“Discipline of mind and spirit, uniqueness of expression, ordering of daily existence, the most effective functioning of the human self — these are the chief things I wish to achieve. So far the only beginning I’ve been able to make is to waste less time.” Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (28).
Adrienne Rich has been a pivotal influence on me for years. Even before I started writing poems of my own, I kept a quote of hers — “You can call on beauty still and it will leap from all directions” — on my computer screen when I worked on the 32nd floor of an office building in the middle of a city that seemed to be trying to defy her words at every turn. But although I knew Rich had written Of Woman Born and other prose, I had never read beyond her poems. When I was asked to write a review for this book, I was pleased to have an excuse (and a deadline) to read Of Woman Born. Since it was shelved in the “Feminist Studies” section of the bookstore and had been written almost 30 years ago, I expected it to be dry, somewhat remote, and maybe even a bit tedious. I was wrong. And after reading it, I felt even more connected to Rich and her ideas in Of Woman Born than I did to some of my favorite poems of hers.
Of Woman Born weaves together Rich’s individual experience as a mother and the broader societal ideas underpinning the institution of motherhood in western culture. Twenty-eight years after Rich’s work was published, Andrea O’Reilly, an associate professor in the School of Women’s Studies at York University, compiled 13 essays reflecting on Rich’s seminal work into a volume titled From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. The essayists O’Reilly selected explore Rich’s work in terms of law, women’s studies, psychology, literary criticism, and anthropology, among other disciplines, and the anthology is striking in the variety of ways these women apply Rich’s ideas to their own professions and outlooks.
The book is divided into three sections, and its first grouping of essays, titled “Motherhood as Institution: Patriarchal Power and Maternal Outrage,” opens with a clear, well-researched piece by Diana Ginn analyzing how Rich’s concepts have been absorbed as a part of the current legal thinking on mothering. Ginn examines two cases decided by the Canadian Supreme Court related to the control women are allowed to maintain over their bodies during pregnancy. In her analysis, Ginn adeptly and thoroughly demonstrates that over the course of the past 20 years, ideas that were first discussed before 1976 by Adrienne Rich and her group of mother-poet friends in her living room now bear marked similarities to the ideas contained in opinions written by the majority of Canadian justices.
In the second and most lengthy section of the book, titled “Mothering as Experience: Empowerment and Resistance,” O’Reilly includes seven essays that try to take Rich’s ambition for turning the patriarchal concept of maternity, called Motherhood, and reframing it into something woman-centered, called Mothering. It seems that O’Reilly appropriately focuses the bulk of the essays on developing and exploring Rich’s challenge to traditional patriarchal motherhood. In this second section, the essayists use Rich’s work as a place to begin thinking about what the concept of Mothering means. Dannabang Kuwabong uses her essay to show how the ideas in Rich’s Of Woman Born apply and in some cases diverge from the experience of Native Women. “Thus unlike what Rich (107-8) calls the ‘tendency to flesh-loathing’ laid on women in so-called ‘advanced’ societies, the so-called primitives had ways to instruct their women toward ‘flesh-loving,’ not only during premenstrual days, but also during their menses” (93). This is followed by equally interesting observations by Kate McCullough, who explores Of Woman Born and its effect on the women who have “attempted not simply to rework/reclaim motherhood, but to do so specifically outside the dictates of heterosexuality and its institutionalized location within the nuclear family unit” (104).
As a writer and poet, however, the highlights of the book for me were in the third section, “Narrating Maternity: Writing as a Mother.” The essays by D’arcy Randall and Jeanette E. Riley about the literature of Of Woman Born and about Rich’s development as a poet and a mother, respectively, spoke to me in a more personal way than the other essays. Being a poet, I found these sections more interesting and more relevant to my life than the other sections. In this section, we see more of the poet-Rich and how her struggles around the pull of mothering influenced her poems. During the years in the 1950s and early ’60s in which Rich’s life “revolved around interruption and the need to attend to her children,” (210) Riley says the “years between her second and third collections proved to be a period of artistic growth” (210). As a mother of young children and a poet, this essay and the others in this section were particularly relevant and particularly comforting. One of the best aspects of From Motherhood to Mothering, however, is that it touches on many disciplines, allowing many women who are not writers to find essays within the book that will apply Rich’s concept of mothering in Of Woman Born to concepts relevant to their own professions or intellectual pursuits.
Though the book has broad appeal, From Motherhood to Mothering is largely geared for an academic audience. For a woman like me, interested in the ideas O’Reilly’s anthology presents about Rich’s work but not actively engaged in an academic profession or in the pursuit of an advanced degree, there is a fatigue factor to the book — a kind of fatigue that I did not experience reading Rich’s primary work, Of Woman Born. The essays in From Motherhood to Mothering aren’t exactly beach reading. But the evenings that I felt intellectually and physically awake enough to pick up From Motherhood to Mothering, I almost always felt energized by the ideas it presented, and, more often than not, I ended up groping for a pen to underline some particularly remarkable insight.
I wondered if the book might seem intimidating to other mothers, and I approached two of my very bright, intellectually curious friends about sharing this reading experience with me. We stood around in a kitchen filled with the noise of our five children, having two-sentence conversations interrupted by requests for snacks, arguments over toys, and the thumping tail of a very large dog. I held From Motherhood to Mothering up offering the idea that we might put the kids to bed one night, crack open a bottle of wine and discuss Rich, O’Reilly, and all of the other essayists. After reading a paragraph, one of my friends tossed the book back on the counter saying, “If I have time to read, I want it to be a little bit fun.” The other picked up the book and glanced through the pages, finally challenging me, “Would you have read this book if you weren’t doing the book review?” A crooked smirk crept along the edges of her mouth, making it impossible for me not to smile as I responded. “The question is not whether I would have read the book. The question is whether I am glad that I read the book.” Their laughs sailed over my words. The dog tipped over a glass of milk on the coffee table and suddenly we were talking about something altogether different.
But the truth of the matter is that I, like many of the essayists in O’Reilly’s anthology, felt changed in the wake of reading Rich’s work. Of Woman Born produced in me a feeling of kinship with Rich that spanned the 29 years since it was published. The essays O’Reilly selected for From Motherhood to Mothering widened my feeling of kinship to include not only Rich, but the many women who have also been touched by Rich’s work. O’Reilly presents 13 solid, diverse, intellectually interesting essays, each of which provides a unique link to Rich’s original work. After finishing From Motherhood to Mothering, I felt as though I had taken an independent study course on Rich’s Of Woman Born. I’m sure I would have gained even more insight had I the opportunity to discuss the work with other readers, but even on my own, I felt From Motherhood to Mothering enriched my already deep respect for Of Woman Born, its author, and the women for whom both books were written.