Maternal acts in Toni Morrison’s eight novels are not exactly the stuff of sentimentality: mothers commit infanticide (intentionally in Sula and Beloved, “accidentally” in Paradise), severe neglect (in The Bluest Eye), child abuse (in Tar Baby), and outright abandonment (in The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Paradise, and Love). And this is just what happens to the kids. Mothers in Morrison’s novels are raped, whipped, sold, and shot; they throw themselves down wells, wander wild in the woods, and are just generally unhinged. Yet in interviews, many of which are cited at length in Andrea O’Reilly’s comprehensive study of Morrison and motherhood, the picture Toni Morrison paints of what mothering can do for mothers, children, and community is decidedly rosier. Here Morrison consistently describes motherhood as a profoundly positive experience — one that empowers children, community, and, perhaps most surprisingly to some, mothers themselves.
As O’Reilly documents, Morrison’s most oft-cited and most delightful description of motherhood-as-liberation comes from an interview with Bill Moyers:
There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. For me it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. . . . Liberating because the demands that children make are not the demands of a normal ‘other.’ The children’s demands on me were things that nobody ever asked me to do. To be a good manager. To have a sense of humor. To deliver something that somebody could use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing or if I were sensual. . . . Somehow all of the baggage that I had accumulated as a person about what was valuable just fell away. I could not only be me — whatever that was — but somebody actually needed me to be that. . . . If you listen to [your children], somehow you are able to free yourself from baggage and vanity and all sorts of things, and deliver a better self, one that you like. The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.
Many mothers will recognize this ultimately salutary seismic shift in priorities that having children entails, a shift away from vanity and superficiality toward truly essential skills and traits: “to be a good manager,” “to have a sense of humor,” “to deliver something that somebody could use.” Some mothers struggling to meet the demands of mothering (however liberating) and paid work may, however, take umbrage with Morrison’s analysis of the conflict between “motherwork” and paid work as an illusory one, or at least one based primarily in language and perception, as this interview with Gloria Naylor (cited in O’Reilly’s text) illustrates:
[T]he point is that freedom is choosing your responsibility. . . . A lady doctor has to be able to say, “I want to go home.” And the one at home has the right to say, “I want to go to medical school.” That’s all there is to that, but then the choices cause problems where there are no problems because “either/or” seems to set up the conflict, first in language and then in life. . . . I tried hard to be both the ship and the safe harbor at the same time, to be able to make a house and be on the job market and still nurture the children. . . . No one should be asked to make a choice between a home or a career. Why not have both? It’s all possible.
At the beginning of the 21st century, who can disagree with the idea that no one “should be asked” to make a choice between home and career? But of course, as much recent analysis of the ill-named “opt-out revolution” suggests, it may not, in fact, be “possible” to “choose” any career you desire and have an engaged experience of motherhood — at least not simultaneously.
But Andrea O’Reilly’s book (and Morrison’s fiction and theory) are not really about this familiar (mostly white) middle-class dilemma. As O’Reilly articulates it, “The challenge for Morrison’s mothers . . . is not how to combine motherhood and work, but rather how, in the face of racism and sexism, to best provide the motherwork — both in and outside the home — necessary for the empowerment of children.” Particularly for African American women, Morrison and O’Reilly argue, motherhood is seamlessly interwoven with public and communal work. As Morrison described it in a 1981 interview in Essence:
Black women [need to] pay . . . attention to the ancient properties — which for me means the ability to be “the ship” and the “safe harbor.” Our history as Black women is the history of women who could build a house and have some children and there was no problem. . . . What we have known is how to be complete human beings, so that we did not let education keep us from our nurturing abilities. . . [T]o lose that is to diminish ourselves unnecessarily. It is not a question, it’s not a conflict. You don’t have to give up anything. You choose your responsibilities.”
O’Reilly builds her own theory of African American motherhood on this central idea of the “ancient properties” passed on by African American women. She argues persuasively that Morrison’s works, despite their representations of an often violent, terribly fraught mother-child experience, demonstrate the crucial importance of African American mothers as both “ship and safe harbor” to the survival of the African American community as a whole. As O’Reilly outlines it, motherhood in Morrison is at heart about personal and political empowerment. The first section of the book establishes this basic argument, which she summarizes here: “Motherhood, in Morrison’s view, is thus fundamentally and profoundly an act of resistance; essential and integral to black people’s, and in particular black women’s, fight against racism (and sexism) and their ability to achieve well-being for themselves and their culture.” This idea may seem obvious to many African American mothers, but as O’Reilly points out, much Anglo-American feminist theory tells an entirely different story, one in which motherhood is at best “a private and . . . apolitical enterprise” and at worst a means of continuing to subordinate women. (O’Reilly does wisely cite the work of philosopher and peace activist Sara Ruddick as an exception to this rule. Ruddick’s work stakes a claim for “maternal thinking” as a foundation for the peace movement, thus inserting an ethos of motherhood into the center of public debates about peace, war, and terrorism.)
But how exactly does one explain the divide between this ideal of an empowered, empowering, and vastly doable African American motherhood and Morrison’s novels’ tales of blighted mother-child bonds? In her detailed analysis of each of Morrison’s novels (with an epilogue giving a cursory reading of Morrison’s most recent novel, Love), O’Reilly convincingly demonstrates that the absence of a dramatization of such successful motherhood might go precisely toward convincing us of its centrality:
Morrison demonstrates the importance of this motherwork by describing the devastation, both personal and cultural, that arises when children are not preserved, nurtured, or do not receive cultural bearing [which O’Reilly dubs the three central acts of black mothering]. The absences therefore bespeak not a failure of vision; rather, they signify a narrative strategy; one that seeks to stress the crucial importance of mothering by showing the loss and suffering that occurs in its absence.
As someone who has studied and taught Morrison’s work for years, I find this argument perfectly convincing. In fact, it has always seemed to me that the raw emotional force of Morrison’s meticulously crafted novels rests in their focus on loss and longing. And what could be more emotionally powerful than the longings for and of mothers, what Morrison calls in Jazz “mother-hunger”? That this loss and longing is profoundly shaped by large socio-historical forces of virulent American racism, sexism, and classism makes the stories of Sethe and Beloved, Pauline and Pecola, Wild and Joe, Rose Dear and Violet all the more personally poignant.
So you’ll find no arguments here with O’Reilly’s central argument, nor with the basic thrust of her individual readings of the novels, nor with the research she’s conducted. In fact, one of the strengths of this book is that it serves as a sort of annotated bibliography of nearly all the major theoretical work on motherhood and on Morrison as an author; the works cited section lists over 300 authors, each of whom O’Reilly clearly grasps. (Her role as President of the Association for Research on Mothering is obviously well earned.) For those either unfamiliar with or overly exposed to academic prose, however, O’Reilly’s book may induce bewilderment or fatigue, as the case may be. Because she reads each novel against the same theoretical litmus test in separate chapters, O’Reilly tends to repeat herself, relying on the same theoretical jargon again and again. For example, it seemed that the word “hegemonic” appeared on nearly every page in the first third of the book — a perfectly fine word to denote the pervasive nature of what Toni Morrison calls the “master narrative” of white patriarchy, but a heavy word (like “patriarchy” itself, for that matter), best used sparingly.
At heart, this is a scholar’s book — written for scholars of feminism, motherhood as an academic subject, and the literature of Toni Morrison. For readers who want a less academic experience of Morrison and motherhood, I’d advise going directly to the source: Morrison’s piercingly smart interviews, collected in Conversations with Toni Morrison, and, of course, her majestic, “mother hungry” novels themselves. That said, anyone conducting serious study of either Toni Morrison or motherhood, not to mention the combination, should read Andrea O’Reilly’s Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. O’Reilly’s exhaustive research, her facility with theories of Anglo-American and Black feminism, and her penetrating analyses of Morrison’s works result in a highly useful scholarly read.