EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

The Politics of Motherhood

The critical importance of voice and the dangers of silence

Jane Lazarre presented the following essay in October, 2018, at a conference sponsored by Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB), on the occasion of Lazarre’s first book, The Mother Knot, now published in Spanish by Las Afueras pressas El Nudo Materno. Originally titled, “Maternity, Activism and Democracy,” it was followed by discussion with Barcelona poet, Bel Olid. 

I am filled with many emotions today, being here in Spain, especially in Barcelona – where on October 28, 1938 a great tribute was paid to the International Brigades who had been forced to leave Spain after fighting alongside Spanish Republicans in the Civil War – forced to leave although Germans and Italians under Mussolini and Hitler were still sending troops and guns. As the Internationalists marched down the street, Delores Ibarruri, La Passionaria, spoke for many when she cried, “You are history. You are legend.”

My father was a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a commissar stationed in Albecete and Madrid. By 1938, he had left Spain, and sadly, he died in 1971, long before the aging Veterans, his comrades, returned after Franco’s death to gather here to remember. But in his last letter to myself and my sister, read at his death, he said what he had said often before, “One of my proudest moments was the time I spent fighting in Spain.”

Why do I begin with my father when I am here to talk about motherhood, about my life as a mother? Because it was from him I learned that whatever one’s work, or vocation, profession or identity, one must be an activist for justice and freedom, for excavating the true stories of our lives from all the false stories that surround us. The story of Spain and my father’s participation in the struggle for freedom here has been a talisman, a generative myth all through my life.

My life’s work has been to write memoir and fiction that is both literary and political — the separation is a false one to me. When I began to write in a disciplined way, when I was born into being a writer, I also had just had a child. I thought I had nothing to write about because motherhood represented “only” something personal, not potentially transforming or transcendent, certainly not literary. It was a revelation to read a very few American writers, fiction writers such as Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley, later the philosopher, Sara Ruddick, who were using their knowledge of motherhood as metaphors for the human condition, exploring the endlessly complex relationships between self and other, between ideal desires and faulted human beings.

When I became a mother, I became as well the white/Jewish mother of black sons. This taught me even more so, to paraphrase the poet Adrienne Rich that, “politics was not something out there, but in here, the essence of my condition,” and to learn, in the words of the philosopher, Sara Ruddick, “the maternal act of storytelling [is] a politics of remembering.”

I have written many different stories, but being a mother continues to be a central passion of my life, and so it has been one of the experiences I most wanted to write about, for the same reasons any writer wants to write about her passions – to name them more accurately, to understand them, to convey meaning to others, to use one’s own life to think about life itself, to get at what Toni Morrison called “the deep story.”

By deep story work I mean the interior life a writer attends to as a matter of course, and when writers are mothers this has an especially demanding aspect as we search for what Virginia Woolf called moments of being, the truths that drive us so often enmeshed in conflict and thus obscured. But motherhood has also, historically and in my personal life, demanded activism – and writing is a form of activism, for if we do not tell our stories, who will?  The telling of true stories to counter pervasive false stories is the very essence and heart of activism.

Here, then, is the voice of my thirty-year old self writing, a voice that to my surprise and at times dismay continues to have resonance today, over forty years later:

It is rare to read about the experience of motherhood as described by mothers themselves. Much of what we still read about motherhood are descriptions from the point of view of the children – grown up children who are now writers, psychologists, professionals, but existentially and in relation to the people they are describing, children. Thus, unconscious drives and beliefs are hopelessly entwined with what seems to be purely analytic statement. Even women professionals, overly influenced by the ubiquitous myths of placid, fulfilling maternity accepted by their male mentors, or by ongoing social and cultural distortions, have given us only half the story. And the vicious circle is complete; the myth determines the content of our so called objective knowledge, and our knowledge is used to reinforce the myth. And this myth, which (still) holds such sway over many mothers is destructive precisely because it is not altogether wrong, but leaves out half the truth.

Women are as different from one another as men are — we have many varied personalities and characters and life experiences, are born with every kind of human temperament — yet there is only one persisting image of the “good mother.”  At her worst, she is a tyrannical goddess of stupefying love and murderous self-denial whom none of us should or can emulate. But even at her best, she is only one, limited sort of person, not the vast treasure house of human possibility which would be the stuff of a creative and nourishing myth. She is quietly strong, selflessly giving, undemanding, unambitious; she is receptive and intelligent in only a moderate, concrete way. She is of even temperament, always in control of her emotions.

Most of us are not like her. Try as we might, in our most self-doubting, isolated hours with our children, our real selves come back to haunt us. Yet we want children. And we love our children, we want to give to them, we practice selflessness as intensely as that “good mother” if she exists at all. And we must speak about what it is really like. Only in this way can we change the conclusions and theories which always hover on the edge of our experience, demanding that we sacrifice our self-knowledge to their established vision of the truth.

Clearly, such a project applies to silenced voices under many social and political conditions.  Through motherhood I learned the critical importance of voice and the dangers of silence, and that voice and silence are not “merely personal,” but possess a collective history that must be studied and named.  As the great American writer James Baldwin put it, writing about American racism and the history of American slavery: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” The same is true for motherhood, and after I had given birth to black boys and lived in close intimate connection with my husband’s family for years, I was further educated, more aware of how individual stories are embedded in broad issues of policy, of broad struggles for freedom and against oppression, in decisions about where one lives, or shops, or attends school or work.

Another truth I discovered as a young mother, writing: Much of what has been called neurotic in the woman, and pathogenic for the child in psychological literature is, on the contrary, a normal part of the experience of being a mother, probably for always, but certainly in the first few years and especially with a first child. The only thing which seems to me to be eternal and natural in motherhood is ambivalence — its manifestation in the ongoing cycles of separation and unification with our children.

This seed of maternal guilt and shame, that we will with the slightest misstep make our children crazy, or criminal, or ill, is the most common fear shared with me by readers over the years, a stream of relief expressed in the possibility that what has been called individual pathology, including chronic ambivalence about so much of what we do and feel, is actually a natural part of one of the most demanding and overwhelming forms of love.

Years later, when my children had graduated from college, I began thinking, and feeling and writing about my experience of the convergence of my education as a mother with my particular education as a white mother of black sons.  When my sons were in college and I was in my late forties and early fifties, thinking about our connections and our differences, I wrote : Fierce possessiveness lies at the heart of motherhood right alongside the more reasonable need to see one’s children become themselves, and this emotion can rise up, choking me. What is this whiteness that threatens to separate me from my own child? Why haven’t I seen it lurking, hunkering down, encircling me in some irresistible fog? I want to say the things that will be helpful to my sons, offer some carefully designed, unspontaneous permission for them to discover their own roads, even if that means leaving me behind. On the other hand, I want to cry, don’t leave me, as they cried to me when I walked out of day care centers, away from baby sitters, out of their first classrooms in public school. And always, this double truth, as unresolvable as in any other passion, the paradox: he is me/not me; she is mine/not mine.

Reading pages of the story of a new mother as a much older woman, as a grandmother, I remember feeling what the writer Meena Alexander called “the shock of arrival.” Like an immigrant on foreign shores, I was stunned, uncertain of direction, trying to understand the history and culture of my new home – which was not yet anything like home to me. What strikes me most forcefully in my own words now is that the experience of pregnancy, birthing and first motherhood is a life crisis, filled with the passions, doubts and obsessions of any transformation.

Stepping back a few years from that time, this time in a novel, I wrote about being a mother when my sons were adolescents:

I am forty-five years old, I wrote then. I have two sons, one is gone from home. The other’s leaving gathers energy like a storm off the coast, and I have known hurricanes before. I begin the process of battening down hatches, taping windows, packing breakables in layers of newspaper, then laying them in cartons. At night, when my son is out on the street, I lie in bed and practice putting old habits away as if they were china plates I’d hoped to save forever. I cannot protect him, I tell myself in the dark. Even if at this very moment some mugger is poised for attack, or some policeman is raising a night stick or a gun to his lovely skull, even if I imagine every possible danger and like a witch think it away, I cannot protect him. I have no control, I tell myself in the dark. There is nothing I can do now. His life. My life. Separate as Sentences.

I am seventy-five years old now. My sons are in their middle and late forties. They are fathers, they have traveled the world, one lives across the country from me, another several miles away, they have work, and love, and are strong, resilient men and still, there are nights when I lie in bed in the dark – thinking these same thoughts.

Even the most familiar, often told stories, it seems, must be continually revised. Some years ago, after surviving breast cancer, I found my own mother, who had died decades earlier when I was a small child from the same disease, resurrected in my consciousness like a giantess come to claim her stolen place. From this surprising reunion came the recognition of another intriguing paradox: the shock of arrival had taken many years and many books for me. In novels and memoirs and in my daily life with my sons, I had struggled to learn the language of a mother’s voice. Then, in my early fifties, confronting the myths I had constructed about my mother, I saw I had learned the mother’s language so well I had to learn the daughter’s language again. When I reread The Mother Knot today, I hear that voice, the young woman trying to learn how to be a mother while she is longing for a mother herself. She can be righteous of course, full of fierce conviction – and there are times, rereading some of my sentences written so long ago, when I cringe – but she shouts the need for knowledge and the power of maternal love.

Her language is indeed my mother-tongue, because if it was as my sons’ mother that I first garnered the courage to write my stories for the world, it was as my dead mother’s daughter that I looked squarely at the terror of belonging nowhere, and began to recover some of the places where I belonged. The mother knot tightens and loosens for me. Protecting and containing, it has been the source of my own awakenings over a lifetime.

Recently I read a quote from Vincent Harding, a leader of the American Civil Rights movement quoted by the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, about how the yearning for freedom flows through history “like a river, sometimes powerful … and rolling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, streaked and running with blood.”

We are in a time of the river flowing, of reaching toward new freedoms. People are migrating across dangerous waters and war-torn nations, seeking safety, speaking with their voices and their feet, often finding rejection, racism, further destitution. Women are speaking louder than ever about sexual autonomy, against sexism and misogyny. Even the fundamental idea of gender identity is interrogated as individuals tell their stories. But in my country and in many parts of the world, sexism in all its pernicious forms still dominates loudly, painfully, imperiously. But all the while, people are gathering in large marches and small groups to exchange and support each other.  Mothers have a voice to tell our stories, but also more and more can gain strength from what we learn or might learn from practicing maternal care. And whether you believe it is cultural or genetic, or a likely combination of both, there is much the world, men and women, might learn from the human gifts long called “feminine.”

So, for now I return to the first part of my story, for my motherhood has always been influenced by and steeped in my father’s life, his work as an American radical, his identity as an immigrant, but also as the father who, from when I was seven years old, became the only real mother I ever had. As Sara Ruddick has written, the traditional male qualities of reason, autonomy and detachment are human gifts part of us all, but so are the capacities for intimacy and emotion – capacities we typically identify as feminine – the bedrocks of empathy – available to all human beings of whatever gender or sexual identity.

My father was a revolutionary leader, an immigrant to the U.S. and a teacher. He sometimes taught in a public square, as we are in now – and one of those early speeches landed him in a Philadelphia prison in the 1920s. After serving with the International Brigades here in Spain, he returned home to resume his position of leadership in the Communist Party, but by the 1950s, his world and his position had changed radically. He had been forced out of his position in the Party, so he began teaching groups of men and women sitting around our living room – discussing current events, evaluating the changing politics of the time. And always – through discussions and lectures, he taught his children, nephews, nieces, or any other children of the communist families who were the close community of my childhood – about the long history of fights for social justice, for racial and sexual equality, for workers’ rights, and for a global world view – a world of many nationalities and religions, yes, but a world fundamentally unified by what human beings everywhere need for a decent life, the very beliefs that caused volunteers from all over Europe to fight against fascism in the International Brigades. These are the values within which we were raised. They are values that I tried in turn to bequeath to my children.

“My blood is coursing through your veins!” my father would shout at us, his daughters, when he was insisting on his love, or when he was angry at some rebellion too far from his principles to abide. I feel his blood coursing through my veins now – material genes, palpable and energizing. I hear his voice reminding me, like Baldwin’s, that no one escapes history — when we tell our own stories honestly and passionately, we write history as we reclaim ourselves. As mothers, we must do this, we must risk rejection and criticism in an effort to tell and retell the true stories, stories sometimes so deeply buried we need help to dig them out.

At the end of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a scene resounds in me, echoing the maternal love I have been fortunate enough to be given by another male mother, my husband of fifty years.

Sethe, the mother and center of the story, is nearly paralyzed by the loss of her children, the guilt of her own complicity, and by her tragic and inevitable impotence in personally resisting the horrific realities of American slavery. Her lover and friend, Paul D, comes to her bedside, where, speaking of one of her lost daughters, she cries, “she was my best thing.”

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are. His holding fingers are holding hers.’”

And she responds in what I hear as a whisper ringing and ringing in every mother’s mind:

“Me? Me?”

Jane Lazarre, a former member of the faculty at Eugene Lang College, is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. Passages in this essay have been excerpted, or slightly revised from some of those works, including: The Mother Knot, Duke University Press; Worlds Beyond My Control, Hamilton Stone Editions; and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness; Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, Duke University Press. Her most recent book is The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter: A Memoir, Duke University Press (2017).

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