I stayed up late last night arguing with the ghost of Adrienne Rich. Or, rather, arguing with her brilliant text, Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution. We had so many things to say to one another.
I use the word “argue” affectionately, since Adrienne and I agree on most matters and the only hairs we tend to split emerge as marginalia. Perhaps the most important part of being a woman, a mother, a lover, a partner, a friend, and an individual is the continuing dialogue with oneself- and with other women.
In this ongoing conversation, I refuse to feel guilty for reading or writing, for expecting my children to entertain themselves, for assuming that they can wait for that drink or that snack, for providing them with an understanding of me as a person with her own dreams, desires, and interests. I also do not believe that being at home with them is any less valuable an occupation than one with social access and pedigree. Accepting the status of martyr might just be the worst example that one can give a child.
I do, however, believe very strongly that as women we should not settle for the current divisions in our lives and loves. The “solitary confinement of full-time motherhood” is only necessary in a society which pits life and work or family and self-realization against one another.
We, as women, are just as guilty as men in agreeing to this arrangement and keeping it in place. Until we learn to build communities in which children play a part as human beings (rather than pests), until we forge less gendered conceptions of family roles, until we assume that a man who can mow the lawn is also capable of nurturing a child and comforting them, until we agree to stop expecting so little of male partners and treating them like children with fragile egos, until we stop idealizing the power structures that oppress others in the name of “success”, until we stop equating a stay-at-home father with a man who does “women’s work”, we will continue to see the same arguments, frustrations, and lack of common ground between men and women.
When “you sound like a woman” is not spat out as an insult, we’ll know things are moving in the right direction.
On single motherhood: To bear an “illegitimate” child proudly and by choice in the face of societal judgement has, paradoxically, been one way in which women have defied patriarchy.
On raising sons: If we wish for our sons- as for our daughters- that they may grow up unmutilated by gender roles, sensitized to misogyny in all its forms, we have also to face the fact that in the present stage of history our sons may feel profoundly alone in the masculine world, with few if any close relationships with other men (as distinct from male “bonding” in defense of male privilege). When the son ceases to be the mother’s outreach into the world, because she is reaching out into it herself, he ceases to be instrumental for her and has the chance to become a person. (I promise, Max, that I will not ask you to be the powerful male I never got to be.)
On twilight birthing: No more devastating image could be invented for the bondage of woman: sheeted, supine, drugged, her wrists strapped down and her legs in stirrups, at the very moment when she is bringing new life into the world. This “freedom from pain”, like “sexual liberation”, places a woman physically at men’s disposal, though still estranged from the potentialities of her own body. While in no way altering her subjection, it can be advertised as a progressive development.
On the guilt of motherhood and its results: It is all too easy to accept unconsciously the guilt so readily thrust upon any woman who is seeking to broaden and deepen her own existence, on the grounds that this must somehow damage her children. That guilt is one of the most powerful forms of social control of women; none of us can be entirely immune to it. A woman whose rage is under wraps may well foster a masculine aggressiveness in her son; she has experienced no other form of assertiveness.”
On Infanticide: The Church had much to do with creating the crime of individual maternal infanticide by pronouncing all children born out of wedlock “illegitimate”. Until the eighteenth century or later bastards were largely excluded from participation in trades and guilds, could not inherit property, and were essentially without the law. Since the “sin” of the child’s father was more difficult to prove, it was on the unmarried mother that the full penalty fell; as the eternally guilty party, she was considered by the Church to “be the root of the whole sex problem”.
On anger and frustration: In a living room in 1975, I spent an evening with a group of women poets, some of whom had children. One had brought hers along, and they slept or played in adjoining rooms. We talked of poetry, and also of infanticide, of the case of a local woman, the mother of eight, who had been in severe depression since the birth of her third child….Every woman in that room who had children, every poet, could identify with her. We spoke of the wells of anger that her story cleft open in us. We spoke of our own moments of murderous anger at our children, because there was no one and nothing else on which to discharge anger. We spoke in the sometimes tentative, sometimes rising, sometimes bitterly witty, unrhetorical tones and language of women who had met together over our common work, poetry, and who found another common ground in an unacceptable, but undeniable anger. The words are being spoken now, are being written down; the taboos are being broken, the masks of motherhood are cracking through.
On early motherhood: For centuries no one talked of these feelings. I became a mother in the family-centered, consumer-oriented, Freudian-American world of the 1950s. My husband spoke eagerly of children we would have; my parents-in-law awaited the birth of their grandchild. I had no idea of what I wanted, what I could or could not choose. I only knew that to have a child was to assume adult womanhood to the full, to prove myself, to be ‘like other women.’
When President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts to her in 1997, Adrienne refused it, citing the administration’s “cynical politics.” She believed art and politics should not be separate, and she felt accepting this award would be to dishonor the many Americans injuried by economic and social inequality as institutionalized by the US government. Getting richer in a good way:
“The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” by Adrienne Rich
Alfred Haskell Conrad (Wikipedia)
Michelle Cliff (Lambda Literary)
Pablo Conrad’s tribute to his mother (YouTube)
Why she stopped writing when she got married (The Guardian)