Friday, April 30, 2010

Mumblings about Maternity and Power

I've enjoyed a lucky confluence in my reading and some conversations lately, and I think it's helped me gain a tiny bit of new insight.

Last night, I went to a talk of a writer who writes about mother-daughter relationships extensively. (I know, I should have warned you about the potential shock of me having any knowledge of a living writer!) I've read some of this author's works, but last night's presentation really brought home to me that focus.

At a talk earlier in the day, I'd heard someone talk about how the Harry Potter series had originally been about a girl growing up, but that at some point, Rowling had changed it. (I don't have external evidence of this, so don't quote me as your expert.) And I thought about how little girls are taught to read stories about boys, because little girls are expected to recognize that boys' stories are important. But little boys aren't generally taught to read girls' stories nor to consider them important.

And there was a blog post I read recently by a mother considering whether she could have friends who didn't value her children highly; much of the discussion centered on whether one could claim not to like children without being a bigot.

In both the blog post and the author's discussion, there's an undercurrent that one who isn't a mother can't understand how visceral and strong the mother-child relationship is, or in the case of the author, how visceral and strong the mother-daughter relationship is.

I'm sure if you're reading this blog, you've read or heard someone say that the mother-child relationship is unique and special and people who are sans child just can't understand. Taken to its extreme, which it often is in the general culture, women who are sans child are less (less in whatever sense) than those who have a child. (And I'm using "sans child" here because being French, even though it means "without child" it seems less loaded than "childless" or "childfree," the one term which seems to imply a negative in one way, while the other implies a negative the other way.)

In our general culture, we tend to romanticize the relationship between mother and child. People such as myself, I'm told, just don't understand the wonderful bond between a mother and child.

But if there's a unique and wonderful relationship, then both parties to the relationship should be involved, should experience the relationship as something wonderful and positive. And I am a child. Surely, I've got some experience of a mother-child relationship? And I'm a female child. Surely, I've got some experience of a mother-daughter relationship?

What does it mean that culturally, we tend to talk about that relationship in a totally one-sided way? What does it mean that we don't acknowledge the child in that relationship as having an experience of the relationship?

I'm not sure. But one thing that asking those questions makes me realize is that the one-sided approach signifies a power relationship. Mothers have extraordinary power over their children, and we should explore what that power means and how legitimate it is.

Listening to the author speak, I heard a hint of critique from the daughter's side, but mostly there was a romantic sense that of course the mother knew best and should tell the daughter what is what. And suddenly, that sounded lined up with patriarchy in strong ways: women's limited authority comes in having power over children, and lasting power over daughters, and so the patriarchy will support their exercise of that limited authority. And if we romanticize that power relationship, then it can be enjoyed, at least by one, and the other voice can be silenced. And it can't easily be questioned or critiqued.


  1. Indeed. My typist's snarky suggestion to those who would romanticize the mother-daughter relationship: Meet my mother. Just make sure you wear a turtleneck to protect yourself from her fangs.

  2. Anonymous7:03 AM

    This is a great post. Your last paragraph is perfect.

  3. I wish that I had something more substantive to respond, but seriously, this is a fabulous post.

  4. Sigh. That was beautiful.

  5. I don't have anything brilliant to add, besides "yes". I think the piece about the key thing in patriarchy is the continuing power over daughters is really important, and when I get my brain back, I want to think about that some more.

  6. Yes you have hit the nail on the head. The mother-child relationship is really only 1 of 2 places where women are "allowed" power in patriarchy. The other is sexual power. Unfortunately both powers are ultimately false, since both mothers and woman-as-sexual being/enchantress are eventually proven powerless. However that is not to say that the imbalance in the mother-child relationship does not exist -- it very much does and can be very harmful to both the child and the mother.

    I love your point on the effect of romanticizing the mother-child relationship as a way to keep women (as mothers) in check. It does. It is also responsible for turning women against women (just look at the so-called mommy wars), which is another way of keeping women away from real power.

  7. A fine post, Bardiac.

  8. lot of food for thought here. my own mother was dangerous. i'm negotiating how to be a good mother to young adults -- and it has to be on adult terms.

    it was interesting, my daughter called this morning to talk about some Big Issues that she is upset about. i feel so grateful she could call and talk. later, i was trying to explain her concerns to my sister [these were racism/sexism concerns, and this sister is usually on the same page about them], and my sister immediately responded: she has to stop this, and do that that that. then my sister got huffy when i explained that i can't order my daughter around, tell her what to do or think. "i wasn't saying you should order her."

    but that is part of this whole cultural thing with mother-daughter relationships, isn't it, the idea that moms must/should/can mold their little darlings in particular ways?

    for a lot of reasons, i've been trying hard to back out of the power aspects of relationships with my kids, and rebuild them on more level ground as they have gotten into the young adult years. it's hard to do that; it takes a lot of conscious effort. i blew it kind of badly with my son recently, about a fairly serious medical thing that he is putting off -- it's just not my decision to make.

    trying to lurch toward the good. like your students, i seem to learn best from failures. your post hit a lot of buttons.

  9. My family is a textbook example of this.

  10. Lots to think about. As I've gotten older I've come to better understand my mom through looking at her relationship with her mom. But the real power struggle is between me and dad-I'm not equal, can not express valid thoughts or opinions because I am a woman, despite his push for wanting me to "be strong" as a child. Apparently the be strong part only implied to a certain in "be strong but stop being that way when you stop agreeing with me." Because of that, I'd rather talk to mom. But if I complain to mom about dad? She defends him...hmmm.

    And thanks for highlighting the conflict between those with kids and those without. It's hardly a choice to be a mother for many-they just do it because that's the next step in life (at least for people I know) and they think I'll eventually "grow out" of this phase and want kids.

  11. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Just for the record, I'm pretty sure there is a J.K. Rowling interview where she comments on why Harry is not Harriet and states that Harry had always been Harry, regardless of any of her own feelings in regards to whether there needed to be more female characters or not (the infamous train trip where all the ideas for HP came from, apparently really had Harry really formed as Harry). I'm on vacation this weekend or I'd go find the interview for you at the archive of interviews...

    (for reference - I've read lots of interviews as well as quite a few semi-academic books on the topic of Harry Potter - I can pretty much swear that this is what I read, I just can't remember which interview or the exact words - but Harry was always going to be a Harry...)

  12. And, yet perhaps the other side of this is that quite a lot of women do resent their mothers or have complex relationships with them. And, this isn't just personally- but if you look at how adult mother-daughters are represented on TV, it's often very antagonistic. Mothers of adult children are often represented as interfering, know-it-alls, foolish, domineering, demanding,- in fact, there are few postive portrayals of mothers of adult children.

    So it is only really romanticised when it is over children- who are seen as less than human or powerless- when it is over adults then it is a very problematic relationship. Probably, because women/mothers are not meant to have real power, which their power over adult children may imply.

  13. Great post!

    And makes me realise how lucky I am to have a fairly adult relationship with my own mother. Though I admit to being pretty jealous of the difference between my (single, childless) relationship with her and my sisters (married, mother to grand-daughter) - there is no doubt that my sister is in subtle ways doing 'the right thing', and I get commiserated with for my failure (which is 'not my fault') to attract a suitably fertile man interested in me...

  14. Great post.

    My comments got way too long, so I blogged them instead:

  15. My mother's stepmother was not a model mother. I never warmed to her and I understood from speaking with my mother once we were both older, how difficult it was for her to learn how to parent well given her own upbringing.

    Our own mother/daughter relationship wasn't a bed of roses, probably because we were so much alike that we inevitably clashed as two strong personalities with similar creative impulses can do. She tried very hard to stamp down on those that she could control.

    My becoming a mother added a new dimension to our relationship. It gave me some new and often humbling perspectives on myself (and my mother was a great support as we all struggled to understand and support autistic youngest's situation in life).

    Joni Mitchell's lyrics may be a cliche, now, but I do look at mothering from 'both sides now'. And I suspect that any adult woman who's either raised children, taught, mentored or nurtured others, does the same.

    I treasure the openness of the relationship I have with my daughters, try to avoid the missteps I saw my mother make and to take responsibility for the new ones I invent. Most of all, I try to respect their autonomy as much as I can.

    I don't buy into the romantic myths of motherhood. We don't celebrate Mother's Day (or Father's Day) with our kids. We don't try to live through their athletic or intellectual feats. Our children are NOT ourselves but they are an integral part of our lives and I really can't see it, from my perspective, any other way.

  16. This is a lovely post, thoughtful and thought-inspiring.

    I hope it's not obnoxious for me to chime in and say that I really didn't want to suggest anything proprietary or exclusionary-in-the-realm-of-knowledge about motherhood. I was hopinh to think out something not that different from wondering if I could be very close to someone who actively disliked my mother or my partner. Your very smart, very eloquent observations about the way our linguistic/theoretical formulations about the knowledge of motherhood tend to disempower children (and I know you mean adult children as well) seems so resonant to the point I wanted to make (that later took over the comments) about children and marginalized humanity.

    Blah, blah, very early, fuzzy head. Mostly, thank you for this fabulous post.