Dr. Maria Montessori loved children, yet the story of her only child seems to indicate that she loved her career more. In the late 1890s, just as her success at reforming the treatment of prisoners, insanity, mental disability, and child delinquency was garnering her worldwide fame, she became pregnant by a colleague. Maria and her lover, Guiseppe Montesano, were both doctors, both radical reformers, and both dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet the reality in Italy at the turn of the 20th century was that when a woman married she was expected to leave the workforce. A married woman’s place, no matter her skills or level of education, was in the home, not the surgery or hospital, not teaching at university or advising governments on social programs. Though we cannot be certain, it seems that to protect Maria’s career, the lovers took a vow not to marry and to raise their child together, but in secret. When Guiseppe betrayed Maria by marrying someone else, all that remained of their vow was the secrecy.
Dr. Montessori concealed her pregnancy and gave birth to her only child, a son, sending him to a wet nurse in the country. It was during this time of personal crisis that her career path took a dramatic turn. Maria shifted her focus from the institutionalized population of criminals and delinquents to the education of normal children. They became her passion and she dedicated her life to improving the health, education, and well-being of children. What she could not provide for her own child in his formative years, she longed to guarantee for the children of mothers all over the world.
The choice between work and motherhood, Maria’s choice, is still faced by women today. I imagine that Maria felt what so many of us feel – whether at home or work, we feel guilty, divided, and teetering on the brink of failing at both motherhood and career. I’m in the midst of doing research on Dr. Montessori’s life and work with the hope of producing a novel or bio-pic that does justice to her genius. I recently came across some of Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on the differences between the work-a-day world and life spent in the company of children. Careers are spent in an atmosphere of competition and selfish self-promotion. Becoming a parent requires something quite different. She explains it this way:
The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal of renunciation, of unselfishness – virtues almost unreachable outside family life. What businessman, in a position to acquire some property he needs, will ever say to one of his competitors: ‘You can have it. I am leaving it for you!’ But if hungry parents are short of food, they will deny themselves the last crumb of bread rather than have the child go hungry.
Dr. Montessori witnessed this self-denying love herself. Her medical career and her early work with children was among the poorest of the poor in Rome and so she saw the virtue of selflessness in action. Of course, she was all too familiar with self-serving patriarchal attitudes of women’s inferiority. The male-dominated professions of medicine and education often patronized and dismissed her innovations without serious consideration. But she was undaunted and achieved much for which the children of the world owe her a debt of gratitude.
But what of her love for her own child? She seems not to have been able to achieve the ideals of “renunciation” and “unselfishness” that she so admired in others. Her story of motherhood does have a happy ending, though. When her son was about 12, she took him into her life and under her care, though she did not publically acknowledge him as her son until near the end of her life. They had a warm, loving relationship and Mario worked tirelessly by her side, continuing after her death to work on behalf of the Montessori Method.
Maria’s choice to give up her son for the sake of her career was a difficult one for her and her son, but somehow they found forgiveness and redemption. Perhaps this is the lesson of her life. All moms know that we will make mistakes, especially in difficult situations, but Maria’s choice reminds us that the story of a mother and child isn’t over until love writes the ending.
“So we see,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “there are two kinds of life.” We have our careers and our motherhood, and a woman “is privileged to share in both. [But] the better of the two is that with children, for nearness to them brings out our best side.” Dr. Montessori knew the truth – our children make us better people. As we make the daily trek between our two worlds, let’s be mothers first, even at work. What better tribute to offer our children who love us for better or worse.