Motherhood: A Great Work
Interview by Klara Holscher
Elizabeth Schlueter, wife of Dr. Nathan Schlueter and mother to eight children, is a vibrant woman with a keen vision of motherhood. After a couple weeks of sending multiple emails back and forth in the attempt to find a time that worked for both a homemaker and a busy college student, we managed to find twenty minutes to sit down together in her cheerful living room. The following are Elizabeth’s thoughts on the goodness and importance of homemaking and mothering.
* * * * *
I’m interested in hearing your story. Could you tell me a bit about your childhood?
For my parents and grandparents, family culture was where the real action, work, fun, and education took place, even though neither of them homeschooled in the conventional sense. My mother and grandmother were great examples of women who dedicated themselves whole-heartedly and joyfully to mothering writ large, to working as full-time homemakers of large families. These women and their husbands sought to deliberately shape family, work, play, and education, holding those activities to a high standard while accepting and finding humor in the inevitable messiness of family life. In their homes, children were a meaningful part of the family economy. Good food, beautiful physical things, and music were all produced by the family, not outsourced completely to the consumer economy. Christian faith was connected to life physically by rich family celebrations of the liturgical Christian year and its seasons. The life of the mind was held in high esteem and encouraged by conversation about ideas and by communal reading for pleasure.
My mother and grandmother also admired and were actively involved in their husband’s work, assisting and advising constantly as true helpmates. My father and grandfather, in turn, admired and supported their wives’ work as homemakers and mothers because they saw the inestimable value of this work.
But I didn’t go into college thinking, “I can’t wait to be a mom,” at all! I was just excited about ideas, because my upbringing had prepared me to be very interested in the liberal arts. The liberal arts are not primarily about training for any particular work, homemaking or otherwise, but rather aimed at the development of the whole person and his or her integration into the great traditions of western civilization. Though we might expect to marry and have a family, going to college only to get one’s MRS Degree would be an impoverished view, I think. Our particular work over the years is going to change and develop, and certainly the work of mothering and homemaking is no longer so all-consuming as children grow and leave the home. A liberal arts degree is more suited to the real range of work over the whole of life.
Dinner conversations and spirited arguments about art, politics, literature, and theology were commonplace in my childhood. I thought that maybe I would follow my father into politics, and I was interested in joining a think-tank after college. I also had a sense that I’d really like to teach, and I had done pretty well at college and thought I was a decent writer. I originally had plans of going to Washington, D.C., after graduation, but that all changed.
You and Dr. Schlueter met in college, right?
We met when I was a junior at the University of Dallas, a political philosophy major, and he was a first- or second-year grad student there in political philosophy. Nathan and I did not date my entire undergraduate career, but then the summer after I graduated I went to help out with a three-week Shakespeare in Italy course that he was helping to teach with the University of Dallas. I fell head over heels in love with him. Every time we were together we had stimulating conversations about ideas, and sometimes spirited arguments. After my undergraduate degree in political philosophy, I was able get a Master of Theological Studies while I worked at the University of Dallas. The life of ideas is still a huge part of our friendship in marriage, all the more so because of Nathan’s vocation as a scholar and teacher. I have been privileged to be a part of that vocation as his editor, adviser, and sometimes incubator for new ideas. My decision not to go to Washington, but instead to come back to Dallas and get a job as an admissions counselor at UD, hinged upon an eleventh-hour conversation on the last night of our Italy trip. That night we finally agreed that at least we had to date. Nathan was still in Europe for a while, and when he came back, I was already in town. We always felt our relationship was very providential. Had I not gone on that trip, had we not had that one conversation, we would have gone our separate ways, and both of our lives would be very different!
So, you would say that it’s not a waste to become well educated and then pursue motherhood rather than a career, because it’s not like you are then putting all that you learned aside. You are using it to help you in your vocation.
There are all kinds of subtle messages in our culture that, unless you are making a lot of money, your work is not fulfilling. One of my favorite writers on feminism, Carolyn Graglia, calls this the “dollar theory of value.” But when we pull that idea out and look at it, we can all tell that it is a ridiculous, though tempting, thesis. Money serves a very important purpose as a signal of value, but many of the most important things in life obviously transcend the price system. I am really passionate about women, educated women, realizing that motherhood is in fact a high calling.
Education, especially liberal education, is important for motherhood because the point of liberal education is to come to a knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty as they relate to human things, to human life, so that we can answer the question, “How should I live?” Although the liberal arts are studied for their own intrinsic good and not for the sake of skills or training, a good liberal arts education is essential for a mother, for a homemaker, precisely because she is the first custodian and educator of the human being. With the assistance and support of her spouse, she is the heart and CEO of the home culture. She needs to have a deep understanding of the good life and of the ultimate goals of education. She also needs a familiarity with the breadth and depth of human culture more widely—its art, politics, literature, economics, and history—since she is preparing men and women to go into that culture and bring about good in it. The old saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” expresses this.
Getting your hands dirty, literally and figuratively, caring for the young dependent human life for whom no one else’s care can be a substitute, is the ultimate application of an education in humane things. You can bring the liberal arts to bear on that constantly, in the way you think about culture and education and in the decisions you make for this little community.
What are some specific ways you go about building that culture?
There are as many ways to do this as there are families, as there are people with different talents and vocations. I love to sing, and Nathan plays banjo and guitar, so we enjoy making our own music. We now have older children who are better musicians than we are, and it has become a lot of fun. My interest in teaching led me to homeschool our children for many years. Homeschooling is a great way to “take back” the time and space you need to make your home culture a priority, though it certainly is not the only way to do this well. In more recent years, I have been blessed to rely on excellent local schools such as Hillsdale Academy for our older children’s formal education. We take our daily family prayers and meals very seriously, and we make them a priority. I really enjoy founding family traditions around the feasts of the Christian year, turning them into opportunities for education and celebration. Every family will have different strengths when it comes to forming a vibrant family culture.
What are some things that stand in the way of this vision of culture?
The idea of radical personal autonomy is, I think, at the root of so many cultural ills. At the heart of this lies the idea that I can make myself whatever I want to be, with no constraints on my will, whether natural, physical, or moral. Freedom means to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe,” to quote the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey Supreme Court Case. If there are any constraints on my will these are contrary to my happiness, because my happiness equals doing what I want. This is the modern religion. The message to women is to throw off the constraints of nature, throw off the constraints of the child in the womb, throw off the demands of the infant and young child; those things are holding you back from becoming you. Because a woman is called to a kind of self-gift in motherhood, that lie can be very appealing. Especially when women experience the difficulty of that gift, the culture offers an answer: “It’s not fair!”
Nothing cuts against personal autonomy like the infant child. I think so many women who go through college are really caught up short when they confront this, and perhaps surprised that no one ever mentioned it. In college everyone is an individual. Even though you know there are differences between men and women, they are not quite so obvious because everyone is doing the same thing. Suddenly, when you join your spouse and start building a family, those differences become stark. The husband has to decide: “I’m going to sacrifice some of my autonomous ambitions to support and foster this family, and then as the child grows I’m going to step in more and more, really take up my full role as father, and not just bring home the bacon and do what I want to do.” And the gift the woman gives of her presence is done in a radical way. That she recognizes this as a part of her own happiness and development is critical. With this comes a tension that the feminists rage against, but it’s not patriarchy, and it’s not prejudice, or the glass ceiling. It’s the natural fact that babies and very young children need their mothers continually, physically present for a greater period of time than they need their fathers continually, physically present.
The whole formation of the young human person in some sense depends upon that foundational self-gift of the mother, so one of the key things at the very beginning of culture building is the woman’s decision to dedicate a large amount of her physical, mental, and psychological resources to that young child. Does that mean she can’t work outside the home? No. What percentage? Every woman has to prudentially determine that herself. I have done several part-time jobs over the years, such as teaching and running parish programs. Now I work part-time for the marriage movement CanaVox. But no one, man or woman, can really “have it all” as the modern feminists continually tell us we should. Every time we make a decision to pursue one thing, we preclude doing something else, and those decisions have to be guided by true priorities and our own vocation.
I think the critical thing is that each mother is able to say, yes, I’m willing to dedicate myself to caring for this young life, and I don’t see it as the end of my existence as an independent and happy person. I actually see it as a fulfillment of my growth as a woman and as a person, and a part of my happiness. My husband sees it too, and he’s going to support me in this decision. We know that this is a great work, and though all great work involves some sacrifice, it is fundamentally a work of love and joy.
Klara Holscher, ’17, is an English major from Hobart, New York. She possesses a quirky sense of humor, an orange car, and a terrible sense of direction. It remains to be seen whether or not these elements will lead to a career in writing, but regardless, they should afford some amusement along the way.