To the Lighthouse

My favorite book about a mother is To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I read it for the first time only recently. I couldn’t believe how powerful it was.

I have had friends who loved To the Lighthouse. They usually admired the character of Lily Briscoe, an artist and independent woman who seems to stand in for Woolf herself in some ways. In the book, Briscoe visits a British family, the Ramsays, at their vacation home on a Scottish island before World War I.

To the Lighthouse

Incredibly, to me now, anyway, my friends never talked about Mrs. Ramsay. I guess I can understand why they didn’t. Lily Briscoe was what we wanted to be at the time, serious women devoted to our art. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf doesn’t even give her a first name. Mrs. Ramsay is married to a celebrated intellectual who has come to Scotland with his favorite students. While he marches up and down the beach spouting great thoughts and obsessing about whether his work will live on after him, she is thinking about all the people in her home, her children and guests, and how she might make them happy.

Using the stuff of ordinary life, Mrs. Ramsay pulls off one magical evening in particular, even in spite of a number of glitches, that will stay with all of them for the rest of their lives, tying them with emotion and memories to that time and place.

I don’t want to trivialize a literary masterpiece, but that is what mothers do. Woolf is making that point, of course, that this woman who is almost part of the furniture to the people around her creates the moments that make their lives worth living.

I’m starting to think about Mother’s Day, and I hope you are, too, especially if your mother is still alive. Make that dinner reservation. Plan to give your mother something that will make her happy — flowers, a card, a phone call, a big kiss, or maybe a copy of To the Lighthouse.

Whatever your relationship with your mother, she is the only one you have.

Four good trends for the world’s women

"Women have long delivered for society, and, slowly, society is at last delivering for women. This is a moment to celebrate—and accelerate," The Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton wrote in a commentary that accompanied the publication of a new survey on global maternal mortality the British journal published on Monday.

Four factors associated with maternal mortality are moving in a good direction in many areas of the world, according to the study published this week, which was discussed in the previous post here on Birth Story.

First, the global total fertility rate (TFR), which reflects births per woman, has come down considerably, from 3.7 children in 1980, to 2.6 in 2008. That is a good thing, as the TFR is closely associated with maternal mortality.

Secondly, per capita income is also up, especially in Asia and Latin America. When families have more money, women get more nourishing food, and are more likely to get access to medical care.

Women are also more likely to get some education than they were 30 years ago, which bodes well for a society in which mothers can give birth in a safe environment. Women 25 to 44 years of age in sub-Saharan Africa had 1.5 years of school in 1980, but now have 4.4 years of school on average.

And lastly, women are more likely to have skilled birth attendants in 2008 than they were thirty years ago. "Some large countries such as India have witnessed quite rapid increases in skilled birth attendance in recent years," the study reports.