I have a student writing about motherhood right/write now. She’s writing about maternal spaces, and about how it is that mothers navigate the different spaces of motherhood. When she first started her fieldwork, her project was about breastfeeding, and about how mothers negotiated the relationship between breastfeeding and sexuality. But like any good research project, it took a few turns, hit some snarls and snags, bumped over some rough terrain and ended up the richer for it. There’s much more depth than when she first started and I suspect (though I have no way of knowing) that she’s learned as much about herself as she has about her research topic. After all, as Michael Ignatieff wrote in The Rights Revolution (and this is a paraphrase, as I can’t remember the exact quote and I don’t own the book anymore), “we went to grad school and found ourselves.” [And no, I didn’t set out to write about Michael Ignatieff in this blog, but it’s a quote that I read in my first course of my second Master’s degree, and it was so à propos that I’ve held onto it].
My student’s thesis draft converged curiously with two blog posts I was fortunate enough to read in the past few weeks. Both are posts about motherhood and both are written by friends of mine. One has been a mom for over three years, and she had her second child last fall. The other is a brand new mama; her baby is freshly arrived and just a scant three weeks old.
Both mamas use blogs as ways of thinking through their parenting. For mama #1 – I’ll call her C – it’s a space to muse briefly on things that have happened to her children, to share photos and moments of insight. A few weeks ago, she, like my student, started thinking about maternal space and who gets to occupy it. But for her, the discussion focused more directly on the “mommy wars,” the largely media-fed divide that separates those moms who breastfeed and cloth diaper and co-sleep from those who do not. My friend’s conclusion was intriguing, and relates, in interesting ways, to the work my student is doing.
Here’s what she has to say:
Now, as new parents, we are charged with looking after amoral beings – babies don’t have a sense of right and wrong – who are completely egotistical. So I think that as parents, until we get to the ‘teaching morality part’ of parenting, we are searching for a moral justification for our endeavour with these small creatures. In so doing we overlay morality on our choices of diapering, feeding, sleeping arrangements etc. etc. which in the end, don’t matter a fig. Already at preschool, I have no idea whether [N]’s classmates were breastfed, slept in the family bed or wore cloth diapers. Who cares? I mean there are other reasons to choose one method over another, and it’s great to talk about the various merits and demerits of all sides, but the choices are not moral ones.
I thinks she’s got a point. There is a considerable amount of morality – and of the heavy dose, hard core variety – imposed on so many maternal decisions. There is, according to so many people, only one way to do mothering right, and woe betide the mother who doesn’t meet these requirements.
The problem is that nobody can do it all “right.” And in the end, if our goal is to raise moral beings, then is “doing it right” with diapers, feeding, and sleeping actually the point?
This is where my student’s research becomes interesting, in that she examines the stories that mothers create for themselves as they try to navigate these shark-infested waters. It’s so easy to have a limb torn off. And it’s so very easy to bleed out. I don’t know of any mother who has emerged, unscathed, out the other side. Actually, I don’t know any mother who has even managed to emerge. Once you’re in the waters, you’re there for life. There is no escape.
Mama #2 – I’ll call her A (yes, I realize I’m going backwards in the alphabet, but bear with me) – has just entered these bloody waters. And she had no idea how very overwhelming those waters could be. She prepared as well as any Mama could – and she prepared better than many. She read lots of books. She went to sessions. She did everything a new mama-to-be was supposed to do. And then things just didn’t work out as planned. Her carefully constructed maternal narrative started falling apart. Unsurprisingly, it’s been traumatic. It’s been overwhelming. And it’s been filled with grief. I suspect (and perhaps this is only based on my own journey through maternal grief) that there is still much more grief to come.
A’s narrative could so easily fit into the narratives shared by the participants in my student’s study. A’s story, her words, her thoughts, her rethinking…. all of it is so very evocative of the kinds of things the mothers my student interviewed were struggling with, and the kinds of things they weren’ t quite sure how to handle.
A, C and the participants in a Master’s research project. Mothers all. And each of them with a story that is unique, and yet at the same time, part of the common story of motherhood and mothering. A curious convergence indeed.