hebrew Bible about how Solomon adjudicated a dispute between two women both claiming rights to a child. The story is intended to show how wise Solomon was.

1 Kings 3:16-28 (New International Version, ©2010)

A Wise Ruling

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 “During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”

22 The other woman said, “No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours.”

But the first one insisted, “No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine.” And so they argued before the king.

23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead,’ while that one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.’”

24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

26 The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”

But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

27 Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”

28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

This story, and the interpretation of it, drives me nuts. It feels very unfair and imposes a very narrow view of how a mother should be have. It emphasized the self-sacrificing aspect of motherhood and makes this an expectation of all "good" mothers. Why is it not possible for a "real" mother to prefer that her child die than go to some one else? Someone who might not be a good mother, such as a child abuser or drug addict? At the same time, I would be very sympathetic to a mother who has been looking after a demanding, colicky baby and has become completely fed up with the situation. Long term sleep deprivation (I'm talking months here, not days or weeks) is a nasty thing. I could see King Solomon's offer to divide the child in half being the last straw-- "You want him? Fine. Take him."

It would be more productive for all concerned to think of "mother" as a verb, and not just a noun. Mother, the noun, is like a job title. It’s static. Once you give birth, adopt, foster, or marry into a child, you are given this label. It does not say anything about how, or even if, you fulfill any of the duties of the position.

Mother, the verb, is an action that needs to be performed over and over. It’s a process that needs to be sustained on a daily basis. You do this by caring for and nurturing someone, by paying close attention to their emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs.
Some of us have a mother (the noun), who isn’t very good at mothering (the verb). Maybe they were too young or immature when they had us. Perhaps they may were struggling with their own demons of mental illness or addiction. Or they were in need of a mother themselves. For people like us, Mother’s Day can be awkward and bittersweet.

Some of us have people in our lives who are good at mothering, but aren’t necessarily mothers (the noun). We may have had a relative, teacher, or neighbor who looked after us when we needed it. Men can mother too. The stay-at-home dad in my family is proof of that.

So, what did Solomon know about motherhood anyways? Did he give birth to a child? Was he responsible for the care and feeding of a child on a daily basis? How many nights has King Solomon stayed up walking the floors with a baby who won't stop crying? There is little historical evidence to answer these questions definitively. But it would be fair to answer in the negative. Raising children tended to be women's work and not in the job description for a royal prince. (To be fair, not necessarily work for a royal princess or queen, either.)

So did Solomon get it right? We don't know. But if Solomon were alive today and making judgments using the same categories, it's more than likely that he wouldn't have. It's not as easy to be wise, when you're not living in a narrative, people are not stereotypes, and categories are in flux.

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