Motherhood is Nuclear: A Review of The Maternal Is Political
I watched the towers fall on 9/11 with my daughter, who was eight months old. I fell too; depression set in, and for the first time since my daughter was born, I felt trapped at home with my baby in Berkeley, California. I wanted do something, join the leftie mothers out there, who were manning — womaning? — the barricades, fighting that… (whichever curse my kids should never hear out of my mouth )… Bush. I ventured out; volunteered here, signed up there. I wanted to find my tribe, the mothers who had come to the same conclusion I had: that neglect of politics is really parental neglect; that if we didn’t do something right away, our children would suffer. It wasn’t just the events of 9/11 that motivated me– it was that the day’s dark theatrics seemed to pull aside a curtain to reveal a hot, dangerous world. I wanted to find the kinds of friends my mother had when I was growing up in Berkeley, the gal who knew Black Panthers, or at least knew people who knew Black Panthers, who sat in, got arrested (my mother has been in jail more times than I can count). My parents didn’t have any friends who didn’t talk politics; who weren’t engaged. I wanted friends like that. Political friends. With children.
When I didn’t find them, I began to wonder if motherhood wasn’t perhaps the most apolitical state there was. It ties your hands, saps your energies, takes all your love. We laugh at the “helicopter moms” who hover over their children (or the “Security Moms” who, as Shari MacDonald Strong points out, voted for Bush in great numbers), but we’re the first generation of women who really did choose to have children. A modern mother’s passionate attention to her children may have to do with that deep feeling of responsibility that comes with such deliberate choice.
Reading the anthology “The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood & Social Change,” edited by MacDonald Strong, I found a virtual activist community, women who are thinking about motherhood and its connection to politics. Divided into specific, concrete sections –Believe, Teach, Act (an overly optimistic sequence, says the depressed me)– the anthology offers essays by well-known writers such as Anne Lamott and Susie Bright, bright, punchy voices that make heavy hitters like Nancy Pelosi and Benazir Bhutto, well, heavy. There are the voices of the writers I hadn’t read before, who sometimes answer the question, “isn’t anybody noticing this but me?” For example, Vera Landry, in her essay “The Making of a Scholar,” talks about her son, who is black, and the Berkeley Public School system, and is honest about a heart-breaking, seemingly intractable problem we now call, with bland technocratic understatement, the “Achievement Gap.” That is, many black kids fail and many white kids don’t. Having gone through the same school system, and now having kids there, I had been dismayed at the way racial divisions persist, as do liberal evasions, as well as those of the black community. Landry isn’t evasive, and I read this essay with a marvelous sensation of relief. Our sons are the same age and it was with a sense of recognition that I read about the “visceral experience” of her son moving away from her into the world, away from her protection.
Landry’s essay, as do many in this collection, follows a familiar narrative arc: problem, then epiphany, which leads then to a tender acceptance of life as it is, of one’s own limitations. Some of these essays do blend together, at least in tone. But then there are essays that talk about battles fought, and writers like Ann Douglas, who in her essay “Campaign Confidential,” tells how she started working for her candidate because she wanted her country back (in this case, Canada, but we all know what that feels like here in the United States) and the bruising and dispiriting campaign that followed. She asks why so few women–and even fewer mothers–are politically aware. As she says, “If your time is maxed out…return on investment becomes a critical factor.” Then there is a suspenseful and lively piece by Jennifer Brisendene about teaching kids in middle school. She describes going out into the world, armed only with passion and good will, and finding that the world is unresponsive. In the end she decides that she needs to pay attention to her son, that that’s where her energy should go.
And there you have one problem: to change the system we must also have time. Time that only single women, or women whose children are grown, have. Oscar Wilde is purported to have said: “Socialism would be a good idea but it takes too many evenings.” It was no coincidence that when I was looking for my community after 9/11, most of the women I met were at least twenty years older than I. Lovely, intelligent, retired women.
The promise of feminism, in part, was that women could change the world, sort of a Marxian vision of shared work and shared joy. Instead, mothers who work are too busy, and mothers who stay at home are too lonely. Jennifer Margulis describes the isolation and desperation that is the lot of many mothers today in her essay “Life Under Construction.” She says, “But I wonder if women in America are really better off than 1950s “Leave It To Beaver” housewives were. …Without a social structure in America that allows women and men to take paid maternity leave…they must either leave their family to return to work when the baby is a few months old, or experience the isolation and depression that sometimes come with staying home full-time in an individualistic society where family no longer participates and the spouse is away for most of the day.” We can’t indulge in nostalgia for some idyllic “community” of mothers. Instead, our community threatens to become one akin to that described by Helaine Olen in her essay, “Mean Moms.” I’ve been in children’s parks like the one Olen describes and have observed mothers who are as bitchy as the girls you didn’t like in high school. The mothers who freeze you out, following an obscure set of social rules they probably learned in high school. Or the ones who drop you when your child just doesn’t measure up to their standards. Olen’s is a fun essay, but also somehow disturbing; most of the mothers I knew in Berkeley seemed to live in the park or didn’t have lives outside of it, and they didn’t talk about anything but their children–maybe a reaction to how complicated things are is to retire to baby world. This is the comfort we give ourselves, us middle class girls who were promised so much, by feminism, by our parents, that we would be rich, safe and free forever. Instead of taking up arms, or becoming involved, we lie on our backs with our children on our laps, our eyes closed and the sun on our faces.
But in fact, when you read this collection, you get that the mothers within these pages, at least, aren’t trying to retreat from the world. They want to face up to it. As Jane Hammons says, “We don’t have much use for euphemisms in our lives.” The mothers talk to their children, tell it like it is. And the kids listen. “I hate republicans,” says 10 year old Olivia or, “We don’t want plastic. Plastic hurts the earth.” There’s a little bit of guilt, from some of the writers, that they’re scaring their kids, but there’s something heroic, too, in the way these mothers are engaging their children. You could call it brainwashing, but our generation believes in the value of communication; if nothing else, we’re passing that on to our children.
In her own essay, Shari MacDonald Strong describes her dismay as the political landscape shifts in ways she couldn’t have imagined. She ends her piece with a kind of elegiac portrait of our sweet modern life, with a tone of regret for what’s passing–the old world? Perhaps she’s as frightened as I am, but she’s hopeful, too. As she says in her introduction, change will come with books like hers, with readers like me. “Motherhood is nuclear,” writes Tracy Thompson, and “The mother is a multitude when we stand together,” Denise Roy proclaims. This may seem like hyperbole, except that it’s not–mothers have had and do have a singular power, it just needs to be harnessed in any way possible. We need to lay the foundations, the “long, unglamorous slog of making social change,” as Judith Tucker reminds us. Or, say the editors of Brain, Child, we need simply to “provide the stage and hope that players–ones who can take it to the next level–will jump on it.” Indeed, a few of the essays here, including Tracy Thompson’s “Rebel Mom,” describe setting up websites and building virtual communities. Mothers are talking politics–that’s the first step, talking and writing politics; this collection is proof of that.
The book opens with this well-known adage: “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” With one hand on the cradle, the other on the keyboard…is that how mothers will do it?