Some women autobiographers are also mothers who write and establish their identities through their writing. A relatively small number of women’s autobiographical texts contain a speaking subject who speaks from this position of mother. Adrienne Rich called for an end to the silencing of the story of mother and daughter in 1976, when she published Of Woman Born. In Rich’s words: “This cathexis between mother and daughter–essential, distorted, misused–is the great unwritten story” (225).
I have shown that since 1976, when Rich’s important text appeared, many women, writing as daughters, have broken this silence and are writing the previously unwritten story into their autobiographical texts. However, texts that are “sited” in the writer’s identity as a mother are still rare. Where are the texts in which “the voice of the mother” is not embedded in a daughter’s story but is written by the mother herself? Why has this direct authorization of the mother’s narrative and the sound of the mother’s voice been foregrounded by the story of the daughter in women’s autobiographies and the feminist theoretical discussion of women’s autobiographies?
I am a mother. I have given birth to two amazing human beings. My daughter, Sarah, is a graduate of Smith College, with a degree in women’s studies and a second bachelor’s degree in nursing. She now works as a nurse and manager in an AIDS/HIV unit in a major hospital center. My son, David, earned a fellowship at Cambridge University after graduating with a degree in mathematics from Harvard University. He now writes, as a staff researcher for Worldwatch Institute. They are beautiful, wonderful people. I love them intensely. I am amazed, truly amazed, by them, their beauty and accomplishments. They are pieces of me; they somehow came through my body. I “mothered” them, alone for a few years, and then with the help of their father, their day care center, a wonderful school, and many friends and family members. They are now connected to me by telephone, electronic mail, and visits. I live, work, and study, now, amidst a blessing or curse of solitude. It is both, just as mothering, especially when they were babies, was both joy and confusion, both beauty and anger and lack of focus.
My children and my motherhood have never directly entered my academic writing. I have circled this topic, the intersection of motherhood and writing, and, in particular, the writing of autobiographical texts for eight years as a student/scholar of English and American literature and as a feminist. This search has left me still searching. There are no answers yet in the exploration. I and other feminists are just beginning to explore this huge and central experience for many women.
My academic, “professional” writing has always been very separate from my private living, which has included my mothering. I have not entered any official discourse as a mother. On the other hand, my voice has not been silent, not at all. It has appeared, been “heard” in my journal, in letters, and in conversations. Daily tellings to my friends, my mother and sister, and my children are my “private” discourse. I have kept my work and my “life” very separate. However, the “discourse” of this private life often breaks into my work, like Kristeva’s “FLASH” (162). But always, in the past, I have put down my book or turned off my computer and dealt with “real life” tasks and problems before resuming my academic work.
In this coda, I use my own experience as a mother as a lens for a discussion of certain women’s autobiographies. My topic is that space where babies and books overlap in the lives of some women, as they have in mine. Are motherhood and writing always separate, or is it possible that an unavoidable overlap can produce more than confusion, madness, and silences? Or perhaps writing at a dining room table, surrounded by children and cooking and cleaning implements–as women did in the nineteenth century–or having thoughts of children circling constantly around the quiet space we carve out at our desks continues to produce a different kind of writing?
Susan Rubin Suleiman quotes Julia Kristeva in her epigraph to “Writing and Motherhood”: “[Q]ue savons-nous du discours que (se) fait une mère?” (352). Suleiman agrees: “We know very little about the inner discourse of a mother; and as long as our own emphasis . . . continues to be on the-mother-as-she-is-written rather than on the-mother-as-she-writes, we shall continue in our ignorance” (358). In this essay, Suleiman discusses some fascinating examples of writing by women who are mothers, including Phyllis Chesler, Adrienne Rich, Jane Lazarre, Julia Kristeva and Tillie Olsen. Suleiman organizes these writers into “clusters” based on their descriptions of the effects of motherhood on their writing careers (obstacle or enhancement). The way she “clusters” these texts appeals to me, probably because I like to look for order, especially in areas where confusion is sometimes overwhelming, like in the area of motherhood.
Thus, in those moments and days in my life when motherhood appears only as an obstacle to writing, I think of texts by Virginia Woolf, Tillie Olsen, May Sarton, and Adrienne Rich. On other days, my thoughts are about Julia Kristeva and Rich, who write, in some texts, about motherhood as an enhancement for writing and as a source of integration. Yet a third possibility is to see motherhood as both and to look for ways to “bridge” and ultimately live and work on this bridge that can connect a woman writer’s work to her motherhood. Jane Lazarre, in The Mother Knot, and Ursula K. Le Guin, in “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” describe such connections. Reading these last two texts, especially, has helped me find ways to make sense of my own experience and to avoid an either/or binary conclusion that would reduce the complexity of the issue. Le Guin uses her mother’s name changes, based on changes in her marital status, as a symbol of the complexity of some women writers’ lives: Her maiden name was Theodora Kracaw; her first married name was Brown; her second married name, Kroeber, was the one she used on her books; her third married name was Quinn. This sort of many-namedness doesn’t happen to men; it’s inconvenient, and yet its very cumbersomeness reveals, perhaps, the being of a woman writer as not one simple thing–the author–but a multiple, complex process of being, with various responsibilities, one of which is her writing. (231)
I have had one name for most of my life. I changed it when I married for the first time, but resumed my father’s name eleven years later. Many-namedness is a symbol of a life that resembles a collage. Some mother/writers feel as if their lives resemble collages. I often feel this way. Daily goals are not always clear. All I can say I know for sure today is that being a mother is central to my identity. Reading and writing about literature is equally central.
I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time in November 1974. My last name was Roodman. I wrote these pieces of autobiographical data on the title page of my copy, which is now falling apart. The pages are turning yellow and are marked up and underlined in red ink. My son was six and my daughter was five when I first read this book. I was commuting ninety miles, twice weekly, to work on my Ph.D. in English at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. Literature and feminism were converging for the first time in my life, in a very exciting class in feminist criticism taught by Arlyn Diamond. I was also teaching in a program for adults that was affiliated with Goddard College. My life was incredibly full, yet overwhelming. I was enthralled with Woolf’s text. I felt like she had looked at my life and figured it out: I needed my own money and my own room. Of course I was frustrated and angry much of the time. I had neither. My work was going well, but I never had long, uninterrupted spaces of time and quiet to develop my ideas at length.
It is true that Woolf had neither children nor real concerns about daily financial security. She had the space and quiet to write her own exquisitely beautiful pieces of fiction, prose, and autobiography. She was, however, very sensitive to the needs of women with children. She was aware that Shakespeare’s sister “never wrote a word” and that “[s]he lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed” (117). I knew after reading A Room of One’s Own that I had to find my own room and means of support. My children were both in school and day care. They no longer demanded all my energies. However, I still thought about and planned for them, constantly. The relationship didn’t define me, but it always dominated. I pushed it to the edges of my thoughts as much as possible. I was doing both–babies and books–but still thinking, perhaps unnecessarily, that life had to follow an either/or paradigm.
I concluded that both parts of my life would continue to suffer and that, ultimately, I would have to abandon one. And the world around me reinforced the need for mothering but not the same need for writing. I heard the same voices that Woolf’s fictitious woman poet heard: “[W]rite if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” (54). One year after reading Woolf’s text, I abandoned my study and writing and began working at various jobs to gain financial independence. I continued to read and to mother.
Recently, I reread A Room of One’s Own. Again, I found Woolf’s text to be very clear and precisely crafted. Her reasoning is so sound: we all need a room and money in order to write fiction, or to write anything. I now have both. My work is flowing as it never did when my children needed my daily physical labor. But there is a new doubt. Can one write if there is too much silence? What kind of writing comes from solitude? I found something else in Woolf this time. She was aware of the value of community and connections and aware, also, that women have been prepared and educated for writing in common living spaces as well as in their own rooms. She states:
If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And . . . she was always interrupted. . . . Then, again, all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century
was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emo-
tion. Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences
of the common sitting-room. People’s feelings were impressed on her;
personal relations were always before her eyes. (69-70)
Woolf, however, felt that this preparation was valuable for a writer of fiction, but not for a poet. For her, poetry was an inward, lonely journey toward a solitary self. Nevertheless, she saw a richness in women’s family and community connectedness. She experimented with different voices and alternatives to the single authorial, narrative voice in her own writing and tied her use of these innovative practices to her “training” in a large family. (Both Clarissa and Septimus speak as first person narrators in Mrs. Dalloway, for example.) Perhaps Virginia Woolf would counsel me to leave the door of my own room ajar and to take frequent breaks.
Tillie Olsen writes with sadness and eloquence of women’s silences and about times in their lives when they can’t write, because of the deadening burdens associated with the care of children. Her autobiographical text, Silences, chronicles several decades in her life when her own writing was eclipsed by the demands of caring for her children, working at jobs to support them, and doing political organizing. Reading Olsen, in the early 1970s and again more recently, was reading about waste in women’s lives. Her voice and words needed more space and time. The desire for “seductive babies” represented a passionate struggle for Olsen. Reading her portrayal of this struggle touched me deeply. It was difficult for me to pull away from the physical intoxication of pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding. These experiences were sensual and gorgeous for me. I did not do much “serious” writing or reading once my son was born. The sheer exhaustion is my strongest memory. After the subsequent birth of my daughter, it took an even longer time to begin thinking and writing again. I had two babies, then, and it was an especially confusing time for me. I read this same confusion and ambivalence about motherhood in Olsen’s essay, “Love.” She writes:
The oppression of women is like no other form of oppression. . . . It is an oppression entangled through with human love, human need, genuine (core) human satisfactions, identifications, fulfillments. . . .
(And where there are children. . . . And where there are children.
. . .)
AND YET THE TREE DID–DOES–BEAR FRUIT
In much of her writing, Olsen describes tremendous obstacles to writing experienced by mothers: Mothers don’t write because books and babies don’t thrive together. And, yet, as I reread Olsen, I see some open-ended questions in her explorations into the dilemma of the mother-writer. She asks, Is separateness, solitude, and quiet the only life for a woman writer? And, most importantly, what kind of writing does it produce? She quotes Käthe Kollwitz, from her The Diaries and Letter of Käthe Kollwitz, on this issue: “[Y]et, formerly, in my so wretchedly limited working time, I was more productive, because I was more sensual; I lived as a human being must live, passionately interested in everything. . . . Potency, potency is diminishing” (212). Olsen also includes a letter written to her from Jane Lazarre, as part of her description of her own quest for answers. Lazarre writes: “The meaning of work, and the need to learn to insistently be an artist in the midst of family is what I am now always trying to understand. . . . There is so much to be written about this motherhood and its hold on us” (211).
After my children both went to college, I resumed my academic work. I read differently now. I have lots of empty rooms and lots of quiet. It is during this more peaceful time of study that I have read Adrienne Rich and Julia Kristeva. My reactions are intense but, also, more abstract and intellectual. Although I have taken a more “academic” approach in my discussion of Rich and Kristeva, which follows, this reading and study have helped me, also, to take the risks I am taking in this essay/coda and to speak with my own autobiographical “I.”
Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution was an attempt to create a new form of writing. Personal recollections, political analysis, history, myth, and poetry are combined in a collage. In her text, she celebrates the female body and the experience of motherhood. She also issues an oratorical and stirring call to women to reclaim their/our bodies and to wrest control of these from the patriarchal “institution” of motherhood. Her vision is radical and utopian:
The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers. . . . We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence–a new relationship to the universe. (285-86)
For Rich, female biology, with maternity as a central part of its functions, has political, radical implications. The institution of motherhood is the patriarchal system that has disconnected mothers from their bodies. The experience of motherhood, with its power, belongs only to women. For me, some of the most interesting sections in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution are Rich’s attempts to deal with the experience, rather than the institution, of motherhood. Her own maternal experience, as Rich describes it in her text, was frightening in its power and perceived significance. She recalls: “Nothing, to be sure, had prepared me for the intensity already existing between me and a creature I had carried in my body and now held in my arms and fed from my breasts” (35). The focus of this memory is a mother’s experience, rather than a child’s. One of the major themes that recurs in her autobiographical text is her ambivalence, what she calls a “division within myself” (15). She describes this painful experience of feeling fiercest anger and love, simultaneously. The mind/body split is another division in Rich’s narrative. Her intellectual life, as a poet, is in constant opposition to the emotional and physical experience of maternity.
As a feminist theorist writing about the experience of motherhood, she also makes a statement about the ambivalence and division inherent in this experience, through her choice of language. In her chapter detailing the institution of motherhood, she writes as a cultural feminist and uses a “textbook” style. In other chapters detailing autobiographical experiences, the writing style and voice is confessional.
Julia Kristeva immigrated to France from Bulgaria in 1966. In the introduction to The Kristeva Reader, Toril Moi writes: “At the age of 25, . . . equipped with a doctoral research fellowship, [Kristeva] embarked on her intellectual encounter with the French capital. It would seem that she took the Left Bank by storm” (1). Her early work in linguistic theory and the semiotic culminated in Revolution in Poetic Language. But three later works, “Stabat Mater” (1977), “A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident” (1977), and “Women’s Time” (1979), are, at least in part, concerned with motherhood and writing. Kristeva’s own maternity (her son was born in 1976) and the completion of her training as a psychoanalyst are linked chronologically to this shift in her intellectual interests and writing.
“Stabat Mater” was first published a year after Of Woman Born. For both Kristeva and Rich, the experience of motherhood seems to have been highly problematical and, at the same time, very significant. I note, first, some similar themes and issues in the two works: one, the splitting or dividing of the self or the subject, which is echoed by a split in the text; two, a hopeful, utopian agenda that grows out of the experience of motherhood. “Stabat Mater” is a study of the cult of the Virgin Mary and, at the same time, a recording of Kristeva’s own experience of maternity. The text is bisected or divided into two pieces that “coexist” on the page. The personal recollections are in bold-faced print and break into the text beginning with the word “FLASH.” There is not a neat dichotomy between the two texts, however. They “refuse” to remain separate. One of the main concerns of the combined pieces, as Toril Moi states, is to point out that today, due to the demise of the cult of the Virgin, and of religion in general, we are left without a satisfactory discourse on motherhood. . . . There is, then, an urgent need for a “post-virginal” discourse on maternity, one which ultimately would provide both women and men with a new ethics: a “herethics.” (160-61)
Kristeva’s text is more obviously bisected than Rich’s, yet the duality is not a neat one. The historical writing, the autobiographical telling, and the development of her new scheme of ethics, which would usher in her notion of an “ideal” future, overlap and cross the boundaries established by the columns of type. Her attempts at dealing with the problematic that motherhood represents, for her, are no more conclusive than Rich’s. There is deeply felt and expressed ambivalence in both texts. In passages such as those that follow, Kristeva attempts to describe this feeling: “My body is no longer mine, it doubles up, suffers, bleeds” (167); “[T]he dark area that motherhood constitutes for a woman” (179); “Let us call ‘maternal’ the ambivalent principle that is bound to the species” (161-62).
Maternity for Kristeva is also a metaphor for the place where multiple boundaries exist. A woman as mother is “a strange fold” in the human fabric that tightly pulls on the connections between nature and culture, inside and outside, the semiotic and the symbolic, self and other (182). However, for Kristeva, the split of a female subject that occurs in maternity yields a “productive” psychotic experience, an experience of love for another, unlike any other experience. She presents her theory of herethics, at the conclusion of “Stabat Mater,” as a hopeful new beginning, for both men and women, through a new kind of ethics and morality. Women and mothers, in particular, will provide the basis for the new ethics from their experience of split subjectivity. Rather than utopian, her vision is of possibility and love. She writes: “[H]erethics, is perhaps no more than that which in life makes bonds, thoughts, and therefore the thought of death, bearable: herethics is undeath [a-mort], love” (185).
If Kristeva sees the female as the “principal metaphor” for difference, perhaps maternity can be seen as a metaphor for ambivalence. The splitting of the human subject forms the basis for this metaphor. Maternity is the only human experience that includes both enlargement, from one being to two, within one, and diminishment, from two beings to one. Domna Stanton, in her article “Difference on Trial,” also describes this phenomenon: “This essential capacity to give life/love to another in another way is concretized through the metaphor of the pregnant body . . . the uniquely maternal experience of arrival, issue (sortie), and separation” (168). And further, if the female is a metaphor for the unknowable or unpresentable, maternity also represents conflicts within this unknowable. Ambivalence is a continual oscillation (as between one thing and its opposite) or fluctuation. The roots of the word are ambi, meaning both, on both sides, around, and valence, meaning the relative capacity to unite, react, or interact, the degree of combining power. This continual oscillation is seen in both Rich’s and Kristeva’s autobiographical texts. Rich’s maternity is a metaphor for valence between love and hate, the autobiographical and the theoretical voice, the self and the other. For Kristeva, the maternal experience is life as both, on both sides, around. It is ambivalence: “It is an identity, that splits, turns in on itself and changes without becoming other” (297).
In this coda, I have spoken to you in two very different voices. One voice uses personal pronouns, I and me, and talks of feelings and memories and, also, rambles when she writes. The other is my theoretical voice. It is more organized, cool, and dispassionate. Also, I have, I realize, deconstructed my own model and plan. I prepared the way for a distinct division, a dialogic argument between two opposing points of view about the relationship between motherhood and writing. The categories have overlapped and, finally, disappeared.
I have come to no new conclusions. All I have are different questions. Is writing better with much solitude, quiet, and peace? And, if it is, what is the cost? What are the choices that would give mother/writers both peace and connection and would, perhaps, lead to a different kind of writing? What will this writing look like? Will it be many-voiced, with photographs, poetry, and jokes?
was so surprised,
He passed away.
In the spasms of birth
He looked up my cunt
Oh my God
There’s nothing there
But a slim volume of verse!!
–Sue Mullins, “Birth”