Jun 112008

I’ve just finished reading The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood & Social Change, edited by Shari MacDonald Strong.

I read it as part of the MotherTalk book review team, and received my review copy for free from them. I was not otherwise compensated for this review. (And I wrote in the book, so I’m not inclined to offer it up as a giveaway, unless you want my underlinings and dog-ears.)

The list of contributing writers is amazing — writers like Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, Rebecca Walker, Susie Bright, Anna Quindlen, and politicians like Nancy Pelosi and the late Benazir Bhutto. There are also dozens of great contributors whose writing is less familiar to most of us.

MacDonald Strong’s Introduction acknowledges how difficult it can be for overwhelmed mothers to also be engaged political activists. We have to feed our children, keep them and our surroundings tolerably clean, and supervise them. We don’t have to follow the news, organize, or worry about the myriad of issues that affect our lives and communities less directly. And in her words:

Some days, it’s just easier to block it all out, to curl up with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (or it would be if someone else in your house hadn’t gotten to it first), and curl up to watch American Idol while hoping someone else will step up and fix things.

On the flip side, as Judith Stadtman Tucker notes in the book’s opening essay:

Once you see injustice, you start to see it everywhere. And once you start to see injustice everywhere — once you take the awareness of its prevalence and corrosive power into your heart — you can’t stop thinking about what it would take to put things right.

Rebecca Walker asks what I think is the central question of both the book, and motherhood:

Is there one single aspect of motherhood that isn’t political? From conception to graduation, from your kid’s first apartment until you die, it’s basically one political decision after another.

The rest of the essays explore different places mothers are and the different paths that mothers take between those two poles.

Barbara Kingsolver’s essay comparing her own self-image at 13 to how she perceives her daughter’s, is touching, not to mention eye-opening for those of us who grew up in a later era than Kingsolver. Her effort to help her daughter deal with a fifth grade sexually harassing bully is nothing short of inspiring.

Like Kingsolver, Amy L. Jenkins finds the courage and need to speak out against narrow-minded sexism because more than needing to be the pleasant and polite, she needed to set an example for her daughter and another young woman — while they were all stuck together on a 125 mile car trip. (Normally, one imagines that going to see the Green Bay Packers would be the memorable part of a road trip, but not for this mother of a daughter listening to a young man spewing sexism.)

And like Jenkins, Anne Lamott struggles with the question of whether or not to politely allow someone else to give a polite and non-confrontational, soft response to comments she finds almost paralyzingly sexist and frustrating.

Lamott, too, cannot contain her honest anger and frustration in the face of both the original sexism, and the genteel and inadequate responses of the people around her, when she is part of a liberal/progressive panel discussion on politics and faith:

But then I did the only thing I could think to do: plunge on and tell my truth.

And somehow, as I was speaking, I got louder and maybe more emphatic than I actually feel, and said that [abortion] was not a morally ambiguous issue for me at all. I said that fetuses were not babies yet; that there actually was a difference between pro-choice people, like me, and Klaus Barbie.

Then I said that a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business.

As wonderful as all of those essays were, they were not my favorites. My favorite essays were Helaine Olen’s The Mean Moms, and Adoption in III Acts, by Kathy Briccetti.

I thought The Mean Moms was the most vulnerable and honest essay in the book. Although the perspectives couldn’t be more different, the naked truthfulness and bravery of Olen’s voice reminded me of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.

I’m not going to quote an excerpt because I can’t bring myself to expose the best and most awful story in the essay, out of context. Go read it yourself. The essay begins on page 243.

Briccetti’s essay was a favorite for more personal reasons. I owe her and her family a debt of gratitude — they were pioneers in the effort to have same-sex second-parent adoptions approved by the court. Their success in 1993 paved the way for Jill’s and mine in 2006.

As much as 13 years makes a difference in the legal and political evolution, I’m sorry to say that the fear and frustration they felt were no different and no more realistic concerns than ours. Our families still can’t count on legal recognition, even though we’re sometimes fortunate enough to get it.

Briccetti’s personal journey and relationship to adoption is far more complex than mine, and adds fascinating layers of emotion to her story:

Ever since Pam and I had visited the sperm bank to choose a donor, I’d struggled with the idea that my family’s blueprint — three generations of adoptions and absent fathers — had somehow caused me to create a child who would not grow up with a father.

If this collection has a weakness, it is that it does seem to be preaching to the choir. Feminists will love it, and may find new nuggets of information, new anecdotes to support theories, new writers they’ll enjoy and return to reading. I could imagine this book used as a college text. But I have a hard time imagining a “regular mom” selecting this book from a table in a bookstore.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t we join the choir because we both like music and we like listening to a good, thought-provoking sermon?

 Posted by at 12:16 am

  6 Responses to “Book Review: The Maternal Is Political”

  1. Hey, if you wanna book swap that one, I’ll happily take it! I’m sure I have something to exchange for it….

  2. Sure, Jen. I feel badly sending a librarian a dog-eared book with writing in it, though.

  3. Oh my goodness, I think this must be the nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing. Doesn’t everyone dream of being compared to Anne Lamott?

    Otherwise, I really like your blog. I plan to add it to the links on my website soonest (though I should warn you that my site is read by about 14 people). But first I have to take two boys to the pool …

  4. We’re on for a cuteness overdose the weekend of July 17-19. We have a Saturday night wedding, but are otherwise up for anything that would exhaust two-year olds. Let me know what days/times work for you..

  5. I would be entertained to read your commentary. I can’t tell you how weird it was to mark up the pregnancy book when I was reviewing it. It was a huge mental hurdle.

  6. I remember learning about Benazir Bhutto in Ms. Magazine when I was younger. She has always fascinated me. Her inclusion in this anthology makes it even more likely that I’ll read it!!

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