Embracing Vulnerability in Motherhood: Lessons from “Little Women”

Twenty years ago, I curled up in the backseat of my parent’s Nissan Quest and spent an eight-hour road trip with only one book: Little Women. By the time we returned home from visiting my grandparents in North Carolina, I loved the four March sisters as if they were my own. 

Over time, the exact details of the plot faded, but the deep satisfaction I felt after finishing the novel never left me. When I heard that Greta Gerwig was remaking a film version of the story, I knew I had to re-read the beloved book before heading to the theater. 

Twenty years after my first experience of the story, I still loved the March sisters, but I felt myself identifying unexpectedly with another character: Mrs. “Marmee” March. Now that I am a mother with a daughter, I observed her closely as I read. How does she discipline her children? How does she show her four daughters that she sees them and cares for them as individuals? How does she find the strength to carry through an entire year with her husband away at war? I was hungry to learn from this beloved literary mother. 

In the first few chapters of Little Women, I was so impressed by Marmee’s virtues that I began to feel uneasy, acutely aware of my own shortcomings. “Could this woman ever be real?” I wondered as I watched her leave her daughters on Christmas morning to help another family in need, only to return and ask her girls to share their long-awaited Christmas breakfast with their hungry neighbors. She even asks her children to forego Christmas presents, because she thinks the spending would be frivolous during a time of war. 

At the outset, Marmee’s motherhood seems to be based on an unshakeable foundation of justice, temperance, and fortitude, which inspires her daughters but seems a bit unrealistic or even intimidating to the 21st century reader. Marmee holds her girls to a high standard, and acts as a guidepost for them as they mature over the course of the story. She also sets the bar high for the reader, reminding her that as Christians, we are called to intentionally cultivate a life of virtue, and so draw closer to Christ. 

However, it is not in her perfection that Marmee is most inspiring to her daughters and Alcott’s readers. Rather, it is in her honesty about her imperfections that she makes the biggest impression. 

Shortly after a dramatic fight between Jo and Amy, Jo cries to her mother about her inability to control her temper. As she comforts Jo, Marmee confesses to her daughter that she has struggled with the same temptation to anger herself. Jo is shocked by this confession, and even tells Marmee, “You are never angry!”

While reading the novel most recently, I shared both Jo’s shock and sentiment. Up until this point, Marmee appeared perfect. I was surprised not only that she had a flaw, but also that she so willingly and openly shared it with her daughter. 

Motherhood has forced me to confront my own perfectionism in a startling new way, and I would wager that I am not alone. While life with my daughter has certainly made me more aware of my flaws and unrealistic expectations, I’m still not convinced that I could follow in Marmee’s footsteps and share them openly with her — or anyone else. Our culture sees imperfection as weakness, and so we often hide or even deny our shortcomings. But Marmee, and more importantly, Christ our Savior, see them as strength. Indeed, St. Paul says it best when he writes, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

Marmee’s prudence shines in this scene because her awareness and confession of her weakness effectively comforts and inspires her daughter in a time of deep spiritual need: 

The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her; the knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it.

Jo is not scandalized or repelled by her mother’s flaws; rather, Jo feels a closeness with her mother that would not have been possible without Marmee’s vulnerability. Marmee’s example of struggle and success inspires her daughter to continue bravely on her own path of virtue. And perhaps most surprisingly, it has inspired me, too. 

In the past, the fear of rejection or disappointment has persuaded me to project perfection, but that is not what Marmee, or more importantly, Christ model for us. Ultimately, it is their humility and vulnerability that make them compelling instructors of virtue. Marmee’s honest struggle draws her hurting daughter closer and helps her to heal, just as Christ’s kenosis — His self-emptying — is the very act that brings us closer to what we are all meant to be: beloved daughters and sons of God. 

As I try to teach my own daughter how to live a virtuous life, I am grateful for Marmee’s example of struggle and success. Meeting her again as a mother — and still a daughter, sister, and friend — has given me permission and hope to face my flaws courageously and to share them openly when the time is right. As we approach Lent, I am praying for the prudence to see myself as I truly am now — and as who I can be, with the help of God’s unfailing grace. 

2 thoughts on “Embracing Vulnerability in Motherhood: Lessons from “Little Women”

  1. I suppose it depends on how old your daughter is. Jo is a late teen I think. By that time our kids are usually pretty aware of our flaws and are refreshed by our candor about them.

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