What Eve can reveal to us about Mother's Day

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as depicted in a 13th-century fresco on display in Norway.

Story highlights

  • Bruce Feiler: We see the first lady of Eden as the one who introduced sin, deceit, and even death into the world
  • We rarely learn the lessons her example can teach us about motherhood, Feiler writes

Bruce Feiler, a frequent contributor to CNN, is the author, most recently, of "The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us." The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)The Book of Genesis calls her "the mother of all living." She's not just the first woman; she's also the first mother. She's Eve.

Yet because we focus primarily on her faults and see the first lady of Eden as the one who introduced sin, deceit and even death into the world, we rarely learn the lessons her example can teach us about motherhood.
Bruce Feiler
At this moment when religion seems in the crosshairs of Western society, maybe Eve can help us understand the unique role women play in maintaining the strength of the family.
    Here are four lessons from the Very First Mother.
    Being a parent is hard. Of all the indignities heaped on Adam and Eve over the centuries, one of the most unfortunate is that we often overlook what they did after leaving Eden. They weren't just partners, lovers and sinners; they were also parents. The first parents, tasked before anyone else with learning to love their children even in the face of disappointment. As they quickly learned, children aren't just barrels of laughs and bundles of joy. They're also irascible, stubborn, and, as in the case of Cain and Abel, rivalrous.
    Mothers play a bigger role than fathers in passing on faith to their children. Genesis 4 makes clear that Cain and Abel emerge out of a close relationship between Eve and God. Eve delivers her children "with the help of the Lord." This same intimacy continues today. One of the more persistent findings from those who do research and polling on this issue is that women care more about religion than men, are more involved in their religious institutions and take greater responsibility for passing on values to their children.
    "The tendency toward higher religiosity among women has manifested over seven decades of scientific polling," wrote George Gallup, "and church membership figures indicate that it probably existed for many decades prior to the advent of survey research in the mid-1930s." Though organized religions have discriminated against women for centuries, women are now propping up religion and hold its future in their hands.
    The best way for mothers to encourage their children to be religious is not to force them, but to give them choice. As Eve learned before anyone else, children don't always follow the values or beliefs of their mothers. Many mothers try to force their children to adopt their faith, but that often backfires. A 35-year study of families conducted at USC found that allowing children religious choice can encourage religious continuity. Instead of insisting your children do what you do, said the survey's head, Vern Bengtson, you'll have more approach if you say, "We want your faith to be your own, we believe we found the faith that is meaningful to our family, but we don't want to impose. Feel free to experiment." Even in evangelical families that approach has been proven to be more successful.
    Mothers can bounce back after pain. Another stellar feature of Eve's life as a mother is how decisively she bounces back from the pain of having one of her children die at the hand of the other. In a little known passage of the story, Eve and Adam recover from their shock and grief by coming together and having a third child, Seth. It's this child that goes on to populate the human line and that allows the first parents to fulfill God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply.
    Again, they're not alone. Shirley Murphy of the University of Washington tracked 271 bereaved couples over 25 years. The oft-repeated assertion that losing a child destroys a relationship is simply not true, she found. Only a handful broke up.
    How do couples survive? They write a new chapter in their joint story, she told me. They build this disruption into their narrative. "Forgiveness," the cast of "Hamilton" sings as Eliza and Alexander Hamilton reconcile after losing their son. "Can you imagine?" The only thing strong enough to overcome the unimaginable is imagination itself.
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    And that may be her greatest lesson of all. Whatever you think of what Eve did in the Garden of Eden, once she left, she embodied the qualities of faithfulness, resilience and dedication that are considered the hallmarks of modern motherhood. Today, as we cast about for role models, we should not lose sight of her singular contribution. The Very First Mother was a pretty good mother, after all. It's time she got her due.