June 10, 2008

Review: "The Maternal is Political"

I first realized something had changed after Hurricane Katrina. It was just a few weeks before my son was born. Because it was an adoption I was not yet his mother, but the possibility was close enough that it was beginning to affect me. I was watching something about the hurricane's aftermath on television, feeling a familiar sad frustration, when an image came on of an older man slumped in a lawn chair where he had died, probably waiting for help. The thought flashed through my mind, "That man was somebody's son," and for the first time I understood what people meant by that. I sat and sobbed as the human cost of injustice hit me in a way it never had before.

That moment was when I began to understand that becoming a parent wasn't going to just change my daily schedule, but also something fundamental in the way I viewed and moved in the world. It's not that I was apolitical before; a concern for social justice is central to the practice of my faith. I can't think of a major political position of mine that has changed since I became a parent--I believe the same things, fight for the same causes, support the same movements. But the place those beliefs come from within me has shifted. The clichés about leaving the earth to next generation seem quite profound to me now.

Motherhood introduced a new complexity to my attempts at living justly. I constantly debate the line between passing on my values and imposing beliefs. I hesitate to use my kids to make a statement, yet see that choices I make on their behalf already are statements, from our choice of schools and neighborhood to our identity as a transracial family. I fret over the compromises that pile up as we make those choices. I feel unable to actually make a difference when so much of my time is focused on the minutia of feedings and potty training and building block towers. And I wonder if other women feel those same tensions.

So I jumped at the chance to be part of the MotherTalk blog tour for The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change, a new anthology edited by Shari MacDonald Strong (one of my favorite Literary Mama columnists). It is full of essays from women asking--and answering--those same questions. The essayists mentioned on the cover read like a laundry list of my favorite authors (Anna Quindlen! Anne Lamott! Barbara Kingsolver!), plus I discovered some familiar internet reads inside. I picked up this book to leaf through it and instead read and read. Then I stopped to take care of my kids. Then I read some more.

It's been awhile since I've felt so renewed after reading a book. Divided into three sections--Believe, Teach, and Act (my favorite)--the forty-plus essays address the anger, empowerment, fear, courage and hope that come with being a conscious mother. Each writer provides an intimate look into how motherhood affected her relationship to the larger world and gave new meaning to choices that once seemed only personal. There are stories of women finding the courage to protest, a young single mother's push to finish college, a mom fighting the effects of racial inequality in the classroom. A powerful essay on raising sons in a time of war and Anne Lammot's piece about voicing her pro-choice views among fellow Christians especially hit home for me.

My only disappointment was at the mothers who weren't represented. For instance, we hear from an employer witnessing the effects of immigration policies on her nanny, who left her own child behind to work in the U.S., but not from someone in the nanny's position. There is an adoptive mom considering the politics of international adoption, but nothing from a woman who placed her child for adoption. The rest of the collection was so strong that the missing voices like those stood out.

(One other note to potential readers: if you were happy with the results of the 2004 presidential election, this may be a difficult read for you. The writers are openly progressive or liberal, which was fine for me because those are my people. I know that there are many women with political views on the opposite end of the spectrum who act from the same place of maternal passion and whose statements would be equally powerful; this just isn't a collection of those.)

I am glad this book came together right as our country faces important questions about what kind of force we want to be in the world and how we want to treat one another here at home. It is an inspiring collection of words from women who understand that we have the opportunity, as the final essay states, to "agitate and march and advocate from a deeper place within ourselves than we had known existed. It is possible that we will act from that cavity our children have hollowed out of us, that place where breath begins."


Stirrup Queen said...

Hey, it's Mel (I'm logged into my MotherTalk email).

That image you began with is haunting me simply from your description. You said it perfectly--that moment when your heart opens to encompass the entire world.

Ariella said...

I have been searching for a book to read this summer and now I have found it.Thanks.

ShariMacD said...

Thanks, Heather! I'm so glad you did this review. What you resonated with about the book are the same things that made me love editing it. I agree about the missing voices; there were certain stories I hoped to get (via submissions) or find (to use as reprints), but that in the end just didn't come across my desk. Further proof of the need for mothers from every walk of life to speak out and tell and write our stories. Maybe if the book does well there can be a follow-up volume someday? :) I'm sure I could sit down and write out a list of at least 100 stories/perspectives/voices I'd love to add to the mix. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I'd love to hear feedback from your readers as they read the book. We're all in this together!



Heather said...

Mel, I love the wording of your last sentence. It sums up that feeling so well.

Ariella, enjoy!

Shari, thank you for stopping by! I figured it was a matter of availability--certain stories just aren't written as much yet. Here's hoping that follow-up collection materializes. :)

Clementine said...

Thanks for this post, Heather. I'm eager to order the book from our library.

Anonymous said...

Great review. Can't wait to check it out myself.

Daisy said...

You said it so well. My positions haven't changed since I became a mom, either, but I have become more vocal about them.

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