Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Heathen Motherhood

This blog post was originally written for the 2nd annual Heathen Women Conference at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK on 7th July 2018. It was also presented at the 20th annual East Coast Thing in Milford, PA, US on 23rd August 2018. It has been lightly amended for the internet.


I have experienced heathenry with three very different outlooks on motherhood. When I attended my first blót I was a teenaged college student with zero interest in children, and bristled at the conflation of motherhood and womanhood I read about in the lore. After I met my now-husband, I began to believe in a future with a family, and got married in my mid-20s with the intent of having a baby. The months turned to years and I dealt with the agony of infertility, trying to make peace with a body that wouldn’t perform what I thought to be its essential function. Finally after controlled hormonal injections I became pregnant, and three years ago I gave birth to my son. I suffered atrocious postpartum depression that eventually became my new normal. It was at this point that I began to take note of the practicalities and realities of heathen motherhood. 

My experience is limited to inclusive heathens of the Northeastern United States from New Hampshire to Virginia, with a few peeks at broader North American practice through involvement in The Troth. I am also a medieval historian by trade, not a modern sociologist or anthropologist, so please bear with my anecdotal evidence and subjective observations. I present this as a narrative, rather than an argument, and I think it is one we have seen or experienced ourselves in some form or another. It is my story, and the story of many heathen women around me. 

To start, I need to define some parameters. The first place to start is what a ‘mother’ is in the first place, and to apologise for the weight that this and other words bear. By mother I mean the parent who takes the lead on nurturing and bodily comfort with the child, most obviously by bearing them in childbirth. But plenty of parents and caregivers are not the biological XX and XY-chromosome providers for their young ones. Another phrase for ‘mother’, then, could be ‘nurturing parent’, as opposed to ‘supporting parent’ which most frequently accompanies the role of ‘father’. It is reductive as well to refer to the nurturing versus the supporting parent, recognising that all parents provide some nurturance and some support. Everyone’s circumstances are different, of course, and not every child has two parents, nor does this account for grandparents or other household members who provide important parental roles. For the sake of brevity, I will plug into heteronormativity and use the term ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to refer to the roles typically filled by a woman and a man, but this is not a judgment on anyones’ value. There are exceptions, and I see you. 

That established, let us consider the role of women and mothers in heathenry today. We are inclusive heathens, which means that we believe our deeds are the source of our worth, not the circumstances of our birth. Inclusivity as well seeks to remove barriers between people and their worship due to non-character factors such as physical disability or finances. Not only does ethnicity, race, or appearance not matter to us, we don’t care either about the gender expression, sexuality, or relationship shapes of our fellow heathens, provided of course that all parties consent. Within this, everyone is welcome to find the lifestyle that fits them best, including that of a cis man breadwinner and cis woman homemaker in a monogamous marriage with many biological children. There is nothing old fashioned or stodgy about choosing this, or even feeling fulfilled by this arrangement alone. It is just not everyone’s norm, or desire. 

Yet even in the most inclusive and progressive heathen communities, childbirth and -rearing lends itself to stereotyping. With fathers as providers, men keep up their careers and of course need their hobbies to relax after work. Women as mothers, on the other hand, are expected to derive their pleasure from childrearing alone. Men become fathers in addition to their attributes, while women become mothers at the expense of all else. There are exceptions, of course, but think of the big movers and shakers in your community: the organisers, authors, ritual leaders, and so on. They tend to be women who are childless or have grown children, or men who are at all life stages and with all kinds of home lives. Where are the heathen leaders who are mothers of young children?

It begins with the physical requirement of a person with a female reproductive system to bear a child, and in and out of heathenry, the social pressures on a pregnant mother are nearly too much to handle. Eat this, don’t eat that; exercise but not too much; you’re selfish if you gain too much weight or if you don’t gain enough: being visibly (and/or explicitly) pregnant erases the mother from her personhood as she becomes an incubator. The community aspect of heathenry can make this a pleasant time, if the expecting mother welcomes attention. For people such as myself, however, having my weight gain and drink choices scrutinised at events (it was green tea) was a six-month exercise in embarrassment.

Heathenry did provide one important advantage for me as a first-time mother. I am an only child in a small family so I did not grow up caring for or even seeing babies and infants. The only information I had on childbirth and -rearing came from movies and television, and consequently I didn’t even know that you could give birth out of a hospital (on purpose) or exclusively breastfeed a baby. Alive and fed babies are the best babies, of course, and I won’t go down the rabbit hole of different practices, but the second family of my local heathen community showcased a variety of choices that I didn’t even know were available to parents. You go from squeamish to really comfortable with breastfeeding mothers when you’re in sumbel with two of them! 

Once the baby arrives, then the permanent changes occur. (Apart from the stretch marks, that is, and I think my tailbone still isn’t where it used to be.) There is absolutely nothing in the world like caring for a newborn for months on end, and either you’ve experienced it already and you’re nodding along, or you haven’t and nothing I could concoct would tell you what the sleep deprivation and world-shattering responsibility is like. I remember watching Band of Brothers at 3:00AM with a cluster-feeding newborn; during a scene where a harsh drill sergeant woke his recruits up at an early hour, I was jealous that they got to sleep at all! This is a universal phenomenon, however: grandparents, close family and friends, and kinsmen can all pitch in, but at the end of the day - literally - it is up to the parents to keep that baby going with no end in sight. This is when the isolation begins. 

I could write an entire other essay on the sham that is ‘maternity care’ in the States, or lack thereof, and hopefully in every other developed nation in the world this problem is minimised. But for myself and other heathen parents in the US, maternal leave is paltry at best and paternal leave is nonexistent. My son very conveniently came just after the spring semester, so while I lost summer employment and got no compensation, at least I could step back into teaching college in the fall semester three months later. My husband’s unionised, civil service job, for which he had worked for a decade straight, gave him a couple of ‘family leave’ days off work and then he was back to his 24-hour-long shifts within two weeks. 

Time for that first summer was amorphous for me, and the only heathen event I hosted was a casual ‘welcoming’ for my son in our backyard. I’ve never been much for heathenry online, so my inability to keep up bonds in person desiccated my connection with the community. This diminished my ability to worship, practice, or even function. Travel with a baby is possible, of course, but it takes far less equipment for adults to go backpack camping for an overnight than a baby needs to stay in a house. Everything becomes so much more complicated, and the burden often falls on the nurturing parent to organise and direct the other parent. Even if the partner does everything asked of them, there is still managerial energy expended to advise them. 

It is very difficult to enjoy a home that isn’t child-proofed, with an inquisitive toddler. They require constant monitoring, but this is not for the child’s sake - non-parents often misinterpret this. Rather than hovering to shield our babies from trauma, we are ensuring that your expensive figurines, glass-topped furniture, bookshelves, and electronic gadgets remain functional! This makes going to heathen events very stressful because instead of enjoying our day out, parents have to transfer our child-minding chores from a familiar to an unfamiliar environment. While some couples are good at sharing the burden, most hetero couples I see have the bulk of the childcare performed by the mother and the conversation and camaraderie enjoyed by the father. Some couples may agree to this willingly - particularly if the father is heathen and the mother is not, which is not an unusual situation - but too often the assumption is that the child is the mother’s responsibility. Sometimes she even chooses just to stay home to avoid having to transport and corral the children in a new place!

When I did arrive at an event, whether for a few hours or a week, I was acutely aware of the transformation that had occurred. I was a mother everywhere I went and no matter what I did. Practically, I had a baby on my hip or breast most of the time, but even if my husband or a kinsman assumed responsibility - and my newborn tolerated the separation, which was infrequent - I was not the person I had been before. My mind was clouded and distracted, ruining meditation and focus. I wasn’t able to make embroidery or drawings as offerings, as I had done so previously. Most piquantly, everywhere I went was the same question: where’s the baby? Not ‘how are your studies going?’ or ‘Did you hear the new Heidevolk album?’ as conversations used to go.

Things were different for my husband. Many congratulations were given, of course, and sometimes people would ask him where I was or how we were doing, but he could sit back and drink a beer without a single query about his child. He visited vés and attended rituals and workshops and shopped vendors, still the same man with the same hobbies and interests as he had been his whole adult life. He was a Helsmann, firefighter, carpenter, and father. I had gone from a scholarly metalhead Óðinsmaðr to just a mother. And in his defence, I think more changes to my husband's self-perception had occurred by his becoming a parent. It fulfils him in ways I haven't experienced, and consequently, it can be hurtful to him to not acknowledge that his becoming a father has altered him dramatically.

It’s one thing to have to deal with career diversions as a mother that fathers do not experience, which is frustrating but widespread. It’s another to find that the supposedly progressive inclusive heathen community reverts to gendered stereotypes as soon as a baby is involved. We can do better than the wider society, and we have plenty of inspiration from the lore to do so. 

When motherhood is mentioned, of course the goddess Frigg comes to mind. I doubt I need to tell anyone reading this that she is so far beyond mere ‘consort to Óðinn’ as for such a title to be laughable, as we all know who’s the settler in that divine marriage. She is well-known as the mother of Baldr, or more specifically the one who attempted to save Baldr from his bad dreams. But despite this she lost both of her sons, Baldr and his twin Höðr. Hermöðr, the one who rode to Hel, may have been a third son but this is unclear. And while there is some evidence that Frigg is the same as Jörð, as is, in the lore Þórr’s mother is not Frigg. Frigg, therefore, has lost all of the children that she has birthed. Her motherhood is a fraught and sad one. She has the epithet of All-mother and is called upon by hopeful and extant mothers across heathenry, but her parenting of her birth children, as far as we can tell, has ended in death. 

Other goddesses have wild, sexy, dangerous, and productive attributes, but they are also mothers. Freyja is a goddess of war and romantic love and seiðr, all kinds of things that would be quite difficult with a baby around. She is rarely depicted without a heaving bosom bursting forth from armour, but those breasts have nourished at least one daughter, Hnoss in several sources and also Gersemi in Heimskringla. I like to console myself with the fact that the giants still all want to marry Freyja, despite her being a mother! 

Rán as well is busy with her net catching the drowned and entertaining them under the ocean, but she and Ægir have nine daughters. That is a lot of diapers! Skaði, awesome in all senses of the word, is known for her hunting ability and preference for the snow, woods, and mountains; yet she is step-mother to Freyja and Freyr, and according to Heimskringla she and Óðinn had sons as well.

Even Hel, who as far as we know has no consort or birthed children of her own, has maternal responsibilities. As she is in charge of all those who die of sickness, Helheim hosts children, and many more at the time of our medieval heathen predecessors. Recall that the life expectancy was drastically lowered by infant mortality until recently, and so most families would have children who had died young and gone to Hel. 

I can’t not mention the mother of Sleipnir at this point, either, and mention that the Ás Loki has given birth as well. Hel and Loki are practically anathema to heathen ideals of motherhood and yet they clearly occupy maternal roles in the lore. Why do we not think of Freyja, Rán, Skaði, Hel, and Loki as mothers? Why are they everything else they are and also mothers, rather than that being their defining attribute? 

Lest anyone protest that heathen women should not seek to emulate heathen goddesses (and Loki!), there are still plenty of female figures in the sagas who have personalities, conflicts, and roles far beyond their children. Laxdæla saga opens with the formidable matriarch Unnr djúpunga making suitable matches for her daughters in Scotland before departing for Iceland and claiming a significant territory for her own. The arc of the saga moves according to Guðrun Ósvifsdottir’s whims, for good and ill. While her dreams about her descendants are an important plot point, she clearly has her own opinions and motivations beyond caring for her babies or securing a bright future for them.

The feud between Hallgerður and Bergþóra also drives the plot of Njáls saga, and while neither of them are presented as upstanding women, they at least have concerns beyond their children. Freyjadís Eiriksdóttir, again not a very sympathetic character, is cunning and proactive even while eight months pregnant!

Archaeology and comparative anthropology can open some windows on the lives of our heathen mother forebears, but it’s important to remember that artefacts can be misinterpreted for many different reasons. It’s believed that women of northern Europe were individually responsible for producing textiles. The sheer amount of clothing required to stay warm meant that women would spend much their lives spinning, weaving, and sewing. This is in addition to other textiles such as straining cloth for dairy products and, famously, the dense sails of longships. 

I’ve seen little research - and I’d be happy to be informed otherwise - on the day-to-day realities of being pregnant, breastfeeding, and caring for infants in heathen Europe. Babies seem intent on self-destruction and I’m not sure how intensive tasks like flax hackling, spinning fine thread, or embroidery could ever be accomplished with a gaggle of children crawling, waddling, or running around. There are references to nursemaids - Thorgerd Brak was Egil Skallagrímsson’s, for instance - but we lack information about their social status, what their duties were beyond wet-nursing, and how they served - as slaves? free women? temporary employees with multiple households? lifelong family servants? What were their lives like? And how can we learn from these women about being women in heathenry today?

I write not to lament the loss of the heathen mother’s lifestyle - I’d sooner take my eye out with a distaff than work in a weaving room! But rather, I’d like to remind us that modern inclusive heathenry is not ‘reconstructing’ gender roles, and even if we wanted to, pre-Christian northern Europe was not full of unremarkable women who disappeared behind their children once they became mothers. I will of course mention the celebrated Birka grave of the highly decorated warrior, who was found to have been an XX chromosome carrier - what we would call a woman or a trans man, although we cannot know what gender identity they had in their lifetime. I got to speak with Dr. Neil Price about this and unfortunately the skeleton is too degraded to do any kind of musculature analysis, so the possibility of seeing if this person bore children is out of the question. But as many Scandinavian inhumations have been sexed solely by their grave goods, it’s possible that we will find more people whose chromosomes do not match their burial circumstances. Perhaps we will find evidence of a warrior mother, or a man interred with the children he nurtured.

I have brought up many grievances, and dipped into the lore to demonstrate the futility of the current state of affairs. What can be done? First and foremost, stop treating heathen women as potential mothers - this is just as much for actual mothers as it is for heathen women who are childfree, undecided, or unable to bear children. If we consider motherhood to be an important part of our personality, lifestyle, and way of worship, then it will quickly become apparent. For those of us who struggle with the label ‘woman’, the term ‘mother’ is tenfold a concern. And if we have difficulty conceiving or do not want to become mothers, we need our religious community to be a safe space rather than another cesspit where infertility is equated with ‘brokenness’. 

Secondly, make genuine spaces for children in practice. Arts and crafts projects are a good start, as is designating roles just for children in performance, but everyone must learn to accept meltdowns and outbursts in solemn rituals. Guided meditations, silent worship, and galdr or rhythmic chanting are great for adult-only ceremonies, but these are just asking for trouble when children are present. If we want heathenry to continue to the next generation - if we want to be truly family-friendly - then we must involve the whole family, from the screaming baby to the whining school child. If you are organising events that require children to be corralled and hidden away from the ‘real’ ceremony, then you are excluding nurturing parents from worship. Heathen women deserve to not be relegated behind the title of mother and barred from practice. 

Third and finally, ask and listen to the mothers in your community. They will have their own opinions and preferences for how to support one another, but I am sure many or most would prefer to have more options for participating in heathen events. A childminding pool, hiring a temporary nanny, a mothers’ sumbel, or any other solution should be supported by all in the community, even people who aren’t parents. Heathen motherhood needs honour, not just for the obvious ‘precious future generations’ aspect, but for the woman who makes it possible. We already suffer a depressing penalty to our career trajectories and trauma to our bodies in having children; don’t reduce us further by losing the person to the role of mother. Maternity is held up as an ideal in theory but poorly supported in practice. We as inclusive heathens can and should do better. 


Thank you to the hosts of the Conference for Heathen Women, particularly Linda Sever, and for the supportive responses to this presentation at both events. Thanks as well for the encouragement to write and disseminate this essay throughout this summer. And as always, my undying gratitude for my husband Mat and son Arthur, I love you both.

No comments:

Post a Comment