Andrea O’Reilly: Motherhood is NOT a Liability
“I wrote the books I needed to read.” – Toni Morrison
As we close the month that includes a celebration of Mother’s Day, we offer a profile of Andrea O’Reilly, advocate extraordinaire of mother-writers everywhere. Founder of The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) and creator of Demeter Press, O’Reilly has facilitated dozens of conferences and publications devoted to issues of mothering and has been a visionary leader for mothers, writers, and scholars around the world. After the recent loss of a major grant for MIRCI and Demeter (due to their “narrow focus” on motherhood), O’Reilly launched a fundraising campaign, titled “Motherhood is NOT a Liability.” O’Reilly shares her story with Rachel Epp Buller, a Demeter author and Literary Mama profiles co-editor.
Rachel Epp Buller: From our conversations, I know that your journey to establish MIRCI and Demeter had two parts—one personal and one professional. What were the personal circumstances that led you in that direction?
Andrea O’Reilly: The foremost reason was that I, as a young feminist mother and scholar new to the field of motherhood studies, urgently and desperately needed such a community. Feminists rightly say that the personal is political, and nothing could be truer for how and why MIRCI and Demeter Press happened in my life. Di Brandt opened the prologue to her book Wild Mother Dancing by discussing how the birth of her first child in 1977 called into question all she had learned—or thought she had learned—in the Masters English Literature program she completed that same year. She writes, “It was like falling into a vacuum narratively speaking. I realized suddenly with a shock, that none of the tests I had read so carefully, none of the literary skills I had acquired so diligently as a student of literature had anything remotely to do with the experience of becoming a mother.” Similarly, I entered motherhood the same year I completed an Honors B.A. in English and Women’s Studies. When I became a mother unexpectedly at the age of 23, in the final year of my degree, I reflected back on the courses I’d taken and realized I’d never had a single course in which motherhood was discussed in a thorough way—and this was in coursework leading to a degree in Women’s Studies. The few times motherhood was considered, the frame of reference was presented as either the “prison of domesticity” theme of late-nineteenth century literature or the “motherhood-as-patriarchal-trap” paradigm of early 1970s feminist thought. With the notable exception of a Canadian Women’s Writers course, none of my undergraduate courses included a maternal perspective on the women’s issues studied, nor did professors call attention to the absence of motherhood or position it as a worthy and deserving topic for feminist scholarly inquiry.
Two years later, I began my Ph.D. in English, giving birth to my second child four months later in December 1986, and my third child three years after that. At 28 years old, with three children born in five years, and the only mother in my Ph.D. program, I hungered for stories and theories by and about mothers and wondered, as did Di Brandt, “Where … were the mothers, symbolic or otherwise, whom I might have turned to in that moment of aloneness and desperation?” In 1991, I designed a third-year Women’s Studies course on motherhood to address and correct the silencing and marginalization of motherhood in academe; it was the first course on this topic in Canada. At that point, York University did not offer a single course on the subject of motherhood, despite hosting two large and successful Women’s Studies programs and a student population of 40,000. I have taught this course now for over 20 years, and while it certainly has been important for the development of motherhood scholarship and my own survival as a mother scholar, I needed and longed for more. I still longed for a community to sustain and support the work I was doing, a place where I did not have to defend or justify my motherhood scholarship or my identity as a mother academic. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and so MIRCI and Demeter Press were born.
REB: How did the actual process of founding MIRCI and Demeter come about? What were your academic motivations?
AO: Adrienne Rich opened her now classic work Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution with a poignant observation: “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” In the three plus decades since Of Woman Born was published, the topic of motherhood has become increasingly central to feminist scholarship. Scholars from a multitude of fields name motherhood as their central research area, yet they did not have a press or association they could call their own, one that specifically focused on their research interests.
At the first motherhood conference at York University in 1997, we identified the absence of a scholarly association on motherhood as a missing piece in the field of maternal scholarship, and numerous attendees called upon us to develop a scholarly association to meet this need. In response to these requests and in recognition that a scholarly association on motherhood was urgently needed and long overdue, we established the Association for Research on Mothering, now the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement. In 2006, I founded Demeter Press, the first scholarly and feminist press to specifically focus on the topic of mothering and motherhood, to further facilitate and promote the development and dissemination of maternal scholarship and the emerging new discipline of Motherhood Studies. In the first several years, Demeter published only a handful of titles, but since 2012, we have published over 10 titles a year with 20 planned for 2014. This month we celebrated the publication of our 50th title, Telling Truths: Storying Motherhood, a collection of creative nonfiction. Demeter is a peer-reviewed press that publishes both scholarly and literary titles on various and diverse motherhood issues, with a commitment to publishing work on under-researched motherhood topics and/or perspectives, such as South Asian Mothering, Mothering Mennonite, and Disabled Mothers. I believe strongly that if we want Motherhood Studies to be an inclusive discipline, a wide range of motherhood voices and perspectives must be fully represented in the literary and scholarly canon of Motherhood Studies. I believe also that such titles would likely not be not be published by mainstream presses as they are not “money makers.”
REB: What is the meaning behind the name Demeter Press?
AO: The press is named in honor of herstory’s most celebrated, empowered, and outraged mother: the goddess Demeter. Demeter was the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility who unleashed her power when her beloved daughter Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld by the god Hades. Overcome with rage and grief, Demeter withheld the coming of spring; the chief god Zeus, now faced with the plight of the earth’s bareness, had no choice but to demand that Hades return Persephone to her mother. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich interprets the Demeter-Persephone story as a compelling representation of every daughter’s “longing for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rage and bring her back from death,” and signifying “every mother’s longing for the power of Demeter and the efficacy of her anger.” In patriarchal culture, where there are so few examples of empowered mothering and mothers in literature and life, Demeter’s triumphant resistance serves as a model for the possibility—and power—of feminist mothering.
REB: In founding Demeter Press, you’ve moved between the roles of author, editor, and publisher quite frequently. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as you’ve moved between these roles?
AO: I began my career as a motherhood researcher and writer but now spend most of my time as Editor-in-Chief of Demeter Press, publishing books by other writers and advancing their careers through such publications. For me, this change seems a natural development: the overarching goal of my motherhood research over the last two decades has always been, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, to make available the books (by and about mothers) I want to read. I see this current stage of my work as the expected evolution in my commitment to the establishment of Motherhood Studies as an autonomous and vibrant academic discipline.
REB: How has motherhood scholarship evolved over the years?
AO: What has sustained me throughout these hard first years of establishing Demeter Press is how much there is to say about motherhood. I remain amazed by the many wonderful ideas that editors and authors send to me about possible book topics. I always think, “Wow! What a fabulous idea, and yes, we must publish a book on this!” That is why I was particularly outraged by a granting agency’s reasoning for not renewing our grant funding. Viewing our focus on motherhood as a liability, they believed that soon Demeter Press would reach what they called “market saturation” and run out of motherhood topics to publish on. I could only think, “Are you kidding me?!” Our Journal of the Motherhood Initiative has published over 30 issues and Demeter Press has published 50 books on motherhood topics and we have, as they say, only scratched the surface of the possibilities.
The agency’s reasoning, I believe, bespeaks and betrays the larger cultural and scholarly view held by so many, that motherhood is “just what women naturally do” and that, as such, it does not need (or deserve) scholarly attention. There are many publishing houses or journals that focus on a particular topic, whether it is Canadian literature or the plays of Shakespeare, and they are never asked to defend or rationalize their publishing focus. I believe the real issue is not Demeter’s specific focus but what we focus on: motherhood. It saddens and angers me that despite all what we have done at Demeter Press to produce high-quality literary and scholarly books on motherhood that the topic is still not taken seriously by so many, but I remain determined to prove that motherhood does matter and deserves a scholarly press of its own.
REB: What steps are you taking to combat the notion that motherhood is too narrow a focus for a press?
AO: We have launched the fundraising initiative, “Motherhood is NOT a Liability.” In order for Demeter to survive, we need to raise approximately $20,000 over the next several months to keep our scheduled books in production. If we do not publish these books we will not be able to apply for grants next year. So we are truly in a “Catch-22” situation: we need to publish a certain number of books to qualify for funding next year but the granting agency has taken away the very the money that would enable us to do so. Our hope is that we can raise enough money over the next few months through book sales, donations, or an endowment so that we are in a position to reapply for grant funding next year. As always, we hope that Demeter can continue to do the necessary and important work it does: publishing much-needed books on motherhood. If your own reading and research has been enriched by our press, we ask that you consider supporting Demeter: buying books through our 50 percent-off sale, asking your libraries to do the same, making a donation in any amount to our fundraising campaign, and spreading our call for support far and wide. (Full details may found on our site: www.demeterpress.org.)
REB: What upcoming events or publications are you particularly excited about as you move forward?
AO: We have so many wonderful titles scheduled for 2014 and 2015 that there are too many to mention, but highlights include Muslim Mothering, Mothering and Performance, Black Motherhoods, Feminist Mothering, and Mothers Under Fire: Mothers In Conflict Areas. It is my hope that you believe in the importance Demeter Press and that motherhood does matter, motherhood is NOT a liability, and that you will support our press in any way you can.
2 replies on “Andrea O’Reilly: Motherhood is NOT a Liability”
Andrea at her best, summarizing the life of a genius at work – herself, never giving up on her aims and scholarly choices, and those who research and write about and for mothers.
Well, said, Andrea! An inspiring “herstory”….Laurie, author of MY MOTHER DID NOT TELL STORIES (Demeter, 2012).