Book Review: The Maternal Is Political

The Maternal Is PoliticalThe Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change, a collection of 43 essays edited by Shari MacDonald Strong, is both a celebration and a manifesto for mothers with hopes of making the world a better place for their children. Its authors include news headliners like Nancy Pelosi, Benazir Bhutto, and Cindy Sheehan; well-known authors such as Rebecca Walker, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susie Bright, and a host of other award-winning writers, many of whom have contributed to the bastions of maternal literature such as Brain, Child, Literary Mama, and Mamazine.

In the first section of the book, Believe, the authors write of their discovery of personal truths and their need to make a difference. In Teach, they tell of passing on their knowledge to others, in particular their children. In Act, they tell not only of actions taken, but also of the struggle to balance their work as mothers, partners, and activists.

Several of the authors write of becoming accidental activists. Judith Stadtman Tucker, founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online, tells of her realization of “the motherhood problem,” described as “a deadly combination of lack of practical support for the work of child rearing, gender bias, and pressure [on her husband] to conform to the ‘ideal worker’ norm.” Tracy Thompson writes of a similar transformation. Gigi Rosenberg shares the story of helping a young woman in Italy fend off unwanted attention from a strange man, showing how becoming a mother can lead one to make change even in small, personal ways. “Since becoming [a mother],” she says, “I discovered the she-bear side of myself.”

That is perhaps the common thread tying all of the essays together: the blending of the personal and political. Sarah Werthan Buttenweiser, Stephanie Losee, and Carolyn Alessio each discuss the the struggles many of us face in teaching our children about politics. “The question I really had to answer was whether I believed that our job as parents was to expose kid to all points of view—of whether I thought we were ultimately responsible for imparting to our kids a worldview that reflected the benefit of our judgment and perspective,” Buttenweiser says. Losee is more direct about her stance: “I started brainwashing my oldest daughter to be a Democrat in 2003, when she was eight years old.” Alessio says “The desire to pass on political allegiance, parent to child, is a natural thing,” but adds “But what really matters are not the individual politicians and their shenanigans. What matters most is making our country, and the world, a better place.”

Religion occupies several of the essays as well. Anne Lamott describes speaking up about reproductive choice to an audience that was both progressive and largely Catholic. Denise Roy shares the experience of performing the Stations of the Cross with a protest group outside Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear-weapons facility. Nina Gaby introduces her daughter to the traditions, and the reinterpretations, of Judaism, in “Making a Minyan in Vermont.” Marion Winik, however, explores the idea of God as a divisive concept.

Mary Akers, Barbara Kingsolver, and Susie Bright speak about their children and the difficulties of both teaching and letting go. They are personal tales, but interwoven with observations on society and its impact on women. Kris Malone Grossman is brave enough to admit her relief at having her third boy and not needing to face raising a girl in “this man’s world.”

Other essays touch on education. Karen Maezen Miller relates the process of deciding between public and private school for her daughter, and the insight this gives her into our country’s politics. Jennifer Brisendine gives us a look from the other side of the desk as a teacher up against the strictures of No Child Left Behind. J. Anderson Coats offers yet another perspective, as a continuing-education student unsure of revealing her parental status to her classmates.

War is on many of the writers’ minds, not only Pelosi, but also Strong, who worries about raising boys in the shadow of the draft, Gayle Brandeis, who tells of her path to involvement with women’s peach group CODEPINK, and Cindy Sheehan, who writes of being the most visible face of the movement against the Iraq war, and why she stepped away. Also a standout is Mona Gable’s essay on children in Albania in 1999, driven from Kosovo by then-president Slobodan Milosevic.

Vera Landry tackles race in an essay describing her experience assisting in her son’s classroom, and her reaction when he asserts “Science is for white kids.” Margaret McConnell approaches the issue from a different angle and writes of the preferential treatment given to her blue-eyed, blonde daughter when they were living in India.

I also found Marrit Ingman’s essay on mental illness particularly illuminating. I was struck by her statement, “My decision to live openly as a bipolar person, to reveal my diagnosis and treatment, is a political choice.” I could say the same about being LGBT; not that being so is a choice, but to reveal it is. The need for authenticity of which Ingman speaks applies to LGBT people as well, although I do not in any way want to equate being LGBT with being mentally ill. This is merely to suggest points of contact in our experiences, ways we can find common ground.

The weakest essay of the lot is Pelosi’s, a well-written but short call to end the war in Iraq. When she cast her vote to end the war, she says, she did so both as a member of Congress and a mother. This is useful insight into her motivation, but overall the piece is much less personal than the rest. Even Benazir Bhutto, the other big-name political figure who might be expected to lean towards platitudes, offers a glimpse into her life of balancing preparation for budget debates with spending time with her children. Many of us can relate when she says “I do not like my children watching cartoons. But I am feeling guilty. I have to catch a flight to Islamabad, where the Parliament is based. So I cave in.”

And yes, there is an essay on being a lesbian mom, Kathy Briccetti’s “Adoption in III Acts,” in which she tells of trying to get a second-parent adoption for her partner and their son. Many of us know this tale already—or do we? Briccetti herself was adopted by her stepfather, and her father was adopted by a stranger after his 16-year-old mother could not keep him. Briccetti weaves the three strands of adoption into her essay in a way that gives this commonality of many lesbian couple’s lives a new and broader perspective.

The remaining essays are all insightful and worth reading as well, although the ones above are the ones that stood out for me. Overall, the essays will not challenge the beliefs of most who pick up the book, however; they are uniformly progressive, and will appeal to those of that persuasion. They may perhaps challenge us to act, however, to know that together we can make change.

My main criticism is that the book still feels mostly white, middle class, and “normal.” There is one essay about a black mother’s experience (Landry), one by a Hispanic mother (Violeta Garcia-Mendoza), who writes more about international adoption than being Hispanic per se, one about having a physical disability (Ona Gritz), one about having a mental illness. We see Christian and Jewish and atheist but no Muslims, Buddhists, or those of other religions. In a way, though, it is gratifying that the authors who fall into various categories of race, religion, sexuality, and physical ability didn’t feel forced to write about them. The multiracial and bisexual Rebecca Walker, for example, writes of environmentalism, not race or sexuality. Still, the single authors who did write of race, sexuality, or disability risk being seen as the only perspective on their subjects.

In any book of this type, of course, there are bound to be groups or perspectives that are missed. Where are the mothers on welfare, the trans parents, the ones who have come to the U.S. as refugees? We should not be too harsh on Strong for their omission here, though, for that would unjustly turn people away from what is still a varied and important book. We should, however, hope there will be sequels.

Mother TalkThis review was at the request of MotherTalk, which gave me a $20 gift certificate to Amazon.com for doing the review. I also receive a referral fee from Amazon for any purchases made through the link above. My policy is that I will disclose any paid reviews, and will not accept payment directly from the publisher, manufacturer, or creator of the product under review.)