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Short Takes

August 2006
When Mothers Work:
Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Our Selves

September 2005
Toni Morrison and Motherhood:
A Politics of the Heart

February 2005
"Becoming a Mother"
Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering
Spring/Summer 2001, Volume 3, Number 1

June 2004
The Politics of Parenthood:
Child Care, Women’s Rights and the Myth of the Good Mother

October 2003:
Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood

August 2003:
The Mother Knot
and The Myths of Motherhood

April 2003:
The Bitch in the House
and Up the Sandbox!

September 2005

Toni Morrison and Motherhood:
A Politics of the Heart

By Andrea O’Reilly, PhD
State University of New York Press, 2004
www.sunypress.edu (for orders)

Reviewed by Nancy Gerber

Andrea O’Reilly’s new book is a fascinating study of mothers and motherhood in the novels of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, one of the 20th century’s most complex and compelling writers. As founding director of the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), Dr. O’Reilly has created a much-needed space for critical, theoretical, and imaginative investigations of mothering. Her book is a welcome and important to the field of Morrison scholarship.

In the introductory chapter, entitled “A Politics of the Heart: Toni Morrison’s Theory of Motherhood as a Site of Power and Motherwork as Concerned with the Empowerment of Children,” Dr. O’Reilly traces the historical and cultural forces that have contributed to the central place of mothering for African-Americans. Drawing on the work of Patricia Hill Collins, Stanlie James, and others, she describes how West African practices of othermothering (caring for a child not biologically one’s own) and community mothering (raising children as a communal responsibility) followed enslaved Africans into the New World. She discusses bell hooks’s concept of “homeplace” to demonstrate how mothers – in teaching resistance and self-love to daughters and sons – play a critical role in the future of black families and communities. She also describes the significance of the motherline, a metaphor for the stories, legends, values, and history of African-Americans handed down from generation of women to the next. Through the task of “cultural bearing,” black women can teach daughters how to be both “ship” and “safe harbor,” providing tools for both physical and emotional survival, qualities which Morrison names the “ancient properties” (20).

Dr. O’Reilly reads Toni Morrison as a maternal theorist whose novels usually do not enact her theory of motherwork as a site of empowerment. Dr. O’Reilly reads the disjunction between Morrison’s theory and fiction in terms of mothers’ relation to the motherline, its rupture, and repair. In chapters entitled “Disconnections from the Motherline,” “Ruptures/Disruptions of the Motherline,” “Reconnections to the Motherline,” “Maternal Interventions,” and “Maternal Healing,” Dr. O’Reilly provides nuanced, provocative readings of Morrison’s novels: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. An epilogue, entitled “Love’s Unloved,” discusses Morrison’s most recent novel, Love.

A major component of Dr. O’Reilly’s argument is the psychic cost of fragmentation to the motherline and possibilities for its repair. In discussing The Bluest Eye, for instance, Dr. O’Reilly frames the rupture of the motherline in terms of migration: Pauline is separated from family and community when she moves north, leaving her unmothered, which contributes to her daughter Pecola’s insatiable need to be mothered. Reconnection to the motherline is discussed in readings of Song of Solomon, in which Pilate is the figure who embodies the ancient properties, and Tar Baby, in which Son serves as the spiritual guide who assists Jadine. In Jazz, Dr. O’Reilly identifies the trope of remothering in which characters experience healing when they remember a lost mother.

Morrison’s theory of motherhood, “a politics of the heart,” constructs the work that mothers do in raising, preserving, and nurturing children, as an enterprise that has political and social consequences. In reading Morrison, Andrea O’Reilly writes mothering out of invisibility, reminding readers that, one way or another, we are all “of woman born.”

Nancy Gerber holds a doctorate in Literatures in English from Rutgers University. The author of Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving (Hamilton, 2005) and Portrait of the Mother-Artist: Class and Creativity in Contemporary American Fiction (Lexington, 2003), she teaches in the Women’s Studies and English departments of Rutgers in Newark, NJ.

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February 2005

"Becoming a Mother"
Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering

Spring/Summer 2001, Volume 3, Number 1

When we talk about reproductive rights— at least in the context of a woman’s “right to choose”— we are usually circling the idea that a woman’s inalienable right to self-determination is predicated on her ability to decide if, when and under what circumstances she will become a mother. Yet even in the woman-centric conversation among pro-choice advocates, the complicated process of becoming a mother is rarely addressed as a critical factor in a woman’s decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy— or the magnitude of relief or regret she may feel after doing so. Perhaps this is another reason why the blunt ideological instrument of reproductive "choice" rests so uneasily on the nation’s conscience; a big part of the story about what actually happens to women when they do become mothers is missing in action.

Considering how little attention or formal study has been directed toward understanding how women incorporate motherhood into their core identities, it’s not especially surprising that the social and psychological complexity of becoming a mother has been left out of the abortion debate. The popular fiction is that women undergo a predictable and universal change when they “give birth” to themselves as mothers, regardless of their unique social situations, temperaments, histories, beliefs or hopes for the future. In general, women who mother are assumed to be overpowered by maternal love and therefore once removed from the rational world of men and money. But perhaps most significantly, mothers and mothers-to-be are understood to be persons who are no longer entirely for themselves. However, the essays, poetry, experimental prose and scholarly works collected in Becoming a Mother (Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Spring/Summer 2001) the reveal that the inner world of the mother is alive and well— and infinitely variable— as women actively negotiate and renegotiate the personal and social meaning of motherhood and mothering. “In a society that defines motherhood as the quintessential role for adult women,” writes Diane Speier in “Becoming a Mother,”

[T]here are assumptions underpinning cultural imperative that there is something called the “perfect mother.” There isn’t. Mothers are human and flawed and learning on the job… Because mothering is a trial and error experience, we need to respect that at best it will be “imperfect.”

Speier and several other writers included in the journal focus on childbirth as the gateway to “matrescence”— the internal process of “becoming” a mother— but others approach the lived experience and embodiment of motherhood from an intriguing array of perspectives. One of my favorite chapters is a micro-essay by Cassie Premo Steele that begins: “What I cannot tell you… is that your touch arrived with loss, how, looking at you, I had to look away from your father, and myself, and how we were never the same again” (“What I cannot tell you”). There are also chapters about dancers who express the physicality and relational consciousness of pregnancy through their choreography, women in addiction and recovery negotiating the meaning of motherhood, a one-woman performance piece exploring the isolation of miscarriage, a stylized essay that conveys the inescapable bleakness and desperation of post-partum depression, and an analysis of the logistics of becoming a “single mother by choice.” In “Maternal Exposure,” sculptor Monica Bock describes her installation of 418 lead-sheet lunch bags— each with the menu of the day inscribed on the outside— punctuated with small lead plaques to record the days when her children did not need lunches packed (“sick days, snow days and holidays”). By using a poisonous medium to replicate the products of her routine motherwork, the artist disrupts the observer’s assumptions about the benign essence of mothering: “Every minute of every day a mother makes and emotionally fraught choice between autonomy and intimacy,” Brock writes. “What is disquieting for some is the critical distance on mothering by the mother herself. And it’s a risk of a certain kind to bring ambivalence forward as the condition of one’s mothering and one’s work.”

Many of these works represent becoming a mother as an open-ended process. In her essay on finding support for raising her ADD son (“Shut that Kid Up: Motherhood as Social Dislocation”), Trudelle Thomas remarks: “It’s taken me years to figure out that motherhood in not just a relationship with a child, it’s a whole new relationship with the larger world; that the United States is far from family-friendly; that love is not enough.” Thomas argues that to mother well, “a person must develop a new kind of intelligence,” a set of attitudes and skills she calls partnership skills. “Partnership skills allow a mother to share power and decision-making for the well-being of her child, and include deep respect, advocacy, self-assertion and problem solving.” Although Thomas suggests these acquired skills should be deployed to enhance the well-being of children, one has to wonder if the same sensibility and intelligence might not be gainfully applied to improving social conditions for mothers themselves.

From Diane L. Gustafson’s painful reflections in “Unbecoming Behavior: One Woman’s Story of Becoming a Non-Custodial Mother” to Nancer Ballard’s meditation on pregnancy and childbirth as a lesbian mother, the stories and studies collected in Becoming a Mother suggest it’s possible— and even likely— that there are as many authentic pathways to becoming a mother as there are mothers. The cultural compulsion to flatten the mother’s persona into something soft, pink and sweet by covering up the abrasive surfaces and raw edges that make the real-life motherhood so vivid and transformative surely serves some social purpose, but it’s hard to imagine it serves the best interests of women who mother. Much more needs to be written on the topic of becoming a mother and all that it entails; until that happy day, ARM has assembled an excellent sampling that deserves to be widely read.

The Becoming a Mother volume also includes a section with short reviews of a number of scholarly works and popular guides about motherhood and mothering. To order this book and other ARM journals, visit the Association for Research on Mothering web site at www.yorku.ca/crm/

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June 2004

The Politics of Parenthood:
Child Care, Women’s Rights and the Myth of the Good Mother

By Mary Frances Berry, 1993

“Among too many women, society’s emphasis on family and mothering and their own experience of trying to balance jobs and children seems to reinforce traditional attitudes instead of giving them greater understanding of the link between women’s rights and their responsibilities.”

Second Wave feminism has been roundly criticized for neglecting the emotional and identity value of motherhood in the pursuit of women’s equality, and such criticism is not entirely out of line. On the other hand, the enthusiasm for blaming the present-day “motherhood problem” on liberal feminists' lack of foresight largely ignores the powerful influence of strategic conservative resistance to the disruption of traditional gender roles. In The Politics of Parenthood, Mary Frances Berry—chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and former assistant secretary of education at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration—describes the historical, political and cultural context of today's preference for mother-only child care and charts the ideological maneuvering behind the rise and fall of legislation to expand access to high-quality child care and extended parental leave.

Although this book was published a decade ago, it remains relevant for several reasons. Like more recent works surveying the history of idealized motherhood, Berry’s book traces shifts in cultural attitudes about mothers and mothering from the Colonial period through the early 1990s. But while most overviews of the changing ideology of motherhood focus on the historical situation of white, middle-class families, The Politics of Parenthood incorporates the experiences of African American, immigrant and working class families into the analysis. Throughout her book, Berry reminds us that negative fallout from work-family conflict is not just an issue for affluent white women; working class mothers and fathers and low-income families also need and deserve more and better family-friendly social policies and workplace practices. But they are not likely to get them, Berry argues, as long as full-time mother care remains enshrined as the cultural ideal.

As a political insider, Berry gives a blow-by-blow account of what happened in women’s organizations and national politics between 1970 and 1990 that helped derail the women’s movement and poison the image of feminism in the public mind. Berry argues that—contrary to popular belief—the women’s movement did not fade out because “the demands for women’s equal rights have been realized.” Stressed by internal fractures and weakened by a foreshortened vision that was inattentive to the needs of women of color and working class women, Berry suggests that mainstream feminism was finally pushed under by conservative ideologues whose skillful rhetoric emphasized the importance of mother care to the healthy development of children and the stability of American society. Any kind of substitute, including non-parental child care and paternal care, acquired a reputation as unsuitable and even dangerous—except for poor mothers who needed to work to support their families or to get off the welfare roles (Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels provide adept coverage of the media frenzy over the dangers of non-parental care in their 2004 book, The Mommy Myth).

While Berry advocates for more funding and better regulation of non-parental child care as well as paid parental leave, she suggests that gaining equality for women ultimately depends on the capacity of men and women to demand more from fatherhood than the occasional diaper change or watching the kids while mom enjoys a girl’s night out. Even divorced and unmarried fathers should be required to take on their fair share of caregiving, Berry writes. “We need to insist on fathers and mothers sharing the care of their offspring as well as the opportunity to enjoy the fulfillment of individual rights. Whatever else we do, we must understand that advocating women’s rights and greater opportunity in the workplace and in every avenue of public life is inconsistent with an insistence on mother taking care of children and housework. To demand mother care and women’s employment while professing a dedication to equality of rights for women is not only illogical but wishful thinking.”

Casting her gaze to the 21st century, Berry predicted the work-family disconnect—fueled by resilient cultural expectations about mothers as primary caregivers—would to come to a head right around now. “Workplace policies and parental responsibilities are not responding to the reality of employed women fast enough to spread the possibility of real equality of rights beyond an elite. Unless women and men change their attitudes toward children and who cares for them soon, there will be growing discontent in the next decade, and children and their parents will suffer.”

Berry positions the ideal of equal rights for women and the idealization of mother care at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, which sounds about right. But since The Politics of Parenthood was published, increasing numbers of women who self-identify as feminists and avow unstinting support for women's equality also accept exclusive maternal care as the gold standard for responsible child rearing, especially for infants and toddlers. It will be the work of the emerging mothers movement to strike a progressive ideological balance between the value of motherhood to a woman’s sense of self and a mother’s entitlement to full equal rights as a discreet individual.

The Politics of Parenthood is out of print, but used copies are available.

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October 2003

Mother Reader:
Essential Writings on Motherhood

Moyra Davey, Editor.
Seven Stories Press, 2001 (paperback)

Moyra Davey’s thoughtfully assembled collection of diverse writing by mothers (and non-mothers) offers an in-depth exploration of the uneasy intersection between motherhood, identity and creativity. The works selected for Mother Reader include excerpts from journals and memoirs, essays, and short fiction; the readings in each section are presented chronologically, with earlier writing (the earliest piece, by Doris Lessing, is dated 1949) appearing before more contemporary works -- an arrangement that offers an informative historical perspective of writers ruminations about motherhood and self-actualization across the arc of Second Wave feminism.

Many of the contributing writers will be familiar to any reader who has a modest acquaintance with late 20th century literature on motherhood (in addition to Lessing, Mother Reader includes works by Adrienne Rich, Jane Lazarre, Alice Walker, Sara Ruddick and Toni Morrison), but there are also some notable selections from less obvious sources that make this anthology a standout. Highlights are an excerpt from Annie Ernuax’s A Frozen Woman (in which a mother contemplating a second pregnancy laments “I can no longer think of any way to change my life except having a baby. I will never sink lower than that.”), a version of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Fisherwoman’s Daughter (a riff on Virginia Woolf’s classic essay about women and writing), Alice Walker’s argument that “One child of one’s own” is the prudent procreative limit for women with literary ambitions, and My Death, a relentlessly dark but incredibly funny story by Lynda Schor.

Many of the writers represented in Davey’s book are published authors, but some of the most intriguing writing in the collection comes from mothers engaged in the visual arts. The quality of the writing is high throughout; for the most part, the subject of the works included in Mother Reader tends to linger on how motherhood upsets or enhances the creative balance of women committed to a seriously artistic life. This tug-of-war between the emotional and practical demands of childrearing and the drive for creative self-expression is the unifying theme of Mother Reader, and the volume as a whole may have the greatest appeal to artists and writers who are struggling to integrate motherhood with their creative identity. However, there are plenty of tasty samplings here for anyone who craves inspired, intelligent writing that addresses the complexity of the maternal experience.

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August 2003

The Mother Knot
B y Jane Lazarre,1976

Of the dozen or so notable books written by feminist mothers about the experience of motherhood in the 1970s, only two are still in print: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by poet Adrienne Rich (1976; 1986 reprint edition) and Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot (1976; 1997 reprint edition).

In The Mother Knot, Lazarre retraces the span of years between the birth of her first and second son. This is a tale of first-time motherhood with all its anger and uncertainty laid bare, but not without moments of clarity and beauty. Lazarre sets out to explode the myth of motherhood, which, she writes, “is destructive precisely because it is not altogether wrong, but because it leaves out half the truth.”

The Mother Knot is a product of Lazarre’s determination to carve out a practical and psychological solution to reclaiming her identity and her life’s work as a writer, and the account of her experience will resonate with any mother who's struggled to hang onto an uncompromised sense of self. Lazarre discovers that in order to satisfy her own creativity and inner life, she needs support from many sources so that she can, for a time, set aside the urgency of motherhood and concentrate on her own aspirations. In this regard, the message of The Mother Knot is both completely personal and profoundly political.

Lazarre also applies her emotional honesty and capacity for intense self-scrutiny to other dimensions of her motherhood as she explores the meaning of being a white mother of African American sons and painful losses in her childhood family. The Mother Knot is a deeply introspective and intelligent work, and its second life in a 1997 reprint edition is well deserved.

The Myths of Motherhood:
How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother

Shari L. Thurer, 1994

The idea of a comprehensive cultural history of motherhood from Prehistoric times to the twentieth century is intriguing, and psychologist Shari Thurer set about trying to pull the thing together – with mixed results. It was an ambitious undertaking, and The Myths of Motherhood is packed with a daunting accumulation of interesting (if sometimes arcane) information about the lives of mothers, children and families across the ages.

Thurer’s guiding premise – that motherhood (and childhood) is a cultural invention, and subject to change in response to the pressures of the social environment – is certainly no less true today than it was in millennia past. Thurer succeeds in demonstrating that the ideology of family and mothering has undergone dramatic shifts throughout the history of the Western world. Yet the book is sometimes uneven, and occasionally Thurer fills in with conjecture when there are gaps in auhtoritative scholarship on social behavior in given time period.

The Myths of Motherhood is filled with tantalizing tidbits of fact that could easily be expanded into a framework for an illuminating discussion of the cultural history of motherhood. For example, Thurer mentions briefly that relatively tolerant attitudes toward infanticide prior to the early modern period shifted in the 17th century -- when mothers were first vigorously prosecuted for suspected infanticide and frequently punished by death, with particularly harsh treatment for unwed mothers.

Also missing from Thurer’s account is any in-depth exploration of the ideology of motherhood in civilizations in the Far East and other major cultures of the world; like the American ideal of motherhood and apple pie, Thurer seems to be addressing the experience of Western white folk – which is unfortunate, because a broader cross-cultural perspective would have offered a great deal to the discourse on the construction of motherhood.

Shortcomings aside, Thurer’s analysis is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in gaining greater insight into the cultural forces that shape what we call “motherhood.” While The Myths of Motherhood suggests no clear path of evolution from exceptionally high rates of infanticide among the privileged classes in ancient Greece to 21st Century standards of protective parenting, one does get the impression that-- in spite of all the unfair disadvantages mothers face today -- we are in a somewhat better place in regard to a baseline respect for human life and the work required to sustain it. The task a hand is to move forward from here.

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April 2003

The Bitch in the House:
26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Motherhood and Marriage

Cathi Hanauer, Editor, 2002

The Bitch in the House drew a lot of attention when it was published in the Fall of 2002, probably because the snarling red lips on the book cover hinted the essays inside would deliver the goods on angry women behaving badly. But for the most part, the writing in TBITH has more to do with men and lovers behaving badly and women taking it on the chin. To be sure, a number of the pieces do justice to women’s anger as a central theme, but there are not many examples of burning rage and a few of the writers barely rise above petulance.

What resonates in TBITH is that many of the post-Second Wave writers featured in the book are still struggling to figure out the boy-girl (or girl-girl) thing. Given that I myself have devoted more time than I like to admit to figuring out the boy-girl thing, I found this very comforting. But I’ve also discovered there is more in life to get pissed off about than what men are doing (or not doing) to cause hurt and heartache—which, unfortunately, is an attitude that generally drops off the map in the works collected for this anthology.

Hanauer has assembled a group of skilled writers and the essays are all well crafted and a pleasure to read. The book’s section on motherhood addresses a range of interesting and important aspects of the job-children-matrimony combo, but none of the writers’ perspectives on the the topic look very far beyond work and marriage as the source of mothers’ deepest dissatisfaction. The best of the motherhood pieces is by Elissa Schappell (Crossing the Line in the Sand: How Mad Can Mother Get?). Schappell perfectly captures the unmerciful and terrifying energy of maternal rage when it breaks free of the leash.

Unusual and Unexpected:

My passion for reading about motherhood leads me onto some strange tangents, and I was recently inspired to hunt down a copy of Anne Richardson Roiphe’s 1970 novel Up the Sandbox!. I loved Roiphe’s later book on motherhood, Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World (1996 -- see the MMO Book List for a description), and I'm old enough to remember that Up the Sandbox! was hugely popular when it was published -- it was even made into a movie starring Barbara Streisand -- but it had never crossed my mind that a 30-year old work of pop fiction might retain any relevance to the new thinking on motherhood.

The narrative context of Up the Sandbox! would probably seem alien to anyone who had not survived the social turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s (I was a young teen when the book came out), but Roiphe’s writing about the internal process of mothering young children has a timeless quality. The protagonist, a married mother with two very young children, attempts to escape the confines of her monotonous family routine by spinning out fantasies which place her in the center of a wildly liberated life. The book is unexpectedly dark; Roiphe creates a protagonist obsessed with violence and human deformity, anxious about the uncertain state of her world, and apprehensive of the racial tension of the day. Despite the diversions of the heroine’s imaginary escapades, Up the Sandbox! is a portrait of a young woman boxed into her life and yearning for an outside world she fears will eat her alive.

The sexy daydream adventures of the central character of Up the Sandbox! almost always end badly, sometimes tragically. It brought to mind Janna Malamud Smith’s discussion of “free” motherhood in A Potent Spell (see the MMO review and the interview with Janna Malamud Smith): our cultural ideas about motherhood are still based on the notion that a mother on the loose is a very dangerous thing.

The scenes of fearlessly free motherhood were less interesting to me than the heroine’s musings about her ordinary life. Roiphe associates images of dismemberment and wounding with the mother’s anxieties about the unpredictable potential for her life to go terribly wrong: arms and legs fly off or huge holes appear in the mother’s core when she imagines some dreadful harm befalling her children or marriage. In other passages, the mother simply collapses inward and disappears. A mother, this seems to suggest, is useless without her motherhood – just another piece of damaged goods.

Up the Sandbox! is out of print but it’s still possible to locate used copies.

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