Tending the hearth right here at home can also be a sacred act.
“The symbol of Goddess gives us permission. She teaches us to embrace the holiness of every natural, ordinary, sensual dying moment.”~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
New mothers receive, often unexpectedly and without adequate preparation, the profound and often inescapable invitation to tend the Proverbial Hearth. I’m not sure what I thought would happen when I made the leap to becoming a mother, but I don’t think I was prepared to tend the fireside kitchen in the way it required.
Part of me thought I would be able to do it all: keep my sense of fancy-free, have one foot in my career as an environmental non-profit program director, and keep up with a social life while also somehow being a present and loving mother (with a clean house, to boot). I often struggled to balance my fierce desire for independence and autonomy with the draw of motherhood which entailed seemingly endless homemaking and tending to the needs of my kids.
What Do Goddess Archetypes Have To Do with Parenting?
Some days, this new normal of parenthood left me feeling cloistered. During a phase when I felt particularly tethered to my home and hearth, I decided to read Sue Monk Kidd’s Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story. It was the perfect book to aid me in contemplating the marvel of sacred journeys. It’s a lovely tale of Kidd’s adventures with her daughter who is just discovering her calling in life. It’s also an exploration of the phases of a woman’s life. The story follows their personal experiences during travels in Greece, France, and Turkey. It also explores the mythology and lore surrounding images of ancient goddesses of antiquity that they encounter along the way.
The book helped me to remember my own past as a traveler and adventurer. At one time I was fancy-free and footloose, always plotting my next escapade. At 19 I’d chosen Niger, West Africa for a study abroad program. Over the years, I’d backpacked solo across Europe, done a Buddhist Vipassana retreat in Dharamsala, India after two short stints on organic farms, and had lived in a Senufo village of 600 people for two years in southern Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Being tethered to home as a new mother of young children proved quite the contrast. How many of us women and mothers resonate with Sue Monk Kidd when she writes that she’d imagined herself “traveling more in the orbits of goddesses like Artemis and Athena, whose forms of the feminine are about the search for an independent self?” She writes:
They (Artemis and Athena) are the ones who could bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan. I haven’t pictured myself as a “mother goddess” type. My children have always existed at the deepest center of me, right there in the heart/hearth, but I have struggled with the powerful demands of motherhood, chafing sometimes at the way they pulled me away from my separate life, not knowing how to balance them with my unwieldy need for solitude and creative expression.
Kidd’s reflections got me thinking about the influence these archetypes have on our lives. Who were the “mother goddess” types? What were they revered for? And, might they have lessons for me as I settled into a new phase of life?
And then, I discovered the Greek Goddess Hestia, the Goddess of the hearth and fireside. Her task is to keep the home fires burning — symbolizing nurturing and the continuity of a spiritual flame within the home. As I delved into her history, I was surprised to find that she, like the free-wheeling Artemis and Athena, was the sort of goddess who is self-contained, independent, and unpartnered. Even though she was perennially rooted to home, she lived in her own circle of dominion. And, she is infinitely powerful. She prevailed over the right ordering of home life, the family, and even the state.
Hestia was not known to have the grand adventures that other goddesses often had. (According to ancient lore, she didn’t even leave the Hearth for the sacred processions of Gods and Goddesses). She was too busy reigning over the fire of home life, which enabled food and warmth. She was also fiercely occupied with her role of keeping the peace.
Hestia did not have a traditional ‘emblem’ like other goddesses. Her practical divinity was perhaps too obvious and self-explanatory for such grand measures. Instead, the divine feminine face of Hestia ultimately points to the ability to dwell firmly and contentedly in one’s place without need for fanfare or external recognition. She points with grace to the ability to belong to one’s home as a gesture of radical settling into the nurturing role of sitting fireside, at the helm of family life.
Tending Hearth as Sacred Journey
My life as a mother felt like such a contrast from the seeker’s heart and the Goddess archetype that flies the expanses of sky and earth: the woman who journeys, who goes on pilgrimages, who ventures into the unknown, who controls the forces of nature and the vicissitudes of harvests through her ebbs and flows. I recognized the tension in my own experience as I settled into home more often — still pulled to far-away places and drawn to the lures of adventure and movement. I was still resisting what I’d labeled the “specter of routine.” Yet with the surrender into the rhythm of routine also emerged the deepened settling into place, the ability to actualize dwelling in the best possible sense.
Before becoming a mother, I had not been one who was archetypally drawn to home and hearth. And yet, I could see the roots present in my longing to tell the story of where I come from through my family history, the valuing of good food and shared meals, and the contentment of creating beautiful, intentional space. Hestia had never called me with her quiet, subtle expression of creative power — and yet she is the one who makes the world go round so to speak. She, tender of fire, hearth, and family, maintains order and feeds life. She is the backdrop of rhythm in the flow of life. She is there to bookmark ‘home,’ — that which we return to and that which is our ground.
The book Traveling with Pomegranates had reminded me that of course there is a time for pilgrimage — a time when a physical journey can support the marking of a transition or transformation. Perhaps a great lesson of motherhood is the awakening into the realization that journeys can indeed also be profoundly inward into vast regions of the fire of heart and soul. We can also journey to the realm of hearth and home, family and food — where nourishment comes in the form of simple, quiet meals and slow walks up the stairs with sleeping child in arm. Hestia knows the art of doing each mundane task with great love and as a gift, with no need for recognition or fanfare. And still, it is she who keeps the fire of life burning.
As mothers, one of our many callings is to keep the fire of life burning in our own small orbits of home. Our children call us to the hearth in ways we could never have imagined before becoming parents. Climbing up on a stool next to the kitchen counter, our kids are ready to lend their little hands to baking projects. It is time to roll out the dough, get out the broom, and rise to the occasion of tending to home.
Indeed, the story of Hestia is a reminder of the possibility of dwelling contentedly at home — relishing in the simple forms of nourishment that tending hearth offers: quiet moments with family, shared meals, and the possibility of doing each task with great love.
Hestia invites us to dwell firmly and contentedly in one’s place without need for fanfare or external recognition. This week, practice more deeply settling into your home and ‘hearth.’
Consider what inner journeys you have ventured on since becoming a parent.
What are some of the simple joys you have found in tending hearth? Take time to notice and perhaps journal about your experience.
Deborah McNamara is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting, from which the above is adapted.