Moms On The Front Line

April 19, 2011

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.

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    { 24 comments }

    Backpacking Dad April 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    You have reminded me of Dale Turner’s book “This is Not a Peace Pipe”, in which he argues both that the indigenous story being told is not one authored by the indigenous people Canada or the United States, AND that the telling of that story is up to a buffer class of thinkers and writers. It cannot be the wise members of the community themselves, because spilling the secrets of indigenous history and philosophy isn’t something they do: they share with their community. And it cannot just be the job of academics and writers, because to let them do the talking, even if they ARE indigenous themselves, means telling the story in a Western way as a result of the training they’ve undergone. So he calls for the creation of a speaker class, the Word Warriors, who not only have Western training, but indigenous apprenticeship. These Word Warriors will be able to tell the story from the indigenous perspective, will know what may be shared and how, and will be able to connect with Western audiences.

    Bloggers, parenting bloggers, mommy bloggers, daddy bloggers: we are the Word Warriors. We are the translators of the group experience for cultural integration and impact. We have the privilege of doing so because of our apprenticeship as parents; we have the ability to do so because of our writing and social media savvy.

    suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter} April 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    @Backpacking Dad,
    yes, wow. i love this perspective. the indigenous storytellers, the Word Warriors. the book sounds fascinating and i love how you’ve translated it to our context.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, I love that. Word Warriors. I love that so much.

    Remind me to tell you sometime about the work that I did in the interior of BC, in between degrees, talking storytelling with First Nations communities and eco-activist communities and hippies et al there. I wish I’d known about that book then.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    @Backpacking Dad, also, it was a very hard call which comment – yours or Minka’s, below – I was going to write about today. I loved both of them. I could write pages on both of them. Both of them, and most of the others here, were, to me, worth THOUSANDS of ‘I’m first!’ and ‘LOL!’ comments. Millions, maybe.

    Suebob April 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    The vast majority of human history is made up of acts of love and kindness toward one another, but that doesn’t make it into books. For every bullet that is fired, 1000 diapers are changed. For every terrorist act, 500 million meals are prepared and served.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @Suebob, for every asshole who yells or snarks at someone, hundreds and thousands more are giving hugs.

    The Mommy Therapy April 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Such true words! Thanks for the reminder and the pep talk!

    Lauren April 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    There are so many roles that women have had in war– famous nurses, fighters, and don’t forget who ran the factories and businesses during the World Wars while the men were away.

    Yes, the stories must go on.

    Hillary April 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Be still my warrior heart!

    I know all this to be true and in truth it feeds me on a soul level, but to be reminded of this on a rainy Monday afternoon, deep in the mothering trenches, scribbling thoughts on post-it notes as I fold laundry next to couch cushion forts, it feels brand new. It feels revolutionary!

    Thanks. I appreciate your well-spoken words.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    @Hillary, thanks for that. I keep writing this same argument and over again, it seems sometimes, so it’s good to know that it recharged someone :)

    Ethel Louise April 19, 2011 at 1:15 am

    I don’t have anything necessarily insightful to say, but your comments here remind me of the HistorikerInnenstreit among women’s/gender/feminist historians of Germany a couple of decades ago. The controversy swirled around the question of what it meant to tell women’s stories and, particularly, what it meant to have (or, in certain cases in the historiography, ascribe) agency. It came at a time when women’s history was just moving away from “discovering heroines” in the historical past (and towards the dread linguistic turn! oh noes!). “New social history” women’s historians had been so desperate to discover agency in some cases that they took what was blatantly oppression and called it empowerment. Then when the gender (“linguistically turned”) historians came on the scene and critiqued their co-feminist scholars, it led to a bitter and painful schism.
    The problem I see linking that set of issues to the one you raise: How to balance authority (both claims and respect for those claims) and critique?

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    @Ethel Louise, SUCH an excellent question. I’ll have to think about it, but I suspect that it might involve something like what Minka suggests below, a movement away from labeling.

    But then we encounter the problem of losing the momentum of our ‘named’ voices, when arguably there’s still so much naming/claiming (viz. authority) to be done. It’s a tough one. I really do need to think about this further.

    Minka Fieldstone April 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    In preface, I have to say that I have bronchitis and am still dazed by last night’s nyquil, but I feel strongly enough about this post — which asks some really great questions and raises urgent issues — that I think there’s some validity to my feeling that part of the “problem” is in labeling things “women’s issues” or “women’s stories.” In reality, these stories are human stories. As you said, family life is central to the human experience, and I believe that these stories that we are calling ours are fundamentally human. Not necessarily male or female. Men certainly don’t call “their” stories “men” stories. They are simply stories. When men speak, they believe they’re speaking for the whole of humanity. Wrong or right. It is something they perhaps take for granted. But maybe they’re on to something. I’ve dealt with this recently as I’m a newbie blogger, and wonder whether i really need to label myself as a mommy blogger, versus simply being a “blogger” or a a unique individual with stories to tell, things to say, thoughts to share. I am troubled by this question. I wonder if I can succeed in blogging without having this “mom” perspective, whether it be a working mom, or stay-at-home mom, or a hybrid of the two (because i am a mom who works at home)…. and often my stories have nothing explicitly about parenting, yet being a parent informs everything that I do and who I fundamentally am. But that also goes to the issue of branding one’s self in order to better reach some sort of audience. Another problem, as you mention, is a woman’s need to be quiet about certain things, to stay private, to be discreet in our pearl necklaces. But that is not just a woman’s issue, that is a cultural one. About not airing one’s dirty laundry in public. We are still a very uptight society, and no one wants to admit that things at home are messy and complicated. We look at other societies, more stereotypically “ethnic” societies as being loud and boisterous and almost shockingly candid… and our puritanical roots cringe. I believe that goes beyond a woman’s problem. That is an American problem. And because so many of us are reporting from the home, it seems like there is a certain shame that needs to be overcome. Another thought — we shouldn’t be asking for authority. If we were men, we would just take that authority as a given. We wouldn’t ask for permission or validation. Writing is writing. Online or off. I doubt too many men who blog feel it’s less valid because it’s online. We further perpetuate this problem by fighting for this validity, this authority. Because then we imply that it needs to be fought for, rather than simply is. It is something that we claim in the same way we “claim” oxygen when we breathe. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but we need to just continue to support one another’s endeavors; to discuss one another’s works, to follow and subscribe to one another’s blogs; to deal with them on their own merits, not as some surprising new trend. I understand that what is happening IS revolutionary and amazing. But at the same time, to treat it as too miraculous marks it as out of the ordinary, when what we really want, in fact, is (I think…) to be ordinary storytellers…not “women” storytellers or “mom” storytellers. The challenge lies in celebrating something that is long overdue without segregating ourselves further. We are women, yet we tell stories for everyone. The best way for us to get what we want is to just continue telling these stories and passing them on to others — male and female, people with kids and without. The best stories have universal appeal. We must begin to think of ourselves as people who tell those kinds of stories.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    @Minka Fieldstone, you probably saw already that I reposted this. A reply was insufficient :)

    Man April 21, 2011 at 11:36 am

    @Minka Fieldstone, you “don’t mean to oversimplify”? Your whole argument involves defining yourself against, or in light of, strawmen generaliziations about “men”. What “men” “think” and “believe” is far from anything your mind has been able to comprehend. I would suggest that it would be much harder to find an example of a man who believes that, in speaking, he speaks on behalf of all men, let alone all of humanity, than to find the opposite. On the other hand, it would be very easy to find a woman who believes, and indeed presupposes, that in speaking she speaks on behalf of all women: that is the whole premise of feminism (as it is generally articulated). I would say that, in general, presuming to speak on behalf of other people is more of a female than a male trait. You might disagree. But my claim would still be a lot more conditional (i.e., less “simplified”) than anything that you’ve claimed about “men”.

    Cristie Ritz King April 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I swear. Swear! I come here to visit at exactly the right time every time. Sometimes, it is to be reminded that the problems of the world are too huge to ignore. Sometimes it is to be reminded that there are children who would benefit from my help-wearing a tutu or posting a fund-raising link-whatever my help is needed. Today, your words are exactly those I needed to hear. Today, as I ponder what the hell I’m doing “just parenting and writing about it”. Today, when I wonder why I don’t go back to a “real” job or at least turn my writing into something else “more valuable”. Today, you validated my words. You reminded me that my stories are real and important and maybe even necessary. Whatever my words are, your words reminded me they are never “just” anything.
    Thank. A million thank yous for your uncanny timing and of course, your words.

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    @Cristie Ritz King, a million thank yous right back for saying so :)

    Heidi Smith Luedtke April 19, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Claiming power doesn’t come easily to women. I recently interviewed Gloria Feldt, former director of Planned Parenthood, who has a book out called No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. While her position on women’s political movements was a bit extreme for me, her approach that women must claim the “power to” change the world instead of shying away from “power over” other people really hit home with me. Your post resonates with me in the same way.

    Your post is also a perfect fit for my new Sunday link up called “Sunday Soapbox.” Link up any opinion post you want to share. Links are live all week. It’s just getting started, but I’m hoping bloggers like you will find a community there. See what’s happening this week at http://www.leadingmama.com/2011/04/sunday-soapbox-i-dont-have-a-dog-in-this-fight.html

    I hope you’ll link up.

    Cheers!
    Heidi

    Her Bad Mother April 20, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    @Heidi Smith Luedtke, awesome project – I’ll have a look!

    MamaRobinJ April 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    YES.

    My own personal crisis, instigated by motherhood, has made me aware of this in a way I never was before. Since I started writing about it, I’ve come to realize even more how many stories there are and how important they are. How the environments of our homes and our inside lives – ours as mothers, never mind the effects on our children or our families as a whole – affect the well-being of the world in a way I think very few, if any, understand. I think many of us are simply trying to survive, and are taking the moments to thrive as they come.

    This is all because of the stories that are told – and that we tell each other – about what it is to be a mother. We need to tell the real story.

    I’m going to put myself way out there – way, way out there – and say that I’m starting to think I have a part in telling that story. I think I can, and I know I want to, but I also think I’m meant to. That I have something to share that is one of the many links we need to reconnect.

    Emily from Mommin It Up April 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

    I completely agree with you, but I also think the original question of why women are written out of stories is something to ponder as well. Look at popular culture, for example. In so many tv shows, movies, and books the main character’s mother is dead (or worse, just completely missing – where the hell is iCarly’s mom?). From Cinderella to Hannah Montana, moms are nowhere to be seen – and most of the time, the families are portrayed as no worse off for it.

    I lost my mother at a very young age and I know I am particularly sensitive about it, but even as a kid I saw the discrepancy between what actually happens when a mom is absent – the immeasurable and devastating impact it has on a family – and what happens when a woman is written out of the story – which is frankly, not very much.

    chelsie April 23, 2011 at 10:52 am

    i randomly found this blog post somehow today, but it was such a wonderful start to my day. I really resonated with the idea that so many people (myself included) don’t feel like they are legit at whatever they are doing if they don’t do at least some of it offline. Also the idea that no one should want to know what I am writing about…

    I really appreciate the grace with which you write, which all the while passionate and speaking a truth which some people would rather ignore. Thanks!

    Mom101 May 2, 2011 at 9:00 am

    I think there are a lot of things that are personal we hold back from discussing – parenting, relationship issues, money, religion. I’m okay with the idea that not everything about me needs to be public. But there is a need for someone to talk about these things so that others can whisper thank you. Thanks for this post, which just might inspire one more person to say, “hey – I have something to say here

    Liam May 7, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Happy Mothers Day to all of the loving moms in the World! Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday here in the US and I know that eventhough it is celebrated on a different dates depending on your location, I wanted to greet our mothers!

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