“Bite this stick,” the doctor might have said as we birthed our children a hundred years ago. The grunting, whimpering, sobbing, pleading, sweating, stinking, bleeding nudity of motherhood channeled into that sweet gag, silent, as the towels mount to soak up all of the nasty animal we are as we labor with the promise of life. Bite this stick.
To date, my most popular blog entry (Of Mice and Moms), is one in which I refuse the bite the stick. It is vaguely about Mother’s Day and it is, honestly, the kind of screaming that does not produce life. Birth is a channeling of the pain, down, not up into the air, pushing through it, sinking, a kind of focus that for all the animal smell, is what is truly animal. But the response from other mothers, and even fathers, people in general, to my scream was huge. I was a little taken aback. We are angry. We are sad.
Mother’s Day is sad and it is unnerving because it is an insult to us. It is an insult to life. We are angry at this insult. I feel death, unnatural death, moving in for our children. It is emotional, moral and physical. And each of us is a mother’s child. The facts are apparent. I have little more to add. The facts are what we talk about very often. I do not desire to watch the executions of our children, to know the make of the bullets, the details of the poverty and the war, to seek out an argument about the temperature and humidity the day on which we sort the pieces left of the life we have tenderly worked at.
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Politics and ideology leave me feeling cold. They are a game played by people who do not know what love is, far, far too often.
I have a name for what I am doing with my life. I have a few. They are the names of the children I have birthed, Mac and Ob, and the names of the other people I love. I think this is what I have in common with every other mother on Earth.
Solidarity is the principle aim of thoughtful motherhood. This is what I am here to tell you today. Give me a minute and take my hand, I want to explain what I think.
At one time the idea solidarity meant in German culture “collective debt.” Over time it came to mean the individual taking responsibility for the community. Later on, during the French Revolution, it came to mean brotherhood among the underclass. Today it seems to mean some kind of interest, however vague, in the welfare of another. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. I will accept each of these definitions for now. I will accept each of these definitions because they each pivot on responsibility, a deepening of what we are each capable of feeling, saying, thinking, doing, from where we start, because of love. Love is the glue that holds a community. This is the same pivot where we find each other as mothers: responsibility and love.
There is a limit to what I can do for my sons, for anyone, so long as I do not make my love political, however. While my politics must not lose its face, in my case, the dirty little freckled face of my baby son and the deep eyes of my young man.
Some time ago a woman invented Mother’s Day. Julia Ward Howe. She called on mothers to raise their sons well, to not be tools for war, as she saw happen in the American Civil War, as she assisted happening as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Quickly this was forgotten; the holiday progressed to honor mothers just for being mothers, not call us to solidarity. And quickly, yet again, the holiday was consumerized. And now as my sons are threatened, and as I scramble with my every ounce of life force to protect them, I will get a card this weekend, maybe with a picture of a teddy bear on it, and maybe some message from a friend about how I am a goddess, to be proud of my stretched and flabby body, as if it is that which I am most worried about as perhaps it is that which determines my personal worth to the occasional sweet talker with economic and/or social power.
I like Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation. “Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!” Like many good words, however, I recognize that repeating them on their own doesn’t make them understood enough to derive a coherent lesson or change behavior. I think, to be understood, the people in them have to be struggled with as representatives from our own inner lives, which is what they are, as our ancestors or peers. We must be willing to fully struggle with our culture, and not just mainstream culture, but our closest, most intimate cultures inside it. Howe, for example, may have been conveniently misguided in her thinking that women, in general, teach sons “charity, mercy and patience” — traits then somehow “unlearned” — and that moral evil is an inherently masculine capacity for which women are uniquely responsible for working their sexual or motherly magic against. And like our old mother, Howe, we might too be misguided.
I have begun to see how our idea of solidarity moved from being one of communal debt to the vague interest in another’s welfare. I will not argue with the word, but the animal mother has been tamed. In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, long-time activist Selma James said: “We are civilized by this work [of caretaking], we women … we need men to be civilized by this work … we don’t want them working for capitalism … I’m talking about our working to care for others, to be with others.” I agree that caretaking is transformative, in a good way, but I have a bone to pick with the word “civilized.” I have been thinking recently that actually the problem is that we are less animal than we should be. We have nothing to base a morality on. We live in the intellectual and professional ether.
Howe saw the devastation and her politics clearly changed as a result. She became a pacifist just a few years after supporting a war, a war she supported to promote justice for enslaved peoples. And while she may have admitted to friends in private correspondence the change, and to some degree her own responsibility as a writer of rousing words, not simply another mother, for its horrors, it is the Mother’s Day Proclamation that is her public writing, and in it, she shares nothing of that.
The Proclamation seems to me sometimes interesting primarily as a study in how one can make the mistake of eschewing appropriate personal and communal responsibility in order to pursue a more virginal image, and an impossible responsibility, than anyone deserves or can shoulder, and do so very surreptitiously. It reminds me, really, of an aspect of modern American ”progressivism,” where we blame evil people (like George Bush) for doing evil things (like bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and feel like, because we say the right words (like peace and solidarity), or even, in some cases, truly suffer in our efforts, we are among the virtuous (while we continue to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq).
How can we begin to explain, if we are serious people, serious about justice, the constant murder of civilians all over the world in what so many of us have accepted is a series of wars about dominance? And, even without war, the abuse of workers? Poverty? Are we really so weak that we can’t do better? We can see the consequences of an incomplete fight for justice — a justice most human beings on the Earth say we want, and I believe we do, I think. Is it simply that our mothers did not read Howe’s Proclamation and words like it? Is that the problem? Somehow, I think this is doubtful.
But it is in the example of their profound complication, her complication, our complication, and my complication that I can learn anything, or share anything. It’s never enough, I think, to just recall the facts. We must struggle with them in our deepest selves. And we must do so fully with each other. That is animal behavior evolved to a state of deep morality.
I have said before, because I am a mother and I repeat myself, that colonial thinking (for example: racism, classism, misogyny), which we all engage in to varying degrees — in testament to our wretched inheritances — is ultimately about denying humanity, making people, ourselves even, abstractions, ideas, not flesh and blood people. The idea we have might be violent or it may be sentimental, as our political debates speak to, but the reduction is ultimately an evil. It may be the definition of evil. Indeed, Selma James, in her 1972 introduction to The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community said wisely: “There is nothing in capitalism which is not capitalistic, that is, not part of the class struggle.”
Whiteness, for example, as a form of superiority, is kind of a new concept which came about as a convoluted result of the movement toward home ownership and suburbia after WWII (White People were once Irish, Italian, Polish…), and while race is imaginary (while racism is real), it is possible that what was once “White” culture is, in our current social context, is becoming “professional” culture. Institutional racism and, indeed, caustic bigotry remain huge issues for millions of people — for all of us really, if solidarity is our value — but in the United States we now have a Black president and the new MLK memorial has corporate sponsorship – the same sponsorship that goes to making war and leaving people in poverty, and the same president who sends us into it. Whiteness, a great tool of institutional evil, is an invention of capitalism as an invention of imperialism. What other tools are there? Racism is still with us, and what else is?
In a folk tale from India (my son Mac loved this one when he was about four) an unwise king does not want his naked feet to be dirtied, so he orders the earth covered in leather. This makes it impossible for the people to live, because they cannot grow food, and when it rains, it floods them out. A wiser man creates the first shoes for the king so that the rest of the world may have the life giving dirt again. The king is not confronted in this way and the people continue to live under him, though thankfully no longer under leather. These are the kinds of solutions we continue to support, as opposed to solutions based on any idea we may have of solidarity.
I read a lot of self-help books, because, like many of us, I need some help. One of my favorites is less self-help as it is a primer in skills building to solve all problems through community building. In The Abundant Community consultants Peter Block and John McKnight assert that: “We are colonized by the belief that we are a diagnostic category, that we are a need, not a capacity, and that only a system, a product, a professional service can satisfy that need … the abundant community embraces fallibility and humanness.”
It is in a competent community that as human animals we will find freedom, which may not be the same as liberty. I believe this strongly and I want you to think about it with me. The allure of capitalism is that it is possible for some of us to attain a kind of liberty so long as we have the tool of capital, money, with which to pay for our power, not negotiate our relationships. This is the power of men over women, the power of Whites over People of Color. It is a power that is both coerced, on an individual level, and consensual, on an institutional level. It is a puzzle. Block and McKnight say that: ”To reclaim the role of citizen, to go from addiction to choice, the shift will simultaneously restore vital functions to the family and the neighborhood and reconstruct the competence of the community, all of which come under assault in consumer culture.”
The strategy outlined in The Abundant Community in which one may reclaim the role of citizen is, however, somewhat counterintuitively, an abundantly personal one. The properties to be attained by the authors’ ideal, fully functioning community are the giving of gifts, the presence of association (wherein the gifts of individuals are amplified), and compassion, or hospitality (which recognizes that many traditional communities are xenophobic, and otherwise phobic, as we have seen in North Carolina this past week). Their strategy has strengths, to be sure, but I find that the authors do not pay heed, in this list or anywhere in their very good book, to the political, the institutional, environment within which this movement they describe must take place. It is not as easy as making better choices. Our choices are pulled at by forces outside of us.
For some reason this has been a common pattern of weakness in our culture. That which is political is only concerned with institutional matters, while that which is personal is only concerned with the individual, the transformation of the individual usually, and usually to a happier state. It is a kind of hyper-specialization of interest, and a hallmark of professional behavior, which is capitalist behavior, that drives the whole way we think of our lives together.
I find it extremely problematic to locate a strategy that is either entirely personal or entirely political to counter the generations of oppression and the ensuing breakdown of community that has made these intrusions more and more possible. The war we fight is everywhere as mothers, as caretakers, as maybe the last non-professional relational beings left standing in the United States, hobbling maybe, but here.
Many feminists of James’ generation fought to take women out of the home and into the workplace. This was an institutional and political strategy not unlike inventing shoes for a king who would otherwise cover the earth in leather. Women took work outside of the home that at best is no more fulfilling than the kinds of work that the vast majority of men had and have now, which is far from life affirming labor and far from useful labor. All the while the march of colonialism became swifter as our children, now in many cases the third generation with little parental involvement, are raised almost entirely by institutions and the media, which is not only bad for the human animal they are, but which is in service to capitalism. I do not intend to be barefoot and pregnant, but I value the work of caretaking and we all need it. Caretaking should be expanded beyond the role of motherhood. That is the institutional goal, but on a personal level, feeling the weight of motherhood and demanding its respect is on my list.
Where do we even begin meeting these goals? It is all so overwhelming. Martin Luther King, before he was a corporate memorial, began his political agenda in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community with “The Triple Evils of poverty, racism, and war,” asserting that ”they are interrelated, all-inclusive, and stand as barriers to our living in the ‘Beloved Community.’ When we work to remedy one evil, we affect all evils. The issues change in accordance with the political and social climate of our nation and world.”
Perhaps, if we talk about it, we will identify other things, but we must talk about it. I propose that we each pick five people with whom we are going to determinedly interact for the next year, three on the emotionally easy side and two on the hard side, and talk. Talk all the time. Talk deeply. We must identify what is coerced and why in the life of the individual through our neighbors and remedy this through what remains consensual, how we choose to behave as organizations of people.
If it were me talking, which it is, right this second, political demands we might make as organizations of mothers, as caretakers rather, may well be Guaranteed National Income, for example, a political idea that is often scoffed at as impossible. Income is a big problem in making truly free choices on a personal level. Further, radical, organized, acts of resistance to war would address political issues we find our children and each other faced with, as Howe attempted to address in her invention of Mother’s Day. We must work to free swaths of us from the chains that prevent our connection, but like the chicken and the egg, neither the political nor the personal must be first.
Personal change may well be what is described in The Abundant Community intentionally, for people do not change without connection, the more personal the better. Despots and saints, however much they are simply in the popular imagination, know this. “One man’s death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin famously said. Mother Teresa said something similar: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one I will.”
I noted recently that there is a home that you can only find in the depth of old friends, their eyes and hands, old places, emotional and physical, in the labor and commitment, or the memory, which has kept the bond whole. One of my favorite quotes comes from Iris Murdoch: “Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” We are not the same person. We are, however, mutually dependent and capable of doing much better by each other than we do. I am a mother and I repeat myself. I say these things all the time.
Happy Mother’s Day. Really. “Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!” Arise. Take my hand. Better yet, take your neighbor’s hand, assuming I am not she.