Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Badass Mommies Book Review: The Maternal is Political

The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change
Edited by Shari MacDonald Strong
I was interested but somewhat skeptical when I decided to read this -- skeptical about any of it applying to me, anyway. I couldn't think of anything indicating that motherhood had turned me into anything much different from the same timid, wishy-washy, non-confrontational person I was before I gave birth.
The book is quite interesting. As is often the case with this sort of project, most, if not all, of the contributors are quite highly educated, politically aware and articulate, so the reader must be aware of a possible lack of range. However, the writers do include a physically disabled mother, a mother who has spent time institutionalized for mental illness, a Guatemalan woman who has witnessed horrific atrocities, and a lesbian mother trying to adopt her partner's baby, so clearly there was an attempt to achieve a variety of viewpoints.
The essays are divided into three sections: Believe, Teach and Act. The 'Believe' section contains terms such as 'consciousness raising' and 'if we want a mother's movement... we have to give birth to it', which I have to admit tend to provoke a slight cringe reflex in me, although who can argue that consciousness doesn't need to be raised? The women in this section write about how becoming a mother expands your worldview, in both existential and practical ways. There's nothing like emerging from the rosy glow (or the sleepless fog) of the first few weeks or months of motherhood and realizing that your employment prospects, earning potential, benefits and personal freedoms have been severely impacted to suddenly make a woman sit up and take notice of certain practices that are unhelpful, if not downright hostile, to mothers (I apologize wholeheartedly for this sentence, I'm just too tired to rewrite it any more).
Trying to find suitable day care opens up many other cans of worms, including the reality of women from other countries caring for North American babies while spending years away from their own children. If nothing else, having children raises these issues on our radar, erases some of that blissful ignorance that might have accompanied a pre-child-encumbered state. Government policies on paid childcare leave, job protection, subsidized childcare, immigration -- these all become immediate and personal realities, which lead some women to start questioning, with varying degrees of loudness, the validity of certain protocols and assumptions.
In "Mom, Interrupted: Toward a Politics of Maternal Mental Health", Marritt Ingman interrogates the notion of postpartum depression, asking whether it is completely a matter of hormones, or rather "a falsely medicalized perspective on a problem that is at least partly political and cultural?" In other words, maybe they should be depressed, given that "for too many mothers, political reality is bleak". I tend to believe that actual postpartum depression is largely a matter of hormones and chemicals, but in a larger context Ingman's question is certainly worth asking. Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, in "Of Volcanos and Ruins and Gardens", writes about her decision to adopt a Guatemalan child, and the realization that "adoptive motherhood bears the secret that the lines we erect to partition ourselves off from others, to protect ourselves against the heaviness of the human experience, are arbitrary." The implication is that it is this inescapable realization that drives mothers to act politically not only on behalf of their own children, but for everyone's children.
Marion Winik's brave and unequivocal essay "Mothers Against Faith" really blew me away, given my own daily see-sawing between agonized half-belief and tormented skepticism. "Faith moves mountains, they say. That may well be true. It certainly knocks over buildings. Wonder, I think, may be a gentler way to live." I love this.
The "Teach" section, predictably, features educators with concerns about curriculum issues (stupid standardized tests), and also a woman with black sons in school, dealing with the reality of black men being viewed as athletes, entertainers or criminals rather than scholars, and a white woman living in India with her golden-haired fair-skinned daughter, who wonders why a rhyme they say at school reflects the reality of her appearance and not that of the Indian children (and I've done irreparable violence to another sentence). "All-Consumed: The Restoration of One Family's Values" by Alisa Gordaneer describes her really impressive committment to anti-consumerism, and how she has raised her children to be avid trash-pickers, recyclers, haters of 'cpc' (cheap plastic crap), and watchers of documentaries about how factories in China cause environmental damage. Her children prefer these, apparently, to Disney movies. Seriously. I'm thinking of asking her if she wants to adopt my children before I corrupt them any further.
The "Act" section actually answered one of my questions, which was something like 'can't I go to a political activism boot camp or something?' Beth Osnes, author of "Performing Mother Activism", actually presented a workshop called Rehearsal for Activism; she acknowledges "how similar activism is to performing, in that both force you to present yourself in public and express some predetermined content." This is what I was looking for, from someone; the admission that activism isn't something you can just leap into (okay, it isn't something I can just leap into) without some kind of coaching and encouragement. The other question floating around in my mind, which was something about how to act in the face of overwhelming odds and probably failure, was addressed beautifully by "The Mother is Standing" by Denise Roy. She writes about her passage from a former goody-two shoes rule-follower to getting arrested in a Good Friday protest at a nuclear weapons facility which did not change the world, but changed her and her community. She relates the story of A.J. Muste, a Vietman War protester who stood outside the White House nightly, and when asked if he really thought he would change U.S. policy, said "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me." That was one of those a-ha moments for me.
"Peace March Sans Children" by Valerie Weaver was honest and comforting, in its admission that "caring for the world or caring for the kids" are sometimes "incompatible", and that sometimes mothers of young children might need a little time off from the revolution, before coming back to "advocate from a deeper place within ourselves than we had known existed".
I'm glad I read this book. It gave me a lot to think about. And a few weeks after I had finished it, I was at a baseball game where we had some trouble with the other team's coach. The whole matter of the coach of a team of six-year-olds needing to win no matter what is a matter for another post, but at one point, when he was being fairly nasty and confrontational, I suddenly found myself up out of my comfortable lawn chair, on my feet.
I didn't actually punch out the coach, or get arrested or anything. Still... I think I might have been ready for a little activism. I am mother... hear me squeak in a vaguely threatening and self-assured manner.

1 comment:

Amber said...

I have a very hard time believing that any child actually prefers documentaries to Disney. I totally believe that children would tell their mother they did to make her happy, but given the choice I think her kids would be right there watching Cinderella III with my own.

But maybe I'm just saying that to make myself feel better. ;)