In Of Woman Born, “Anger and Tenderness”, Adrienne Rich states, “My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness” (21). Rich says she loves them, but that is where the enormous suffering lies for her. The intensity of extremes in her words in what actually frightens me. The institution was telling her that to be a mother she had to have no other facets or dimensions to her identity, no Self. Rich says that her children are a piece of herself. I get that and understand what she means. Yet, I cannot help but relate that I feel like that can be problematic because children can become a narcissistic extension of oneself. Or children are looked upon as a distraction from life rather than life itself, as it is, live-and-direct, right now.
Bear with me, readers, but if a mother feels stymied by her children, is it possible that because her role as mother is ego-dystonic, she may displace that anger onto them, though they are innocent? Personally, I see my own children as part of me, naturally, but I see them as something I am a part of. Rich may not have had a narcissistic tendency, but she did feel quite engulfed by their needs as those needs conflicted with her drive to write. She writes of absorbing the violence. She relates the story of the woman who killed her children. Rich identifies on some level with this woman. Yet not all mothers felt such extremes of violence toward their children. Some do, of course. Mothers do kill their children, but I do not think it’s ever justifiable. While Rich spoke some real truth, some of it seems to be related to her personal psychology, her own emotional world, her own idiosyncratic feelings. Our relationship with our own mothers looms so largely, near universally for all of us, I cannot help but wonder what her relationship was truly like with her own mother.
Rich talks about unexamined assumptions, including that a natural mother is one who has no further identity. This rankles me to no end. What about women who find themselves in the “shortest and steepest path to enlightenment”, motherhood? What about women who feel as if mothering has gifted them with a power and purpose that goes beyond mothering? Adrianne Rich makes many valid points about motherhood, the institution of motherhood, and the devaluation of women. Yet she leaves no room for the women who bloom in the mothering experience, institutionalized or not. Her lens was time dependent and reflected a more overt patriarchal toxicity than exists today. The idea of women being “in their place” in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, is not popular these days. Women with Rich’s courage exposed such interpersonal oppression. The disparity between how women were told they should feel versus their reality, particularly if they had ambitions beyond mothering was extreme and intense.
I agree with much of what Rich states. I feel compassion for her plight and understand her righteous anger. If social roles are forced upon human beings, as Rich felt she had no choice, there can be no true sense of personal agency. This is what happened when motherhood was imposed on Rich and countless others as an institution. Rich was angry and enraged and while her anger was justified; I feel that while she loved her children, she projected a great deal of anger onto them that was not theirs to bear. Ironically, I agree with her thoughts and feelings but disagree with her displacement of intense anger onto her children. Psychology Today has a blog titled Motherhood in Perspective, written by a therapist. She wrote a very compassionate and empathic piece about the side of motherhood that many women experience but don’t talk about. The link is Motherhood in Perspective and I am quite sure that without women like Rich we would not be talking about this at all.
Motherhood as an institution serves to keep women disempowered in terms of political power, economic equality and the like. This is why raising children with egalitarian values is so important, because they will make up “society” in a few years. Institutional motherhood can be a patriarchal tool of oppression. I do not feel that it always is the case, however. I see it as I see religion, which can be institutionalized as well, or one can be spiritual and choose to practice that spirituality outside of the institution. Perhaps I only have that choice because of women like Rich. Or perhaps my subjective experience with motherlessness defined in absentia a longing in me I could only fulfill by giving it to my own children. Jane Lazarre is another feminist writer who spoke of the deep longing for a mother (she was motherless as a child) and how that longing translated into a deep desire to give that which she had not gotten. Lazarre relates, “”I was seven when my mother died. Emily, my sister, was four. My mother was sick for many years. We watched her die. It took me at least four books to write that out of my system. I spent my entire adulthood longing for a mother. There were aunts, a stepmother, but it was not the same. No one could replace her. I was given a lot. I got a lot of attention, but my life has been defined by this central loneliness. My own dedication to my children comes out of this loss”(http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/1991fall/bader_fall1991.php).
Or perhaps, I just do not have the conflict that these women have had, because while I am a creative person, I feel more strongly driven to mother than to “create” anything else. I know one thing for sure: Rich made space for that truth around her that also allowed for other women to tell the truth, and to finally start naming the issues of motherhood experience as a subjective reality rather than just a mere reflection of patriarchal projections and expectations. I just want to be sure there is enough space for all experiences of motherhood, including people like me who come to it intentionally and find it mutually beneficial, spiritual, and imperfectly wonderful.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.