How Being a Parent is Like Being a Hobbit
I read The Hobbit (1937) by J. R. R. Tolkien, number 16 on the BBC book list, several years ago, after The Lord of the Rings movies came out. I wanted to know what the fuss was about, although I didn’t really like the movies and I was not willing to read the LOTR trilogy. (I’ve since ventured into reading those for the BBC book list. Click to see my posts about The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.)
I’ve been prompted to write about The Hobbit because my husband and I finally watched the three-hour movie (only the first half of the book!) that recently came out. We enjoyed it, but what stood out to me were the characteristics of hobbits. Bilbo in particular is a homebody, somewhat anti-social, and afraid of change. He has big hairy feet, too. I teased my husband that he was a hobbit, for all of the previous reasons.
But in some ways we are all hobbits. Change is hard. Rising to the occasion is something many of us shy away from, especially if that involves fighting “dragons” or entertaining many unknown houseguests. We tend toward the easiest path, the path of least resistance. We like to be in control of our circumstances. We may even stay on the outskirts of a situation because we don’t have control, and we prefer to wallow in our anger or self-pity. Bilbo does this when Gandalf’s guests take over his home; he feels trapped and surrounded. He cannot enjoy their company or act as a good host because he’s too wrapped up in the mess, the noise, and the disorder.
I find myself sometimes acting this part with my children. I get exasperated when after having vacuumed and mopped the floors, they then get out the paint supplies and splatter colors everywhere (while creating beautiful masterpieces) or they clumsily eat food, leaving a pile underneath the table, for it is hard to wield big forks with little hands. I could stand to be less like Bilbo in these moments. I could stand to forget how much work it was to get things clean and instead enjoy my children and laugh off the small stuff.
From this crazy beginning, in which a Bilbo is fearful and irritated, he learns of a quest. It is the typical hero cycle. He must journey. And since I’ve compared Bilbo’s irritation at being dragged into the situation in the first place to motherhood, I might as well take the metaphor further. Motherhood is also a journey, a hero’s journey. It follows the hero cycle (which I discuss in detail in my post on Harry Potter). According to an academic essay called “Spiritual Awakening through the Motherhood Journey,” motherhood has a myth surrounding it that may be negative. But the authors, Aurélie M. Athan and Lisa Miller, say instead that “Motherhood is in fact an opportunity for creative spiritual growth and transformation in women. This potential lies latent in the intense emotional experiences of mothering which are identical in quality to those described by William James as essential to religious conversion” (p. 17). (This intrigues me for many reasons, but Williams James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience just came in the mail for me yesterday, and I’m excited to read it.) Athan and Miller go on to compare the mothering experience to the hero’s journey.
I find the concept intriguing, that mothers (and fathers) could be undertaking a quest or a spiritual journey as they parent. And I think why The Hobbit continues to enthrall us is because we all journey, as Bilbo does, and we all go through heroic quests, sometimes small and sometimes large and lasting our entire lives. To live is to journey heroically.
I found the article on motherhood as a hero’s journey in volume 7, number 1 of the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, which is now called Journal of the Motherhood Initiative. I bought it at the academic conference I attended in Toronto, Canada, in June. It is the publication arm of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement and corresponding conference. It is a way to write and think about motherhood academically and to explore the experience of motherhood through scholarship.
Anyway, sometimes we undertake that journey (of motherhood or parenthood) reluctantly.
Sometimes it is frightening.
Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.
Other times somebody blows their nose on us, as the Orc blew his nose on Bilbo.
Sometimes we must fight either literally, with ourselves, or mentally, to press on in the journey.
Sometimes our friends are there to back us up.
Other times, we must go it alone.
Sometimes the kids have insects in their mouths.
Sometimes you have to keep the wolves at bay.
Sometimes the past comes back to haunt you.
Sometimes you walk in circles.
Sometimes you lie to save yourself.
Sometimes you go without a shower.
Sometimes the journey seems too long and too hard.
Sometimes you have to hide.
Sometimes you have to go last.
Sometimes you have to keep going without being able to see where the pathway leads.
Sometimes you get to rest.
Sometimes you’re surrounded by elves; other times they are orcs.
Sometimes you want to turn back.
Sometimes you don’t understand the language.
Being a parent is very much like being a hobbit.