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Mothers and Others: Reproduction, Representation and the Body Politic

by Ginetta Candelario and Naomi Miller

Mothers and Others: Reproduction, Representation and the Body Politic

By the second semester, our group of colloquium participants had become a community of explorers sharing the journey, with strong bonds of intellectual and personal camaraderie that enabled us to go farther, probe deeper, and even accept discomfort in our wide-ranging conversations across our chosen area of study. We agreed to use the spring colloquium meetings for questions and conversations with each other, facilitated by colloquium members, rather than necessarily for formal presentations.

The semester’s presentations commenced with Eiko Strader discussing the motherhood wage penalty, particularly in gendered welfare states, which produces a motherhood wealth penalty, and highlights the crucial role of subsidized childcare. In the next session, Daphne Lamothe guided us through a close consideration of Edwige Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying, which opened consideration of notions of "being versus well-being," as well as the dream of a mother-language. Completing that session, Becca Raymond-Kolker '13 posed questions about identity and the making of the self as a variably embodied process, leading us to appreciate moments in memoirs such as that of Cherrie Moraga, where motherhood and self are not fixed, but variable and continually changing.

The following week we welcomed Simone Alexander, Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Seton Hall University, as a guest speaker on the topic of "Body Politic: Motherhood, Reproduction, and Citizenship." Referencing her study of mother imagery in the novels of Afro-Caribbean women, Alexander raised issues of transnational mothering in terms of the politics of place. Alexander opened the discussion to a consideration of the multiple spaces occupied by mothers and daughters by encouraging us to recognize when stories are double-voiced, with mothers as victims and daughters as mothers, at once powerful and powerless.

At the end of February, Ginetta Candelario and Marsha Pruett joined forces to lead a conversation about the practical and political implications of post-separation parenting plans, and helped us to appreciate the challenges associated with balancing current and future developmental needs of children, and considering family autonomy as well as the rights of the family group’s most vulnerable members. In the next session, Miliann Kang gave a provocative presentation on “Taming the Tiger Mother: Race, Neoliberalism, and Asian-American Families,” which straddled conventional boundaries of academic scholarship by posing the importance of asking different questions, depending on a book’s audience. She asked us to consider the intersections between an academic study, a popular book, and a memoir that might reach both academic and popular audiences. Closing that session, Riche Barnes talked about “Race, Marriage, and Family Policy,” and identified the notion of “strategic mothering” as a concept both multi-fold and multi-purposed, that can enable wide-ranging considerations of maternity that take account of racial inflections as well as socioeconomic circumstances.

The following week, Liz Friedman spoke about the work of the support and empowerment organization MotherWoman in offering perinatal intervention for post-partum depression, enlightening us about the wide range of experiences associated with perinatal emotional complications, as well as the remarkable diversity of nonmedical as well as medical responses that can achieve effective outcomes. In a larger sense, given that mothers need support at every stage of mothering, the group considered how the ideal solution might be recognized to be the creation of community. Moving from a social to a biological frame, Ginny Hayssen reminded us that biology doesn’t fit sociological models, because the impetus behind human social advancement is not about the survival of the species so much as the successful perpetuation of individuals. (In the case of chickens, for example, because good egg-layers are not necessarily good chicken-mothers, human poultry cultivation has interfered with natural selection.) On the other hand, we revisited the concept of allo-mothering, which offers a very useful cross-over from primatology to sociology, as became apparent in Sarah Hrdy’s presentation the previous semester.

The following week, Laura Malecky '13 and Marianne Bullock AC led a lively discussion about policies and attitudes affecting  migrant mothers as well as criminalized mothers, calling our attention to real-life examples in the news, from the Dominican nanny who murdered the children in her care, to the shackling of a Native American pregnant prisoner who was raped by a guard. In timely succession, the following week we welcomed Columbia University law professor and visiting William Allan Neilson Professor Patricia Williams for a talk on “Family Law and Legal Issues Related to Mothers and Mothering.” Williams presented a series of stories, informed by contract law, which helped us to consider the limitations of contract law in addressing or redressing social inequalities facing mothers who have been marginalized by their circumstances and who are treated as commodities by the law.

Turning from academic study to popular culture, our next colloquium meeting took a mini-field trip to the movies, and watched the film Admission, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which resulted in an interesting discussion in the Hadley mall about the protagonist, Portia—an admissions officer whose discovery of the son she gave up for adoption leads her to question her own values and assumptions, as a professional as well as a mother.

Our last colloquium guest, Emory University law professor Martha Fineman, addressed the topic of “Illusive Equality” and guided us through several pieces of her work, covering matters ranging from general gender equality to vulnerability and dependency affecting mothers in particular. The group discussed the question of whether or not laws should be restructured with caretakers’ responsibilities as the starting point, using “vulnerability analysts” rather than “equality analysts” to determine policy outcomes. Martha Fineman pointed out that the vulnerability model contrasts with the human rights model of “equity,” leading to the “illusion of equality” in divorce reform.

In the final weeks of the semester, we shared discussions facilitated by three colloquium members per session. In “Marking the Maternal: Jenny Saville and the Case of the Madonna and Child,” Camille Kulig '13 drew our attention to Saville’s most recent body of work, and sparked a discussion about the ways in which maternal images have marked art history since the Renaissance. In “Mothers’ Arms: Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945),” Henriette Kets de Vries  invited us to consider representations of mothers spanning two world wars by an artist whose images attest to the human cost of military conflict. Finally, Ambreen Hai shared a short story, “Applying to America,” that she wrote about a Pakistani mother’s reaction to her daughter’s decision to apply to American colleges, enabling the group to circle back to questions of immigration and cultural oppression that had marked some of our discussions during the year, as well as to move forward to consider what it might mean to be a “postcolonial mother.”

The following week, Vera Shevzov led us in a discussion of images of the Virgin Mary in contemporary Russia, revealing a figure attuned to her own vocation, defying convention, and choosing virginity of her own will. We considered the implications of how, when history gets read through a mythic figure such as the Virgin Mary, her maternity can offer a gendered lens on social policy as well as daily life. Naomi Miller shared an excerpt from an article-in-process, “Forcible Love: Performing Maternity in Renaissance Romance,” and encouraged a conversation regarding the multiple meanings of “forcible love,” which illuminate how on the one hand, mother-love can’t be stopped, while on the other hand, it can’t be helped. Jena Andres '13 closed that week’s session by sharing some of the poems she had written, associated with her own project exploring contemporary poetic representations of the Demeter/Persephone myth, and resulting in an awareness both of the limitations of mother-nourishment and of the ways in which author-nourishment, or producing texts, can work to bridge that gap. We closed the session with a consideration of notions of collective mothering.

Our final week of the semester was devoted to engaging with questions arising from our year-long journey together into a world of mothers and others.  For example:

  • What does the topic of “mothers and others” mean to you now, after a year of participating in the colloquium?
  • Who are the “others,” and what is their relation to the “mothers”?
  • How do we address the dichotomy between mothers as concepts and mothers in reality?
  • How do we operationalize the category (and variable) of motherhood so that we can understand it empirically?
  • How can we address the materiality versus the ideology of motherhood?
  • One take-away from the year could be said to be the recognition that the experience of motherhood is exceptionally solitary and yet dependent on community, seemingly universal and yet invariably individual and unique. How can we incorporate such understandings into our life and our work?

Our closing conversations ranged from appreciation of our group’s shared trust and willingness to speak from both the mind and the heart, while not being afraid to ask sometimes difficult questions. In considering where to go from here, we gave further attention to one possibility that had been taking shape for some months:to gather a collection of written pieces arising from “aha” moments sparked for each of us by intersections, both creative and academic, between our work in this colloquium and our lives. Such a collection might be called Momoirs: Writings by, for, and about Mothers and Their Others.  Thus our ending point offered the possibility for another beginning.


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