Today I am going to do no justice to the person I seek to honor. She was too significant, too brilliant, to courageous for me to adequately represent her contribution in a simple blog post. But mother studies icon, major intellectual force, and “pioneering feminist poet” Adrienne Rich died this week at 82 years old, and I am compelled to pay tribute. I focus on just a couple of her major and numerous intellectual contributions but please, take a moment to do a search about her and sit for a moment with what we have gained for her having been here and what we have lost in her passing.
There was no shortage of women who were writing works that pushed up against normative practices and thinking in the sixties and seventies. And there was no shortage of women who were agitating against the widely accepted practices of family life that were oppressing women and constricting their opportunities beyond the home, their personal identities, and their self-expression. It was Rich, though, who wrote eloquently and at length about how mothering held the capacity for passionate connection, spiritual union, and loving tenderness, at the same time that it was generally lived out in a way that had the power to crush a woman’s soul. It was Adrienne Rich who distinguished, in her book Of Woman Born, between the institution of motherhood and the experience of mothering. She writes of motherhood:
This institution has been a keystone of the most diverse social and political systems. It has withheld over one-half the human species from the decisions affecting their lives; it exonerates men from fatherhood in any authentic sense; it creates the dangerous schism between “private” and “public” life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. (Introduction in Of Woman Born)
Taking us far beyond the simplistic point that the institution is “bad” and the experience is “good,” she worked to clarify that what many feminists and others were critiquing in the seventies was not potential maternal-child connection, union, and growth in their own right, but rather the ways in which motherhood was constructed and defined by society, and the ways in which those constructions and definitions negatively impacted not only women’s agency and freedom but also maternal-child experience. And she was not saying that mothers will by definition feel affirmed in or nourished by motherwork, but rather that mothering experience hold potential for this, especially if it were released from the constraints of the institution. This distinction between institution and experience was important because it helped us see that women could love mothering, but hate how motherhood was defined for them; they could love their children even as they sought change in maternal life; they could acknowledge the unparalleled intimacy they felt with their children and also resent how the guts of motherwork is overshadowed by grossly misleading but beautific images of perpetual maternal bliss. Rich was reacting to ideas of her time that motherhood either was inherently magical and lovely and the be-all end-all of womanhood (according to dominant views), or was inherently oppressive, and a trap, and devoid of opportunities for women to have meaningful lives (which some few feminists argued but which popular representations of feminism held up as at the core of feminism as a whole). She gave voice to the tension and contradiction in maternal experience:
Throughout pregnancy and nursing, women are urged to relax, to mime the serenity of madonnas. No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting. No one mentions the strangeness of attraction—which can be as single-minded and overwhelming as the early days of a love affair—to a being so tiny, so dependent, so folded-in to itself—who is, and yet is not, part of oneself (In Of Woman Born).
Rich was an intrepid explorer who ventured into areas rarely travelled and who cut a path toward thinking about maternal life in ways that were brazen and honorable. Mothering held potential to be a nourishing and rewarding and empowering experience, she said. Motherhood, as it is defined socially, often is stifling, annihilating of a woman’s spirit. But that could be changed. And it doesn’t have to happen, she said, by women rejecting motherhood everywhere, though some women may choose that and ought be free to. What we do have to change is what we expect from mothers, how we support mothers, who participates in the work of caring for children, what we insist children must have, how much we pony up evidence that we truly value motherwork. What we have to change is assuming that ‘mother’ and ‘woman’ are synonyms. What we have to change is our expectation that a mother’s emotional life is restricted to pure adoration and affection toward her children, without any frustration, any need to be alone, or any ambivalence. Rich writes in her audacious essay, “Anger and Tenderness,” through which she shares journal entries and deep considerations about her life as a mother and writer and wife (who later left the institution of marriage) during the sixties and seventies:
I was haunted by the stereotype of the mother whose love is “unconditional”; and by the visual and literary images of motherhood as a single-minded identity. If I knew parts of myself existed that would never cohere to those images, weren’t those parts then abnormal, monstrous? (In Of Woman Born)
We don’t of course expect such a constricted emotional life from any other living being but we do expect if from mothers. We don’t allow mothers the right to feel conflicted. Adrienne Rich gave us a way to talk about that conflict, both by naming maternal ambivalence and by making clear what it is, exactly, that begs for change. And her distinction between mothering experience and motherhood as an institution that needs radical transformation is at the core of Motherhood Studies today and forever altered how we talk about maternal life and women’s identities.
Thank you Adrienne.