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19 Apr

Moms On The Front Line

Last Friday morning I was sitting in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans, listening to Abigail Disney speak about her documentary films and about her belief in the importance of telling women’s stories. She made a film about women and war, she said, because women have historically been written out of that story. And why have they been written out the story? she asked.

Ooh, I thought. Excellent question. I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling. We could ask that about the story of the family, I wrote, thinking of all the times that I’ve argued that mothers have historically not been the tellers of stories about the family. Why have women been written out of that story?

And then I scrawled a big inky question mark beside those notes. Wrong question, I wrote, and drew a fat black arrow back to Abigail Disney’s original remark. It isn’t that women have been written out of the story – it’s that we don’t like how they’ve been written in. And we don’t like how they – how we – have been written in, because it hasn’t been us telling those stories.

Women have long had a place in stories and theories of war. As causes of war (Helen of Troy, anyone?), as beings – alongside children – who are particularly vulnerable to harm in war, as supporters or protesters of war, and as warriors in their own right. Athena was a warrior goddess. Boudicca was a warrior queen. Joan of Arc was a warrior girl. Spartan mothers were legendary for their ferocity in matters of battle (Jean Jacques Rousseau used the example of the ‘Spartan Mother’ – the woman who, upon asking a messenger for news of the war and receiving his response that her sons had been slain, said, ‘vile slave, was that what I asked?‘ – as his primary example of the hypothetical good citizen.) Machiavelli reminds us that Caterina Sforza abandoned her children to avenge a political conspiracy against her husband (‘and to show that she did not care for her children, she showed them her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them.‘ One of the original bad mothers, she.) And there’s been excellent academic work on the rhetorical use of language related to mothers and motherhood in popular discourse around contemporary war-making. Women are all over these stories. Mothers are all over these stories. Our inclusion is not the problem. Our authority is the problem.

So it is with motherhood, as I’ve argued in this space many times. Parenthood and the family have been topics of concern and rich sources of ideas for writers and thinkers throughout human history – the family, after all, is the core unit of human society – and mothers figure centrally in the stories and theories and general discourse emerging out of those interrogations of parenting and the family. But mothers have rarely been the tellers of those stories. Men – and not even necessarily fathers, which is another topic altogether – have been the tellers of those stories. Until now. The Internet has provided us with the space and the means to be the authors of our own stories, and we have, for some years now, been busily taking advantage of that space and that means to assert our authority, in all senses of the world. We have, as my friend Liz reminded me in a discussion this past weekend, built an entire industry upon that authority – hence the existence of conferences devoted to examining the art and craft and business of that authority. We are mothers, and the Internet has given us the space in which to roar.

I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know, of course. But it’s worth repeating, again and again and again and again, because even though we know the power of that authority, we’re still not asserting it enough, nor are we, I think, recognizing its revolutionary character. We still hem and haw over whether to embrace or reject the term ‘mommy blogger.’ We still clutch our pearls and demur when asked to celebrate and share the stories of our personal success. We still cling a little bit to the idea that we aren’t real writers or real activists or real business people or real artists if we aren’t doing at least some of that work – and receiving recognition for that work – offline. We still hesitate, sometimes, to call ourselves writers and activists and business people and artists. We still hold back from fully asserting and celebrating – publicly and widely – our authority.

We still think, I think, that there’s something about motherhood, about parenthood, that requires us to maybe keep just a little bit quiet about it. We still think, I think, that it’s all fine and good for us to discuss these things amongst ourselves, but that we should not expect anyone else to listen or to care. That has something to do, I’d argue, with the pervasive cultural idea that parenthood is and always will be a matter for the private sphere, and not the public. It’s aggravated by the fact that we live in a society that often openly snickers or rolls its collective eyes at the discourse of parenthood, and that openly expresses its discomfort, and sometimes irritation, with the work of parenthood (we chuckle at STFU Parents; we cringe when a child has a meltdown in public; we still, some of us, ask why women can’t just cover up while breastfeeding.) It’s a problem that feeds upon itself, because the more reluctant we are to insist that our stories – told by us, on our own terms – really matter in the bigger scheme of public discourse, the more endures the doubt that fuels that reluctance, and the more endure the cultural expectations about the private character of the family that fuel that doubt.

So we need not only to keep telling our stories, we need to keep insisting upon and asserting and celebrating the importance of those stories. We need to keep raising our voices. We need to keep ignoring anyone who tells us to keep them down. We need to ignore our own impulses to tell ourselves to keep it down. We need to be warriors for our own cause.

We need to be story warriors. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that – maybe you can help me figure that out – but still. I think we need it.