Elissa Strauss on the inescapable and escapable aspects of motherhood


“The Young Mother” Mary Cassatt

10 and she was in bitterness of soul–and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. 11 And she vowed a vow, and said: ‘O LORD of hosts, if Thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of Thy handmaid, and remember me, and not forget Thy handmaid, but wilt give unto Thy handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.’ . . . 20 And it came to pass, when the time was come about, that Hannah conceived, and bore a son; and she called his name Samuel: ‘because I have asked him of the LORD.’ 21 And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow. 22 But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband: ‘Until the child be weaned, when I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever.’  


I am Hannah. I know that motherhood moves in one direction. I know that we work and pray and struggle and then they leave. With them they take our blessings, our joy, those shells, that armor, the magical coats we made to protect them. Our job is done. The tragedy is unavoidable. We can’t reverse this. They go on and on and on.  Without us. This is Hannah’s story and it is mine. It is written into our biology, our stories, the master plan. It is the will of the force that propels us all. And when it is undone, reversed, it isn’t so much a tragedy, but unspeakable.

I am a new parent. Every day I fall deeper and deeper in love with my son. We are mother and child. Yes, that mother and child. We are not to be separated until we are very much to be separated. Until it gets creepy, unsightly, pathetic. Yesterday I overheard empty-nestors on the street and share the, according to them, illicit pleasure of their quiet homes. I hated them. Just like I hate Hannah’s tragedy. I hate it because I have no choice.


I am not Hannah. I refuse to let motherhood be defined by sacrifice. I refuse to go all in only to pull back and let it all go. I refuse to be invisible. No Eshet Chayil here. “She arises while it is still night, and gives food to her household and a portion to her maidservants.” My love cannot be defined by sacrifice. Anyway, I am too busy. I have things to do too.

How many times do they expect me to go to Shiloh? How low must I bow? How loud do I have to pray? How long do I have to fast? How much sorrow should ring through my weeps? Until there is nothing left to give?

I want something left for me. I want something left for now. I want something left for later. And I want my son to stick around long enough to see this, to understand this. That women can be mothers plus one. That mother lives within us, on the inside, and not around us, encircling us like a bow or a snake or a womb. I want my son to believe that God would speak to us for other reasons, lend an ear to all my non-maternal dreams, fetishes and concerns. That my son should see that the rewards lie outside of him too.