Summer of Mother Culture: Mothers Are Born Persons

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Mother Culture, which is the idea that mothers continue their own education and further “culture” themselves even while homeschooling their children and managing busy families, is a topic I’m very passionate about.

My husband and I have been married for 19 years, and for the last eight years, we have been homeschooling our kids and running our own businesses out of our home, so our schedule is always very full, and we don’t have much free time. However, even within that busyness, I have found during the last few years that I am healthier mentally and spiritually when I make time to grow myself. This practice has really become essential for me and not something I can put off even when I feel like I have no time. And this, essentially, is what Mother Culture is.

Over the next few months, I will be offering a series of posts based on a talk I gave about Mother Culture at the Hearts Encouraged Retreat in 2023 and the Charlotte Mason Educational Retreat in 2024. The series will include why we need it, what it looks like, and ideas for how to practice it. But first, let’s start by talking about what Mother Culture is.

Mother Culture

Charlotte Mason

As with so many things on my website, this topic also begins with Charlotte Mason. The phrase “Mother Culture” is actually a specific term and is trademarked by Karen Andreola, author of A Charlotte Mason Companion. I first read about it in an 1892 article from “The Parents’ Review,” which was a magazine that went out to members of the Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU) in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The magazine was described as “A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture,” and subscribers were generally parents who were either educating their own children in their home, or were closely involved with someone else, like a governess, who was educating their children at home.

The PNEU was co-founded by Charlotte Mason, who pioneered education reform in England during her lifetime. She started the PNEU as well as a teacher training college, schools, and periodicals, all with the goal of education reform. Her experiences as a teacher inspired her to write a series of books laying out her educational ideas and theories. Working through these ideas, she came up with 20 principles that summarize her philosophy. At the time, they were bold statements. Up till that time, children were supposed to be “seen and not heard,” and many of them were extremely neglected – not only the ones who came from poorer families but also those whose families were more well-off. However, Ms. Mason’s very first principle was that:

Children are born persons.

Charlotte Mason – Principle #1

What she meant by this is expressed very well in a paraphrase from Leslie Laurio, one of the Advisory members of AmblesideOnline. She said it in this way:

Children are born persons – they are not blank, slates, or embryonic oysters who have the potential of becoming persons. They already are persons.

Leslie Laurio – Paraphrase of Charlotte Mason’s Principle #1

Charlotte Mason meant this across the board. She wasn’t just referring to upper-class families or even just middle-class families. She also meant the children living on the streets, the children living in orphanages, and the children whom society generally did not see much value in.

I think she also expands on that well in her ninth principle, which says:

We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

Charlotte Mason – Principle #9

What she meant here was that every child is sometimes considered an empty vessel, and we need to fill them with knowledge. As adults, we get to decide what that knowledge is and how it should be presented. And modern thinking (even back to Charlotte Mason’s day) also often believes that we need to dumb that knowledge down for them.

However, Ms. Mason disagreed with these ideas. She says here that children are prepared to deal with knowledge, and they have a desire for knowledge. She saw children as valuable human beings who were born with personalities, emotions, and a desire to grow, and that belief comes out a great deal in all of her writings.

What is mother culture?

Let’s return to the topic at hand and talk about mother culture itself. I’m going to share an excerpt from the article that, I feel, summarizes mother culture well:

What we need is a habit of taking our minds out of what one is tempted to call ‘the domestic rag-bag’ of perplexities, and giving it a good airing in something which keeps it ‘growing.’ A brisk walk will help. But, if we would do our best for our children, grow we must; and on our power of growth surely depends, not only our future happiness, but our future usefulness.

A., Parents’ Review Volume 3, no. 2, 1892/93, pp. 92-95

I’m sure most of us have a pretty good idea of what the “domestic ragbag of perplexities” is. In the article, the author summarizes some of the stages a woman would’ve gone through during her lifetime. From her early years, she’s protected in her home; she has her parents (especially her mother) to take care of all the things that need to be taken care of in the household. But, then, all of a sudden, she gets married, and she’s thrust into this world where she has to oversee things. In Victorian England specifically, many families had servants, and the author mentions how this woman now has to manage her domestic staff. Then, eventually, she has to oversee her children, along with all of the chores and tasks that women were responsible for on a daily basis. And, honestly, their to-do lists probably weren’t all that different than what we have on ours today. Things like keeping the house clean, cooking meals, making sure schedules are copacetic, and that everyone is well fed and clothed, and possibly even doing all of these things while working (either outside or inside the home!). All of these things can add up over time and take quite a bit of mental power.

Mother Culture is this idea that we as mothers have to be careful not to get sucked into that “domestic ragbag” regularly. We need to continue to cultivate, or culture, our minds. And overall, I don’t think this is a complex idea. We can look at it on the surface and say, OK, I need to read more books! I need to learn new things! But when we consider how our society in general views education, as well as how some groups that we may be part of hold opinions on how women should spend their time, I think this idea can get a bit more muddled.

Before I came across the idea of Mother Culture, and before I was actually seeing it in practice in the women around me, I didn’t think much about continuing my own education after college. Once I had walked across that stage and gotten my diploma, the idea of continuing to read something or somehow educate myself further didn’t really cross my mind because I didn’t think it was necessary. I read a lot of fiction, but non-fiction did not interest me in the least, and if I was interested in a topic, I didn’t necessarily immediately think, “Oh, I should go and get a book on that topic,” or, “I should look for a class on that topic.” And I think that’s common thinking in our society.

Ms. Mason mentions this in Parents and Children when she says:

…it is possible to pass even the Universities Local Examinations with credit, without ever having experienced that vital stir which marks the inception of an idea; and, if we have succeeded in escaping this disturbing influence, why, we have ‘finished our education’ when we leave school; we shut up our books and our minds, and remain pigmies in the dark forest of our own dim world of thought and feeling.

Charlotte Mason, “Parents and Children”

It’s a somewhat dramatic way of saying it, but I think the idea is the same. Once we graduate from college, we don’t see a need to continue our education. We passed the tests, earned our diploma, and got a job, and the diploma and job parts were really the only reasons we were pursuing an education.

A few years after I graduated from college with my art history degree, I was chatting with a friend and we started talking about something related to art. She asked a question about a specific artist that my former college self would have been able to answer in a heartbeat. But at that moment, I couldn’t think of the answer. I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. I could not think of the artist, or movement, or style, or whatever it was that she was asking. And it made me very sad. I remember after that, whenever art came up and I couldn’t remember something, I would think, “I used to know that.” 

So I got it in my head that I was going to read books about artists! I was going to read artist biographies! And books on art theory! I went and bought some at the bookstore and started to read them with gusto! And then I completely lost interest because I had no end goal. I was not reading it for a class. No one would grade me on reading it, and it turned out that that need for some kind of external goal was inherently a part of me. The idea that unless I was reading for some outside purpose, whether it was grades, a test, or some kind of acknowledgment, there was no reason to read a book that wasn’t purely for entertainment.

Later, though, when I started understanding what mother culture is, my view shifted. The reason wasn’t a grade or a diploma or a job; the reason was me; making myself a better person and growing myself mentally and spiritually was the ultimate purpose of education. It wasn’t to show off my knowledge or be able to answer Jeopardy! questions, it was to give me something for me.

She also talks about being able to have conversations with our children as they get older. She uses the example of children coming home from school and sharing an opinion about something they’ve learned with their mother that differs from her own. Or it’s something she’s never heard of before and can’t discuss. And then, somehow, the children prove that her opinion is wrong, and the author suggests that this probably isn’t a good thing. She says:

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.

A., Parents’ Review Volume 3, no. 2, 1892/93, pp. 92-95

She’s saying here that we need to continue to grow ourselves so that this situation doesn’t happen, and I do see value in that. Ultimately, though, I think that if you want to pursue mother culture, you have to pursue it for yourself. Not necessarily for your children, for your husband, or for any other reason. It has to be something that you desire for you. She says:

The only way to do it is to be so strongly impressed with the necessity for growing herself that she herself makes it a real object in life. She can only rarely be helped from the outside.

A., Parents’ Review Volume 3, no. 2, 1892/93, pp. 92-95

At the end of the quote I first shared, giving an overview of mother culture, she also said, “on our power of growth surely depends, not only our future happiness, but our future usefulness.”

I feel like the usefulness part goes along with being able to have intelligent conversations with the people around us, including our children and husbands. But she also says our “future happiness,” and I would argue that our current happiness also depends on us intentionally taking that time for ourselves as much as possible.

Charlotte Mason alludes to this in Towards a Philosophy of Education. In this quote, she references the Greek philosopher Socrates, and I think it summarizes well what knowledge can be for us. She wrote:

Now personal delight, joy in living, is a chief object of education; Socrates conceived that knowledge is for pleasure, in the sense, not that knowledge is one source, but is the source of pleasure.

Charlotte Mason, “Towards a Philosophy of Education”

Why do we need Mother Culture?

Returning to the article, the author goes to the heart of why we have a need for mother culture. She starts by talking about what happens after a couple has their first child:

And then, perhaps, just as she is grasping the situation, and one child fills her whole heart, more room is wanted, and more and more, and the servant question goes on, the management of expenditure goes on, the desire to be more than ever her husband’s companion grows stronger and stronger, and the centre of it all is one little woman—wife, mother, mistress all in one! Then it is that she gets overdone. Then it is that she wears herself out. Then it is that, in her efforts to be ideal wife, mother, and mistress, ……she forgets that she is herself……. Then it is, in fact, that she stops growing. 

A., Parents’ Review Volume 3, no. 2, 1892/93, pp. 92-95

The first time I read this, I felt it acutely, especially that line: “She forgets that she is herself.” I think that, especially when our children are young, it’s so easy to forget ourselves because we constantly have to manage at least one other human being. And that human being can be completely unreasonable, and wants to get into everything, and has a million questions for you, and loves you with every fiber of their being, and wants to be near you, and wants to touch you, and wants to stick their fingers in wall sockets, and explore the world in other not-so-safe ways. I remember when my children were young, I had a hard time even getting a shower every day. Yet mothers do these things every single day, even while trying to run a household smoothly and homeschool. It’s so easy to lose ourselves in all of this.

The author is acknowledging here that this happens. We do lose ourselves. We do end up putting everybody else before us because we want to, and because we love them, and because we want to care for them. And maybe there are other reasons as well. Maybe we’re trying to live up to the expectations that other people have for us. Or even the expectations we put on ourselves, especially if we saw an example of what we thought was a perfect woman when we were growing up. In our more modern age, other people’s lives are always on display in front of us, and we play the comparison game too.

So we’re trying to live up to this ideal, and we put everyone else before ourselves. I do want to clarify and state that I am not saying that we should always just focus on ourselves. But what I am saying is that we shouldn’t be lost entirely. We shouldn’t be giving so much of ourselves that there’s absolutely nothing left for us at the end of the day.

And ironically, I found that since I adopted this practice of Mother Culture, I actually feel like I have more of myself to give.

With that in mind, and this overall view of how Charlotte Mason viewed children, we can put those same ideas into mind for ourselves. Going back to her first principle – “children are born persons,” I would also argue that mothers are born persons. I would even say that: 

We hold that the mother’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, …..a spiritual organism……, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

Charlotte Mason – Principle #9 (slightly modified)

We are not just home managers, housekeepers, chauffeurs, cooks, teachers, or whatever other roles that we fulfill in our families. We are also ourselves. We are also spiritual organisms who not only have the ability to learn and to grow but also a deep need for it.

In the coming months, I’ll be diving into this idea a little deeper with a few more posts on what Mother Culture looks like, how to practice it in your own life, and some ideas for ways to culture yourself. I am looking forward to sharing this vital practice here!

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  1. Looking forward to the rest of your articles on Mother Culture! Thanks!

  2. Wow. This was deeply convicting. Thank you Rebecca.

  3. So much truth in this beautifully elaborated article. I am also passionate about this and as I sit here reading this, with my 6th baby (3 weeks old) sleeping in my arms, I appreciate this wonderful reminder that I am MYSELF; I was born a person.

    You’ve touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for writing. I’ll be following this series.

    Mary, UK

  4. This is what has been on my mind lately -now I have a name for it! I’m really looking forward to reading the rest these articles.

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