The term Mother Culture was coined in a Parents’ Review Article in 1893. The author of the article is not clearly listed, but Charlotte was still alive and editing the periodical, and so we can assume she would have seen it and known of its being published, though the term did not appear in any of her six volumes.
The term seems to refer to the idea that a mother must keep growing in mind and intellect alongside her children. That she cannot hold still and do only the daily necessities of life – feeding, clothing, and supervising the children while maintaining the cleanliness of the home – but rather that she must prioritize the feeding of her own mind as well. Why? Because we must take the long view of life. Our children will grow up and will need us to meet them where they are when the questions get difficult and life’s trials seem complicated. They need to know that we have been learning and growing and are up to the challenge of giving sage advice and wise counsel when it is needed. In the words of the Mother Culture article: “There is no sadder sight in life than a mother, who has so used herself up in her children’s childhood, that she has nothing to give them in their youth. When babyhood is over and school begins, how often children take to proving that their mother is wrong…Is there not some need for “mother culture”? But how is the state of things to be altered? So many mothers say, “I simply have no time for myself!” “I never read a book!” Or else, “I don’t think it is right to think of myself!” They not only starve their minds, but they do it deliberately, and with a sense of self-sacrifice which seems to supply ample justification.”
In a more modern article titled, “Stop Cleaning the Kitchen – Read a Book”, Susan Wise Bauer, wrote “Recognize that you may be reluctant to read because, on some deep level, it doesn’t seem worthwhile. Activities that produce an immediate result are always more satisfying than activities that don’t. We need to acknowledge to ourselves that we enjoy seeing visible results for what we do. In many ways, it’s more rewarding to get up in the morning and clean the kitchen than to get up and read. After all, if your husband or your mother walks in, you can say, ‘I am a useful human being. I am a useful member of society. Look at my kitchen.’ But if your house is filthy, the baby is screaming, and you have a book in your hand, you won’t feel at all rewarded.”
I will say, my trouble with both quotations above however, is the focus on the negative -that someday you may not be smart enough to do you job well and right now you must sacrifice your time to large tomes and the state of your home will likely suffer. For so many of us, adding another thing to the day can feel like a burden – this is then made more difficult when what you are asked to add the schedule seems somehow selfish or unnecessary. What I am here to state however, is the positive. Throughout the bible, we are told to “Be Not Afraid”. I think it is much more fruitful to focus on the fact that we are children of God in the same way our children are. God gave us the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in order to lead us closer to him – passing this on to our children IS our job, but partaking in it is too. God gave us these gifts, let us not turn them away.
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” – Phillipians 4:8-9
What a lovely ending to that verse, “The God of peace will be with you.” It made me think of one of those goals that Charlotte Mason calls us to. To be serene. To have the serenity of the Madonna. That long and oft quoted part of the book wherein she gives us as parents the permission and direction to participate in leisure for the benefit of our whole selves as well as our families, “It is not for nothing that the old painters, however diverse their ideas in other matters, all fixed upon one quality as proper to the pattern Mother. The Madonna, no matter out of whose canvas she looks at you, is always serene. This is a great truth, and we should do well to hang our walls with the Madonnas of all the early Masters if the lesson, taught through the eye, would reach with calming influence to the heart. Is this a hard saying for mothers in these anxious and troubled days? It may be hard, but it is not unsympathetic. If mothers could learn to do for themselves what they do for their children when these are overdone, we should have happier households. Let the mother go out to play! If she would only have courage to let everything go when life becomes too tense, and just take a day, or half a day, out in the fields, or with a favourite book, or in a picture gallery looking long and well at just two or three pictures, or in bed, without the children, life would go on far more happily for both children and parents.” Volume 3, p. 33
All of this – a focus on truth, beauty, and goodness; a serene mother; dwelling in the good honorable, right, pure, lovely and excellent things; drawing closer in relationship to our Lord… what does this do? It creates the atmosphere of our home. When Charlotte chalked up a full 1/3 of the tools that we have at our disposal for education to atmosphere, it is no small thing to take some time to contemplate what type of atmosphere we want in our home and how to achieve this. If we infuse our lives with rich books and experiences and we have our disciplines of habit in good order, we have only 2/3 of our formula in order. It is our God-given duty to create the atmosphere in our homes. The truth is, we do this whether or not we give it a single minute of thought. We must contemplate the type of atmosphere we want and what mindset we must have in order to create an atmosphere of serenity. Then we will be able to begin to create the proper atmosphere for education in wisdom and virtue.
In my view, this is the ultimate goal in Mother Culture – when the mother is reading, enjoying a trip to the museum or gardens or seashore, attempting a slightly challenging new recipe or learning as she grows something new in the garden, when she takes a class online or begins a blog to share her knowledge with the world, when she does anything that adds to the atmosphere of learning in the home in a way that is serene and joyful, that is when her children will learn the most from her. From the example of her desire to learn throughout life, they will gain the same desire to learn.