Marilla Cuthbert and the Journey of Unconventional Motherhood
By Breana English
Marilla Cuthbert is not a conventional choice as an example of motherhood. She was never married or pregnant. No one called her Mom. But it is childless women in literature like Marilla Cuthbert and Corrie Ten Boom who give us someone to laugh with, cry with, and be examples of what it means to be fruitful when your arms are empty.
What does it mean to live out the generative capacity that all women are called to when you have borne no children?
All women possess the calling to be fruitful, but each of us must ask what that means for us in particular. Some of us will continue working out the answer to this question for our entire lives, whether because of singleness, infertility, or a commitment to the religious life. A darling, fuzzy-headed toddler sleeps peacefully in the next room as I write this. Still, it took over a decade of marriage and a beautiful yet heartbreaking adoption journey for me to become a mother.
St. Edith Stein says that “the need . . . for maternal sympathy and help,” exists “everywhere.” When you have children, it’s easy to see who needs to be mothered. It’s more complicated when you don’t, but several women from WRM readings show us that we need to look first at home and in our communities. Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom, from The Hiding Place, both single, mother those in their lives– first the disabled and young people of Haarlem, and then later the other women imprisoned with them. In Anne of Green Gables, Marilla Cuthbert comes to motherhood through seeing the needs of those God brought to her.
Once Marilla decides that she must care for Anne, she gives herself entirely to it. Although she is often harsh and strict with the girl, she does her best to form Anne’s character and develop her practical skills. She wants Anne to thrive as an adult and does not spare herself, even when her task seems hopeless. In Marilla’s care, Anne finds “a shelter in which (her soul) might unfold” (St Edith Stein), and because of it, she can grow into a woman of character and virtue. Marilla models for us the genius of ordinary women who, as Pope St. John Paul II says,
Marilla grows in her vocation. She comes into middle age “a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves; her dark hair showed some grey streaks and was always twisted up in a hard little knot behind with two wire hairpins stuck aggressively through it. She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was.” She is reluctant to take on Anne at first, and she reacts to Anne’s more effusive love by being secretly thrilled by her caresses but outwardly stern, telling her, “There, there, never mind your kissing nonsense.” But little by little, she blossoms until she is finally able, at the end of the book, to tell Anne, “I love you as dear as my own flesh and blood, and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables.” Through freely giving herself, Marilla, as Rachel Lynde says, “mellowed” and became who she was meant to be.
In living out her unconventional motherhood, Marilla demonstrates, as Pope St John Paul II said, that “spiritual motherhood . . . has inestimable value for the development of individuals and the future of society.”
About Well-Read Mom
For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom reflects on the theme of family. In Well-Read Mom we desire to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women can return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family. Find out more.