I Am Mother, Hear Me Roar

September 18, 2011

(The post below repurposes, with some revisions, a post that I wrote late last year after TEDWomen. I’ve been revisiting it this weekend as I prepare notes for a panel that I’m moderating tomorrow at the WIE Symposium, on mothers and social change. The discussion tomorrow will be, to some extent, a consideration of the ideas below. It will also be, in some ways, a realization of them.)

It was sometime early on in one of the first sessions of TEDWomen last December that the question occurred to me: are we saying to each other here – in this go go women go celebration of everything that women can do – that women are the new men? And if that’s the case, is the corollary that men are the new women? Or that less-advantaged women are the new (and old) women? Whither women qua women, if women are trying to escape themselves?

No one actually said that women are the new men, of course. Hanna Rosin, in her talk, argued explicitly against it, or at least against the idea that women could or should or would replace men as men. Ted Turner stated – awkwardly, it must be said – that women needed a place at the table precisely because they weren’t men (“women are less likely to push the [nuclear] button,” he said, forgetting entirely about Margaret Thatcher.) And Tony Porter, who gave a spine-tingling, tear-jerking talk about the need for men to break out of the ‘man box’ and raise their boys to be less manly, in all the worst senses of the term, made an explicit call for men to become, in some ways, the new women. There was, in other words, a very clear celebration of women as women, and not just as replacement figures for men in traditionally male roles.

But still, but still: this was a celebration, for the most part, of the extraordinary, and what is extraordinary, for women, is to achieve success in domains historically dominated by men. We celebrate as extraordinary the Nancy Pelosis and the Madeleine Albrights and the Hilary Clintons and the Donna Karans because they have succeeded in politics and business, because they have succeeded in the public domain, the domain that has been traditionally closed to all but the most extraordinary women, the domain that remains closed, in some important measure, to all but the most extraordinary women. And when we talk about women reshaping the future, when we celebrate women reshaping the future, this is what and who we’re talking about: extraordinary women making a difference in the domain that has, for all of human history, been dominated by men. We really are talking about women becoming the new men, or, at least, women joining ranks with the old men, the ones who are not interested in becoming, with Tony Porter, the new women.

This is fine, of course. When I dream dreams for my daughter, that is exactly the shape they take: she becomes Prime Minister of Canada, or Secretary-General of the United Nations, or a Nobel-prize winning scientist. I dream dreams in which she takes her (rightful) place in the public domain and succeeds there. I do not dream that she becomes a stay-at-home mother, or a daycare worker, or a primary school teacher, or even a nurse. When I say to her, you can be whatever you want when you grow up, dream big, shoot for the stars! I mean, aim far and away from the domain of the hearth and the home. Because nobody ever made a difference from there, right?

Wrong. Ironically, it took a man to say it: Tony Porter argued that the most important work to be done in securing a better future for our daughters and our sons was raising them right. Raising them to be respectful, and caring. Raising them to do unto others as they have others do unto them, regardless of sex or gender or orientation or ability or appearance or whatever. Raising them to be good citizens of civil society. Raising them to be good. The liberation of women and girls, he said, is tied to the liberation of men and boys, and vice-versa. We all need to be liberated from closed ideas of what is manly and what is womanly and what is weak and what is strong. And that liberation begins in the home.

This is not a new idea, of course. Aristotle argued in his Politics that the first political education occurs in the household, in the raising of children. Rousseau devoted an entire work to the question of how to raise a child to be a good citizen. That good politics – that is to say, a robust civil society and a community of citizens devoted to their best collective good – requires a people that are educated in the fundamentals of good citizenship from a very early age should be obvious (Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten could be regarded as an important statement of political philosophy, except that it gets one crucial thing wrong: the fundamentals of good citizenship must be in place well before kindergarten. Plato and Aristotle and Rousseau knew this. Sesame Street knows it, and Elmo preaches it. So should we all.) That this is, and long has been, historically, the work of mothers should also be obvious (it was, at least, to Aristotle, who argued that even if women weren’t leaders in the political sphere, they should be regarded as such within the household, alternating power with their husbands, lest children learn that the most natural model of politics is despotism.) Except that it isn’t. When women say, the work of ordinary motherhood is important, necessary, crucial, fundamental to our future, we nod our heads – yes, yes, of course – and then we turn our attention back to the extraordinary, to the public stars, to the Hilary Clintons and the Nancy Pelosis, and we say, that, there; that is where change will come from. And we are right, but only very partially right, and in that partiality resides the problem.

This was Tony Porter’s point: that if you save a boy (from dominant narrow social conventions of what it means to be manly) (and, unspoken, but nonetheless asserted: if you save a girl, from dominant narrow social conventions of what it means to womanly), you save the world – let’s repeat that, save a child, save the world – and that that saving power is the power of fathers, and mothers, and other caregivers. It is not (at least, is not fundamentally) the power of the university professor or the politician or the therapist or the inspirational speaker or the world leader or the TED session. It is not a power that is exercised in the Assembly of the United Nations or the Oval Office or the head office of the World Bank. It is a power exercised by parents, by caregivers, in the home, and to some extent by teachers, in the schools, and by all of us, in the mundane corners of our lives, in how we treat each other. It is a power that is exercised, for the most part, in the private sphere.

And this is the sphere that we most want to turn our backs on, most of the time, or, at least, when we’re talking about celebrating the extraordinariness of women, when we’re talking about ‘ideas worth talking about.’ We don’t celebrate the ordinary act of motherhood. We do celebrate fatherhood – Tony Porter received the first standing ovation of TEDWomen – which is another topic entirely (men embracing fatherhood and celebrating fatherhood is a wonderful thing, but why is it so special when a man does what women have been doing without praise for millennia? Can we find ways of celebrating fatherhood – especially the unconventional modes of fatherhood that see fathers embracing the work that has been traditionally done by mothers – that also celebrate the work itself, and the place of that work in women’s history?), and we sort of celebrate parenthood – the ‘parenting’ talk at TEDWomen was given not by a mother, but by a couple – and rightly so, but what about motherhood, qua motherhood, full stop? Can we imagine a talk at TEDWomen – or, better, TED, or TEDGlobal – that featured a mother who was just – “just” – a mother? Who would stand up and say: this work, this ordinary work of motherhood, is what changes the world. Or, to riff on Mona Eltahaway’s wonderful talk on being a Muslim woman, and borrow her rhetoric about the radical power of confounding others’ expectation: I am a feminist mother, and I love to confuse people; I love diaper bags, and Carole Pateman; I breastfed my babies, and believe that formula-feeding is okay, too; I co-sleep, and cry-it-out; I am attachment parent who lets her children run free-range; I love my post-partum body, and wish that my nethers hadn’t been torn in the birth of my children; I quote Oprah, and Judith Butler; I let both my son and my daughter wear princess costumes; I tell both my son and my daughter that they can be astronauts or nurses or rock stars or stay-at-home parents; I believe that motherhood – ordinary motherhood – can be a feminist act; I believe that well-intentioned motherhood can change the world; I am a feminist mother and confusion is my left hook and my right hook.

This is the dream. It’s not a crazy dream. If you look at the speaker list for TEDWomen, first page, you’ll see this:

Aicha El-Wafi and Phyllis Rodriguez are listed, simply, as mothers, which belies their story, in a way – they were not there to speak about motherhood so much as they were there to speak about friendship between mothers, and between women generally, and the unifying power of such friendship – but still. They were there as mothers whose motherhood, and whose experience of loss as mothers (Phyllis Rodriguez lost her son on 9/11; Aicha El-Wafi is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged ’20th hijacker’ in those attacks), brought them together as friends, and it is the ordinariness of their heroism, and of their heroic example, that makes them memorable. They are not world leaders, or captains of industry; they are just – “just” – mothers whose empathy for each other as mothers became the basis for a demonstration of what good global citizenship should look like, of the power of looking beyond otherness and enmity and finding likeness in the heart (they were so lovely, so sweet, so obviously true friends, that one’s heart could burst just talking to them. I could not hope to capture that here.) They were, they are, an example of the extraordinary ordinary, of the radical potential for heroism that is carried within every human heart, no matter how humble, and of the transformative power of just being a good person. They were an example of the lesson that we should be teaching our children: aim for the stars, if you want, but never forget that we are all made of stars, and that it is possible to be stellar in the humblest of actions and most mundane of enterprises, and that that – that – is what matters. Be your own star, in your own way.

Because this is what we should be telling our children, and ourselves: you can be a star simply by having an open heart. And we should celebrate that kind of stardom more often. That TEDWomen did a little of that (and that other events for women, big and small, continue to do a lot of that) augers well for this hope. But still: it remains that when, in conversation, Aicha El-Wafi told me, I am just a mother, I replied, I am just a mother (and then hastily added, but also a writer, and an activist, and a former academic, and, and, and… piling qualification upon qualification, even to a fellow mother), and that this is so common, this qualified assertion of what we do, even when we believe so firmly in what we do, even when we believe in the saving power of what we do, even when we believe in the saving power of our open hearts. It remains that we so often insist upon saying this: I am just – just – a mother.

Why do we not say, simply, I am a mother? Why do we not say that in full caps, without qualifications? Why do we not say: I AM A MOTHER? Why do we not say: I am a feminist mother whose greatest contribution to making the world a better place is raising children with open searching loving hearts, children who might be world leaders or who might not be world leaders but who will, I hope, be caring human beings who will demand that the world be a better place? Why do we not say, I am a mother, and the work that I do as a mother – the care I give, the love that I offer – extends far beyond hearth and home, far beyond my own children, and causes ripples and waves that will shift sand on shores that I cannot see (Aicha El-Wafi could not know, raising her son, that her own example would emerge from such a dark shadow and shine a light in such unforeseen directions.) Why do we not say, I am a mother, full stop? Why do I not say that?

Not all mothers are heroines, not all mothers are feminists, not all mothers raise good citizens, not all mothers have the best intentions, even mothers with the best intentions do not always see those intentions fulfilled in the ways that they expect, or at all. None of that matters. What matters is this: ordinary motherhood, undertaken in ordinary ways, can be as extraordinary, can have as extraordinary an impact, as any work undertaken in the public sphere. And: that this work that we do – out here, in the wilds of the interwebs, exchanging our stories and airing our discourses, living our motherhood virtually, but publicly – is important for the fact that it makes motherhood part of the public sphere, it forces motherhood into the space of public discussion and asserts it as necessary and given and there. And that is the best first start, I think, to making it possible for us to say, simply: I am a mother, and my motherhood is important, my motherhood can be radical, my motherhood can be – is – a feminist act.

I am a mother. I am a mother, and I am working toward saying those things. I start by saying them here. For me. For the future. For her.

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    { 7 comments }

    Katrina Carefoot September 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Catherine, you are a beautiful writer (and a mother…).

    Lisa (2) September 19, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Posts like this are why I read your blog.

    Amanda September 19, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I NEEDED to read this today. Thank you for writing it and bringing it to attention.It begs the question as to Why more successful people don’t thank the person who stayed at home and raised them and the educators who saw them through their formative years for their acheivements?

    Francesca September 22, 2011 at 6:25 am

    This moved me. Completely. Beautifully written and structured. I read it as a mother writing. No one else. I read it as a mother reading. No one else. It spoke to me. Thank you.

    red pen mama September 23, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Great, great, great observations, Catherine. As always.

    I have always called myself a writer. Just that, when people ask “what do you do?”

    I’m a writer I say. Then I list my blog, or my full time position, or whatever is most appropriate to the setting.

    This is how I feel about my motherhood, too. I’m a mother. I very seldom say “just”, and I scold moms I know who use “just” or “just a stay at home mom”. Being a SAHM was the hardest year of my life. (Well, barring that other thing that happened in my motherhood. But that’s ongoing…)

    Anyway: A good read, a good examination, as always. Thanks.

    amandy998 September 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    ING DIRECT’s Facebook Page is streaming their Times Square Billboard LIVE. Billboard is showcasing all the ‘MONEY’ photos uploaded to FB their page. Kinda cool! http://on.fb.me/qZGNwU

    Iuliana Calin October 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I never cried in front of the computer, and hey here I am with my eyes wet, and I am in the office :) . Damn it… what kind of a good in control, professional I am?? Oh well right now I am not…. The post was touching.

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