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Motherhood: Confessions in a new skin

20 November 2020

Natalie Carnes tells Madeleine Davies about her labour of love regarding St Augustine’s memoir


Illustration from Wee Babies,“Printed in Colour from Original Designs by Ida Waugh” (Griffith & Farran, 1882)

Illustration from Wee Babies,“Printed in Colour from Original Designs by Ida Waugh” (Griffith & Farran, 1882)

IN WRITING his Confessions, St Augustine was careful to start at the very beginning. Was it wrong, he wonders, that, as a baby, he “greedily opened my mouth wide to suck the breasts”? What about the infant he observed who, “pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk”? While onlookers may be content to smile at and tolerate such behaviour, “it can hardly be innocence.”

Dr Natalie Carnes wonders whether it is possible to describe such behaviour as a sin “without slipping into nonsense”. Might it not, in fact, be holy ground? “Mingled with hunger, thirst, and the need for human comfort is a desire that will not be satisfied by food, drink, or intimacy,” she writes of her own nursing daughter, in Motherhood: A confession. “It is the desire for something more, for something beyond the world you know. I believe it is your desire for the divine.”

Such reflections are what Dr Carnes describes as the work of “repair”. Mirroring Augustine’s text in structure (13 chapters) and content (each explores a theme found in his work), Motherhood is a both tribute — she identifies parallels between the saint’s struggles and her own, recognising the wisdom in his conclusions — and a challenge, pointing to its limitations, and offering alternative perspectives and arguments.

Among her most striking observations is that Augustine “falls short of his own theology”, particularly in his relationship to women’s bodies. Motherhood is a “work of love”, she says: an attempt to reach across the centuries to help her forebear to receive women’s bodies not solely as occasions of sin, but as places of divine encounter.


DR CARNES was first struck by the Confessions as a student while going through a break-up. She was moved by Augustine’s description of his own heartbreak, but curious about the fate of the woman he sent away, the mother of his child. She now teaches the text every term, as an associate professor of theology at Baylor University, in Texas.

She is conscious that some feminists have opted to cease engaging with the Confessions, turning instead to “more women-affirming” works. Others have sought to expose its “structures of domination and idolatry and patriarchy”. Although she has no qualms about describing it as a misogynistic text, she asks: “Can a feminist read the Confessions as addressing her and as a feminist?”

AlamySt Augustine, seventh-century fresco in the Lateran Palace, Rome

Addressed firstly to her daughter and then to God, Motherhood occupies a world that would be, in some senses, alien to Augustine. The determination to persist with breastfeeding even when she is no longer able to supply enough milk, and the battle to balance the call of work and mothering, are familiar struggles to anyone who has spent anxious hours scrolling through Mumsnet.

The themes — idolatry, desire, domination, conversion — cohere with the original; and the tone — earnest, questing — is strikingly redolent of it. Like Augustine, Dr Carnes seeks to examine herself in the light of scripture and the lives of the “great cloud of witnesses”, to discern what God might be asking of her. In doing so, she invites the reader into the most intimate aspects of her life.

“My love for you can be something that closes in on itself, blocking me from other loves, or it can become my entrance into God’s merciful heart,” she writes to her daughter. “What does it mean to receive a child as a gift? How does a parent resist possessing her child as her own?”

In our conversation, she agrees that it is this desire to dominate her child — “to substitute my will for her own” — that constitutes her greatest temptation, the equivalent of St Augustine’s famous struggle with lust.

“Part of what is complicated about that desire is that . . . it’s not coming from my lack of love,” she reflects. “It colludes with my love for the child. I want her to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry’; I know that that’s good for her, that it’s for her own freedom and maturity and growing in love.

“[But] what begins as the good desire . . . ends up also exposing my impulses of ‘If you’re not going to do it as you are supposed to do it, then I will just make you do it because it angers me to see you thwarting me and making me look bad in front of other parents.’

“Learning how to let that child be separate from me and to love that child and be present to her even in her separateness — that, I think, is the difficult task of the parent.”


THE complexities of love and desire are a central theme of Motherhood. Dr Carnes suggests that, in her view of the world, “there can be less worry about the multiplicity of desire, and can instead be more hopefulness about desires that fall short of the divine”. The work is less a wholesale repudiation of Augustine’s theology than an attempt to repair it in the places where it is “stunted”.

“What I think Augustine gets right is that he takes pleasure seriously. He takes it as meaningful in a way that sometimes I feel like today we are not as inclined to. . . But yes, I do see that Augustine almost, in some ways, falls short of his own theology, especially desire.”

In the Confessions, he describes the milk he drank as a baby as the means by which God fed him, “in accordance with your ordinance and the riches which are distributed deep in the natural order”. Love of creation because of the Creator is “fundamental” to his thinking.

In her introduction to Motherhood, Dr Carnes notes that the Bible is full of the language of birth, both as image and metaphor. She goes on to marvel at the ways in which the relationship between pregnant mother and unborn child mirrors that of God and human.

The mother is both God-like (“My body was your cosmos, the source that filled your needs and sustained your life”) and the recipient of God (“You were the God who come to us in Christ needing food, drink, and shelter”).

She is fascinated to learn that babies give their mothers foetal cells which remain for years and can travel to the site of injured maternal hearts: “What could be a better image of the divine than giving one’s body to bind broken hearts?”

MOTHERHOOD was published the month before the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota triggered large-scale protests in the United States, and a nationwide reckoning that is still in its infancy. She is still reflecting on a protest poster that evoked the last words of Mr Floyd: “When George Floyd called for his mamma, that was a summons to all mothers. . .

“Motherhood can be an excuse to hold the suffering of the world at bay, by protecting and shielding your child, insulating your child from the suffering of others; or it can be an invitation that takes you into the different kinds of knowledge of the suffering of the world and opens up for you a tender-heartedness towards the suffering ones of the world,” she says.

“I think that the protesters who held that sign . . . were sort of reminding us of that second true path of mercy, where you begin by loving this vulnerable creature, and that teaches you how to love all vulnerable creatures in a different kind of way. . . If we want our children to be like Christ, then where do we find Christ except in the ones on the margins of the world? . . . If we shield our children from suffering, then we end up shielding them from Christ.”

It is a perspective that, like the poster, opens up motherhood beyond the nuclear family. I ask about the value placed on motherhood in the Church. Are women who are not mothers made to feel less than those who are? In the UK, one in five women reach their mid-forties without having had children.

Dr Carnes agrees that “we have a real problem in terms of our inability to place people who are single or childless in our communities;” but motherhood, she argues, is an “analogous term” that “speaks to the ways that we are all called to bear and nurture life into the world”.

“There is biological motherhood, adoptive motherhood, foster-motherhood. . . But then there’s also, in academia, people who are your advisers . . . an aunt or a mentor in your life might play the role of a mother, teachers are a kind of mother, pet owners sometimes talk about themselves as mothers or fathers.”

Caring for children is a sign of a call that we all have, she says, “to be like Mary — to bear Christ into the world.”


Motherhood: A confession is published by Stanford University Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.09).

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