Learning How to Die Lessons from My Son .

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suzanne b. hanser
Learning How to Die
Lessons from My Son
This story is a personal account of a mother’s grief over the death of her 28-yearold son. As she processes her experience over the first few months after his loss, she
searches for him in everything she sees. The heart of the story is in her attempts to
interpret her son’s words, “Learn to die for those who know how to die shall truly
know how to live.” She aches to make sense of his sudden loss while coping with
the shock of the finality of death. As the layers of bereavement unravel, the mother
shares insights about how she finds her son’s presence in her daily life as well as
in her fantasies. In the signs she recognizes from his soul, she finds sustenance and
comfort.
Learn to die for those who know how to die shall truly know how to live.
(Hanser 26)1
My son, Sam, wrote these words in a book for his sister when he was 20 and
she was 13. From a young age, Sam demonstrated an innate ability to help
others, and from the time he was an adult, he sought to learn new and ancient
healing practices. His Senior Thesis at Parsons School of Design gave birth
to a Healing Empowerment Center to house practitioners of Eastern and
Western medicine in an attempt to “transform all of its clients into their own
centers of healing and empowerment” (Hanser 49). Sam went on to study
Somatic Psychotherapy at the California Institute of Integral Studies in order
to fulfill his vision of seeing the Healing Empowerment Center built and
becoming its director. He called me a “fellow healer,” although I never saw
myself as one. My technical background as a music therapist taught me to
honour scientific methodology, and deny my personal powers to heal. But Sam
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and I were one in our spiritual quest for understanding the human condition
and for honing our intuitive skills in the service of aiding others.
Then just short of his 28th birthday, and after defending his Master’s Thesis,
Sam died suddenly and unexpectedly. Now, three months after his burial, the
cause of his death is still unknown. But I do not believe that a description of
why his body died would help me accept his death any more easily.
I acknowledge that he is dead only when I can no longer suspend the
customary boundaries of reality. These days, I reside in that zone where
memory and possibility live. My head fills with “remember whens” and
“what ifs,” but then the truth intercedes, and I am beside myself. How will
he teach me how to die? How will I know how to truly live without him?
Sam believed that life is limitless and never-ending, and that time as we
know it really doesn’t exist. It seems I have lost him to a cosmos far greater
than human understanding.
In this process called grief, I live moment to moment. The recent past is horrifying; the future will always be devoid of his presence. I spend much earthly
time trying to comprehend his lessons that seem so unfinished and mysterious.
The passage of my time is deliberate and lethargic. I do not race towards the
goal of accepting his death, contrary to my usual need-for-achievement frenzy.
I want to follow his advice to learn how to die, but first I must understand it.
I seek his messages everywhere.
Last week, I attended a gallery opening for the work of a gifted photographer. This artist uses sunlight’s reflections and projected shadows in calm tide
pools to uncover remarkable special effects and beauty. In one photograph,
the shadow of a woman’s head on the water’s surface reveals marine life otherwise hidden by the sun’s mirroring effect. The colorful complexity of the
underwater world shapes her features from within, creating a silhouette that
only the photographer’s artistic lens can uncover. Yet we see human shadows
over still water all the time. To me, when she exposes the intricacies that most
eyes are incapable of seeing, the photographer’s eye is like the eye of God.
This is what I am seeking—the eye of God—to unearth my son and show
him to me again.
My journey is a search for Sam’s soul, the invisible part of him that he believed
would remain alive and well beyond death. And I find it, hidden yet beautifully present beneath the algae of my intellect, and well beyond my eyesight. I
know that his soul is here—I can feel it—it is just that my eye is not competent
enough to view it. I miss the body that I can no longer hug or see, so I look for
him in places where he might be concealed. I visit locations that he frequented
and loved. A short walk around our old neighborhood elicits a sigh of despair.
Then I notice a passerby who looks a little like him, and I gasp. I turn and spy
a car’s license plate with sam and the numbers of my house.
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Regularly, there is a coincidence that brings me face to face with symbols and
reminders of Sam. Just when I feel my resolve evaporating into tears, I drive
past Sam’s House of Pizza. I lose faith in being able to keep my memories of
him intact, distract myself by reading a novel, and find that the main character
is named, “Sammy.” I ask for help to establish a Memorial Trust to keep Sam’s
vision alive, and am referred to an attorney with the initials, s.a.m.
I look to the sky for more signs, and discover a white bird amongst the
flock of black. I notice clouds that gather into a cheeky, smiling face. I see
him in the moon, so full of light, yet so far away and untouchable. The moon
appears to emit this light, but of course, it is the sun that brightens its surface
and reflects it back to us on earth. The sun is shining on the other side of the
earth, where we cannot see it. Maybe Sam is there, too. After he died, a friend
wrote this haiku:
He left in winter
Overnight, the new moon was full. (Hanser 40)
Quite by accident, a quilt designed by another friend shows the moon over
scenes inspired by nature.
I state these facts, cognizant that I am a biased observer. My son’s philosophy asks me to fan my wishes out to the universe and he promises that it will
provide. Knowing no other way to receive help, I look everywhere for evidence
that his soul is with me.
While I sit on his meditation pillow, I view a picture that he created of himself
in lotus position. I ask him questions and listen attentively. I see him seated in
comfort and peace. I focus on his image, and an answer sparks inside my head.
It might be the response to a knotty problem I have been trying to unfold.
It can be a new way of looking at an issue. Sometimes I am feeling agitated
and distraught, then suddenly, calm. I cannot say that this is his intervention;
nevertheless, it happens.
In these months since Sam’s death, my thoughts have slowed down. I have
begun to realize that this sluggish thinking is allowing me to take in and
cogitate information more carefully, that is, with care and more fully. More
than once, new perspectives and discoveries detonate in me when I am in
this state of mind. While super-attentive and mindful of my surroundings, I
have become more self-aware and insightful about others. According to the
mindfulness meditation literature, this heightened consciousness is a notable,
positive side effect (Kabat-Zinn). Yet never before was I able to achieve the
sense of harmony that I can invoke now by envisioning Sam.
I hunt for him as I gather and sort his gifts to me. I caress the cards I saved
from Mother’s Day bouquets and birthday greetings. I gaze at photographs that
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suzanne b. hanser
represent his many moods and relationships. I close my eyes and remember back
to that time when I held him close, and I ache to stand next to him. I read the
books he read. I reinvent his perceptions by picturing him lifting an eyebrow
or nodding his head. I not only want him with me—I want him within me.
Why not? I am visiting him in metaphysical time and space, so I can conjure
him up inside and out, intellectually or completely spiritually. Then he will be
protected as he was in my womb.
The search for my son is my search for substantiation that he exists in
something beyond the memories that I cling to with a clutching grip. Friends
tell me that he lives on in the good deeds of people who knew him and were
inspired by him. But that is not good enough for me.
I visit Sam’s grave, where he is a lot closer to my home than when he lived
across the country. I leave a stone at his burial site, as is customary in the Jewish
religion. His physical body won’t move from here, so I have brought him rocks
from places I visit, and have asked friends to collect pebbles from their travels
abroad. I want to get to know Sam’s new community, and look for familiar
names on neighbouring headstones. I don’t linger in the cemetery; this is not
where his soul exists. Rather I find it in moments of meaning and objects of
beauty that come to me when I least expect them.
Sometimes Sam’s soul appears as an “aha” when I ask myself what Sam would
say or do. I can hear him say, “You need time to think. Go outside.” I consult
him when I need direction, whether I am geographically or psychologically lost.
He guides me to “take a deep breath.” I contemplate what he would suggest
when I step out at a crossroad, and a new alternative suddenly occurs to me.
His soul is also evident in the expressions of compassion from people who
hardly knew him. Sam’s loss has inspired poetry, art, music, tributes, and
charitable contributions. These tokens of love and loveliness are the remarkable consequences of such a tragedy. Yet many find it hard to approach me or
to know what to say.
I see fear on many faces that greet me—their worst fear. It happened to
me; it could happen to them. Their gifts are balms to console me. Only when
I smile are they able to leave in good conscience. Many people tell me that
no words can express their sympathy; then they proceed loquaciously. Others
inform me that they know just how I feel. Their words are unnecessary and
often unhelpful. I wish they knew that their presence is the most comforting
salve. Besides, when they are quiet, I sense their souls and connect with them
authentically.
Many compliment me on my strength. I assume they are referring to my
ability to walk behind his coffin without staggering. Indeed I am quite capable
of acting. It is easy to bolster myself with defences, and move on with my
responsibilities quite well, whether they are the duties of my job or burying
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my son. Yes, I can distract myself with the mundane, but that does not take
strength. In contrast, Sam encourages my resilience by suggesting that I feel
what I feel, be who I am, and remain open and vulnerable.
It is paradoxical that my vulnerability is what girds my strength. I allow
myself to experience the deepest emotions befitting the loss of my dear, loving
son. I see the invisible. I feel a presence. Could this be what Sam meant by
learning to die? To die, to expire, to depart—these verbs describe a process of
surrendering and ending. The vulnerable are adept at these. It is when I give
up control that I am enabled. It is when I let something go that I prepare for
a new opportunity. It is when I accept a disappointing day with the prospect
of hope for tomorrow that my soul flourishes.
To search is an active verb. It implies discovery and exploration, as with
pioneers of new cultures. It implies a curiosity for the unknown or unseen. I
am learning how to search.
In his book, Sam said, “In truth, there are no deaths, only transformations
of consciousness…. Each death is but an opportunity to create yourself anew”
(Hanser 36). Part of me died when my son died. Part of me awakened. I believe that I shall spend my lifetime searching. I think I am beginning to learn
his lessons.
Samuel’s book was published posthumously.
1
References
Samuel B. Hanser, Many Blessings: The Remembrance of One. Newton, MA:
Samuel B. Hanser Memorial Trust, 2010. (published posthumously).
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. New York: Hyperion Books,
2005.
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deborah davidson and helena stahls
Maternal Grief
Creating an Environment for Dialogue
This paper is about the elephant in the room that only those who have faced its presence want to talk about. As two bereaved mothers, we write about the silenced, the
unspoken or, at best, the seldom spoken. This difficult dialogue is called ‘maternal grief ’.
Our aim is to open space, to create an environment for this dialogue. To do so, we
discuss death in the neo-modernity, maternal grief, our own stories of bereavement,
and ways in which well meaning others can help assuage maternal grief. This work
is based on experiential knowledge of the authors as bereaved mothers, as volunteers
working with bereaved parents, and on scholarly research.
We live in a culture where death is a taboo subject and talking about death
is a difficult dialogue. Ultimately, death is unavoidable, a natural part of the
life cycle. The death of a child of any age however, seems like a perversion of
nature and is understood as a death out of order (Leming and Dickenson).
Parents expect to predecease their children, not bury them. Although male
parents also experience grief at the death of a child, and their grief often
goes unrecognized and unvalidated, the focus here is on maternal grief. Maternal grief is a mother’s highly variable emotional, physical, psychological,
and social response to the death of her child of any age. Maternal grief is
thought to be the most persistent and profound grief; mothers themselves are
surprised by its depth and intensity (Davidson 2010; Oliver cited in Leming
and Dickenson).
While there are common maternal responses to the death of a child,
experiences of maternal grief are diverse, inconsistent, and change
over a lifetime. Experienced as a deep wound, mothers say that a vital
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maternal grief
part of themselves has died along with their child. Healing after the
death of a child is a lifelong process, grief changes rather than ends.
(Davidson 2010)
As two bereaved mothers, we write about the silenced, the unspoken or, at best,
the seldom spoken. This difficult dialogue is called “maternal grief.” Our aim is
to open space, to create an environment for this dialogue. To do so, we discuss
death in the neo-modernity, maternal grief, our own stories of bereavement,
and ways in which well meaning others can help assuage maternal grief. This
work is based on experiential knowledge of the authors as bereaved mothers,
as volunteers working with bereaved parents, and on scholarly research.
There is significant agreement in the literature on death and dying that
since the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, at least
in the developed world, death became sanitized, medicalized, and professionalized (Ariès; Armstrong; Auger; Ellor and Harris; Littlewood; Hockey [REF
MISSING]; Homans; Katz; Mellor; Small and Hockey; Walter, 1994, 2000).
Philippe Ariès, perhaps the preeminent Western historian of death, argues
that while changes in death practices over the past thousand years have been
gradual, infinitesimal and spread over generations, a sharp change in practices
occurred just prior to the mid-twentieth century. Prior to that time, death
was a significant community event and grief was allowed expression within
that community. Ariès’ principal thesis is that by the mid-twentieth century
death was made invisible as it was removed from the home and community,
medicalized by being placed in health care facilities, and administered by the
funeral industry.
Similarly, Tony Walter (1994) periodizes death into traditional, modern, and
neo-modern frameworks. These three cultural responses to death are “rooted in
a particular social context and a particular bodily context, which then enable a
particular structure of authority” (Walter 1994: 47). Walter analyzes the bodily
context in terms of causes, frequency, and type or length of death within each
period. The social context of each period describes the place dying is located,
such as in the home or the hospital. As well, the social context describes who
presides over the dead and the rituals related to death. The authority context
describes who holds authority over death in the each period. Walter’s notion of
the “revival of death” describes death in the neo-modern period where modern
medicine and more traditional elements of death are combined for a “more
personal way of death, disposal and/or grief ” (Walter 1994: 204).
In the traditional period death was quick, frequent and expected; generally,
occurring in the home and presided over by family and community; religious
authority predominated. Death in the modern period was characterized primarily by its medicalization. It was hidden in the hospital, and presided over by
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deborah davidson and helena stahls
professionals. In the neo-modern period death, still medicalized, has become
prolonged by technology, and has come to be managed within public-private
space of a more open hospital, hospice, or in medically supervised home care.
While neo-modern death is still dependent on technology ideally, the individual
is understood to have the ultimate authority over her or his own death, and is
offered choice in that matter.
While the dying individual is offered an increasingly authoritative role in
her or his death, what of the bereaved—those who experience, and must live
with, the death of a loved one? Bereavement “identifies the objective situation
of individuals who have experienced loss…. In short a bereaved person is one
who has been deprived, robbed, plundered or stripped of something” (Corr,
Nabe and Coor cited in Katz 5). When it comes to the death of a child, at least
in the developed world, where children are not supposed to predecease their
parents, where parents are not supposed to bury their children, what mothers
want is some authority over their experience (Davidson 2008a, 2008b). They
want others to walk with them in their grief, to keep to their pace, to recognize
and validate their loved one and their loss.
Common to all maternal grief, is its lack of sustained social acknowledgement, validation, and support. In When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of
Animals, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy offer lessons from
the animal kingdom:
Social animals who live in groups often behave in a friendly way toward
other members of the group, even when they are not relatives….
Elephants appear to make allowances for other members of their
herd…. A park warden reported coming across a herd with a female
carrying a small calf several days dead, which she placed on the ground
whenever she ate or drank: she traveled very slowly and the rest of
the elephants waited for her. This suggests that animals, like people,
act on feelings as such, rather than solely for purposes of survival….
There appears to be so little survival value in the behavior of this
herd that perhaps one has to believe that they behaved this way just
because they loved their grieving friend who loved her dead baby, and
wanted to support her. (78)
What grieving mothers want from others is what this grieving elephant got
from her herd—for others to walk with her in her grief, and to let her set the
pace.
Grief is an individual, multidimensional response to a loss and a normal
process, involving somatic, behavioural, and emotional components that help
the griever adjust to loss. Maternal grief which, although it is understood to be
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lifelong, changes over a lifecourse, and is thought to be the most persistent and
profound grief, such that even mothers are surprised by its depth and intensity,
regardless of the age of the deceased child. Even well-meaning others seldom
know how to assuage a mother’s grief. Thinking what will hurt is best unseen
and unsaid, mothers rarely get the support they need and the validation they
so deeply desire. (Davidson 2010)
Mothers often report their child’s death was a life-changing event, and
that they were not the same person they were prior to the loss. Time becomes
measured by “before” and “after.” And a new sense of ‘normalcy’ is being established. Family and friends of bereaved mothers, however, expect them to return
to their ‘old’ selves after a brief period of mourning, culturally determined by
those who have not experienced child loss. Grieving mothers are put under a
‘time gun’, which does not help to assuage their grief. (Davidson 2010)
While the lifespan of an infant or child is often used as consideration for
how much one is expected by others to grieve, when children die as adults,
their mother’s grief is often not sufficiently validated because, as adults, they
are thought of as having become less a part of their mother’s lives. Mothers,
however, remain mothers, not until the day their children die, but in experiential
terms, until they themselves die, and in terms of family histories, even after their
own deaths. (Davidson 2010)
Mothers of children who die suddenly by violence, through suicide, homicide,
in natural disasters, in war, terrorist attacks, or accidents experience grief that
is especially traumatic. In the case of prolonged, fatal illness, grieving often
begins before death, and mothers have to deal with knowledge of their child’s
suffering and impending death. Short illnesses that end in death come as an
acute shock. (Davidson 2010)
It is important to note, however, that losses should not be weighed, nor should
grief. Each loss is unique as is each experience of grief. It is important to know
that maternal grief is profound, and judgment is unwelcome and unhelpful.
Making judgments and saying things like the mother of a baby died did not
have as many memories as the mother of an older child; that the mother of an
adult child at least got to see her child grow up, graduate, marry, have children;
or that the mother of a child who died while sleeping at least did not suffer,
exacerbate rather than assuage grief. (Davidson 2010)
And it is important not to assume that bereaved mothers who seem to be
doing well are well. They may be only as well as they can be, in public, and
under the circumstances. Their internal distress may be far greater than they
show in public. And if they are obviously distressed in public, this does not
mean that their grief is pathological. (Davidson 2010)
While bereaved mothers are, more often than not, silenced by others, especially after some arbitrary time limit, there is a need for mothers to talk about
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deborah davidson and helena stahls
their deceased children, and about their loss (Davidson 2008a, 2008b, 2010;
Layne; Simonds and Rothman). Our stories also help us open dialogue about
dying, death, and bereavement. And our stories help hold our children to us.
Helena’s story is told as here a letter to her daughter Donna.
My dear Donna,
I gave birth to you on December 26th, 1964 when I was just 17 years old,
and as with all parents your dad and I had dreams that our little girl would
grow up to have “the perfect life” and maybe have children of her own. Well
that dream almost came true, we lived a fairytale life until you were 18 years
old and skating overseas in France with “Holiday on Ice,” for reasons that we
did not understand you became clinically depressed and I flew over to bring
you home.
You were admitted to the psychiatric ward, and diagnosed with bi-polar
disorder; and from that day forward our world, as we knew it, would never
be the same again. You spent many months in and out of hospital. Shortly
thereafter, you met your future husband, and for a few years all seemed to be
going well.
But that was not to be; just before your wedding date, you were diagnosed
with Crohn’s disease. Little did we know what lay ahead for our family. Yes,
you had a fairytale wedding, and flew to Hawaii for your honeymoon. Well,
that dream came to a quick halt when you attempted suicide.
Your dad and I anxiously awaited your return home, and once again you
were admitted to the hospital. A few years later you gave birth to our first
grandchild, and 19 months later to our second grandchild. Our family shared
many, many happy days with you and your girls.
For many years you were able to fight off the demons of having to live with
these two insidious diseases that fed off each other. You did attempt suicide
a few times, but always seemed to recover enough to come back home. But
in November 1999, while in the psychiatry ward, you went through shock
treatments. You and I had many discussions around how this might affect
your mind.
On December 15th, you completed suicide, 9 days before Christmas, 10
days before your birthday, 17 days before the new millennium and 3 weeks
before your oldest daughter’s birthday. I know in my heart, that you suffered
for many years with the constant pain of Crohn’s disease and that you could
not lift yourself out of that horrible depression. But you always thought of the
other person before yourself, and in your note wrote about being a burden and
hoping that life without you would be that much better for all of us.
How terribly wrong you were. When you passed away, I fell into a huge
hole and was not sure how I could go on. You also left behind your brother,
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who has gone from being the youngest, to an only child, and now he is older
than you were when you died.
One of the hardest tasks I was asked to do after you died was to go through
your clothes and pick out your burial outfit. I remember saying to myself when
I was getting dressed for your funeral, if I do not go, then you have not died. I
do not remember much about that now, other than I felt like the whole scene
was surreal.
A few months later when your husband was ready to move from your home,
your dad and I were asked to go through your personal items that were still
around and take what we wanted. Well, we faced two green garbage bags that
held all of your possessions. I remember your dad just sobbing at what we
had to face. I took a couple of items, put some away for your girls, and gave
most to friends. I had dreams that you would be here to share the milestone
events that we all take for granted. I still cannot take part in family pictures,
because you are not there. The pictures that I have are the only ones that I
will ever have.
When I see your friends, I try to imagine what you would look like now. I
cannot attend family reunions; when I see other moms with their daughters
beside them, my heart aches. One of the worst parts for me was when your
oldest daughter recently graduated from high school; I was not invited to the
ceremony. I once again cried like a baby, knowing that you should be there to
share in that moment, and how proud you would have been when she left for
university, I cried for days, thinking that you should be the one driving her to
school. To this day when I attend a wedding, I cannot watch the bride dance
with her dad; it is too emotional to watch.
Donna, you were my best friend, we talked almost every day, and on the
weekends went out shopping. I still find the weekends hard to deal with. I
have a huge void and sometimes just run around like a mad woman trying to
fill in my time. I have not put up a Christmas tree since you passed, since that
was the holiday that you always enjoyed the most and one that your dad and
I were always invited to watch your girls open their presents.
That has changed. When their dad remarried shortly after you passed
away, we were no longer considered part of his family, and have not been
part of family celebrations. Yes, we do get to see your girls once in awhile,
but when you died, our direct link to the girls was broken, knowing that
you will not be there to see them graduate, meet their first boyfriends, get
married and have children of their own some day. I think of you every day,
and just want you to know, that I am proud that I am your mom, and do
cherish the time that we did have together. I will carry you in my heart
forever and always.
Mom
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deborah davidson and helena stahls
Deborah’s story is described here within her life course, as a significant part
of who she has become, of how her experience and the short but meaningful
lives of her children have shaped her life.
In 1975 and again in 1977 my babies were born prematurely and died shortly
after birth. According to hospital practice at the time, I did not see, hold, or
name my babies. I was told by doctors, friends, family—by everyone, to go
home and forget about “it”—just have another “one.” As if one child could
replace another. But I would not forget about my experience or my children.
For many years I grieved alone and in silence, presenting the false face of a
woman who has gotten over “it.” I had no herd to walk with me, nor was I the
authority of my own grief.
My grief was not recognized or acknowledged or validated, and that made it
worse. I had no outlet and no support. Years later when I returned to university
I began to research the topic of maternal grief in perinatal death. Eventually,
my Ph.D. dissertation in sociology came to be about how and why hospital
protocols, in the event of a perinatal death, changed profoundly over about
a 15-year period. In hospitals at least, women are no longer assumed not to
grieve, or that their grief is short-lived. They are now assisted in their grief.
Compassionate caregivers are expected to walk with them in their grief, to share
and negotiate in their griefwork (Davidson 2008a, 2008b). But when women
leave the hospital, the world they meet is not so compassionate.
One of my earliest research interviews on the topic of perinatal bereavement
was with Natalie, a woman whose baby, Tricia, was born prematurely and died
shortly after birth. Early on in the interview, Natalie excused herself briefly
and came back to the room holding a beautiful wooden box. She held the box
out to me and said, “This was my baby and she was real.”
The box contained:
•photographs of Tricia;
•Tricia’s blanket, complete with vernix;
•Tricia’s booties, cap, and name bracelet;
•Tricia’s Baptismal Certificate;
•a Baby Experience Book;
•Natalie’s before and after pregnancy journal;
•a newspaper article about a baby that survived after being born at
22 weeks, (“Proof of a—real live baby!” Natalie exclaimed. Tricia was
24 weeks gestation.);
•a letter from her Mom, written after Tricia’s death;
•a card and note from a friend;
•a Christmas card from Natalie to her recently deceased grandmother;
•a heart plaque previously given to the same beloved grandmother.
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This box thus contained material evidence, tangible proof, of Natalie’s
experience and of Tricia’s life. The items positioned Tricia as part of Natalie’s
cherished family. Natalie continued to speak of her grief, and how it was
not understood, or responded to compassionately, even by well meaning
others.
How do others come to understand our grief and our need for support?
How is dialogue about maternal grief and the death of one’s child fostered?
Here is what Helena suggests.
One of my missions since Donna has passed is to open dialogue and help take
away the stigma of mental illness and suicide. I speak about it every chance I
get. After many months of grief counseling and attending a peer support group
at Bereaved Families of Ontario, I was able to put my strength into chairing
an annual event, “Just gotta Skate,” in Donna’s memory, with all funds raised
donated to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of Canada. I have also found
some sense of peace by volunteering as a facilitator for Bereaved Families of
Ontario—Halton/Peel Chapter, for other parents that have suffered the loss
of a child. Maybe along the way I can help them with the burden of losing a
child and offer them hope that I did survive and so will they.
A parent’s biggest fear when a child is lost is that they will be forgotten,
not by the parent but by other people. Normally you live on by your children’s
memories and so on and so on. Now Donna can only live on by us talking
about her, remembering her, mentioning her. We find it very painful when
she is not mentioned. She did exist and still does to us and to the people that
loved her.
Like Tricia, Donna was real, and so was their mother’s grief. Social support
is the most frequently mentioned needs of bereaved persons (Corr, Nabe and
Coor). We realize, however, that most people are well intended but do not
know how to provide that support. Not knowing what to say, they either say
nothing or quite possibly something that hurts more than helps. Dialogues
about grief can facilitate understanding and validation of the mother’s experience and for the life of her child. To “validate” means to entitle, permit,
sanction, confirm, authorize, approve, to support. Validation, we believe, is
key to social support.
Not only do elephants walk with their grieving friend, elephants remember.
Grieving moms want you to walk with them and to remember their beloved
children. Tony Walter (1994) has described the current historic period as one
of a “revival of death”—where more traditional elements of death, dying, and
bereavement are combined with modern elements—where the dying themselves are the authorities of their own death. What bereaved mothers want is
to be allowed the authority over their own grief. Begin dialogue by validating
that grief.
journal of the motherhood initiative
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deborah davidson and helena stahls
References
Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Armstrong, David. “Silence and Truth in Death and Dying.” Social Science of
Medicine 24 (8) (1987): 651-657.
Auger, Jeanette A. Social Perspectives on Death and Dying. Halifax: Fernwood,
2000.
Corr, Charles A., Clyde Nabe, and Donna M. Coor. Death and Dying, Life
and Living. Pacific Grove, ca: Brooks/Cole, 1997.
Davidson, Deborah. The Emergence of Hospital Protocols for Perinatal Loss, 19502000. Ph.D. Dissertation, Toronto: York University, 2008a.
Davidson, Deborah. “A Technology of Care: Caregiver Response to Perinatal
Loss.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Special Edition, Women and
Technologies of Reproduction 31(4) (2008b): 278-284.
Davidson, Deborah. “Grief, Loss of Child.” Encyclopedia of Motherhood. Eds.
Andrea O’Reilly and Geoffrey J. Golson. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Ellor James E. and Helen Harris “The Denial of Death. Encyclopedia of Death
and the Human Experience. Volume 1. Eds. Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis
L. Peck. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Hockey 2001 [REF MISSING]
Homans, Peter. “Introduction.” Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and
Memory at Century’s End. Ed. Peter Homans. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 2000. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Katz, Jeanne. “Introduction.” Grief, Mourning and Death Ritual. Eds. Jennifer
Lorna Hockey, Jeanne Katz and Neil Small. Buckingham: Open University
Press, 2001. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Layne, Lynda. Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Account of Pregnancy Loss in America.
New York: Routledge, 2003.
Leming, Michael R. and George E. Dickenson. Understanding Dying, Death,
and Bereavement. Belmont, ca: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007.
Littlewood, Jane. 1993. “The Denial of Death and Rites of Passage in Contemporary Societies.” The Sociology of Death. Ed. David Clark. Oxford:
Blackwell.
Moussaieff Masson, Jeffrey and Susan McCarthy. 1995. When Elephants Weep:
The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Dell Publishing.
Mellor, Phillip. “Death in High Modernity.” The Sociology of Death. Ed. David
Clarke. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Oliver, L. E. “Effects of a Child’s Death on the Marital Relationship: A Review.” Omega 39 (1999): 197-227.
Simonds, Wendy and Barbara Katz Rothman. Centuries of Solace: Expressions
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of Maternal Grief in Popular Literature. Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1992.
Small, Neil and Jenny Hockey. “Discourse into Practice: The Production of
Bereavement Care.” Grief, Mourning and Death Ritual. Eds. Jennifer Lorna
Hockey, Jeanne Katz and Neil Small. Buckingham: Open University Press,
2001. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
Walter, Tony. The Revival of Death. London: Routledge, 1994.
Walter, Tony. “Modern Death: Taboo or Not Taboo?” Death Dying and Bereavement. Eds. Donna Dickenson, Malcom Johnson and Jeanne Samson
Katz. London: Sage, 2000. [ARTICLE PG NOS?]
journal of the motherhood initiative
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sharon lang
Life at the Cemetery
My heart lives at Hillside Memorial Park. This cemetery is serenity to me; my place
of solace. When I feel lost in a tormented storm of confusion and conflict, I find truth
there. I can cry if I want to without worry or care if anyone is looking. It is a rare
freedom to unburden oneself, free from others’ reactions and perceptions. There are
usually no other visitors around but even if there are, we are friends and all of one
mind. Outside in this world under the clouds and sky my tears pour out and when
they do it feels good not to be hidden in a room, or sitting in a coffee shop stifling my
emotions, hoping no one will notice. In this sacred space, I talk to my beloved Micaela
and I am honest. I reveal everything and nobody counters telling me to feel otherwise.
In the air of the cemetery all feelings are simply heard and accepted.
I.
Sometimes after I drop Maya, my six-year old daughter, off at school I head
over to the cemetery for a little while before getting started with the business
that fills my day. This time-out in the morning is a buffer between me and
the normal world; a space that allows me to transition from the person I am
inside to the one I’ll show the world around me. I go to my baby’s grave to
think and be at peace with myself. And when I feel lost in a tormented storm
of confusion and conflict, as I so often do lately, I can find my truth there. For
me, Hillside Memorial Park is a place of solace.
Usually there is no one else visiting when I arrive at the cemetery. I pull the
car up to the curb about twenty feet from Micaela’s grave and scan the area for
the thin birch tree that stands just east of her spot. As I turn the motor off, I
survey the land to see who has left what this week. If it is just before or after
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a holiday there will be plenty of balloons, flowers, and other seasonal trinkets.
If it is any day during the week other than Wednesday, there will be a spattering of bouquets and plastic pots of flowers. If the potted plants have blown
over from the wind, I stop to stand them back up as I am passing by, because
that just seems like the right thing to do. If it is Wednesday, the grass is bare
because the grounds workers have cleared and thrown away all the flowers and
grave decorations to mow the lawn early in the morning, as the sign posted at
the cemetery entrance declares.
During the first year after Mica died, Maya and I used to like to bring lots
of little toys and mementos to leave at the graveside. Maya took great care to
place sweet treats for her little sister on or near her marker. After the candies
were all laid out, she would undoubtedly ask, “Mommy can I eat this one?” We
arranged other small plastic toys, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tigger, Dora, and other
Disney figures, angels, butterflies, all kinds of things we thought were pretty
and that she would have liked. We’d leave two dolls, one that resembled each of
the girls, lying together so Micaela wouldn’t be alone. When Maya and I had
special days, we always tried to bring a piece of it back to share with Micaela,
like the small shells Maya collected at Newport Beach. This I suppose was
our way of continuing life all together. Others may view these rituals as acts
of denial, but the bereaved are not so much in denial—I am all too aware of
my child’s death. Rather our actions amount to a rejection of the unacceptable;
a triumph of love over death, for death cannot sever the connection of love
between a mother and her child. Despite death, the fact is that my daughter
continues to be a part of my life everyday. I would write Mica letters when I sat
at her grave and leave them in a small box that contained precious keepsakes
like the candle from her first birthday cake.
II
The first person I always see after I step out of the car is Carl Joe1 and as I walk
past him I can’t help but smile. I imagine him to have been a fun-loving, simple
kind of guy who enjoyed cold beers and hanging with his buddies. An engraved
quote at the bottom of his marker quips, “Dying to see you again.” I wonder if
his friends still go out and remember him and think about him often. Carl was
only in his thirties when he passed away and I don’t know what caused his death.
I have never seen anyone there to visit him who I could ask. I keep walking
across the familiar grass and greet young Thomas. He was actually eighteen
when he died and there is an etching of him as a young man in military gear.
But the picture of him that stays with me is the coloured photograph from
when he was about nine years old, which is set in a ceramic oval in the middle
of his marker. Thomas was an adorable freckle-faced kid with a sweet smile
journal of the motherhood initiative
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sharon lang
and an all-American look who had a brain tumor. His sister told me one day
that he had had an operation when he was ten but the tumour grew back and
he didn’t make it the second time they tried to operate.
I like to sit with Micaela or lie down on a blanket and read a book, if it is a
warm day. I don’t pay much attention to the world around me or worry about
what anyone may think. Sometimes a couple will come by to visit a parent,
bring flowers, stay a few moments looking at the marker of their deceased
and then leave. Sometimes people will come over and talk with me briefly.
Solitude or simple, compassionate interactions, all of it is okay with me at the
cemetery. One time a group of four high school boys were hovering over a small
stone nearby. They were smoking and I asked them for a cigarette, just to be
friendly. We talked for a while about the people beneath the double mother/son
marker, which they stood staring down at. Sarah, Garrison’s mother, died of
cancer a couple of years prior to her son’s death. Garrison’s father had been
out of the picture since he was born and so he was left under the care of his
older brother when Sarah died. One night after drinking and doing drugs,
Garrison overdosed and died, less than two years after his mother had passed.
I think Garrison’s friends had the feeling that it could have been any one of
them. They postured in tough high school stances, but their reflective silence
belied that they had been jolted into an all too harsh reality that they were
not ready to handle.
Just to the left of Garrison is Emily’s grave, which always has a pretty bouquet of purple flowers on it, no matter what day of the week it is. Her mom
Jackie must get there before me on Wednesdays or maybe she leaves it on
Tuesday night and somehow it doesn’t get cleared away. Jackie and I see each
other occasionally at the cemetery. Her daughter is buried about ten plots
away from my baby. I remember about two years ago when we first met. I was
there crying and she came over to me. We hugged and talked about how bad
it is and how we hate when people ask us, “How are you?” She told me about
what happened to Emily. Two kids from the local high school, who had supposedly been friends of her daughter, murdered her. Outrageously, one of them
had actually come to and cried at the funeral before the police had unraveled
the crime. As Jackie told me pieces of what had happened to her daughter, I
realized I had heard the story before. I had seen the posters taped up in store
windows all around Redlands shortly after my baby died. It displayed a picture
of a beautiful, smiling dark-haired teenager who had gone missing. A couple
of weeks later, the authorities found Emily’s body in a shallow grave in the
canyon and the story unfolded in the Redlands Daily Facts. I remember trying
to avoid reading about it; I did not want to hear of another mother who lost her
daughter. I was struggling and could not handle an ounce more of heartbreak,
not even that of a stranger.
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But I felt close with Jackie from the moment we met. We shared the ultimate
bond of sadness. I told her I never for a moment imagined that my baby would
die. It truly never occurred to me that my daughter could just be gone and that
I would never have her again. I remember driving with Micaela strapped into
her car seat one day shortly before she died. I was upset over something that
I cannot now recall but I remember telling myself, “Well don’t worry; at least
you will always have Micaela.” Jackie was a single mother who had served in
the military. She told me she prayed every night that nothing would happen
to her daughter; she always lived with the horrific knowledge that one’s worst
nightmares can and do come true. I wonder what had happened to her in her
life before this tragedy that gave her that terrible awareness. No matter what
it was, I think this was worse than what she had been through before. We
comfort each other briefly and it does help to be in the presence of another
person who knows your pain. Jackie kindly tells me that it must be harder for
me, having had so little time together with Mica. At least, she says, she had
eighteen years with her baby. Emily’s cremated remains lie in a small grave with
a black granite marker that bears her name and dates as well as her mother’s,
with the death date as yet unnoted. The pretty photograph of Emily is laser
etched into the India black stone, the same picture that was on all the “missing”
posters, along with a smaller one of her horseback riding. Emily’s big smile is
one that stays in your mind. I left a little angel at Emily’s grave one day, and
Jackie left a small stuffed kitten for Micaela. Jackie promised me that Emily
would watch over my daughter and stay close to her and it’s odd that even
though I’m skeptical of an afterlife, it does make me feel better.
Micaela has many protectors at Hillside. Dell lies just two rows east of her
in a double plot that had only her final date filled in. Every day Lupe, a gentle
and elderly man would drive up with his big old Chevrolet and visit his departed
wife. Lupe’s accent and gruff voice made it a bit hard for me to understand
him but nonetheless we connected with scarce words. Lupe always greeted
Maya by name, and reminded me that it was his daughter’s name too. Then
he would proceed through his routine, dragging a folding chair from the large
trunk of his car. He came everyday and sat with Dell for about an hour. He
tended to her gravesite with great care, fresh flowers in the ground, a tasteful
assortment of garden decorations, a wrought iron stand that rose up about
five feet and curved into a hook that held a birdfeeder with rose-colored sugar
water, delicate wind chimes, and the always attached, plastic covered Xerox of
his wife’s obituary, telling her story and showing her photograph. Lupe and I
would exchange a few polite words and then retreat into our private worlds,
respecting each other’s purpose for being there. The stone on Dell’s grave has a
laser-etched photograph of the couple together when they were much younger.
I think it was a picture from their wedding. Lupe went to the cemetery every
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sharon lang
day; he was still living with his wife, talking to her and spending his time with
her. About two months ago when I went to see Mica there was fresh dirt on
Dell’s grave and I knew Lupe had died. I tried not to feel sad because I knew
he wished to leave this world and be with his wife. Although he bore his grief
bravely, life held no joy for Lupe since his wife had departed. He did not have
to say so with words, it was obvious that he would always remain thoroughly
entwined with the woman whom he had shared his life. In life and death,
Dell and Lupe would always be together. Almost a year later, their stone is
now filled in with Lupe’s final date. I think about them when I go to visit my
baby. Now the site is bare, no one decorates it anymore; it remains cleared and
plain, like most of the others.
III
I never liked cemeteries growing up. They used to scare me. The idea of lots of
dead bodies lying beneath the earth was nothing I even wanted to think about.
I could never understand my best friend Monica who after school would go
to Lincoln Park cemetery with other friends just to hang out. To her it was
fun, cool. To me, it was just creepy. Like so many other Americans, young
and old, I avoided real death as best I could and only dealt with it when I had
no other choice. As a girl, I would turn my head away in the back seat of the
car if we were driving past a cemetery. These places frightened me so I’d look
away and close my eyes. When my great aunt Etta was dying in the hospital,
my mom took me to visit her at her bedside, and I remember being aghast at
her sickly appearance. I begged my mother not to tell me when she died but
I overheard her tell my father a few days later and I quickly covered my ears.
At age nine, death was a huge fear for me that I could not handle, and I tried
my best to shut it out.
A couple of years later, my friend Susie called and told me rather casually
that a boy named Mark in our sixth grade class had drowned. After hanging
up the phone, I freaked out so badly that my parents did not know how to
calm me down and I think I really unsettled my dad who just kept telling me
to splash some cold water on my face. Mark had French kissed me the week
before at a party when a group of kids were playing spin the bottle and this
had made me, a painfully shy and innocent eleven year old, so uncomfortable
I called my mom to pick me up but I would not tell her why. Mark asked me
if I was leaving because of what he did and I lied and said “no.” When I heard
he had drowned, I felt shaken to the core. I thought it happened because of
something I had done wrong. He had asked me just a few days earlier at school
if I would “go out” with him and when I again said “no,” he laughed and claimed
he was glad because he was just joking. Mark and his uncle had jumped into
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a river to go swimming but the undercurrent was too strong. His uncle barely
survived and was not able to rescue Mark. Beyond my vague sense of shame,
I felt overwhelmed by the fragility of life; the instantaneous and omnipotent
grasp death holds on all of us. I feared that I too might die at any moment, if I
simply took a wrong step or made a faulty move. My mom tried to comfort me
and tell me life was not so random. As always her strength moved to reestablish
order and control, but I was not convinced. I cried all night long for Mark, his
uncle, and his family. The next day at P.S. 95, Mrs. Larritza, our teacher, looked
very sad and Christine, another girl in the class, remarked on how puffy my
eyes were, but needless to say, I did not attend the wake.
Everything is as different now as my childhood world of the Bronx is far away.
California cemeteries are friendly and familiar places to me. I teach courses on
Death and Dying, take my students to visit gravesides, and actually relish the
opportunity to talk about issues surrounding death. I feel comfortable with
the people who lie beneath the ground at Hillside. In fact, they have become
a kind of community to me, the friends that surround my daughter, stay with
her body, and keep watch over her when I am gone. Robert John Morgan,
Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, stands guard over Micaela and makes
sure she is protected. Carl Joe, Thomas, Tina, Dell and Lupe, they are always
there in the same old spots as if waiting for my arrival. I greet them silently in
my head as I walk across the grass to visit my girl. Passing the familiar names
and faces time after time, I feel that we are all friends of an odd sort and this
interconnectedness feels comforting to me.
The only thing I don’t like are the too frequent disturbances of the newly
deceased being placed into the ground. The additions and transitions upset
my peace of mind. I am bothered by the burial precursors: the rolled out metal
canopy that announces an upcoming funeral, the dug out pits with inhabited
coffins waiting on the side, the wreaths of flowers pinned onto standing frames.
I also do not care for the post funeral signs, which include an array of wilting
flowers that cover a newly filled grave, or worse a flat rectangle of fresh dirt
that stands out in contrast to the grass around it and remains anonymous, unmarked. Perhaps these ongoing indications of the end of life and the beginning
of death resurrect in me buried emotions of grief-stricken loved ones in the
throes of raw heartache. New death takes me back to the initial weeks after
my baby died when shock and utter devastation engulfed me.
The area where Mica is buried is the section that is filling up fast now with
new bodies interred every day. Recently when I went to visit, there was fresh
dirt from a newly filled grave adjacent and just above or west of my daughter.
I was indignant. I wondered who the deceased was, as the earth plot contained
no clues to his or her identity in place yet, only a droopy single lily marked the
site. It bothered me that I had no knowledge or control over who would lie so
journal of the motherhood initiative
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sharon lang
close to my baby. Is this a good person? Someone who I want to be so near to
my daughter? I regretted not having thought to buy that space for myself. No
one had asked me if it was okay to bury this person right over my baby. Futilely,
I am still trying to be her mother, protect and watch over her, gain a measure
of influence in her life, or rather in her life after death. In this instance, I am
troubled less by the transitions and more by my lack of control over anything.
Perhaps these are not such different things.
Regardless, this cemetery is serenity to me. In this sacred space, I talk to
Mica and I can be completely honest with her. I can reveal everything. I express
what I am feeling quietly but out loud, and nobody counters and tells me that
I should feel otherwise. I frequently tell my baby how much I miss her, how
much it hurts that she is gone, and how sorry I am that I did not take better
care of her. I do not have my mother there to shield me and not allow me
to say or feel guilty in this way. For the truth is that I do, logical or not, it is
my unfortunate reality. And in the air of the cemetery all feelings are simply
heard and accepted. I can cry if I want to and not worry or care if anyone is
looking. It is a rare freedom to unburden one’s self completely free from others’ reactions and perceptions. There are usually no other visitors around at
the cemetery but even if there are, it does not matter, we are friends and all of
one mind. Outside in this world under the clouds and sky my tears may pour
out and when they do it feels good not to be hidden in a room, or sitting in a
coffee shop stifling my emotions and hoping no one will notice.
Some names throughout have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
1
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paula ressler
Episodes on High F
The author shares her thoughts and experiences as a mother in the wake of her son’s
suicide through a series of related episodes, weaving personal narrative with scholarship.
She reflects on the difficulties of talking about her son’s death; how transgenerational
trauma made her son more vulnerable to sexual abuse and drug addiction; the limits
of traditional substance abuse treatment models; how homophobia contributed to her
son’s death; and how she celebrates her son’s life along with her own marriage to her
female partner of twenty-five years. Finally, she explores the connections she makes
as a Jewish woman of the second generation after the Holocaust between the trauma
of the genocide and the trauma of losing her son. Both tragedies seem to elude human
understanding, yet the author continues searching for answers, piecing together the
episodes about her son’s death and the impact it continues to have on her life.
“Do you have children?”
“Yes.”
“No.”
Sometimes I say “yes,” sometimes I say “no.” It depends on the context.
Although saying “no” takes a toll on my relationship with and to the world,
saying “yes” raises problems, too.
The problem with saying yes to someone whom I am not invested in knowing better is that there may be follow-up questions:
“A boy or a girl?” “Grandchildren?” “What does he do?”
In a situation like this, saying “You don’t realize what a tough question you
just asked,” or “I used to have a son, but he died,” or “my son died through
suicide,” offers much more information than some people want. Some will
simply say, “I’m sorry.” That’s my initial response when hearing about someone
journal of the motherhood initiative
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paula ressler
else’s loss or grief. Others may spout some platitude, really wishing that they
had not tried to be friendly. Still others may be thinking, “Get over it.”
I continue to jump, kick, and twist rhythmically in the water in time to
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and wonder how long I will obsess about this
stranger’s innocent but loaded question or when I will have to fend off the
next inadvertent verbal assault. Even after nine years, the trauma of my son’s
death still crashes against the routines of my daily life.
What I experienced in my water aerobics class is somewhat different from
what I experienced after returning to work in August of 2001, two months
after my son’s funeral. In this case, the people I encountered at work were not
complete strangers: I had known them for a year and they knew that my son
had died through suicide. My colleagues did not ask many questions, probably
because the bare bones of what happened to him was as much as they could
take in, and they were unsure how to respond to me while my emotions were
still raw from the trauma. I know it’s not easy to deal with someone else’s
anguish, and I wasn’t reaching out for support. The few people who knew me
better would take the initiative periodically to ask how I was doing. I found
their efforts comforting.
As time went on, it became easier to talk about my son, Shandi. Several years
after his death and after receiving a moving e-mail message from one of his
former high school friends, I encountered a colleague in my department whom
I told about being touched by the message I received. He responded, “So what
do you expect me to say?” His rebuff shocked me and reinscribed my silence.
Jan. 29, 2008. Seven years after my son’s death, I share a lovely birthday dinner with Becca, my life partner and spouse of 25 years. Cousins and friends
send birthday messages and Becca gives me a card full of her softness. I am
loved. But below the surface I mourn because Shandi and other dear family
members aren’t here. They have either died or live far away from this Midwest
community I now call home.
I also get a birthday call from cousin Jane, and we talk a long time about
family history, who came from where and when. She is the amateur but skilled
genealogist of my father’s family, most of whom come from Czernowitz, a preWorld War II thriving Jewish community in what is now western Ukraine,
today almost totally devoid of Jews. Talking to Jane makes me think about my
Viennese mother, too. I get the idea to sing “Wien, du Stadt Meiner Träume”
(Vienna, My City of Dreams) at next year’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) service at our temple to honor my mother Hilda, who used
to sing this song and my cousin Herta, both of them Jewish refugees from
Vienna who fled from Nazi-controlled Europe and who are now dead, and
our Viennese relatives who did not escape the Holocaust.
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Later, I actually pursue my idea about Yom HaShoah and get the go-ahead.
But as I start working on the song and the German lyrics my mother sang, I
realize that I cannot sing high F yet and don’t want to do the vocal exercises
to help me get there. I don’t know why it’s so important to be to be able to
sing this song, hit high F, or why I resist making the effort. Is it related to how
I stop breathing when I’m crying as a way to block the feelings I am having?
Is the grief still stuck in my throat, physically and emotionally? Does high f
represent a primal space where, in my grieving process, I still need to go?
On this birthday, I make a deep connection that I hadn’t made before
between my son’s death and the Nazi genocide. I perceive that the collective
legacy of that genocide is still traumatizing individuals in the second and third
generations of my family after the Holocaust. Several cousins on my father’s
side struggled with heroin addiction, two also dying through suicide. I only
learned this after Shandi’s death.
Looking for research that might corroborate my perception, I learn that in
their studies of Holocaust survivors, Dan Bar-On and Julia Chaitin, and Yael
Danieli see common patterns that inscribe the parents’ trauma on the second
and third generations and how the muteness of the survivors of the ghettos
and camps was learned by the next generation. Although my parents were
not concentration camp or ghetto survivors, but Jewish refugees who escaped
European anti-Semitism shortly before the Nazis came to power, they appear
to have been greatly impacted by the Holocaust in ways that continue to effect
their children and grandchildren.
I speculate that my parents also felt the losses of their extended families who
were killed, guilt for surviving when others didn’t, as well as guilt for not being
able to help any more family members escape. Their muteness was probably a
way to assimilate their children and protect them from trauma. Thinking about
my own relationship with my son, I too was silent when I should have spoken.
Diane Harvey explains that when the traumas from one generation are not
addressed they continue to visit upon the following generations (1).
I add to my family’s Holocaust experiences the possible influence of the
Armenian genocide, from my son’s paternal grandmother’s heritage; the male
transgenerational alcoholism that plagued his father’s family; and the secret
sexual abuse my son suffered from ages nine-and-a-half to thirteen from our
then landlord. I see the stresses of current and intergenerational pain piling
up, a phenomenon Louis Cozolino says occurs because past traumas make us
more vulnerable to future ones (265). It is hard to accept that I did not and
could not shield my son from it all.
In the spring of 2010 I begin teaching Holocaust literature in my college
classes and apply for and am accepted into the Annual Summer Institute on
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paula ressler
the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. As I read
to prepare for the institute, time and again the texts resonate on a personal
level, shedding light not only on the Holocaust but also on my son’s and my
traumatic experiences.
Shandi Stephen Free Hopkins was born on February 23, 1970. We called him
Shandi, a made-up name his father and I liked that bore a relationship to our
era and generation, when people we knew were trying out rural living, organic
farming, and South Asian spiritual practices. (When Shandi’s friend “Light”
called twenty-plus years later and I asked him to spell his name, he told me
that his parents were hippies, too.)
Rural Maine is where we landed when I became pregnant, thinking that
it would be easier to afford having a baby there than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we were living before, and to be closer to Shandi’s father’s
family at this scary time in our lives when we felt very alone. We were jobless and penniless in 1969, college drop-outs who had been anti-war and
anti-racist movement activists but were frightened by the political violence
and turmoil around us. Given our emotional and intellectual immaturity,
although we tried to escape it, the violence and turmoil permeated our
personal lives anyway.
In the early 1970s, my toddler son asked me to read again and again Where
the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, in which Max expresses his anger,
tests limits, feels empowered to explore the world on his own, but still has a
safe place to which to return when he’s had enough adventuring, and where
his mother gives him unconditional love. Shandi, an innocent victim of his
parents’ dysfunction and, later, the sexual abuse secretly perpetrated upon
him by a neighbour, unconsciously and repeatedly acted out Max’s story as he
grew older. As he moved out into an increasingly dangerous world for him,
coming home safely became harder and harder to do. As a young child he
would cry when he saw homeless people on the street, did not understand
why there was so much sadness and misery in the world, and expressed his
pain and frustration by pushing behavioral boundaries in school, getting into
fights, and ignoring his school work, while still remaining an engaged learner
and caring individual.
In high school he was a sharp political analyst and always sided with those
who were most oppressed. He grew up in a racially mixed working- and
middle-class neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was very active
in school around social issues. Known as “Tippy the Magic Squirrel” on his
campaign poster, Shandi was elected as the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High
School’s student representative to the school committee, because of his strong
sense of social justice and delightful sense of humor. When going through
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his papers I found an apology letter to him and his family from a Harvard
University Police officer who had profiled his racially mixed group of friends
on Halloween. Perhaps the officer apologized only because Shandi was white.
The Cambridge Massachusetts police officer who racially profiled and arrested
Harvard Professor Dr, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in July 2009 as Gates tried to
enter his own house, never apologized. Recently, I was reminded of Shandi and
began to cry while viewing an episode of Eyes on the Prize in which a young
man arrested at a sit-in says, “Be cool, Mom.”
As an older teenager, Shandi began to identify with people living on the
periphery—drug addicts and conspiracy theorists and the like. During his last
year in high school he stopped coming home to where his lesbian mom lived
with her lover and moved into a bleak, unoccupied apartment where his father
stored his house painting supplies. Ostensibly, he left home because he was not
comfortable with his lesbian moms, but in reality, and because of unresolved
trauma, he desired to pursue a more perilous existence than the relative safety
that family life could offer him.
Then one day Shandi went off to the land of Where the Wild Things Are
and couldn’t return, even though he tried to from time to time. Although
he memorized Max’s story and could read it himself by the age of two, and
although he wished for a similar outcome in his own life, his journey ended
before he could sail back to “where someone loved him best of all.”
Shandi began smoking pot heavily and using lsd during his last year in
high school and eventually moved on to heroin and cocaine use. He had been
actively using heroin for five years before asking if he could come home and
join me in New York, where I was studying for my doctorate. Gradually becoming less and less functional, he moved out again and lived on the streets
for almost a year before deciding he wanted recovery. While on the streets
he was beaten up and poisoned and almost died several times. He told me
horror stories about what happened to him that I couldn’t take in then and
now can barely remember. One night, before he got into treatment, I was on
the phone with Shandi from my home in Central Illinois with a street map
of lower Manhattan in front of me, trying to direct him to a shelter near the
World Trade Center that I had located. He was too high to figure out where
he was on his own. I kept the map by the phone because he often would call
me when he got disoriented at night.
Once Shandi made the decision to try to turn his life around, it took too long
for him to get into a treatment program. While trying to direct him to safety
on the streets of New York, I was also trying, with the help of a local treatment
professional, to get him into a program in Central Illinois. Unfortunately, the
local methadone program had closed right before I moved here, and none of
the other programs we investigated were willing to accept someone who was
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multiply addicted as he was. Through the herculean efforts of a number of
caring people who gave him places to sleep, provided pro bono medical care
until his Medicaid kicked in, and fought hard to get him into a facility, Shandi
finally was admitted to the Smithers Alcoholism Treatment and Training
Center at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, but that program could not
handle Shandi’s unique needs, given his multiple addictions and undiagnosed
mental illness.
Shandi was in Smithers for six weeks, beginning to do considerably better
and feeling proud of himself for speaking at aa meetings and leading them, as
people told him, “with great honesty.” But on Memorial Day weekend of 2001
he got into an argument with another patient who called him a “pussy” and a
“faggot.” No one intervened. I don’t know if someone on staff actually overheard
the beginning of that encounter. Many hospitals are short-staffed on holiday
weekends. Homophobic bullying like my son experienced in his treatment
program—not because he identified as gay, but because he often responded
sensitively to people’s emotions and had long hair—occurs all the time in such
venues, as it does in schools, on the street, in homes, and elsewhere. Rarely
does anyone intervene. Even if someone on the staff had witnessed the early
part of this encounter, it is unlikely they would have known how to respond
appropriately. According to Michele Eliaison, substance abuse counselors and
other treatment providers have had very little if any training about addressing
homophobia or the needs of lgbt clients. This also would negatively impact
other clients who, like my son, do not identify as gay but are still victimized by
homophobia and transphobia. When my son was high, he would sometimes
adopt the misogynist and homophobic behaviours himself that he encountered
on the streets, when otherwise he would be supportive and loving toward his
two lesbian moms. Some of his hostility was also caused by the man who sexually abused him and who, when Shandi threatened to expose him, told Shandi
that his mother would not mind because she was a lesbian. I know from my
work in teacher education that most teachers, counsellors, and school personnel
feel unprepared or unwilling to take on homophobia, while “[h]omophobic
and transphobic harassment, bullying, and violence are common in nearly all
schools, and sexual and gender minority youth experience more extreme and
persistent violence and harassment in school than their heterosexual peers”
(Ressler and Chase 18; Kosciw, Diaz, and Greytak). Frequently, the victim is
blamed for not being tough enough.
The argument at Smithers did not get physical, but someone on staff who
thought it might called the security guards and had both men thrown out onto
the street with a couple of plastic bags for their belongings and prescriptions for
their meds. The professionals call such an action an “administrative discharge.”
In education, we call this “zero tolerance” (Skiba and Paterson). Instead of
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solving problems, educators and administrators try to control behaviors with
strict rules. In many cases, life and death decisions are made by people who,
without full knowledge or consideration of the consequences and the pain they
may cause, act precipitously and mindlessly.
Shandi was far from rational at times, and this was exacerbated because
while at Smithers his methadone maintenance was accidentally and suddenly
reduced to an unsafe level. He was going through severe withdrawal symptoms, which at first the staff interpreted as recalcitrance. Smithers was not a
very understanding environment for people addicted to illegal substances like
heroin and cocaine at that time. Their program focused almost exclusively
on Alcoholics Anonymous’s first step of admitting one is addicted and did
not offer much in the way of psychological services to people who were also
deeply traumatized.
Psychotherapist Patt Denning and other experienced clinicians advocate
client-driven therapeutic practices for substance abuse treatment instead of
the punitive approach taken by Smithers. At one point, Shandi told me that
he poured his heart out in his journal. However, instead of receiving support,
he was chastised because he wrote a sprawling, impassioned narrative rather
than tersely responding to the short-answer questions on the assignment he
was given. (After he died I tried to get a copy of his journal, but was told
that it was destroyed to protect patient confidentiality.) A former Smithers
patient I know, embittered by the lack of services she had received and who
also had been thrown out of there a number of years before, said that she
thought the two men were lucky to have gotten plastic bags.
Shandi hanged himself three days later, on June 4, 2001. If he hadn’t killed
himself then, I picture him, in his continuing despair, throwing himself into the
pit that once was the World Trade Center. September 11, 2001 and June 5, 2001,
the anniversary of his death, are intimately and irrevocably intertwined for me.
May 27, 2006. Another Memorial Day weekend, and I wind up in the last
place on Earth I ever wanted to be: St. Luke’s Hospital, where Shandi died
five years earlier. St. Luke’s is, to me, very close to hell, where there seem to be
no angels on duty. I am here because, while walking under a bridge in Central
Park, my foot goes into a hole in the walkway, re-spraining an already weak
ankle. The superstitious part of me interprets this random event as punishment for not being able to save my son’s life. After five years of grieving and
therapy, I still too often blame myself, going over and over in my head what I
could have done differently.
A volunteer ambulance stationed in the park takes me to the nearest hospital.
When they tell me it will be St. Luke’s, I become mute, not knowing how to
share my story with strangers. The memories of Shandi dying at St. Luke are
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the only images and thoughts swimming around in my head. These merge
with the pain in my ankle, preventing me from talking even to these medical
volunteers, who are kind people just trying to help.
Three hours after arriving, I leave the emergency room without having been
treated, having overheard someone complain that they have been waiting nine
and a half hours to be seen. In those three miserable hours I communicate with
no one. I only wait that long because I am in shock and can’t express what is
really on my mind. In 2006 as in 2001 I am flooded with feelings, thoughts,
and questions: How many hours did Shandi wait to be treated? Was he brain
dead when he got there? Did triage consider him a priority? Were expensive
interventions ruled out because he was an addict and had been homeless? Did
people do everything they could do for him? Did I do everything I could do
for him? I remember that on the night he died I made an emergency call to
the doctor who treated him pro bono and helped him get into Smithers. He
came to the hospital in the middle of the night because I couldn’t believe that
my son was already brain dead and could not understand why they had not
moved him out of the emergency room, where they were keeping him breathing on a ventilator, onto a ward.
Stretch that old ankle, make it walk, I say to myself. Don’t fall apart here, it’s
too easy. A hospital full of throwaway people treated as though they don’t even
deserve to know why there is no one to help them in an emergency room.
Three hours, nine and a half hours. Why the fuck do poor people in pain
have to wait so long? Is it realistic to think that institutions like St. Luke’s
can save more people, be more humane, even in the face of wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan and politicians mercilessly slashing budgets for social services?
How do we continue to fight for justice knowing there is no justice in a system
based on profit and greed?
I continually relive those last days before my son died, thinking about how I
might have helped to prevent his death, at least temporarily. Or, was it really,
as his doctor said, “too late?” I felt so helpless during Shandi’s illness: the cloud
around him kept me out, and the cloud around me kept me from breaking
through his. Until the end, I never accepted the fact that my child might die. I
am reminded of a poster I created for my lesbian mother’s group, “Babies Beaks
Tilted toward Sky, Worms Not There.” The irony was not lost on the group. It
seemed unthinkable not to be there for our children. We cared so much. We
were obsessed with caring about our children. Shandi always cared about me,
too. One Valentine’s Day he gave me a bear with a necklace that said, “I love
you too much,” and was pleased that I kept it around for so many years. Yet,
we often let each other down, me in anguish because I could never do enough
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for him, and he ashamed because he could not meet his own expectations of
who a good son should be. When he was young, we used to enjoy the irony in
Sendak’s story Pierre, about a boy who always says “I don’t care” and gets eaten
by a lion. Shandi spent so many years in pain, wanting love and suppressing
those feelings with drugs. As an addict, he occasionally encountered kindness,
but mostly cruelty and horror, his mother halfway across the country, not being
able to make enough of a difference, and his father equally distant.
Yet there was much more to Shandi than his traumas and addictions. Upon
his death, I began trying to launch his memory into cyberspace, to let people
know what happened to him and to give his many friends and family members
a place to share their memories and feelings. His half-brother, Rafi, whom I
came to know and love during the last years of Shandi’s life as we both tried
to help him, and I created a Web page, then added a blog, and eventually
MySpace and Facebook pages. Friends from high school and college responded
with memories that showed many facets of his life, some of them previously
unknown to me, and it was clear that he had left a profound impression on
many people. But in my need to connect with them I jumped into this new
technology before I knew how to use it. I have received messages that people
continue to visit these sites, but they are currently inoperable, incomplete and
in a state of chaos—probably related to my unresolved problem with high F.
Becca and I were married on June 4, 2004, in Provincetown, Massachusetts
on the third anniversary of Shandi’s death. People wonder why we would get
married on such a sad anniversary: It was in the stars. On May 17, 2004, lesbians
and gays won the right to marry in Massachusetts. We were already back East
to visit Shandi’s grave, as we always try to do on his yahrzeit (the anniversary
of a death, ritually acknowledged in Judaism as part of the grieving process).
Close lesbian friends were marrying in Massachusetts on June 4, so we decided
to extend our trip and marry to affirm and celebrate Shandi’s life and our own
relationship of twenty-one years, thus linking our love for Shandi with our love
for one another. Seeing our relationship legitimated in this way would have
been very important to Shandi. It might have helped him find more security
in our home. We acted in the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, “mending the
world,” and certainly in an effort to try to heal ourselves. After all the time we
had been together, with all the agony and grief we had shared, and despite how
angry we can get at how marriage can still be a heterosexist and misogynist trap
for many women, as it was for our own mothers, we wanted to commemorate
our relationship in this way that so many people take for granted.
I started putting the ideas together for this essay in the fall of 2006 as I
began teaching a doctoral seminar in the teaching of English, trying to lessen
the disconnection I was feeling between my life and my teaching at the time.
We began the semester with discussions about feminist pedagogy, leading
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to the importance of autobiography in the development of teachers and in
honing our theories and practices of teaching (Britzman; Fisher; Worsham).
As a way to demonstrate how we can draw on our own lives to deepen our
teaching, I shared a narrative I wrote about Shandi’s death with my students.
I was primarily interested in demonstrating what might be possible to learn
about ourselves as teachers through life writing, and what happens when we
are willing to risk letting our students know more about who we are.
I did not take into account that sharing the story of Shandi’s death might
emotionally overpower some of my students. Shoshana Felman speaks about
this happening when her students listened to Holocaust testimony (49). Although some of my students felt inspired by my story and began telling their
own, or thinking about how they might do something like that in the future,
some were thrown off center and became angry. Others felt abandoned by my
apologies to those who were offended. I ended the semester overwhelmed by
negative self-judgment and confused by what had happened, questioning if the
struggle to integrate my life with my teaching was possible or worth it. The
problem was, I didn’t know how to help my students “receive information that
is dissonant… with everything they have learned beforehand” (53). To do this,
Felman argues, teachers have to manage the crisis by putting it into a broader
perspective (54). At the time, I wasn’t able to do that.
In another seminar a couple of years later, I taught a class on trauma theory,
in preparation for reading Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. Coincidentally, the session took place on Shandi’s fortieth birthday. (He died when he
was 31.) I had decided in advance not to talk about the significance of this
date for me, because it seemed inappropriate and I feared a repetition of the
disastrous experience in the doctoral seminar. A mistake, I realized later.
Throughout the two and a half hours of class, trying not to mention my son’s
death made it impossible for me to speak coherently about any aspects of the
difficult subject matter we were studying. I disengaged from the class, which
reinforced my silence and the disconnection between teaching and life that I
have struggled with since Shandi died. Had I thought about Berenice Fisher’s
caution about the importance of context, how in one situation someone’s story
can help and in another, hurt (Fisher 138); had I explained the connections
I have made between the Holocaust and Shandi’s death, and related that to
Spiegelman’s memoir about his relationship to his father who survived Auschwitz, the students and I might have had a more significant and powerful
learning experience together.
Yom HaShoah 2010. My temple’s worship committee decides that I won’t be
singing “Wien, du Stadt Meiner Träume” or telling a personal story about my
family at the Holocaust Memorial Service. They say that the service is not
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about individuals, but about what happened to all the Nazis’ victims. They ask
me, instead, just to read the letter I received from Gisela Wibihail, a Viennese
archivist who has tracked what happened to Vienna’s Jewish population during
World War II, including my extended family.
The letter was pieced together from Nazi records. It contains clinically
rendered detail about how Vienna’s Jews were murdered as well as euphemistic
Nazi phrases, such as “Jewish transports being resumed” and “disembark newly
arrived persons and their luggage,” designed to obscure the grotesque brutality
of “The Final Solution.” Such documents never tell the whole story (Horowitz
157-180). Without more context for the document, including the song, which
carries memories of my mother and her family, and how it all reverberates with
the loss of my son, the reading does not convey the full meaning that I wish
to convey to the congregation. Nor does it help the congregation understand
the emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience of the victims, and those
who escaped or survived, or the impact of the trauma of the Holocaust on
succeeding generations. Neither does it help me express my grief.
Do I still need to reach high F? Is that how to pierce my muteness when
I become too full of feeling? How can I express the grief and testify to the
trauma in ways that integrate these into my life and work? So many questions
remain.
My Orthodox refugee uncle Arnold, as gentle a person as one might ever
meet, had a frustrating way of handling difficult questions that I would pose
as a child. He would say, “Y is a crooked letter.” While this expression was
meant to be humorous, I suspect it was rooted in a deeply spiritual place, perhaps reflecting his understanding of God’s response to Job and to the belief
that the big questions in life are beyond human understanding. Events such
as the Holocaust and Shandi’s death seem to belong in this realm, and yet I
still search for answers. I continue to try to piece together the episodes about
my son’s death and the impact it has had on my life, knowing there is more
meaning there to find.
References
Bar-On, Dan and Julia Chaitin. Parenthood and the Holocaust. Yad Vashem,
Shoah Resource Center, 7 Oct. 2010. <http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_
pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%204961.pdf>.
Britzman, Deborah. “Cultural Myths in the Making of a Teacher: Biography
and Social Structure in Teacher Education.” Teachers, Teaching, and Teacher
Education. Eds. Margo Okazawa-Rey, James Anderson, and Rob Traver.
Cambridge, ma: Harvard Educational Review, Reprint Series No. 19.
1987/1992. 220-223.
journal of the motherhood initiative
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Colozino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the
Human Brain. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
[WHO IS THE AUTHOR OF THE ARTICLE HERE? DANIELI
OR ZOLOMON?] ARE YOU CITING THE ARTICLE OR THE
BOOK?] Danieli, Yael. ed. “Transgenerational Effects of the Holocaust.”
International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. Z. Zolomon.
Transgenerational Effects of the Holocaust. In Y. Danieli. New York: Plenum
Press, 1998. 69-83.
Denning, Patt. Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy: An Alternative Approach to Addictions. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
Eliaison, Michele J. “Substance Abuse Counselor’s Attitudes Regarding Lesbian,
Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Clients.” Journal of Substance Abuse 12
(4) (Winter 2000): 311-328.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement. Executive Producer Henry
Hampton. Blackside, 1987.
Felman, Shoshana. “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching.” Ed.
Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature,
Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. 1-56.
Fisher, Berenice. No Angels in the Classroom. Boulder, co: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Harvey, Diane. “Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from Holocaust
Survivors to their Children.” If Not Now e-Journal (Winter 2007). 12 Oct.
2010. <http://www.baycrest.org/If_Not_Now/Volume7/default_11222.
asp>.
Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction.
Albany: suny Press, 1997.
Kosciw, Joseph G., Elizabeth M. Diaz, and Emily A. Greytak. The 2007
National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual
and TransgenderYouth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: glsen, 2008. 28
May 2010. <http://www.glsen.org/binarydata/glsen_attachments/
file/000/001/1290-1.pdf>.
Ressler, Paula and Becca Chase. “Sexual Identity and Gender Variance: Meeting
the Educational Challenges.” English Journal 98 (4), March 2009. 15-22.
Rey, Vivien. “Fostering Resilience in the Children of Lesbian and Gay Families.
http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/druginfo/fact_sheets/family_intervention/
fostering_resilience_in_the_ch.html
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild things Are. New York: Harper & Row,
1963.
Sendak, Maurice. Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue.
New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Sieczynski, Rudolf. “Wien, du Stadt Meiner Träume (Vienna, My City of
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Dreams).” Classical Vocal Reprints. Catalog No. CVR 1690. 28 May 2010
<www.classicalvocalrep.com>.
Skiba, Riss and Reece Peterson, “The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?” Phi Delta Kappan, Jan. 1999: 372-382.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New
York: Pantheon, 1986.
Worsham, Lynn. “After Words: A Choice of Words Remains.” Feminism
and Composition Studies. Eds. Susan Jarrat and Lynn Worsham. New York:
Modern Language Association, 1988. 329-356.
journal of the motherhood initiative
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deb bennett
“I Am Still a Mother”:
A Hermeneutic Inquiry into Bereaved
The death of a child is described as the loss of the future. It is a loss that defies comparison.
Bereaved mothers have lifelong grief responses and maintain enduring relationships
with their deceased children despite discourses that suggest a time limited experience. A deeper understanding of the bereaved mother experience over time evolved
through a dialogue with eleven mothers who were involved in a hermeneutic study
exploring the bereaved parent experience over time. The following article begins with
a description of the hermeneutic inquiry approach utilized in this study to further
understand the bereaved mother experience over time. It follows with a brief review
of the traditional theories of grief and loss that have influenced our ways of knowing
bereavement and grief experiences during the last century. Eleven mothers shared the
stories of their children’s lives and deaths as well as their responses to these losses. They
shared rich and powerful narratives describing their bereavement experience over
time and the enduring relationships with their deceased child. Findings of the study
identify that bereaved motherhood is a timeless experience, with meaning making
continuing over time. The study’s findings also identify that these are disenfranchised
experiences as the grief of bereaved mothers over time is not socially acknowledged
or supported. The article concludes with a discussion on the mothers’experience and
its fit with Ken Doka’s (1989) work.
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll love you for always.
As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be. (Munsch)
“Parents should never outlive their child.” The death of a child is a painfully unique
grief that defies comparison to other losses. It is a multifaceted loss that can
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“i am still a mother”
simultaneously impact parents’ affective, cognitive, behavioural, spiritual and
social realms. Bereaved motherhood is the quintessential example of enduring
relationships and lifelong connections with the deceased. The parental bond
does not end with the death of a child. The nature of the mother-child relationship results in a timeless experience of bereavement. The death of a child
results in a journey for a mother, both with their child through an enduring
relationship and without their child physically present to hold: the crux of why
this agonizing loss is so difficult to bear. Mothers will always be a mother to
their child despite death. As Susan described, “I am still a mother but in a different space and time.” Bereaved mothers have lifelong grief responses despite
existing discourses that suggest a time limit for their experience.
The following article will describe findings of my Ph.D. study that explored
the experience of bereaved parents over time. My call to this topic is a reflection
of my experiences as a bereaved mother, grief counsellor and death educator.
Those mothers involved in the study offer new ways of knowing and understanding bereaved motherhood. Their narratives reinforce the insignificance of
measuring their loss by years. The stories of eleven mothers who were involved
in a semi-structured interview process for the research will be the focus of this
article. These mothers had children who had died ten to twenty-five years ago
as a result of both sudden and anticipated deaths. The age of the children at
the time of their death ranged from ten weeks to 26 years. Our dialogues took
place within a space in which the experiences of grief and bereavement were
given a voice, raising issues that are rarely spoken of within Western culture.
They shared stories of ongoing grief, enduring relationships, meaning making
and transformation.
Inquiry Approach
Bereavement is a topic that is experienced interpretively by parents as they
make meaning of their child’s death over time. A hermeneutic approach is
well suited for the exploration of the bereaved mother experience over time
because it engages those involved in the research in a process of interpretation.
Through the hermeneutic inquiry process, the unspoken or hidden aspects of
a phenomenon can be uncovered. There is much that is unspoken about grief
and bereavement. Within a hermeneutic inquiry, a focus on language and its
influence on understanding are explored. The language utilized within the
various theories, stage and task models are powerful and rife with meaning.
By sharing different ways of knowing bereaved motherhood over time and
that which is often unspoken by the bereaved, increased understanding can
be developed. Bereaved mothers do not “get over” their grief. Their treasured
children are thought about every day.
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deb bennett
Hermeneutics presents opportunities for researchers, participants and readers
to become engaged in the process of meaning making and interpretation. It is a
process of generative knowledge building and understanding through dialogue
wherein all involved are changed by the process. Hermeneutics acknowledges
the researcher within the inquiry process. My experiences as a bereaved mother,
grief counsellor and death educator helped guide the story collection process.
Each semi-structured interview was unique in its process and pacing. Tina
Koch identified the process involves few direct questions and is guided by
the principle of openness (175). As maintained by Koch, multiple levels of
interpretation took place. This process continued to take place during discussions regarding emerging understandings with colleagues and peers who work
with the dying and bereaved as well as hermeneutic researchers. The bereaved
mothers that I encountered and spoke with expressed that the interpretations
resonated with them. This convinced me that this is a study with stories worth
telling, that previous conceptions of bereavement were inadequate to the lived
experience for bereaved mothers over time.
Traditional Theories of Grief
We have an awareness of grief and bereavement in our lives and talk about these
experiences in ways that reflect prevailing Western thought. The foundational
theories of grief and bereavement continue to have an enormous impact on how
responses to loss are understood. The psychoanalytic models of Sigmund Freud
(1917) and later Erich Lindemann (1944), along with the attachment theory
of John Bowlby (1961), have been identified as foundational theories of grief
and loss. All involve the “eventual breaking of ties to the deceased and consider
grief resolved when the griever is free of these earlier bonds and allegiances”
(Marwit and Klass 283). These perspectives introduced the term “grief work”,
a foundational concept in grief literature and interventions today. The “work” is
an active process involving the reduction of grief symptoms in order to release
ties to the deceased and begin interacting with the world in new ways. The
severing of attachments to the deceased is posited to be required for recovery.
Normal functioning, according to this perspective, returns when the bereaved
have let go of the deceased (Klass; Wortman and Silver).
Within grief and loss literature, a wide variety of stage, phase and task theories
have been created to serve as guides to the grief process. While these can be helpful
in understanding grief and bereavement, it is important to recognize that they can
create challenges for individuals and families depending on the interpretation and
meaning attributed to each particular theory. The models often fail to identify
the distinct types of grief or the contexts in which they occur. For example, the
delineation between expected, sudden or traumatic death is not always addressed
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nor is the type and nature of the relationship with the deceased. The loss of a
child has different dynamics and challenges than other losses.
Adding to the complexities of these models is the fact that many processes
and “symptoms” of grief have been identified. Further adding to their complexity
is the inconsistent use of the terms and perspectives of grief. Bruce Horacek
discussed how terms such as “complete”, “resolve”, “heal”, “get over,” and “closure,” pervade the existing discourse on grief. The language alone suggests that
there is an ultimate resolution to grief. The models can inadvertently provide
a rationale for labeling or pathologizing an individual’s grief. They can also
entice people into believing that they may be abnormal if their reactions do
not fit within existing mainstream models.
This language of grief can minimize our ability to live with loss and our
processing of it as it relates to time. Much of the literature on grief and bereavement implies a time-limited process with the expectation of a positive
outcome, that of resolved grief. A western focus and its use of language also
reinforce the way grief and bereavement is viewed. In order to honour our loved
ones and our loss experience, terms such as “closure” and “letting go” need to
be challenged. Terms such as “exaggerated,” “prolonged,” “acute,” “unresolved,”
“pathological,” “chronic,” and “morbid” have been used in the literature. These
terms can contribute to the pathologizing of grief. Those words are value-laden
and are often accompanied by pre-conceived notions; they may discount both
the individual and the unique nature of their grief. By challenging dominant
discourses, acknowledgement of the timeless nature of the bereaved mother
experience can occur. Enduring relationships and the many ways of knowing
loss can be honoured. As Lisa expressed, “It’s a good friend now, something you
walk with like a companion.” For this bereaved mother, grief is not about letting
go. The stories of the mothers in this study illustrate the individual nature of
the bereaved motherhood experience. They remind us of the importance of
not categorizing or applying labels to their experiences, particularly through
the measurement of time.
Beyond Traditional Theories: The Paradigm Shift in the Literature
Various authors including Thomas Attig and Robert Neimeyer have identified
a paradigm shift in grief and bereavement that has been taking place over the
past two decades. Phyllis Silverman and Dennis Klass maintain that continuing
attachments, bonds and relationships with the deceases should not be considered
pathological. There are additional ways of understanding grief and bereavement
that go beyond “work,” “closure,” or “resolution”. When counselling, I found that
normalizing the continuing aspects of grief provided comfort for the bereaved,
as they are not often acknowledged as part of the process. Recognizing the
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ongoing experiences of birthdays, anniversary dates and significant events and
the responses associated with them is vitally important. Expressions of these
recurring losses allow the acknowledgement of the deceased as remaining in
the memory and the hearts of those who cared for them.
A number of authors, including Attig in The Heart of Grief and Neimeyer
in Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss, believe that the bereaved
redefine their ties to the deceased during the grief experience. Rather than
letting go, the bereaved redefine their relationships with the deceased as living
on in their hearts and memories (Silverman, Klass and Nickman). In addition, learning and growth, as well as changes in beliefs, values and attitudes
about living can be positive outcomes of grief experiences. In these ways, the
deceased remain in the lives of the bereaved. The stories of the mothers in
this study suggest this is especially the case for bereaved mothers. Numerous
researchers and clinicians agree that the bereaved often continue relationships
and connections with the deceased in some manner, questioning the assumption that there is an endpoint to grief, a perspective that resonated with the
bereaved mothers in this study.
Continuing bonds represents a response to the grief work assumptions of
“detachment and reinvestment” (Silverman and Klass 5). Within this approach
is the belief that the bereaved continue to incorporate the deceased into their
lives in ways that are rich and vital. These ongoing relationships with the
deceased endure over time. Continued connections, bonds and attachments
can influence the survivors’ lives in positive ways. When continuing ties, connections and bonds are recognized, enduring relationships with the deceased
can be honoured rather than pathologized. Enduring relationships play a
significant role in lives of the bereaved. Acknowledging these relationships
and their meaning over time is imperative for bereaved mothers.
Bereaved Motherhood: A Timeless Experience
Listening to the stories of these eleven bereaved mothers, it became obvious
that bereaved motherhood is a timeless experience as enduring relationships and
meaning making continue to manifest over time. These processes may transform
or appear different yet they do not diminish in significance with time. Darlene
explained, “It’s forever and yet right there at the exact same time.” The narratives of
the study’s mothers illustrate how time can circle back and forth in infinite ways
as the past both blends with the present and extends into the future.
Loss of the Future
The death of a child has been poignantly described as the loss of the future.
This death results in the loss of what could have been and what should have
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happened for the child and family. This perspective offers a unique way of understanding the experience of bereaved mothers. Secondary losses, such as future
family relationships and the subsequent grieving of those continue throughout
a mother’s life. Missed milestones, celebrations and holidays are also mourned
and continue to be difficult despite the passage of time. These experiences are
powerful manifestations of enduring relationships and bereavement over time.
Maggie related, “It’s yesterday and forever.” Events such as Mother’s Day and
the beginning of the school year are coped with annually. Jennifer articulated,
“It’s the loss of a future. What would have been? What would he have done? Would
I have been a grandparent?”
Bereaved mothers often find themselves questioning their responses to their
loss experiences and ways of knowing within traditional views of time and
its measurement. The loss of the future removes the possibility of traditional
measurement within a linear passage of time. Within a traditional view of
grief and time, the fear of forgetting treasured memories and the importance
of recall is expressed by mothers. Lisa commented, “It’s really important to
me that he’s not forgotten.” The critical importance of those memories and
their integration into their life were expressed by some mothers. Margaret
explained, “I don’t want to forget, it makes us who we are, our personality and
how we live.” The experiences of the mothers in this study reinforce that if
grief is part of identity and ways of living, it can’t be seen as a letting go.
Living With It Every Day
Mothers shared their lifelong experiences with moments and events that
triggered grief. Lynda noted, “Things can just trigger it that you don’t expect
at all.” Triggers can present themselves in a variety of forms including smell,
sights, sounds, songs and the time of year. They can summon forth pleasant
memories, sad reminders or secondary losses. Triggers are also a connection
or a way of being transported back, a means for re-experiencing and remembering. Some mothers found triggers a source of comfort, others found them
meaningful connections. No matter what responses are summoned forth,
mothers live with these recurring occasions. Margaret stated, “ You’re never
over it; it’s just something you learn to live with.” The ubiquitous nature of grief
was powerfully described by the mothers in this study.
Imagined Projections
Some mothers in the study described that they found themselves in a
process wherein their deceased child continues to age within their minds or
imaginations. They wonder what life would be like for their child and family.
Questions such as “What would my child be doing?” and “What would he
look like?” or “Would she be happy?” were woven throughout the mothers’
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stories. Susan described, “And I still do the fantasies a little bit. You can’t help but
wonder what he would have looked like a few years ago. And the disbelief because
they always stay the age they were.” This ongoing process of determining where
their child fits as they negotiate between the then and now is a distinctly
unique process for each parent. Jennifer shared, “We all think about what she
missed; she would be 17.” This process of projection might have been seen as
unhealthy within the older paradigm; however these mothers teach us that
it is an essential part of the lived experience of bereaved parenthood.
Expectations
The expectations of others within the mothers’ environment have a substantial impact on their bereavement experience, further contributing to the
complex nature of this loss. Messages about how one should grieve and for what
length of time add to the challenges that parents endure, as expectations from
external sources create further demands. Lynda detailed, “I’m always concerned
when people say ‘Well how long has it been?’ I say ten years and they go ‘Oh yeah’
like I should be over this. That’s my feeling from them.”
Some parents reported difficulties dealing with expectations from others
which deterred them from doing what they needed to cope and adjust. External
expectations regarding an appropriate time-frame for grief resulted in mothers
placing additional burdens on their healing process. Elaine disclosed, “I thought
there must be something wrong with me. Why can’t I get over it if I should be? But
in the same instance I thought how can you be over something like that.” Nancy
Moules and Walter Kauffman described that the bereaved can self-pathologize.
Self-doubt that originates from unrealistic and external expectations of others
can lead to mothers negating their own inner wisdom and questioning their
responses to their child’s death.
Meaning Making
“It’s like I have two lives to live.” Developing meaning is vitally important to
bereaved mothers. The essential nature of finding and developing meaning was
referred to numerous times during the interviews. Meaning was and continues
to be made from a variety of sources including: life before the death of their
child, how and under what circumstances their child died, enduring relationships
after their child’s death, and life choices and actions after their death. Maggie
shared “It gave me the ability to be able to reach out to other people with an experience
of my own and it did honour Richard’s life with us”. The mothers’ descriptions fit
with the literature identifying meaning making as a central component of grief
(Niemeyer). This study reveals that meaning making continues over time. It
is an organic process that changes and grows as parents do.
The mothers in the study highlighted the need to talk about both their
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child and living without their child. This need is an important component of
the meaning making process. However they noted few opportunities to do so
within a Western environment because of expectations regarding time as well
as an ingrained taboo about talking about death and grief. Bereaved mothers
inhabit a world in which living children are freely discussed but the lives of
deceased children are not shared with others in the same way. The mothers
of these children often feel that they are rendered silent when the topic of
children’s milestones and life stage development events are being discussed in
social and work settings. For many, not sharing stories of their deceased child
is acutely painful. Darlene noted, “I haven’t read anything that truly captures
how that is.”
Enduring Relationships
“He’s with us always. We keep him alive in our memories.” The mothers in the
study illustrate that the loss of a child continues in an enduring relationship
that is known and experienced in various ways including: treasured memories,
the development of meaning, acknowledgement of gifts, personal growth and
ongoing projections of what should have happened for the family. These findings are a reminder that loss is a lifelong process for mothers. As with grief and
bereavement, each relationship is unique and manifests in a variety of forms.
The many ways of knowing and experiencing enduring relationships requires
acknowledgement without applying labels or pathologizing. Relationships develop between mothers and children before they are born, as parents imagine,
dream and plan for the future. Relationships endure after a child’s death, with
mothers continuing to imagine what they would be doing or look like. The
mothers’ stories offer examples of lessons learned, gifts received such as the
ability to support others and meanings made from both their loss and from
their enduring relationships with their children. This study not only confirms
the existence of enduring relationships with their deceased children but also
shows that they live with them in a different form. This is a relationship that
remains with parents throughout their lives. Susan stated, “I’ve always disliked
the word closure. I don’t think you’ll ever have closure because your child is always
there in your heart.”
Bereaved Motherhood Over Time: A Disenfranchised Experience
The ongoing experiences of the mothers as they grieve over time and maintain
relationships with their children fit with Ken Doka’s description of disenfranchised grief. Grief is not socially recognized and individuals “are not accorded a right to grieve” (5). The responses of others in the bereaved mothers’
environments as well as the associated unrealistic expectations and demands
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reflect the lack of social support and empathy that occurs when grief is disenfranchised. At times, the mothers found themselves isolated, their responses
being minimized or even ignored, with few opportunities to talk about their
child and their grief experiences.
The study’s mothers related that the expectations of others within their environment and community regarding which grief responses should occur and
when, limited their expression over time. When this lack of social recognition
occurs bereaved mothers become disenfranchised. Social support dwindles and
expectations for “moving on’ are communicated. As a result, social support is
no longer offered nor provided to mothers over time because assumptions exist
that this support should be needed anymore. However bereaved mothers who
will always maintain lifelong relationships with their children and therefore
will have lifelong experiences of disenfranchisement.
Bereaved mothers must be granted the opportunity to grieve the death of
their child over time, just as they must and will grieve the secondary losses that
inevitably accompany this experience. A lack of social recognition of secondary loss is another cause of disenfranchisement of the bereaved motherhood
experience over time. Mothers related that their mourning for what might have
been was not acknowledged nor accepted by others numerous times throughout
the interviews. Their enduring relationships with their children were also not
socially acknowledged. A mother’s bond with her child does not differentiate
between life and death.
The disenfranchisement of the bereaved motherhood experience over time
is implicit in the language of grief and bereavement. Many of the mothers in
the study found themselves questioning their grief and/or comparing their
bereavement responses to social expectations or the traditional literature and
becoming concerned about their continuing bereavement responses. It is important to remember that the findings of this study demonstrate that there will
always be opportunities for parents to have their grief disenfranchised because
of the nature of bereaved motherhood over time.
Limitations and Strengths of the Study
The limitations that need to be kept in mind with this study relate to the sampling process and those mothers who identified interest in this study. Firstly, the
bereaved mothers in the study may have particular characteristics or personal
traits not shared by those uninterested in becoming involved. Every mother
who expressed interest in the research was interviewed. The majority revealed
that they were interested in the study because it was a means for reaching out
to others. Many also related their desire to have something positive come from
their child’s death and their grief. Exploring the experiences of those who did
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not have these motives or were unable to make meaning in this same way may
reveal important information.
As a result of the composition of this group of mothers, issues of diversity
could not be addressed within this study. Information on diverse faiths, religions
and cultures as they relate to enduring relationships and the disenfranchisement
of bereaved motherhood over time may reveal important information. Further
considerations include diversity related to the age of the child at the time of
their death as well as the cause of death. These differences result in varied
dynamics and issues for bereaved mothers to cope with over time.
The major strength of the study lies within the topic it explores as few studies have explored the long term impact of bereavement. Even fewer studies
have explored the long term impact of bereaved motherhood or parenthood.
This study reinforces the need for further study on lifelong grief responses and
enduring relationships. This is a particularly crucial consideration for bereaved
parents who will always remain a parent.
My experiences as a bereaved mother contributed to the interview process in this study. Some mothers commented that they shared information
with me that they might not have otherwise as they felt I could understand
what they were relating. In some cases, mothers increased their attempts to
describe certain aspects of their experience that were difficult to put into
words. As a fellow bereaved mother, I was able to offer probes during the
interviews that helped mothers elaborate and provide in-depth narration
of their story.
Conclusion
The stories shared by the mothers in this study are asking us to question
expectations for grief and bereavement as they relate to time and to consider
what the eradication of these would mean for the bereaved. Time can provide
a space to feel and express what is needed. Those in the presence of the bereaved need to be open to what actually occurs over time without the need to
label responses that do not seem to fit within artificially imposed time lines.
Bereavement is a universal experience that we are all presented with. Yet the
nature of one’s grief is singular. Supporting and accepting the responses of the
bereaved without judgment, expectations or demands will help ensure that
compassion and care is offered to all who experience loss.
I share the stories of those mothers involved in the study with respect and
gratitude. They have taught us about the bereaved mother experience over time.
They are also teaching us about grief ’s potential for growth and transformation. During our time together, I found myself in privileged spaces in which
the presence of their child was with us. The mothers taught me that all lives
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continue as well as the need for further exploration into bereaved motherhood,
grief over time and enduring relationships. I am truly fortunate to have learned
profound lessons about the manifestations of bereavement over time and the
wider and rippling potential of loss.
Note: The interviews were conducted between August and November 2004.
In order to respect confidentiality, names have been changed.
References
Attig, Thomas. The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Doka, Ken. Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for
Practice. Champaign, IL: Research Press, 2002.
Horacek, Bruce. “A Heuristic Model of Grieving after High-grief Deaths.”
Death Studies 19 (1995): 21-31.
Kauffman, Walter “Intrapsychic Dimensions of Disenfranchised Grief.” Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. Ed. Ken Doka. New York:
Lexington Books, 1989.
Klass, Dennis. “The Deceased Child in the Psychic and Social Worlds of
Bereaved Parents during the Resolution of Grief.” Death Studies 21 (1997):
147-175.
Klass, Dennis, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman, eds. Continuing Bonds:
New Understandings of Grief. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1996.
Koch, Tina. “Implementation of a Hermeneutic Inquiry into Nursing: Philosophy, Rigor and Representation.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 24 (1996):
174-184.
Marwit, Samuel and Dennis Klass. “Grief and the Role of the Inner Representation of the Deceased.” Omega 30.4 (1994-1995): 283-298.
Moules, Nancy. “Legitimizing Grief: Challenging Beliefs that Constrain.”
Journal of Family Nursing 4.2 (1998): 142-166.
Munsch, Robert. Love You Forever. New York: Firefly Books, 1986. Print.
Neimeyer, Robert, ed. Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003.
Silverman, Phyllis and Dennis Klass. “Introduction: What’s the Problem?”
Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Ed. Dennis Klass, Phyllis
Silverman and Steven Nickman. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1996.
3-23.
Wortman, Camille and Roxane Silver. “The Myths of Coping with Loss.”
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 57.3 (1989): 349-357.
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What I Hold and What I Give Away
Miscarriage, Memory, and Mourning
Best described as a lyric essay, “What I Hold and What I Give Away” examines my
memories of miscarriage and bereavement. After giving the broad outline of what
I experienced more than twenty years ago, I draw on Derrida to reflect on the work
of mourning as an ongoing process, one that continues to matter to my mothering,
and to others as I share my experience of loss and grief.
What I Know, What I Believe
I know that in the fall of 1981, a few months before my daughter Erin’s second
birthday, I became pregnant with my second child. Wayne and I had been trying to
conceive for a year, and we were thrilled that our family would soon be complete.
As I entered the second trimester, we decided to celebrate: I would accompany him
to a convention, and Erin would stay with friends in a small city further north.
The convention was to take place over the Valentine’s Day weekend, the perfect
time to renew our commitment to each other and our growing family.
I know that when I arrived at my friend’s house, I was bleeding. Now four
hours away from my family doctor, I went to the local hospital, where I was
examined and admitted. It was the weekend, so I saw the rotation of physicians on call. Each gave me little information and simply kept me on bed rest.
I was terrified and bewildered; young and completely unworldly, I lacked the
personal resources needed to challenge the professionals who kept secret what
they knew or guessed about my baby’s health. Furthermore, there was little
pain or cramping, just an inexorable regular spotting and a heaviness in my
abdomen, below my barely noticeable baby bump. I was torn between fearing
the worst and hoping that this minor bleeding meant nothing.
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I know that when Wayne came to get us, I wanted only to see my doctor.
The doctors examining me continued to tell me nothing about the condition
of my baby other than that I was still getting positive results on the pregnancy
tests, and that I should stay on bed rest. I remember them hinting that an ultrasound, not available there, would tell me more, but that I would have to sign
myself out of the hospital if I wanted to leave. There seemed a monumental
wall of silence between their profession and my needs. So, I left. I remember
the long drive and being frightened that each bump on that winter road would
force the spotting to become a miscarriage.
I know that by the time we got to the hospital, the pressure in my abdomen
had become definite cramps. By the time I saw my doctor, I was having pain
that threatened to turn into contractions. I remember wanting desperately to
be left alone, to curl into a ball around my baby and stay like that forever. I
went to the bathroom to hide, and when I sat down, I felt a heavy pain, and
then I felt my baby slide out of me. I remember standing for some minutes,
looking at my loss, understanding what had happened and that if I told any
of the medical professionals they would take my baby out of the water and to
the laboratory. They would not, however, be able to tell me anything that I
would want to know. So I cried, and prepared myself for the next few days of
tests, for the ultrasound that showed an empty womb, and the surgical scraping meant to return me to health and prepare me for another pregnancy, and
then I flushed the toilet.
I believe that there was something wrong with my baby from the start. I
believe that the reason it took us so long to conceive the second time, when
it had been so immediate with Erin, was because an ill-advised intrauterine
device had moved and become embedded in my womb. After it was surgically removed, we conceived our second child, but the pregnancy, while
seemingly normal, never felt right. I believe I wanted to celebrate the end of
the first trimester because I felt that the pregnancy was not a healthy one.
Mine is a family of mis-carriers: we do not have early or sick babies; we have
miscarriages and, more rarely, stillbirths. Our babies are born fullterm and
perfect, or they are not “born” at all. At the time, mine was a family that did
not speak of these lost children; they seemed part of a silenced narrative of
failed motherhood.
I believe that the doctors were only waiting for the inevitable to happen,
for “nature to take its course.” I feel my body understood this as well; there
was something wrong with my baby and he was dying. And, yes, I feel that
this baby was a boy. I also believe that the nurse who asked me if I didn’t
“want to run around the hospital a few times and just get it over with” only
wanted me to understand what was happening. She was both compassionate
and realistic in pointing out that my situation had only one outcome, and
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when it was finished, I could return to mothering my little girl. And, like
everyone else, she was quite certain that once it was over, I would go on to
have as many children as I wanted. Then, and now, I felt that my second
child mattered, in and of himself, that the loss of him needed to be discrete
from the child that came before, and the children that I hoped would come
after but did not.
I believe that the reaction of the people around me, of my husband, family and friends, was not the callousness that it appeared to be. They were
solicitous of my physical health, clearly concerned about my psychological
well being. But their uniform silence about my lost baby, about what I could
only see as a death in my family, hurt and disturbed me at the time. My grief
garnered only assurances that I was young and healthy; I could have another
baby right away. My insistence that I needed to mourn for this child was met
with either silence or comments that I had lost a fetus, not a child. This was
a spontaneous abortion, not a death. Even my aunts who had miscarried and
my mother whose full-term second pregnancy ended in the stillbirth of my
sister had difficulty with my mourning. I understood that my husband did
not have the resources to understand our loss as a death. Erin was not real
to him, not part of him, until her birth. Pregnancy was a medical condition
involving the mother and the professionals. My society, I believe, had trained
all of us to see pregnancy and birth as clinical, miscarriage and stillbirth as
a condition, a syndrome, an illness, a minor medical event to be gotten over
quickly. In short, what I saw first as disregard of my grief and indifference
to my loss I came quickly to understand as socialized reactions to events
that had been ripped out of the domestic sphere where they belonged and
were now entrenched in an institution that had changed what it could and
shrouded the rest in secrecy. We are now, finally, returning to the midwife,
the homebirth, the recognition of reproduction as a family matter. In 1982,
I yearned for a woman to coach me through birth and through miscarriage,
through my baby’s death.
What I Hold and What I Give Away
I hold that life inside me still, as a memory, a secret, a life that was invisible and intangible to the world but alive to me. I hold that child encrypted
inside me; my womb was the site of both his life and death. Like the deaths,
the memories, of everyone I have lost, his is a death that inhabits me. Never
really present in the world, he continues to be present to me. He is a closed
cipher, but I continue to hold the experience of him inside me. This is not
to say that I imagine him at the age he would be now, had he lived. I do
not: to me he has never existed, even in my dreams, as a toddler, a child, an
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adolescent, a teenager, a young man; he has not taken life in my mind or
heart as Erin’s little brother, a boy who plays hockey with Wayne or baseball
with me. He is what he was: a baby who died some seventeen weeks after
conception, unnamed, unheld. But I hold him nonetheless, and I hold him
in the fierce light of my mourning.
Because it is all that was left to me, I hold mourning as a means of
mothering. Mourning is, as philosopher Jacques Derrida notes, a sign of
fidelity. It is an act of love, of “keeping alive,” and a way in which I remain
faithful to the baby I could not hold; mourning became the only means
for me to mother this child. The force of mourning has the power to open
up the possible, Derrida suggests, to enact birth. Mourning my second
child is the only way to give birth to him, to bring him to life and light.
And, even as I hold onto mourning, I share my experience: I speak of my
lost child. In speaking of my miscarried baby, I perform, over and over, a
funeral oration; I both call out to the child and I bear witness to my loss.
In sharing my sadness, I faced up to my loss and found it conjoined with
a new responsibility. As I recovered physically and emotionally from losing my baby, I refused to engage in the economy of secrets surrounding
miscarriage. I began to ask the women in my family about their experiences
of miscarriage and stillbirth. How can an expectant mother cope with
what she does not expect? My mother, aunts, and cousins were gracious in
sharing their stories with me, in reflecting on their lost children, revisiting
their mourning, and comforting me as I worked through my own.
And so, I give away mourning even as I hold onto it. Derrida refers to
mourning as a reckoning, as a force that gathers only by dispersing. He writes
of the duty to speak of loss, to speak of the dead. Early on, I learned to reckon
with my lost baby, and my mourning is both forceful and dispersed. I speak of
my dead: families with only one child are not common in Canadian society,
and I am often asked about mine. To those I don’t know well, I say that I had
a second-trimester miscarriage when Erin was two. To those I know better, I
offer more details, especially to women who want children. And I tell them that
I was glad I honoured my baby by immediately announcing my pregnancy, by
knowing him as my child right away, and by mourning his death. I give them
a gift; I give them the story of my mourning. I think my insistence on the
necessity to recognize the weight of my own loss and to mourn my child fully
helped my friends engage with the work of mourning their own. Along with
them I mourned their losses, and they gave me back a gift, as I remembered,
and continue to remember, my second child, and to hold him with me as I
mourn his death.
I want to thank the Augustana Women’s Writing Circle—Yvonne Becker, Kim
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what i hold and what i give away
Fordham, Anne-Marie Link, Paula Marentette, Sandra Rein, Lynda Ross, and
Janet Wesselius—who make my writing better and the work more joyful.
References
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael
Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
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Stigma, Belonging and Mothering
An Outsiders Understanding of Disability
Sitting in an overheated nook behind a bustling nurses’ station we learned our
infant daughter had permanent brain damage. What followed was a queer family’s
struggle with medical providers, a shift from success to survival, and a near divorce
with feminism. But this is not merely the tragedy of a family mourning a loss, rather
it is the real effort of two mothers to understand ability and disability from the
uncomfortable location of outsiders as well as advocates.
I began this paper wondering where I should start. Do I start by asking if you
know how socially unacceptable it is to insist to hoards of doctors that your
child is not normal? Do I start by trying to describe how it feels when a paradigm shifts? Do I start with definitions of “feminist theory,” “disability studies,”
“embodiment,” “narrative,” “socialization” and “deconstruction” and maybe even
cerebral palsy for those who picture children from the 1950s trapped in wheel
chairs and locked away in institutions? Do I follow a historical timeline of a
happy family forever changed but promise a happy ending to keep you reading?
Do I include words like “pain,” “grief,” “mourning,” “anger,” words that created a chasm between myself and my feminist community? Do I begin with a
photo of my daughter that leaves you so stunned by her luscious curls that you
are unable to pay attention to anything else I say, or do I begin with a photo
of that same girl encased in leg braces tangled in her own muscles crying on
our hard wooden floor? Do I invoke pity, shame, or god forbid bitterness or
even some joy? It is a tricky decision to make, to straddle theory and personal
history. To delve into a narrative of mothering takes real courage.
When I think of writing narratives on mothering I feel like I diminish the
agency of my own flesh and blood, as though I write the body narratives of
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each of my children without giving them the opportunity to author their own.
I think of Daphne Patai and the only place her criticism stings when she says
people “who stay up nights worrying about representation” are “privileged
academics engaged in the erotics of their own language game,” and wonder if
I can conjure self-reflexivity and lived truth without engaging in a tiresome
academic fad known as subjectivity (69).
So I decide I’ll start here, with the story of a lesbian couple from the Midwest.
The story of a picket fence kind of life, where when I laid on an examination
table and was told by an ultrasound technician that we were having twins one
crisp November day we cried happy tears. And when our then two-year-old
began chirping “two babies, two babies” we just laughed and made plans to
buy a minivan. Nine months later August and Greta, our fairytale twins were
born. August fair as snow and skin like a sugar cookie and Greta dark, curly,
and made of gingerbread. Our obgyn hugged me triumphantly after their
delivery, a 30-minute ordeal with over 20 people present where Greta had to be
manually turned from breach to vertex and where I lost so much blood it makes
my partner weak in her knees to look back at photographs of the event.
Eighteen months later, August, or Gus as we had taken to calling him,
and Greta were six months old and my partner and I began to talk, shouting
conversations from distant rooms, text messaging between classes, emailing,
never looking at each other, never eye to eye. The twins had a way of making
both a real physical divide between us by just their very presence and their
constant unrelenting demands as well as a psychic chasm caused by lack of
sleep and deep exhaustion.
“Greta can’t pass a toy from hand to hand,” I text from under the table on
my cell phone during a meeting where I should have been contributing to
bylaw revisions.
“She won’t even use her left hand!” my partner writes back hours later after
I presume she tried to hand Greta nearly anything within reach to inspire her
to use her left hand.
“Greta’s tongue is always poking out of her lips!” she shouts from the kitchen
when she successfully feeds Gus an entire jar of peas while Greta merely pushes
the food from her mouth and lets it slide down her chin.
“Greta can’t roll over” in an email, “She doesn’t even try, in fact she still
gets startled like a newborn when I lie her down” my partner writes as winter
approaches.
“Greta failed her hearing test again!” over text message before I sit down to
class, this after getting tubes put in her ears which we were told would fix her
mysterious hearing problems.
In the bitter cold of a Missouri winter night we stood on our front porch
alone as the kids slept. Eye to eye, smoking a cigarette for the first time since
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we quit nearly seven years ago we both said out loud to each other, “something
is wrong with Greta.”
A few weeks later and a seizure fortuitously caught on video, we find ourselves with Greta admitted to the hospital and face to face with a daunting
medical team who varied from dangerously incompetent to shockingly kind.
We were taken to a computer screen behind a nurses’ station by the neurologist on call. Black patches on the mri of Greta’s brain were clear as day, I saw
them before the doctor even said a thing. This, I knew, was permanent brain
damage. I still remember the faux leather fabric of the chair I gripped to keep
from falling down and the searing temperature of the room. The neurologist
was thrilled, “old stroke” he said “probably happened right before, during or
after birth, this won’t happen again.” He thrust some handouts on the type
of epilepsy she had, benign myclonic infant epilepsy, into our hands and sent
us home the next day.
I wrote months later in a piece of creative non-fiction published in Paradigm’s
most recent issue from September of 2010 that since then we’ve “been spectators of a disaster. Picking up shards of a family. Tucking photos into dusty
shoeboxes instead of scrapbooks. Pointing fingers and fighting wars over our
kitchen counter.”
But what I couldn’t write in that piece was that a postmodern rewrite of
the truth occurred that day. That I have been since been struck by visions of
the surf rising up to steal the flimsy walls of the sand castles left on the shore,
erasing my home. That reality is fragile. I traveled back in time to before the
twins were born to re-experience those last ghastly days of elephantine size
and that “triumphant” delivery to rewrite that time as the last time things
were technically okay.
Elaine Scarry, feminist philosopher wrote in her 1987 seminal work on pain
that, “pain is radically private” (4). Scarry is right. Pain is not only private and
subjective, it also creates a divide between the sufferer and the observer. I cried
embarrassing tears in a family restaurant we visited after the follow-up with
the pediatrician where she used the words “cerebral palsy” and “Greta” in the
same sentence. She tried to make me feel better, saying “sometimes things like
this just happen and we never know when or why.”
I said to my partner nearly hysterical “this moment when Greta’s life changed
forever could have been at any time, I could have been tying our son’s shoe,
writing an email, taking a shower. This moment just passed us by.” I wanted
a monument erected.
My partner and I turned our backs on each other and fell into our respective feminist training. We went into activist mode trying to get every possible
service and therapist lined up to “fix” this problem. I cleaned our home and
made kindly small talk with each specialist firing one after another until we
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found a team that we could actually stand. I cheerily sang “Greta’s walking
song,” a ditty intended to help her focus during therapy with inane lyrics sung
to the tune of Frère Jacques. I chose the color of her leg braces in cheerful
purple and green and dryly commented told the orthotics specialist when she
suggested I choose something that would better blend with her skin that “the
jig was up.” I rubbed and gently stretched the tight muscles of her left side,
prying open her fist. But inside I bore a pain, unlike any other, and as Scarry
suggested, I bore it alone.
The mother’s of other disabled children in my community saw their children
as blessings, said they had “special powers” not special needs. They said they were
gifts from god and angels sent to teach them about life. I crumpled up the flyer
of an infant stroke support after imaging a group of Midwestern housewives
complaining about how to get their husbands to do more housework.
I was as the National Women’s Studies Association conference a few years
ago in Chicago. I was reading a piece of non-fiction during the creative writer’s
session. It was an unremarkable trip, except that what I always remember is
the woman who presented before me. She was a performance artist and laid
out a white scrap of linen on the floor and upon it drew a conjuring circle as
she spoke. She talked about fairies, about how they stir up trouble and are
misunderstood. She wasn’t a mother, she was debating having kids at all, and
she worried she was tempting the troublesome representatives of the nether
world to punish her for her maternal desire. She told us how they played
tricks and stole babies and substituted changelings. Her performance felt like
a warning, like a message I ignored, I wondered if I was being punished for
the selfishness of asking the universe for more.
Would it help if I told you that I never expected things to be perfect? That I
knew supermom wasn’t even possible for me given that we are lesbian parents,
that I love McDonalds and that we live on the edge of poverty? That even
though we laughed like hyenas and were so stunned we couldn’t find our car
in the parking lot after being shown those two tiny beating hearts back in that
ultrasound room on that November day, that we still sat doubted how on earth
we could raise these babies. That we had mighty fights over crib placement,
car seat installation and chore division, just like everyone else?
You see before learning about Greta’s stroke feminism was the answer to all
my pre-born daughter’s problems. But suddenly places where disability and
feminism intersected didn’t really feel like home to me anymore. After all,
one of the most basic tenants of feminism is personal autonomy and what if
that wasn’t possible for Greta? And while the cause and timing of her stroke
remain unknown, what if it had been visible in that first ultrasound, where
would reproductive rights leave me, with a choice to make? That didn’t really
feel like empowerment, not when you’re looking back on a decision almost
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impossible to make. And choice is funny to think about since we obviously
chose to have these children. A day doesn’t go by when a stranger doesn’t ask
me if I used fertility medication to have twins (I didn’t, for the record). But
even if I had: two women and two babies, we made our own bed we should
have to lie in it, even if that bed had the rumbled covers and uneven mattress
of disability.
And this is where in this winding story I got temporarily kicked out of
feminism. Both my physical and online feminist communities gave me the
boot. It was too self indulgent to talk about these things. A blog we created,
“Walking with Greta” mostly to update family of Greta’s progress and to dodge
long phone calls quickly became an outlet for our current state of mind. I was
told it was cruel to my child who might stumble upon it later in life. One day
I wrote a post titled, “Good Grief ”
What is “good” grief? Is it progressing quickly through Elizabeth KüblerRoss’s five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in a timely
manner culminating in the development of a neat inspirational saying meant
to carry you through the rest of your life? “She’ll make her way,” “god doesn’t
give you more that you can handle,” “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Well, you get the idea. Is it coming through something painful with deeper
insight into the meaning of life as many books devoted to the subject suggest?
I really can’t be sure but I know there is a strongly held belief out there that
grief can be good.
I thought the “good” grief was the kind you felt fleetingly. The sad song
that made you think of a time in your childhood, the tossing of your son’s
too-small shoes he wore as a baby into the giveaway pile, reminiscing with
an old friend about your crazy teenage years. All those times we realize we
can never go back, that sometimes things are gone forever. To me the “good”
was the mourning for time past while knowing you were okay with moving
forward into the future.
Greta, I do not have “good” grief. I am not flying through Kübler-Ross’s
stages of grief nor adopting some motivational saying to assuage my broken
heart. I am reading the disability statement on my class syllabus over and over
thinking of you. I am fighting the urge to turn over my table Real Housewives
style when I hear a fellow student assert with all the stupid confidence of an
unmarred life that “you make your own luck.” I’m sneaking up on our memory
box and creaking open the lid to shove your first pair of leg braces in the crack
lest I catch a glimpse of the hat you wore when you came home from the
nursery. I am eating handfuls of Tums to make the pain in my chest stop. I’m
developing a theory about how best to deal with errant fallen tears (don’t wipe
just dab). I’m throwing away my lunch because accidentally stumbling upon
your birth announcement in my sent box made me wonder if I could ever be
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that happy again and realizing I couldn’t made my food taste like sawdust. I’m
putting on a fake smile everyday from behind my desk, from our kitchen table,
and from our living room floor.
But Greta you are not the biggest tragedy of my life. I do not grieve for your
existence or wish you away. I would not enter my fictional time machine with
the purpose of erasing you. I would change so many things but never would I
change you. Between you and me, those “good” grief peddlers are liars, and I
expect you too to have days when everything feels impossible. But I also expect
us both to have those days when it feels like anything is possible too. I can’t
offer you a cure to the bad days but I can offer you honesty.
So here’s to all you grievers out there. You will find no inspirational quotes
here or promises that time will heal your wounds, just the hope that you get
to feel the “good” grief instead of this.
We had to shut down the blog temporarily after it went up, and it was
feedback of my online feminist mothering group that picked our bones and
called us villains. That claimed we acted as though she ruined our lives. But
there is a clear disconnect between my reality and theirs. I felt that it was possible to feel great sadness for the difficulties your child faces because of their
physical limitations and still feel great joy at their existence. But mothering
and children are precious and must be protected against any ugliness. The
most popular contemporary literature on the subject of parenting a disabled
child tells parents to think of having a child with a disability as planning a
trip to Paris and suddenly finding yourself in Holland instead. It would take
awhile to deal with the shock of being somewhere unplanned, but soon you
would realize how wonderful your new destination was and start seeing the
wonders of Holland and forget all about Paris. I pictured Greta in a field of
blazing red tulips with windmills whirring in the background, unable to get
up off the ground to pluck the petals of the flowers or feel the breeze from the
mountains. Holland, Paris, both seemed ridiculous. But mourning that loss
for her was not socially acceptable.
I read Jane Bernstein’s book Loving Rachel where she takes her audience
on a journey through her daughter’s diagnosis of mental retardation and
vision impairment and her ultimate acceptance and optimism at her child’s
future. Then I read the follow-up Rachel in the World where the Bernstein
was now divorced, stuck with a violent and maddeningly difficult child who
needed constant care that not only wasn’t affordable but didn’t really exist.
Here was a mother who had left Holland behind and landed somewhere
less fun, like reality. Slowly I found other books, articles, blogs that allowed
for the truth about raising disabled children without insisting on a veil of
faith and hope. I began to think more about disability and feminism as
existing together.
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Disability Studies insists that this constant obsession with normal is offensive.
That trying to mold Greta into a normal other was allowing society to write
her body narrative instead of herself. Nowhere was this obsession with normal
more evident than in the medical world. Every doctor, even those exhilaratingly innovative, needed us to know that we could make her talk normal, that
her leg braces would make her walk normal, that her hand splint would make
her appear normal. I wanted to challenge the idea of normal in those cold
examine rooms but felt I would be putting Greta in harms way. Plus I know
that normal isn’t really even enough sometimes. I often thought, Greta may
have a limp but she will have to be perfect in every other way to make it in
this world. It was a very un-feminist thought, it doesn’t challenge the status
quo or call for activism at all. It is timid and selfish. It was official; feminism
and I were now suffering irreconcilable differences on both sides of the fence.
Friends and colleagues stopped calling for play dates. Strangers looked at Greta
like she was contagious.
One night when my oldest son couldn’t sleep he asked me why Greta didn’t
use her hand right, why she couldn’t walk. I told him she got hurt when she
was just a little baby in my tummy. I tried not to cry when I told him this,
but still did. He patted me, “It’s okay, mommy,” he said. And he was right.
He is right.
I hinted at a happy ending so here it is. Greta is doing great. She is the
rock star of cerebral palsy clinic, clinking and clattering in her Frankenstein walk she learned a full year earlier than expected. From a distance we
look like a pretty normal family. Three kids jammed into a red wagon, two
moms true, one little girl slumped to the side unable to hang on, but happy
nonetheless. Our family calendar is bursting with appointments for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, but we’ve found a way to
accommodate all Greta’s needs and still find time for fun. While I wish we
could have suddenly understood our outsider disability status and what that
meant as Greta’s parents with a startling clap of clarity, I know these things
take time. Slowly we found our way back to feminism, though bearing the
scars of past wounds, we found ways to carve out space for feminism and
disability that include scary words like “grief ” and “sadness” but still contain
“contentment” and “joy.”
We hold on to each other and know in the extra moment we take staring at the trees letting Greta touch each leaf we may privately be mourning
a loss, but that the day will still go on, and that we will still get back into
the car and stop for ice cream on the way home just like any other family.
We have grown accustomed to these halting moments where ability and
disability collide and remind us of who we were, and who we are now, and
allow room for both.
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References
Bernstein, Jane. Loving Rachel. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1989.
Bernstein, Jane. Rachel in the World: A Memoir. Chicago: University of Illinois
Press, 2007.
Jennrich, Jessica. “Routine Mission.” Paradigm Journal, the Capra Issue. Web
September 2010. <http://www.paradigmjournal.com>.
Kingsley, Emily Pearl. “Welcome to Holland.” Our Kids Organization. 1987. Web
12 October 2010. <http://www.our-kids.org/Archives/Holland.html>.
Patai, Daphne and Noretta Koertge. Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from
the Strange World of Women’s Studies. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Walking with Greta, personal blog: <http://walkingwithgreta.blogspot.
com>.
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Losing The “Normal” Child
Ramifications For Middle-Class Mothers
This paper uses the lens of loss and grief to examine the role of “normal” or “ideal”
children in middle-class mothers’ social psychological landscapes. Drawing from
thirty-four interviews with women whose children suffered from a wide range of
physical, psychological, and behavioral problems, the author illustrates how children’s
ailments resulted in the domino-like disruption of women’s maternal identities, paid
work, and relationships. The depth and breadth of upheaval reflected women’s childcentered orientation, not just to child rearing, but to life in general.
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” wrote the Lebanese-American poet, Khalil Gibran. It is a popular sentiment, echoed less artfully in the cliché, “you don’t know what you’ve got until
it’s gone.” The words are overused, but they are not without insight. Grief is
instructive. It signifies the relative value of who or what was lost. In this way,
grief is an important lens for social psychologists. By exploring how people’s
lives are disrupted by loss, we can identify the place of particular role-performances, identities, and relationships in the larger configuration of people’s
internal and interpersonal worlds.
This research uses the lens of loss and grief to explore the place of child
rearing in middle-class mothers’ lives. More specifically, I draw from in-depth
interviews with thirty-four mothers whose children have learning and developmental disabilities, mental health problems, and substance addictions to identify
what aspects of women’s micro-social worlds are tied to parenting “normal” or
“ideal” children. As critical scholars of disability point out, “normality” itself is
an ongoing construction; not until the mid-nineteenth century was the term
applied to human conduct, and its standards are so narrow that no person is
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strictly “normal” (Davis; Goffman). Nonetheless, women’s expectations of their
children were predicated on the illusion of normality, and, because the structure
of women’s lives reflected an intensive, child-centered approach to motherhood, children’s problems had tremendous disruptive potential. In addition
to losing the child they had expected or imagined, mothers faced widespread
challenges to other role-performances and relationships. Children’s problems
resulted in such a cascade of loss and disruption that many women learned to
see themselves as essentially different from other, “normal” women.
Background
These data stem from a larger project on middle-class women and men whose
children have problems. My interest in the topic stemmed from sociological
literature on the anxious, child-centered parenting culture that has gained
prominence in the contemporary United States. Scholars of motherhood argue
that this culture is characterized by an “ideology of intensive mothering” that
constructs child rearing as an altruistic, emotionally consuming, and labor
intensive project (Douglas and Michaels; Hays; Thurer). Although this model
of parenting is highly feminized, research suggests that fatherhood is becoming
more intensive as well (Coltrane; Pleck). In fact, data show that both mothers
and fathers devote more time to childcare than their counterparts did forty
years ago (Sayer et al.; Gauthier et al.).
While the ideology of intensive parenting is widely shared, its successful
performance requires symbolic and material resources. Not only do middle-class
parents have more time, money and education, but their desire to maximize
children’s opportunities for success leads them to orchestrate children’s activities, further bolstering this orientation to child rearing (Lareau). With this
cultural landscape in mind, I set out to understand what happens to middleclass mothers and fathers whose children have significant problems. In this
era of intensive, child-centered parenting, what is it like to be the middle-class
parent of a “problem child?”
The recruitment parameters were broad; any middle-class parent who identified his or her child as having a “significant problem” was eligible to participate,
as long as he or she could meet for a face-to-face interview in the Northern
California area. I sought participants through support and advocacy groups,
non-profit organizations, and schools for children with special needs. I was also
referred to potential participants by friends, colleagues, and previous participants.
Although the sample included twenty-one fathers, this article focuses solely
on the accounts of 34 mothers.1 Indeed, while children’s problems disrupted
the lives of both mothers and fathers, the experience of loss and grief reflected
the gendered nature of parenthood itself.
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The interviews were informally structured to reflect an inductive, grounded
approach to conducting qualitative research (see Lofland et al.). Twelve women
preferred to be interviewed with their spouses, but the remaining mothers were
interviewed separately. During these guided conversations, I encouraged mothers to emphasize what had been the most salient aspects of their experiences
while also prompting them to discuss matters relevant to the stated purposes
of the research. I documented each interview with a hand-held audio recorder
and later converted the conversations into verbatim transcripts. This allowed
me to sort the data into analytically relevant categories, a process referred to
as “coding” (Lofland et al. 200).
Children varied widely in terms of problem type and age. The table below
summarizes the problems that participants described. Children often suffered
from more than one condition, and this chart reflects only primary labels and
diagnoses.
Table 1. Summary of Children’s Problems
Types of Problem
N
Learning Disabilities (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,
Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder)
7
Developmental Disabilities (Pervasive Developmental Disorder,
Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy,
and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome)
16
Mental Health Problems (Depression, Anxiety, Attachment
Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Trichotillomania,
Bi-Polar Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder)
8
Drug or Alcohol Addiction
8
Medical Problems Without Developmental Disabilities
1
Total
40*
*Some participating families had more than one child with problems. This is why the total
number of children in the sample is 40, even though there are only 36 participating
families.
Although the majority of children were between the ages of six and eighteen
at the time of the interview, the sample does include twelve “adult children.”
A single participant accounted for five of these, and her sons and daughters,
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who ranged from twenty-four to forty-four years old, were much older, on
average, than the others. The remaining adult children ranged in age from 19
to 25 years old. Three of these still lived at home, and two others relied on
their parents for financial assistance.
Loss and Disruption
As noted above, the experiences of loss and disruption documented here highlight the central place of problem-free children in the lives of the middle-class
women in this study. The phrase “child-centered parenting” usually refers to
maternal practices that are driven by children’s developing needs and interests.
However, as these data illustrate, child-centeredness can extend well beyond
maternal practice, organizing other aspects of women’s daily lives. In this case,
losing the “normal” or imagined child not only posed challenges to women’s
maternal identities but also disrupted women’s paid work and personal relationships.
Losing the Imagined Child
Women recalled entering into motherhood with specific ideas about who
their children would become. The content of these expectations varied according to women’s personal biographies, but most reflected middle-class
assumptions about what constitutes a normal child and normal course of life.
Educational achievement, participation in extracurricular activities, and career
plans figured heavily into what women expected (and lost) when their children
developed problems.
I pictured these kids that were very involved in all their school stuff and
were in and out of here with their buddies. And doing all the normal
things, you know? The football thing… good students, go off to college…
get whatever degree in whatever field and live your life accordingly. And
that’s not what happened. [My son] was asked to leave the high school in
the middle of his senior year… I never pictured that, I’ll tell ya. I never
pictured that one of my kids would not graduate from high school. (Deborah,
whose adult son is an alcoholic)
When I was growing up, I went to the public library. I walked past there
on my way home from school and stopped. And my kids will never go to
the library by themselves! One reason I bought this house was because it’s
close to the library. Because I grew up going to the library, and I assumed
my children would too…. (Peg, whose 16-year-old son has Attention
Deficit Disorder)
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People always say you have these expectations of your children, and I
always thought, “Oh, I never did.” Until I had [my younger son]. Then I
was like, “Oh, wow, I do,” just like everybody else (laughs), you know? I
try to be like, “No, I don’t care if they ever go to college or whatever, just
as long as they’re happy and healthy, and that’s all that matters.” But
after having [my younger son], then I realized, “No, wait, you do think
about that stuff.” Because I realized that [my younger son] wasn’t gonna
do those things. And that was hard for me. (Kathy, whose 6-year-old
son has cerebral palsy)
As these quotes suggest, children’s problems challenged and sometimes shattered women’s expectations, and the loss of the ideal child was a recurring
theme in the interview data.
It was not just that women hurt for their own losses, however. When it came
to losing the ideal child, they also hurt for their sons and daughters, who they
worried would be unhappy or unfulfilled.
You just want so much for your children. You want them to be liked by
others, [to be] successful and feel good about themselves. It’s such a hard
emotion to describe, that connection, of what you feel for your children. I
mean, you’d do anything. You would. You’d do anything for them to just
make it in this world. And then you see them struggling. It is the saddest
thing. It breaks your heart. ( Jessica, whose six-year-old son has a nonspecific impulse control disorder)
You come home with this bundle, and you look at that person, and you
love that person so deeply. And you don’t take them home thinking, “I
hope you grow up to be an addict.” You have many other wishes and hopes
for that person. And to not be able to see that (beginning to cry)… you
almost have to separate yourself from all those wishes. Well, they’re gone!
I mean, you still hope that she’s gonna find happiness, she’s gonna find
a way to have a productive and successful life. And to have a life that
she’s gonna really enjoy, that will be not fraught with legal problems and
other kinds of problems. (Andrea, whose 19-year-old daughter abuses
drugs and alcohol)
Most of the women interviewed grieved simultaneously for themselves as
well as for their children. Children’s problems meant that they had to relinquish cherished expectations. At the same time, these mothers suffered
vicariously as they watched their children struggle physically, psychologically, and socially.
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Challenges to Maternal Identity
Losing the ideal child had implications for women’s notions of self. Just as
they had imagined who their children would become, they had imagined what
kinds of mother they would be. Children’s problems challenged women’s visions
of motherhood and, in turn, posed obstacles to their maternal performances.
Certainly one of the things that changed was my picture of motherhood.
You know, how it looked… it was like the dream was not necessarily the
reality (laughs). I never anticipated it. It was like, “I didn’t sign up for
this, and I haven’t planned for this, and I don’t want this.” (Deborah,
whose adult son is an alcoholic)
I sometimes imagine the more perfect mother I’d be if I’d been given a
child a little less challenging. ( Jessica, whose six-year-old son has a
non-specific impulse control disorder)
Here you’re trying to be the perfect parent, to do as well as you can. And
no matter what you do, it’s not turning out that way. I mean, I tried to be
perfect (laughs). But you know, that doesn’t mean anybody else is gonna
want to be (laughs). (Andrea, whose 19-year-old daughter abuses
drugs and alcohol)
Like Jessica and Andrea, several mothers said that children’s problems made
it difficult to see themselves as “perfect” or “good” mothers. They viewed their
children’s conditions and behaviours as measures of their maternal efficacy and
blamed themselves for having caused children’s problems.
Initially I felt that it was my fault… because of my genetic background…
I blamed myself for a long time. And it took a lot of convincing from his
therapist and my own therapist that I eventually ended up going to that it
wasn’t my fault. That I am a good mother and I’m a loving mother. ( Joan,
whose 15-year-old son exhibits the early signs of schizophrenia)
I totally felt guilty. I was sure it was everything I had done wrong, though
I didn’t know what it was. If we had it to do over again, I know a lot of
things I’d do different… he was never abused or neglected or anything.
My kids have always come first. Maybe too much…. I just think that I’ve
overindulged them. (Mary, whose 17-year-old son abuses drugs and
alcohol)
I think I really internalized that sort of feeling that a lot of mothers have
that anything that goes on with your child… you must be responsible for
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it in some way. And that if you were doing things right that it wouldn’t
happen… I had a sense that I was really in over my head. That I shouldn’t
have had children as young as I did. Why was I in such a hurry? …I had a
sense that I was not capable of producing a normal child. (Valerie, whose
eleven-year-old daughter has autism)
We can assume that women’s guilt stemmed, in part, from a long history of
mother-blame in the United States. At different times in the last sixty-five
years, the public has blamed mothers for schizophrenia, autism, homosexuality,
anorexia, serial killing, youth rebellion, children’s poor school performance,
low self-esteem, and poverty (see Vander Ven and Vander Ven; Garey and
Arendell; Ladd-Taylor and Umansky; Thurer). However, it was not simply
this historical legacy that led women to feel responsible for having caused
their children’s problems; in many cases, others implied that mothers were
bad parents.
[My in-laws] just thought, “Oh, well she’s not disciplining him.” That
was one of the things that really used to get to me, that people would tell
me, “Oh … he doesn’t have enough discipline.” I’m like, you don’t get it,
it doesn’t matter … if I were a beater, this child would be beaten to death
because it doesn’t affect him in any way shape or form. (Amanda, whose
15-year-old son has Bi-polar Disorder)
[Her teachers] were just saying… “What’s the situation at home? What’s
going on at home?” I’d say, “Excuse me? We’re talking about a first-grader,
and you’re thinking I’m doing something wrong at home or our home life
is in disarray? I mean, where are you going with this?” And they’d back
off a little, but they’d say, “Well, you know, you just never know with these
things, and children are very sensitive to things going on at home” …you
know, it’s automatically the parents’ fault. (Martha, whose 13-year-old
daughter has a non-specific learning disability)
When [my son] is being rude, [people] like to send you signals that you’re
a bad parent, like, “Tut, tut, tut,” shake their heads… and old women
particularly, you know? There’s a certain generation of women that need
to let you know that you have not done a very good job raising your child.
(Claire, whose nine-year-old son has autism)
As these quotes illustrate, dominant constructions of the “good mother” are
contingent upon the typically-developing, “well-behaved” child.Thus, the loss of
such a child posed serious challenges to women’s identities as good mothers.
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The Disruption of Paid Work
As feminist scholars point out, organizations are not gender-neutral. The
“universal worker” is modeled after men’s bodies and the traditionally masculine
relationship to caregiving and paid labor (Acker). Models of caregiving are
feminized, and when a family’s demand for carework increases, women commonly withdraw from paid employment in order to care for ailing loved ones
(Dalley, 24). Several of the women I interviewed had either decreased their
paid work, delayed returning to the workforce, or become full-time mothers
in response to their children’s problems. A few were motivated by guilt, but
most simply found it difficult to meet their children’s needs while also working
full-time outside of the home.
I did feel like because I was a working mom that maybe I wasn’t being as
available. Although I did stop working full-time and only worked parttime… I made that change because I felt when she was in junior high
and went through the depressed period that I just need to be around more.
(Andrea, whose 19-year-old daughter abuses drugs and alcohol)
I was home with [my son] for that first year and a half… and then after
I got my master’s degree I did work for a few years, a couple of nights a
week as a teacher. But then it became clear that it was just too hard to do
that… [because of ] the demands of the family, particularly [our younger
son]… and so now it’s been almost seven years that I haven’t been working outside the home…. (Sarah, whose 13-year-old son has congenital
brain damage)
For women whose children had comparatively mild problems and did not
require full-time care, the shift in employment constituted a short-lived disruption. They experienced it as a choice, and in most cases it was not financially
burdensome. In contrast, women like Sarah felt as though they had been
forced to relinquish their career aspirations, and they experienced this change
as a significant loss.
At some point, I’ll be able to maybe go and do something, some career…
I have that desire still… but I honestly have little hope… I read in a
newspaper… [and see] pictures of business women, different women doing
different things. And I feel sad that I can’t do that. But [I’m] not really
resentful anymore. Just sad. That’s part of the grief. (Sarah, whose 13year-old son has congenital brain damage)
I think the toughest thing was realizing I had to quit my job. That was
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hard. I mean, I was at the point I was ready to… but it was just the fact
of I’ve always had a job. I’ve never not worked. So that was a struggle for
me. (Kathy, whose six-year-old son has cerebral palsy)
As illustrated here, some women’s career performances were contingent upon
having “healthy,” “normal children.” In this way, the ramifications of children’s
problems rippled outward, beyond women’s maternal role and into other areas
of life.
The Disruption of Relationships
Children’s problems resulted in the widespread disruption of women’s relationships, and this was a salient component of women’s grief. The motherchild relationship itself was a source of pain. The mothers of teenagers and
adults with substance addictions suffered through periods of estrangement and
perceived rejection, for example.
It’s horrible … many times I’ve woken up sobbing in the middle of the
night and just feel like I can’t continue. It’s been one of the hardest things
ever… (his) rejection, (after) adopting him in my heart, anyway. (Sarah,
whose 17-year-old step-son abuses drugs and alcohol)
The mothers of children with disabilities, on the other hand, said that in the
beginning they had been so focused on treating their children’s ailments that
they did not enjoy their children as much as they should have.
I really realized then that I was so stressed out and so worried and so kind
of isolated and just unhappy in so many different ways when she was little,
that I had missed a lot of time with her. (Valerie, whose eleven-year-old
daughter has autism)
Children’s problems also changed women’s relationships with their other, untroubled children. Several mothers reported that these children received less
of their time and energy. Some experienced this as a loss.
[My third son] kind of got overlooked… he just took on that role. He was
kind of the lost kid in the family… and I feel badly because I can never
go back and get that back, those parts of his childhood. (Deborah, whose
adult son is an alcoholic)
Most of the women in this study were married when their children developed problems and they said their relationships with their spouses were also
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disrupted. Because children required so much carework, couples had little time
and energy for one another.
I wish I could have at least, the very least, a weekend away with my
husband. I think that would do us a lot of good. But, I mean, I can’t ask
for a babysitter. ( Jessica, whose six-year-old son has a non-specific
impulse control disorder)
It was also the case that some women threw themselves so fully into finding
treatments for their children’s problems that they became absent from their
marriages.
I know that I now have done everything, um, that I possibly can to, um,
help [my son]… I did all of that, but I did it, unknowingly, a cost to a
strained marriage, and a continued strained marriage. ( Joan, whose 15year-old son exhibits the early signs of schizophrenia)
Even more problematic for women’s marriages, however, were disagreements
between mothers and fathers about the nature of children’s problems and/or
how best to manage them.
[My husband] had a real mental block about [our son’s condition] and it
took him a long time to come around and accept it. So that was difficult for
me, as far as not feeling I always had a partner there that was in this with
me. (Amanda, whose 15-year-old son has Bi-polar Disorder)
At one point [my husband] talked about spanking, and I have never believed
in spanking. I just said, “ You’re kidding, aren’t you?” And he said, “No, no.
I think maybe…” you know, that really got my feathers ruffled. ( Jessica,
whose six-year-old son has a non-specific impulse control disorder)
Most women said that, in the end, their marriages were strengthened by these
troubles. However, a handful of mothers said that their children’s problems
contributed to the eventual dissolution of their marriages.
Well, my first husband left shortly after [my younger son] was born. Left
the three of us, me and the boys. He would say it wasn’t about [my younger
son]. He told me that at the time, (that) it wasn’t about [our son], it was
about me… but I believe that [our son] was … a significant component…
he didn’t know how to handle that. (Sarah, whose 13-year-old son has
congenital brain damage)
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I think that [our son’s] situation brought out part of my ex-husband’s personality that I don’t think I really recognized when we were first together…
[he’s] not sensitive to illness at all and his insensitivity to his children on
that level… I definitely think it was part of [why we separated]. (Amanda,
whose 15-year-old son has Bi-polar Disorder)
The ramifications of children’s problems reached beyond the nuclear family
and impacted women’s relationships with extended family members and friends
as well. Some mothers said that people simply felt uncomfortable around their
children, and this resulted in social distance.
I really miss having that family support… it’s not that [my family] couldn’t
afford to come out more often. I think it may be very scary for them, very
uncomfortable. It’s, “Oh, we have an autistic child in the family, I don’t
know what to do… how I’m gonna handle this?” (Carol, whose 13-yearold son has Asperger’s Syndrome)
Socially, people had a hard time with it. I mean, people would invite us
to parties and say, “ You can come but you can’t bring [your son].” I mean,
horrible things like that. (Amanda, whose 15-year-old son has Bi-polar
Disorder)
As previous research suggests, having a child who is deviant or disabled is
stigmatizing (Green et al., Gray; Birenbaum). Some women reported that they
intentionally withdrew from others in anticipation of such judgment.
Well at first I pretty much avoided going anywhere… we live in a pretty
small community. And I just couldn’t handle it … I was in so much pain
anyway. And I did feel like people would judge me. And I was embarrassed.
Totally embarrassed. (Mary, whose 17-year-old son abuses drugs and
alcohol)
I think it’s affected our social life… We have to really consider whether
it’s really worth getting together with other people sometimes because it’s
more stressful when we get together. And especially if people don’t quite
get it. ( Jessica, whose six-year-old son has a non-specific impulse
control disorder)
For many of the women I interviewed, a diminished social circle was a significant loss that compounded their grief and left them feeling isolated, as well
as sad. This was particularly common among women whose young children had
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problems, possibly because these mothers had fewer opportunities to develop
friendships with other parents in the first place.
Couples don’t think about it, but their socialization is extended through
what their children do. They meet people at the ball park, little league at
the school, all those things. As their children grow, their socializing grows
as well. Well, it doesn’t when you have a special needs child… your social
circle becomes smaller and smaller and smaller as your child grows, as your
child develops. (Eve, whose 17-year-old son has a genetic disorder and
cognitive disabilities)
The disruption outlined here illustrates the extent to which the smooth
operation of women’s personal relationships relied upon typically-developing,
non-deviant children. Again, these data highlight the broad, social psychological
ramifications of “child-centeredness.” Because children played a central part
in the configuration of women’s connections to other people, their troubles
spilled over into most areas of women’s lives. As I discuss below, the social
psychological ramifications of this disruption were profound.
Feelings of Grief and “Otherness”
The outer turmoil described above was mirrored by women’s inner turmoil.
Nearly all of the women in this study said that children’s problems were among
the most painful and difficult things they had ever experienced. Mothers
routinely used words like “devastating” and “traumatic” when describing their
feelings of grief.
Probably the biggest thing was sheer terror… and real sadness. I mean, just
incredible sadness, you know? Um, like this is your baby! …you know the
world is not gonna be perfect, but you sure as hell don’t envision [alcoholism] when you walk out that hospital door. It’s devastating (crying). It’s
absolutely devastating. (Deborah, whose adult son is an alcoholic)
I remember an instance … trying to communicate with my husband about
how I felt… I guess I wasn’t communicating it where he could hear it…
so I wrote him a letter (pausing to cry)… and I said, “I’m dying inside”
(continues to cry). (Lauren, whose adopted ten-year-old twin daughters
have non-specific developmental delays)
A number of women reported that, for a period following the onset of their
children’s problems, they experienced depression.
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I ended up falling into a deep depression. I was physically and emotionally wiped out and drained and fearful of the future. And I couldn’t fix
my son. And I’d always been able to take care of his needs before. And it
was difficult for me not to be able to help him. I was sleeping a lot. When
I was not working I was at home in bed. ( Joan, whose 15-year-old son
exhibits the early signs of schizophrenia)
Women’s grief was embodied, and many suffered physical ailments such as
headaches, weight loss, and insomnia.
When we first started going through the problems with him, it was just hell.
I was so depressed. I could hardly function. We never slept a whole night…
there was never any rest or peace of mind or peace at all… before he left,
I lost twenty-five pounds. I couldn’t eat. (Mary, whose 17-year-old son
abuses drugs and alcohol)
Beyond feelings of depression, most women recounted feelings of “otherness,”
or the sense that they were not like other, “normal” women. As their losses
accumulated, they came to feel like their whole lives had shifted off-course.
The first year was just a real emotional time for me. I mean, I would just
cry at nothing… I’d be in the shower and I’d start bawling. And now that
I look back on it, I think it was just my emotional feelings of dealing with
the fact that I don’t have a normal [life]… you know, I have that in my
life forever. (Kathy, whose six-year-old son has cerebral palsy)
Kathy anticipated caring for her son for the rest of her life, and in addition
to relinquishing her work outside of the home, she had been forced to let go
of her imagined future. Her feelings of otherness were particularly strong,
and not all women shared this experience. However, even comparatively mild
problems could threaten women’s sense of being “normal.”
It was very important to me that we be nice, ordinary, normal people… at
times, [our son] and this add factor were pushing me off that… threatening
it... Because if things went too haywire, then we wouldn’t be nice, ordinary
people. We would be another one of those dysfunctional families out there.
( Judy, whose adult son has Attention Deficit Disorder)
As Judy’s comment suggests, women’s understandings of normality were imbued
with assumptions about middle-class respectability. Mothers’ accounts of otherness often revealed the loss of status that accompanied children’s problems.
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I work with a librarian, and sometimes I look at her and I say, “She
took my life!” I think both of her kids went through [the gifted education
program]… and she sits and reads, and they read all these books…. (Peg,
whose 16-year-old son has Attention Deficit Disorder)
Everybody asks, “Oh, what’s gonna happen after high school?” And it’s
painful! …I get emails from the senior class parent group… there was
something yesterday about, “What are the seniors doing?” They’re going
to the career center. And they’re thinking about college, and la la la. And
we’re just not in that same situation. (Sarah, whose 17-year-old step-son
abuses drugs and alcohol)
In sum, women’s grief stemmed from more than just the loss of the imagined
child. Children’s problems were often so disruptive to women’s lives – their
notions of self as mothers, their work outside of the home, and their personal
relationships – that they resulted in uncomfortable feelings of difference. These
data do not represent the totality of women’s experiences, but they capture a
particular moment in time when women’s feelings of loss and grief were most
profound. There is no doubt that many women went on to reconfigure their
expectations of children, motherhood, and family life itself. Nonetheless, this
period of disruption highlights how child-centeredness places children not just
at the heart of maternal practice, but also at the core of middle-class mothers’
social and psychological worlds.
Conclusion
I opened this discussion with the premise that loss and grief tell us something
important about the structure of people’s lives and minds. From a social psychological perspective, the self is made up of social materials. We are, quite
literally, brought into being through social interaction, and our internal worlds
are sustained by our social milieu (Mead). Grief signifies that one has lost
some cherished part of the self. This means that by tracing the contours of loss
and grief, we can map the patterns of people’s social psychological worlds. In
this case, women’s experiences of loss and grief illustrate the central place of
“healthy,” “normal” children in middle-class mothers’ lives. As demonstrated
above, losing such children gave way to the widespread disruption of women’s
taken-for-granted worlds.
As much as this analysis has focused on the lived experiences of individual
women, it is important to place their stories in proper cultural and historical
context. Children have not always and everywhere occupied the center of
women’s lives. In the United States, the child-centered family emerged with
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the rise of domesticity in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Prior to
that period, people neither recognized childhood as a special part of the life
course, nor constructed children as fragile, innocent, or “priceless” (Margolis;
Zelizer; Aries). Child-centered parenting practices and the ideology of intensive
mothering are characteristic of the late-modern West, and it is in this context
that children’s problems have such disruptive potential.
The acknowledgement that child-centeredness is a culturally and historically specific phenomenon raises the question of whether or not it is desirable,
whether or not it is good for children, good for mothers and fathers, or good
for society. For the most part, such questions are outside the purview of this
paper. However, some scholars argue that intensive mothering harkens back to a
previous era, when motherhood was a woman’s most salient identity, and other
aspects of feminine personhood were viewed as secondary to the maternal role
(Douglas and Michaels). In this light, we might view these mothers’ grief not
just in terms of personal misfortune, but as symptomatic of persistent gender
inequality in u.s. society.
In addition to qualifying as middle-class (according to income, education
and occupation) this group of women was highly educated and predominantly
white.
1
References
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Birenbaum, Arnold. “On Managing Courtesy Stigma.” Journal of Health and
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Coltrane, Scott. Family Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
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Dalley, Gillian. Ideologies of Caring. New York: Macmillan, 1996.
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Gauthier, Anne H., Timothy M. Smeedeng, and Frank F. Furstenberg. “Are
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Parents Investing Less Time in Children? Trends in Selected Industrialized
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sara puotinen
Living and Grieving Beside Judith
When my mother Judith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, I was
pregnant with my second child, Rosemary Judith, and was frantically trying to
finish up my dissertation on Judith Butler. By the time my mom died in 2009, I
had lived with and cared for my daughter Rosemary Judith for over three years
and had read, written about, presented on, and taught Butler’s Precarious Life
and Undoing Gender many times. This essay is an experimental attempt at
juxtaposing my experiences of living and grieving beside three different Judiths:
my mom, Judith; my academic muse, Judith Butler; and my daughter, Rosemary
Judith. My goal is not to connect these experiences in any easy or seamless way,
but to put them beside each other in the hopes of presenting one person’s (as daughter/scholar/mother) tentative and unfinished account of grief, loss and the livable
and not so livable life.
My mom Judith died last year on September 30. Diagnosed with a particularly
nasty form of cancer—pancreatic—back in October of 2005, she had defied
the odds by living for four years: three and a half years longer than expected.
When she was diagnosed, I was pregnant with my second child, Rosemary
Judith, and was frantically trying to finish the final chapter of my dissertation.
That chapter was about feminist virtue ethics and drew heavily upon Judith
Butler’s work in both Precarious Life and Undoing Gender. I wrote part of it
on my laptop at the hospital while the doctors were attempting to remove my
mom’s tumor and half of her stomach.
While Butler writes a lot about grief, my reading of her work in the hospital
was not motivated by state of impending loss and my recent realization of
how I was vulnerable and, in the words of Butler, undone by my mom’s not84
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yet-death. Instead it was motivated by my urgent need to make sense of what
kind of life my mom could expect to have if she survived this risky surgery; I
was searching for an answer to Butler’s poignant question in the first chapter
of Undoing Gender: What makes a life livable (17)?
By the time my mom died in 2009, I had become a mom again—Rosemary
Judith was born in March 2006—and I had spent a lot of time living beside
Butler’s work on grief and the livable life. As I watched my daughter grow
from a newborn to a toddler to a troublemaking kid, and my mom slowly,
and then rapidly, deteriorate, I had read, written about, presented on, and
taught Precarious Life and Undoing Gender many times. I frequently thought
about the livable life and how my mom was able to hold on to so much of
it for so long, even as it was being stripped away from her in many big and
small ways. As she refused, or was unable, to die over the last six months of
her life, after the second round of chemo made her too weak even to walk
and I struggled to be a good-enough mother, I wondered about the value and
limits of grieving and staying in a state of grief for too long. Does that state
of grief necessarily require a temporary suspension of life? And if so, what
does this suspension mean for our own livable lives and for the livable lives
of those for whom we care?
Judith Butler has been a part of my living with and grieving beside my mom
in many ways. It is not so much that her work has comforted me (although it
has), or allowed me to fully make sense of my mom’s illness and death (what
could, really?), but that it has always been a part of this process for me. When
my mom was diagnosed I was reading and writing about Precarious Life. When
my mom died I had just completed a presentation on Butler, Undoing Gender,
and the virtue of staying in trouble. And for much of the time between those
years of diagnosis and death I was reading and thinking about Butler in relation to my own theories about making and staying in trouble.
But just as Judith Butler has been a part of my living and grieving beside
my mom, my mom and her terminal cancer have been a part of my living
and grieving beside Judith Butler. My reading of, and subsequent teaching
and writing about, Butler has been informed in many different ways by my
mom, her illness and my experiences of struggling with her impending death.
When I was in the waiting room as my mom’s tumor was being removed and
I was writing about the livable life, I wasn’t thinking only about how Butler’s
articulation of the livable life would shape my ideas about what was happening to my mom; I was thinking about how what was happening to my mom
would shape my ideas about Butler’s articulation of the livable life and her
larger project on grief. My mom, and her experiences living with and dying
from pancreatic cancer, powerfully shaped how I read and think about grief
and life, and the ways in which loss and life undoes us.
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To complicate this even further, my living and grieving beside Judith Butler
and my mom Judith have been shaped by my experiences as the mother to a
third Judith, Rosemary Judith. Throughout the past four years my daughter
was beside me. I was pregnant with her when my mom was diagnosed and I
was writing my dissertation on Butler. I was breastfeeding and staying up with
her almost every night while my mom was recovering from her first round of
chemotherapy and as I was teaching about the ethical turn in Butler’s work.
I struggled with her frequent (and very typical for a three-year-old) proclamations of “I hate you” as my mom started falling down too much and as I
taught a graduate class on grief and being undone in Butler’s Undoing Gender.
And I marveled at her feisty and troublemaking sprit as my mom’s weak
body revolted against her almost indestructible spirit and as I began writing
about the virtues of troublemaking and troublestaying for both an upcoming
presentation and my blog.
This essay is an experimental attempt at juxtaposing my experiences of living and grieving beside three different Judiths: my mom, Judith; my academic
muse, Judith Butler; and my daughter, Rosemary Judith. The purpose of this
essay is not to connect these experiences or my narratives of them in any easy
or seamless way, but to put them beside each other in the hopes of presenting
a tentative and unfinished account by one person (as daughter/scholar/mother)
of grief, loss and the livable and not so livable life.
Being Beside: An Explanation
Throughout the past four years all three Judiths have been central to of my
life. They have been beside me, and beside each other, as I have struggled to
make sense of and endure grief and impending loss. In addition to the literal
ways in which each of them has been beside me, these three Judiths speak to
three different roles that I have negotiated simultaneously but not easily or
always successfully: the daughter, the scholar, and the mother. Negotiating
these different, sometimes conflicting and frequently exhausting roles has
been a constant challenge that manifested itself in some unique and troubling
ways. At times my roles seemed to complement each other. Being a mother
comforted me as I prepared myself for the impending loss of my own mother.
Being a daughter losing a mother to cancer opened my scholarship to new
ways of thinking and feeling about women’s narratives of cancer and illness.
Being a scholar provided me with a useful outlet for exploring and reflecting
on losing a mother to terminal illness.
At other times, these roles came into conflict and made me doubt my ability
to properly inhabit any of them. How can I be a good enough daughter to my
mother and a good enough mother to my daughter at the same time? How can
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I laugh with my daughter while my mom is lying in a bed, seven hours away,
struggling to eat, to breathe? How can I think critically and abstractly about the
limits and possibilities of grief and coming undone, when I am in the midst of
the process myself? For the past four years, the roles of daughter, mother and
scholar have resided beside each other. Just like my living and grieving beside
the three Judiths, they are not reducible to each other, yet their existence in
relation to each other has shaped my experiences of grief and loss. In losing my
mother, I am not just a daughter; I am a mother raising her own daughter. In
raising a daughter, I am not just a mother; I am a daughter without a mother.
In reading, writing and teaching about Butler’s notions of grief and the livable
life, I am not just a scholar; I am a mother and a daughter struggling to make
sense of grief and the livable life.
Grieving Beside Judith
Fragment One
…one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes
will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that
mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the
full result of which you cannot know in advance (Butler, Undoing
Gender 18).
The idea of undergoing a transformation that one cannot know in advance is
central for Butler and her vision of social transformation. In Undoing Gender,
she discusses the value of unknowingness and of not trying to securely and
definitively establish one’s plan of action prior to acting (227). For Butler, grief
is central to this experience of unknowingness and the risks that we take to
maintain and embrace it. Overwhelmed with sadness and exhaustion and unable
to compose ourselves or to deny our vulnerability to loss, we cannot pretend
that we have control or that we can always know with certainty how to act or
who we are. In risking unknowingness, we are transformed into individuals
who don’t know, but who are willing to act anyway.
Up until the last year, when she could barely speak, my mother and I loved to talk.
Frequently our conversations were inspired by my mom’s curiosity and her wonder
about the world and ideas. Having been a teacher for over 20 years, she asked lots of
questions and always liked to learn more about what I was reading or what I thought.
Her curiosity was not motivated so much by a desire to know, but by a desire to feel
and experience as many different ways of understanding as she could. She found joy
in contemplating the why and how and seemed to be energized by what she didn’t
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and might never know. Somehow she had held onto the wonder that children seem to
have, but often lose as they grow up. I inherited that wonder from her and I witness
it in my daughter Rosie J everyday.
To acknowledge that we don’t know, that we are uncertain about how to
proceed, doesn’t always produce anxiety and isn’t always best understood in
relation to grief. To be open to undergoing a transformation of who one is in
ways that one can never anticipate isn’t always to risk unknowingness. It is
an invitation to wonder, to be curious and to imagine the world in new and
mysterious ways. My experience of being beside my mom as she was dying
transformed me, to be sure. But it was more her persistence in life and my
memories of how she envisioned uncertainty and unknowingness in terms of
wonder and joy instead of anxiety and loss that transformed me, not her death
and my grief over her loss.
Fragment Two
The attempt to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves
secure at the expense of every other human consideration, is surely also to
eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our
bearings and find our way (Butler, Undoing Gender 23).
In Precarious Life, Undoing Gender, and Frames of War, Butler repeatedly emphasizes the importance of grief and vulnerability. She discusses the value of
grief in relation to those who have been denied the right to grieve their loved
ones and/or have had their own lives considered unworthy of grieving, and
therefore not fully human. She also describes how grief, as a state of being
and as a non-violent response to others, is urgently needed if we are interested
in arresting cycles of violence (Butler, Precarious Life xii). Much of Butler’s
discussion of grief is in the context of two specific historical, cultural, social
events: the aids crisis and glbtq communities’ inability to grieve their
lost loved ones, and the u.s. government’s quick and very violent response
to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. In these situations grief is the
thing needed because grief has been so unjustly or unwisely denied and/or
foreclosed.
But, even as Butler devotes considerable attention to specific contexts in
which grief needs to be promoted, she has grander aims for how and why we
should value grief. She believes that grief is a valuable state to be in, and is an
important part of what it means to be human. Grief, and the vulnerability and
sociality of the self that it reveals, help to guide us as we struggle to develop
less violent ways to exist in the midst of and beside others.
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I was always so tired. I had been living with my mom’s impending death for
three years and she was really starting to look bad. My dad warned me that it
would probably get a lot worse. My daughter had just turned three and was entering a new phase, the “I hate you” phase. With no warning and for no apparent
reason, she would matter-of-factly state, “I hate you.” It was really hard to hear.
I wondered, how can I be a good mother when I’m sad all of the time? What is
it doing to my daughter to live in the shadow of this death and my grief over it?
Were her repeated declarations of hate more than a phase that all 3 year olds go
through? Was she trying to warn me that I was failing as a mom and remind me
that I was more than a daughter losing a mom, but also a mother who needed to
care for her daughter?
While I agree that being in a state of grief is valuable and can help to remind
us of our vulnerability in the midst of others, it can also place unrealistic and
unhealthy demands on us. It is difficult to balance the need and/or desire to
grieve with the demand to care for others. Are there other resources, aside from
grief, that can guide us as we navigate the difficult terrain of being a daughter
losing a mother and a mother raising a daughter?
The first two years of my mom’s terminal illness weren’t too bad. Even though
she had been diagnosed with a death sentence (six months to live), she was able
to qualify for surgery and undergo chemotherapy. She experienced a miracle recovery, welcomed two new grandchildren into the world, and traveled to Paris
and Sydney. Then the tumor came back. Slowly she deteriorated. First one of her
wrists became numb so she couldn’t do any of her artwork. Then her anxiety and
the morphine she had been taking daily for two years made it almost impossible
for her to read. Then she started falling down a lot. Suddenly one day she couldn’t
walk. My sisters and my dad arranged for hospice at home. We thought she was
about to die, but we were wrong. She looked terrible. She couldn’t talk. She could
barely eat. She slept a lot. Yet she continued to live. To me she was already gone.
I wanted desperately to grieve her loss, but I couldn’t; she was still alive. I was
tired of being in a state of grief, yet unable to grieve; tired of witnessing her suffering and feeling helpless and unable to alleviate it. Four years of waiting, with
uncertainty, for death is a long time.
As someone who spent the last four years grieving for a mother dying an
excruciatingly slow and painful death, I am not interested in mining the ethical
and transformative possibilities of grief. I don’t want to keep grieving; I want
to stop grieving, and I want to think about what other resources I have to guide
me as I attempt to recognize and live with my vulnerability. What about humor,
joy or even wonder? Are there ways to think about risking uncertainty and
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our unknowingness that are not connected to grief as something that is only
negative and that always signals loss–-of control, of autonomy, of stability?
Living Beside Judith
Fragment Three
I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an
aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …Something takes
hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside,
or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we
are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what
are we seized (Butler, Undoing Gender 18)?
Central to Butler’s understanding and promotion of grief is the idea that
grief interrupts life as we know it or as we think we know it. Hit by waves
of sadness and loss, we come undone and are forced to recognize our own
dependence on others and our vulnerability in the midst of those others.
This recognition is described in relation to loss: the loss of certainty, loss of
autonomy, and loss of control. Butler envisions these feelings of loss as having
the potential for opening us to new ways of being human and of forming
connections with others.
The social worker told us we needed to let our mom know it was okay to let go.
We needed to tell her she had our permission to die. One of my sisters planned a big
dinner for mom and the three of us readied ourselves for the painful conversation.
Just before dinner I turned on some music—The Sound of Music. Spontaneously
I, sometimes with my two sisters joining in, performed the entire musical. At one
point, maybe while I was singing “The Lonely Goatherd,” I realized that this was
one of those big moments in my life. My mom may have been dying, but she was
laughing too. Well, at least her eyes were laughing. And we were all having a lot
of fun. Towards the end of the album, when Mother Superior sings “Climb Every
Mountain,” I hit the high note! I mean, I really hit the high note—vibrato and all.
We laughed and laughed and then brought our mom her dinner, forgetting all about
the painful conversation we were supposed to have.
Sometimes life interrupts grief, not the other way around. Our best intentions
of grieving properly are undone. Our attempts at making sense of how grief
is supposed to be are troubled by life’s persistent refusal to stop happening.
For our belief in self-mastery and autonomy to be interrupted by someone or
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something greater than us doesn’t always just signal loss and demand that we
grieve; it can also signal life and joy, and invite us to laugh and to live.
My mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in mid-October 2005.
I was about 18 weeks pregnant with Rosie. A few days before I drove to Chicago to
see her, maybe for the last time, I had an ultrasound. I found out that my baby was a
girl. When I arrived at my parents’ house, I told my mom that she was going to have
another granddaughter named after her: Rosemary Judith. I was fairly certain that
my mom would never meet Rosie J; the doctor had indicated that she might only have
six weeks left. Six months later, my mom took a break from chemotherapy to visit us
and meet her new granddaughter. From the moment she was born, Rosie exuded life
and joy. Her spirit and joy of life were amazing and infectious; she compelled you to
engage with her and the world, whether you wanted to or not.
There is something else that resides next to (beside) and in addition to (besides)
grief as we struggle to make sense of our human vulnerability and the ways
in which we are done and undone by others; joy is another “one of the most
important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way”
(Butler, Undoing Gender 18). While Butler briefly mentions the importance of
joy, in the form of pleasure, she focuses her ethical and political project almost
exclusively on grief. As I learned the night I sang with my sisters and as I am
repeatedly reminded as I look at Rosie J, grief and joy reside in the midst of
each other and sometimes in spite of each other.
Fragment Four
…it becomes a question for ethics, I think, not only when we ask
the personal question, what makes my own life bearable, but when
we ask…what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable
(Butler, Undoing Gender 17)?
Butler connects her theorizing of grief to the question of what makes life bearable
and livable. Distinguishing the livable life from the basic material conditions
that make life possible, Butler wants to think about how and when lives are
and aren’t deemed recognizable and worthy of life and of being grieved (39).
I was never afraid to lose my mom. Okay, that’s not true. Before my mom was
diagnosed I couldn’t imagine how I could ever live without her. Her death was the
one I feared most, even more than my own. Yet once I learned she would die soon, it
wasn’t her impending death that made me come undone; it was her life and what it
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would mean for her (and for me) if she lived, without half of her stomach, always
haunted by death, not knowing when the cancer would come back or when she
would no longer be able to walk. As sad as knowing she would soon die made me,
I knew I could handle her death. But I wasn’t sure that I could handle her painful,
yet inevitable, journey towards it.
Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life
and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already
possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy
to finding ways to survive and persist. For her, the question of the livable life
must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a
good life, one must first be recognized as having a life.
My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision
was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying
from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that
hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—were replaced by practical
discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was
free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she
could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did
reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of
life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable
to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last
four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up
until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments,
however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters,
her grandchildren and my dad.
What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones
that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic
cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when
it is possible.
There Is No Conclusion, Only Another Fragment To Place Beside
The Others
There is a more general conception of the human at work here, one
in which we are, from the start, given over to the other, one in which
we are, from the start, even prior to individuation itself, and by virtue
of our embodiment, given over to an other: this makes us vulnerable
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to violence, but also to another range of touch, a range that includes
the eradication of our being at the one end, and the physical support
for our lives, at the other (Butler, Undoing Gender 23).
Butler devotes her attention in Precarious Life, Undoing Gender and Frames of
War to how the recognition of our vulnerability in the midst of others often
results in very violent, yet always failed, attempts to deny or conceal it. But
she offers, albeit briefly, the possibility of another way of thinking about and
responding to our vulnerability as caring for and being in loving proximity to
one another.
The night before her big surgery, the one that would determine whether she lived
(for how long?) or died (on the operating table?), my mom was scared. She really
hated doctors and hospitals. And she didn’t want to die. My oldest sister asked her if
she would like to cuddle with her three daughters on the bed. She agreed, and together
we—the three daughters and Rosie J, still in my womb—lay beside Mom. We held
her as we waited, not knowing what would happen next.
My living and grieving beside my mom Judith and my daughter Rosemary
Judith has enabled me, through joy and sadness and life and loss, to bear witness to the potential of this second non-violent meaning of vulnerability and
to imagine the ethical potential of grief to be found not so much in what we
have lost—a loved one—but in what we have gained: the recognition that we
have the potential to love and be loved, to care and be cared for.
References
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? New York: Verso,
2009.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York:
Verso, 2004.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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Love and Loss, Joy and Pain,
In this short essay, I draw on two extraordinary, virtually simultaneous personal
experiences—the death of my mother only a few short months after the birth of my
daughter. I discuss both the contradictory emotional weight of both experiences, and
how my new motherhood was affected by becoming motherless. I also share how
the birth of my daughter both intensified my grief, and at the same time, brought
enormous comfort, alleviating some of the pain of losing my mother. This is just one
story about reconciling love and loss, joy and pain, birth and death.
When I was young and angry at my mom, she would take me to the “Mommy
Store” located in the alcove at the top of the stairway which led to the basement
of our house. It was there that I was supposed to pick out a new mommy, one
of course, that I had to imagine was hanging on the yellow tiled wall that surrounded me. It worked wonders for re-directing my momentary frustrations,
as well as teaching me a few lessons in appreciating what I have.
My mother brought a great deal of creativity to her motherhood. She was
a first grade teacher for one year before I was born. And though she never
returned to the classroom, she weaved her elementary education training into
her mothering. The first poem1 she ever taught me was one she learned in
one of her college classes, and like the mommy store, taught me to value the
present, given the uncertainty of the future.
I have little doubt that her orientation to life was a result of the experience
of losing both her parents by the time she was 18 years old. With very little
preparation or warning, her life was completely turned over and inside out,
first, at nine when her father died of cancer, and nine years later, when she lost
her mother after a routine operation went wrong. Parentless on the cusp of
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her adulthood, appreciating and valuing what was known necessarily defined
her approach to life.
How prophetic her own life lessons were, as it turned out, for I was 21 and my
mom 43 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers was a fourteenyear battle, beginning with the lumpectomy, then radiation and chemotherapy,
followed by ten years of the relative, albeit anxious calm of periodic testing
and waiting. The last four years were quick and intense, as the original cancer
that had been dormant and undetected spread to her clavicle and her brain.
I was pregnant when she opted to undergo a stem cell transplant that would
replace the malignant cells with her own virgin cells. I remember helping her
to walk again, after the intensive surgery weakened her body even more, taking
baby steps with her as her body strengthened. She was undoubtedly motivated
by the life growing inside me—her first grandchild. In hindsight, she pushed
herself gloriously as her one last desire was to become a grandmother. And
she made it, healthy enough to come to the baby shower, to dance with me
during my early labor contractions. A few short months later, however, the
cancer metastasized to her liver, and her death was quickly approaching. Ten
days after her 57th birthday, my newborn daughter and I waited for the hospice
bed to be delivered, as my father and brother drove to the hospital to bring her
home to die. On their way, I received a phone call from the hospital and was
told that my mother awoke from her morphine haze, whispered quietly, “I’m
tired” to the loving nurse at her side, and closed her eyes forever.
My mother died the day my daughter turned seven months old. It was a
peculiar experience—becoming a mother while losing a mother. The dependencies of new life and dying and the caregiving they require, combined with
the emotional weight that each produces was palpable. Clenching my mother’s
hand through her severe abdominal pain and holding my inconsolable daughter
as she cut her first tooth—experiences so similar and yet so profoundly different—marked the beginnings of my motherhood. I was pulled between being
needed, being the source of survival of these two live bodies, each at different
ends of the life-death continuum. In the months following my mom’s death,
as I would look at my daughter while I rocked her to sleep, I would see my
mom at her weakest moments, lying in the hospital bed the day before she
died, her pale face, hairless head—child-like.
Life and death are opposing forces and while philosophically we can claim
the connection between the two and the inevitability of both, as well as the
emotional work that each requires, there is something so contradictory to be
going through both at the same time. The ways in which we construct, treat,
and think about birth and death, seems to require that we are supposed to
experience each separately and certainly protect new life from its opposite,
death. So, caring for my newborn daughter, watching as she grew and developed
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at the same time that I was caring for my mother, watching as she became
weaker and further deteriorated made both of these experiences seem so much
more alien than perhaps they would have been had one occurred with some
temporal distance from the other.
For me, so much that new motherhood brought—joy, exhilaration, frustration, exhaustion – was experienced in the context of grief and loss. Certainly
it was hard to be deprived of sharing the milestones—her first steps, her first
tooth, writing her first letter, singing her first song—with my mother. All of
these joyful transitions were tinged with the sadness and anger of my mom’s
absence. Thus when my daughter, said the words, “momma” for the first time,
as exciting as that moment was, I was reminded that I had ceased using that
same word only a few months before.
I expected some of these difficulties, though I wasn’t quite sure how it would
feel to experience these milestones without her. What I did not, and perhaps
could not anticipate was the difficulty of coming to terms with the fact that
I will not have a relationship with my mother as a mother. All of the missed
opportunities for deepening our relationship—that she will not see me be a
mom, nor hear my daughter call me “mommy.” Or that I will not be able to
watch her take delight in being a grandmother, and that my daughter will not
see me be a daughter to a mother. It is these identities that connect us—daughter/granddaughter-mother-grandmother—yet such connections between us
can only be made through memories that have already been created before my
mother died, before my daughter was born, before I became a mother. That I
cannot talk about motherhood—the fears, the joys, the work—with my mother
as a mother has perhaps been the most difficult part of losing her. And it goes
much deeper than questions like, “was I like that when I was her age?” but the
more profound experience of learning how she felt about being a mother with
the sensibility I have gained through becoming a mother.
At the same time, my connection to my mother is deepened by the fact that
she too became a mother without her mother. So in a very strange way, death
has made me feel even more strongly linked to her, knowing that we both
became mothers without the light of our mother’s wisdom, knowledge, and
mistakes. Retaining only memories of advice given when we weren’t ourselves
yet mothers.
By the time my daughter turned eleven months, she started to resemble my
mother, quite remarkably, in fact. Naturally, I thought that I was seeing this
change in her because I so very needed to, though others who knew my mom
saw it too. It was such a comfort to look at my daughter and see my mother,
and as she has grown, the resemblance has become even stronger—it is in her
expressions, mannerisms, even the way she runs. I still find myself watching
my daughter, looking for another “sign” of my mother. But, while I have found
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solace and even joy in this uncanny similarity it has been marked by such sorrow that my mother is not here to see it for herself.
Pulled emotionally in two opposing directions love and loss, the joy of
birth, the sorrow of death, my experience of motherhood is bound by these
contradictions. And yet it is true that they are not so opposed. I have felt joy
in places that are also filled with sadness and loss. As such, it has been both
harder and easier to grieve the loss of my mother, as I myself, have become
a mother. Harder, because of the absence of her guidance at a time when my
needs for her have intensified. At the same time, I was able to lose myself in
my daughter and new motherhood when the pain of loss was its most difficult
to bear. Nursing my daughter was such a source of comfort to me—the quiet
of lying with her gave me some needed time to grieve, to allow my mind to
flood with memories of my relationship with my mother. My daughter kept
me company through this, and nourishing her gave me an ability to mother
while I mourned the loss of my own mother. This, for me, has been the visceral
experience of birth and death and the grieving that has brought me even closer
to my mom and my daughter in such unexpected ways. And perhaps it has
been the valuable lessons of the mommy store and the purple cow, that I have
been able to reconcile my mom’s death and appreciate all the tools and insights
she gave me to mother my daughter, even in her absence.
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you anyhow
I’d rather see than be one
(Gelett Burgess 1895)
1
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christina foisy
I Thought the Bones Would Do
Mourning Postpartum Suicide Through
This paper is a textual collage that ebbs from autobiographical to theoretical inquiries
of working-through the loss of a mother to suicide, and considers collage as an essential
and productive aspect of re-membering suicide “in other words” beyond stigma. My
central question is “how does one re-member what one cannot remember?” I consider
collage as a site of recovery that does not cover-over a story of suffering, but allows
it to border-cross between fact and fiction. My work of mourning thus begins in
fiction, while my father’s begins in matter. After witnessing my mother’s suicide, he
“collaged” home renovations from recycled materials and fragments from their lives
together. I will outline how his architectural collages pieced-together uncanny and
unexpected expressions of guilt that ironically reshaped the meaning of her suicide
in ways that promoted reparation.
Renovating Home: A Work of Mourning
In 1980, two years before I was born, my father inherited a barn-shaped plank
house from his great aunt. The house had been in the family since 1934. He
bought it for five dollars and a case of O’Keefe’s. Sitting at the top of a gravel
hill, buried behind tall grass and invasive cedar trees, the house needed to be
brought back to life, namely with major renovations. Since the early 1960s,
the house was left abandoned as a forgotten family heirloom.
The roof had caved in. The floors were rotted. Windows rattled from the
constant draft. Remnants of the house’s past life greeted my father. Antique
cupboards, tulip-shaped shutters, tree-saws and axes.
When my parents married in 1982, they moved into the dilapidated house.
Together they began to renovate the house as a family project. I have pictures
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of my mother and father standing on the overgrown lawn, tools in hand, ready
to work. My mother wore my father’s overalls. They shared steel-toe boots.
Together they began to collect materials from Victorian mansions in Westmont (Montreal neighbourhood)—demolitions they had assisted, working as
freelance carpenters. They lived as artists and radical architects.
After I was born, my mother fell into severe depression. She had stopped
eating and bathing. For five months, she hid in the house and avoided friends
and family. The renovations were put on hold, while she was put on a psychiatric waiting list at the Douglas Hospital in Montreal. Two weeks before
her first appointment, she hung herself from a ceiling beam while my father
was at work.
The story of renovation has been running in the family ever since. My father
continued, even after my mother’ suicide. Her artwork covered the half-painted
walls, masking their imperfections. As I grew up with covered knowledge of
the loss, without knowing how she died, I had her paintings. I had walls. Her
clothes. Pieces of her that lived-on in the house.
My earliest memories of the house are dark and wild. I often felt like it would
swallow me if I entered. Afraid of the trees marked by bear claws, I preferred
to stand on the steps in daylight, away from the forest—in full sight. In an
attempt to help me adjust, my father brightened my room with yellow paint
and rosebush wallpaper. A small plastic record/cassette player filled my room
with familiar sounds, the songs my grandmother sang to me like the heart
shaped lullaby machine that hung from my bedpost.
Introduction
Whatever the outcome for individuals the lives of people bereaved by suicide
will be altered irrevocably—the old environment must be given up, the
new accepted. (Wertheimer 94)
After my mother’s suicide, my father took up restoring the 1934 farmhouse
through collage renovations that reshaped the meaning of her death. As he
layered misfit pieces of wood, stained glass, and Victorian moldings laboriously, recounting his responsibility to make the house safe and sound—shards
of my mother’s suicide stuck out like splintered wood. I am fascinated by my
father’s poetics of debt and indebtedness: rebuilding as a way of recovering
what he cannot repair. Nearly 30 years later, the house remains an unfinished
project. My father uses recycled materials from past renovation jobs to remake
what he cannot afford to buy new, yet refuses to leave untouched. The house
remains enclosed with very little sunlight. Small windows held my father’s
dreams of one day installing wall-length glass. Perhaps to overcome the
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shadows my mother carried. I argue that mourning through collage allows
one to re-member the past towards future ways of reconfiguring loss. Collage
disrupts stable categories of knowledge, by finding new coherencies, threading
narratives while relying on uncertainty and non-linearity. Storylines are cut-up
and retold. Memories are re-membered anew, transformed by being put-back
together in a different way. While “collaging” an artist never knows what to
expect, images and textures are layered intuitively, as an unconscious process of
letting go of a set course. Therefore, by bringing collage to my mother’s suicide,
I hope to re-member her death from the fragments she left behind, as a way of
moving beyond the social stigma and paralysis associated with suicide. What
follows is a series of narratives, pulled from my family home, intertwined with
theoretical discussions on what it means to attend to an event that shocks, like
suicide. And more importantly, regarding my mother’s suicide, I seek explore
the ways silence can be heard ethically, to unearth what is inaudible under the
thick narratives of meaning. How can the silence surrounding my mother’s
suicide become an opportunity to speak about suicide in other ways, in ways
that do not cover-over the act but re-member it? By exploring this question,
my main argument that our family home, and the subsequent work that my
father and I have put into it, embodies our family’s remembrance of my mother
as a “mad” work of art and a process of symbolization that moves beyond the
stigma towards productive forms of mourning and thinking about suicide. As
a result, collage has opened up a space and created a context to renovate the
meaning of suicide in our family.
Suicide’s Stigma
In western discourses, suicide is often relegated to a speech that silences. We
tend to “explain away the act” (Szarz 9) without ever addressing its significance:
how suicide is in fact an expression of the crisis of surviving personal trauma
in a traumatic social world—and that we need to speak of this relationship,
and more importantly we need to listen. As such, my “collaged narrative” of
my mother’s suicide invokes the ethical necessity of listening to that which
cannot speak in a comprehensible language, or that speaks in a language that
makes us uncomfortable: a reminder of what we fear most—of all that slips
between our of grasp of knowledge. The anxiety of not-knowing is amplified by
the inability to utter such anxiety, for lacking a language in which to speak of
suicide. Conversely, Alison Wertheimer in A Special Scar explains how finding
the words to speak about suicide is difficult because historically “suicide was
equated with homicide, self-murder, and was viewed as an unlawful taking of
life” (15). Criminalization has made it difficult to discuss and confront suicide
as a real or legitimate way to die. The most unsettling aspect of suicide is not
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having “answers” to understand the death rationally—and therefore many families cope by either erasing the dead person from their narratives or by avoiding
the subject. The effects are debilitating for the mourning process. Wertheimer
discusses Pincus and Dare’s (1978) sociological study on suicide, to emphasize
how stories “in denial” reinforce stigma, by allowing families to “avoid their
feelings of guilt and the pain of their loss” (11). As such, it seems to be difficult
to successfully mourn a stigmatized death with and without words.
Margaret Atwood, in her collection of short fiction Good Bones, attempts
to listen to the matter of the deviant deceased, to the bones of those who
died shamefully. Using writing as a mode of listening, she attempts to grieve
the lives of the stigmatized. Judith Butler made a similar attempt in her essay Bodies That Matter suggesting ethical examination of how we categorize
and valorize bodies by looking at the way we grieve bodies. In the same vein,
Atwood welcomes the deviant deaths as lives worth grieving and attends to
those, in Butler’s words, “who fail to qualify as fully human…which motivates
a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter…ways of living
that count as living” (Butler 237). Atwood qualifies bones as good and bad
as a way to disrupt the categorization of social stigmas. As Erving Goffman
taught us, social stigmas emerge as signs that mark someone outside of a social category, which makes them a stranger: “society establishes the means of
categorizing persons and the compliment of attributes felt to be ordinary and
natural … when a stranger comes into our presence, then first appearances
are likely to enable us to anticipate their category” (3). Most would consider
bones as bones, seen as universal corporeal matter, yet Atwood personifies
them, re-inscribing the vague dichotomous qualities, which once placed them
in hierarchical order in the living world. She recognizes their spirit within an
ideological framework that marks them as other, or stranger. The bad bones,
those belonging to criminals, murders, suicidals or sinners, are silenced, buried
without a narrative to haunt the living. They are to be forgotten along with
their history, as she writes:
The bad bones have been bad, so they are better left unsaid. They are
better left unsaying. But they were never happy: they always wanted
more, they were always hungry. They can smell the words coming out
of your mouth all warm and yeasty. They want some words of their
own. They’ll be back. (Atwood 110)
Atwood’s passage, refers to the “traces of voices and epistemologies that
haunt history” (Kevin 1) and conjures our responsibility to “talk with the ghost,
and to think about how to give them back speech” (Derrida 115). Her passage
reminds us that these buried bones have voices and un-told histories, and they
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can still “smell the words coming out” of our mouths (Atwood 110) since their
traces are in us, even if we cannot perceive or understand them. In Specters
of Marx, Derrida developed the concept of hauntology in order to attend to
the ghosts of those who lie outside of the discipline of history and language.
In a way, Atwood’s bad bones perform a hospitable welcoming of the stranger,
the stigmatized and the deviant ghost. Without anticipating its position, she
warns that it has a story to tell, and that we should listen. Similarly, although
not specific to mothers, Derrida suggests that welcoming the stranger should
embrace the following deconstruction:
To welcome, we were saying then, but even while apprehending, with
anxiety and the desire to exclude the stranger, to invite the stranger
without accepting him of her domestic hospitality that welcomes
without welcoming the stranger, but a stranger who is already found
within, more intimate with one than one is with oneself—the absolute
proximity of a stranger whose power is singular and anonymous—an
unnamable and neutral power that is undecidable, neither active nor
passive. (Derrida 216.
Derrida’s elliptical passage attempts to deconstruct what language has decided
and built of the stranger as something outside oneself, and unfamiliar. Instead,
Derrida uses language, with great difficulty, to welcome the stranger found
within, more intimate with one than one is with oneself, as a process of welcoming
uncertainty back into the knowledge and linguistic production of the stranger
that troubles its proximity to the self.
Skeletons in the Closet, Speaking of Suicide
In 2008, my father finally covered the exposed pipes that crept along the ceiling. He incased the pipes with pine boards like a casket. But he didn’t nail the
boards shut. Instead, he used hinges to insure accessibility in case of a leak.
What struck me, is that he hung dollar-store Halloween skeletons from the
pipes—maybe as an idiomatic joke or maybe not. It might be because my mother
hung herself beside those very pipes after a long battle with manic depression
and postpartum illness. The skeletons in that closet are symbolic of the silence
surrounding her death and societal stigma of postpartum suicide. Family guilt
is buried and constructed by thick narratives nailed on top of one another trapping a way to think through her death differently. Yet the skeletons are hung
purposefully, as a shrine reminder and way to re-member. Bound to the site
of her death, they offer an imaginative outlet for memory to be re-interpreted.
Perhaps, they are meant to suspend preconceived notions of what her suicide
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means, and offer possibilities of what can be built from this loss. On second
though, perhaps the skeletons are not symbolic of silence. Maybe they can speak
of the life he once had with her, and is now re-constructing without her—thus
reshaping the meaning of the site of her death. The skeletons could represent
my mother’s bones. Excavated and enshrined within the collage of our home,
beside the site of her death just like an aminitas1[FOOTNOTE MISSING]:
they may promise a miracle. Giving my father the strength to break up the past
and reclaim it, I see those skeletons as an ironic form of hope. By opening the
closet door, startled by the plastic skeletons, we silently confronted the silence
of her suicide, and listened to what we could not answer or understand.
Since the language of suicide is devoid of thinking about the act beyond
prevention and moral panic, given “historically one of the ways in which society
has dealt with its collective fear and hostility towards suicide is to criminalize it” (Wertheimer 15), to overcome suicide’s linguistic silencing, instead
of using words to utter our story of suffering regarding my mother’s suicide, I
am fascinated by my father’s uses of matter and building materials from his
past with my mother and his present-time with me, to express his guilt and
forgiveness. My father’s renovations and architectural gestures not only repair
the family home—they generate new metaphors surrounding our work of
mourning, and recovery from suicide. In light of these architectural articulations, I consider how collage makes possible “for everything to be something
else” (Brockelman 230) and promotes non-verbal expressions of suffering that
transcend the ethical limitations of guilt. My father’s skeletons in the closet
ironically allow us to attend to her death. Echoing what Emmanuel Lévinas
describes as “saying beyond the content of speech” (67), my father’s skeletons
are almost seen as the uncomfortable consequence of opening the house up to
reveal what it might know about my mother’s suicide, and our family’s guilt.
Thus, to work-through guilt one must perform the difficult task of pushing
open the closet door of psychic defenses, while being able to welcome the
surprise of what is hidden behind the door.
The plastic skeletons are metaphors that speak of our story of suffering from
different standpoints and subjective experiences.Therefore, within this polyvocal
moment of opening the closet door and being startled my father’s architectural
layerings, I consider how collage as both a language and context, allows for
communication beyond the symbolic borders of life and death—by promoting
continuous re-symbolizations and opportunities for new meanings to emerge.
My father’s skeletons are not ghosts. They visibly re-mark how my mother’s
death haunts our family but they are hidden from everyday sight. As such,
they must be recovered to be seen. Someone has to push the closet door open
and risk entering a confrontation with the dead through the uncomfortable,
startling sight of skeletons in someone’s closet. In a sense, what my father is
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expressing largely relates to prying for information, asking too many questions, trying to get the bottom of a story too deeply personal or traumatic to
be shared, or to be uttered.
Speaking of my mother’s suicide is necessarily imaginative—it is a necessary
push at discursive boundaries that contain her death in stigma. She died before
I was able to speak, before I had her story. My memory of her is pieced-together
from family narratives, secrets and reverie. She is a figment of my imagination as much as a biological trace. Living in the traces of the unsaid, in family
photographs, mementos and artwork, I try to find her—but fail. As such my
imagination of her is frustrated, since “the capacity to bring what is absent into
symbols must work overtime” (Britzman, The Very Thought of Education, 106).
However, considering imagination as a labour of thought and possibility, even
in its failure, “we can try again to encounter the unknown” (Britzman, The Very
Thought of Education, 106). In an attempt to express what is inexpressible in
my personal history (the loss of a mother to suicide) my writing and artwork
responds to this history of not-knowing by turning to the family home, the
place where she died, to listen, and to imagine other possibilities of thinking
about suicide beyond failure but rather as an opportunity for creation. Much
like my creative writing and collage art, my father’s renovations seek to address
what Melanie Klein, in her 1929 essay Love, Guilt and Reparation, describes as
reparation which is an ongoing psychic process that keeps a psychological wound
open while enabling one to recover new bonds and means of symbolizing the
lost object. In my case, I have symbolized my mother in creative writing and
autobiographical fiction that re-members her through my own experiences of
living in the home occupied by her presence/absence.
My wound, the loss of a mother to suicide, was covered with a linguistic
band-aid for many years while I recovered ways of speaking about her death
with my own fictional accounts. Whether I invented stories about her or not,
the family’s explanation of my mother’s “hormonal imbalance” sounded like a
made-up disease that could have been a myth in my mind. I don’t know what
was worse, having a term to explain her death that I could not explain, or having
nothing except my imagination. I was not sure how an imbalance could lead
to death, nor could I say what hormones were, which is not very surprising
given how much disdain society has for mental illness and suicide. As Alison
Wertheimer says in A Special Scar “family myths or “secrets” may be created
where the truth becomes denied or distorted as families attempts to avoid their
feelings of guilt. This is particularly likely to happen when the survivors include
children, and when communication in the family often becomes as distorted
as attempts are made to hide the truth from them” (96). Suicide counters the
belief that life is of utmost value as well as “the family’s entire belief system
including their own sense of themselves as a unit” (Wertheimer 96).
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While my father has been rebuilding our family home with collage aesthetics
and architecture, before and ever since my mother’s death, as a writer, I have
been rebuilding a relation towards my mother through experimental writing:
collaging autobiographical fiction, poetry and notebook entries into one text.
“Speaking with the dead” is a metaphor, familiar to literary critics, that describes
moments in literature that haunt, where the author’s voice interrupts our reading
of the text, forcing us to think beyond it, and engage in an impossible dialogue
(Barthes 121). To overcome this dialogic paradox, Roland Barthes made it
clear that “the silence of the dead is one of the very conditions that enable us
to speak” (121). Thus, the skeletons in my father’s closet are more than idioms
of silence, they move beyond words, becoming the matter they describe. They
enable a way to speak, and express what Sharon Todd describes as “stories of
suffering” (131) beyond language. Ironically, as symbols, they invite a literal
relation with my mother’s death, beyond the social stigma of suicide. Given that
I have no conscious memory of my mother, I turn to Jacques Derrida’s concept
of hauntology to wrestle with the paradox of this “impossible dialogue,” that
the skeletons provoke, and try to figure out a way to listen. Perhaps, Derrida’s
figure of the ghost, as a specter that vacillates between worlds, coming to us
from the boundaries of language and thought, can allow me to consider my
mother’s presence/absence within the family home through the “skeletons in the
closet”. Even as over-determined signs, clichés at best, those plastic bones are
heavier than words, for they carry more meaning in silence, calling my attention
to speak and listen to my mother’s postpartum suicide. The skeletons startle,
surprise and cause one to halt mid-sentence, to stay, and remain present in an
uncomfortable encounter. Much like being haunted, as described by Derrida
in Specters of Marx, despite my mother’s absence, in the closet she is partially
re-presented, made present by the bones that seek justice. Such representation
allows me to attend to the site of her death, even if the details (or reasons for) of
her suicide are not certain. Only recently, have I begun using the quasi-scientific
label: “postpartum suicide” to describe her death, yet my father’s assemblage
of the family home, in retrospect, seems to do a better job of saying, or relating to the event. Beyond language, where the literalness of suffering is shown
without intelligible plot lines or narrative, the skeletons demand a response,
yet remain open, to what Levinas claims as, the “risk of communication” (Todd
139). Is there a risk in “speaking with the dead?” Would the risk be to stand
in and speak over silence, interrupting the possibility to learn something new
or be transformed by the ghost in unexpected ways? By creating a context to
receive my mother, in alterity, as the infinitely unknowable other, I attempt to
demonstrate a form of listening that attends to rupture and silence, and that
“says more than what is being said” (Todd 121). Through the act of collage,
of melting and merging what never could have been thought to fit together, I
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seek to have incongruous things meet in one, polyvocal frame—to speak with
ghosts and narrate their presence in a non-linear timeline.
Buried Plots, Excavated Stories
For years, I ran along the paved paths of the Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges Cemetery. Without reason other than to climb steep hills, I made the ten-kilometer
trip regularly. I indulged in a picturesque, yet morbid view of Montreal. There
was something calming about the rows upon rows of tombstones: maybe it
was an escape from the constant movement and congestion of the city below.
I liked the trees and seventeenth-century graves. I enjoyed stepping on roots
in heart rate rhythm.
For years, I had no idea my mother was buried there.
I discovered the family plot, by chance, on the eve of my birthday. It was
my last day as a 25 year old. The age she would be forever. She died at 25, as
I live on.
No one had ever taken me to her grave: it was the unspoken plot of our family
narrative. As I ran, about to out-live her, I stumbled on her humble plaque to
the side of my great aunts’ and uncles’ pillar monuments. A rock in the grass
one might overlook then trip over. Buried with the murmurs surrounding her
death, there she was, deviant and denied, haunting the family-plot: the skeleton
in our closet. I didn’t know what to say as I knelt beside the plaque: feeling
somewhat caught between the freedom and restriction of not knowing her.
As the mechanical arms of Ditch Witch trenchers dug graves in the next lot,
I thought about her bones. If found by an archaeologist: what would they say,
what story would they tell?
My mother’s grave is a disembodied text, marking her death with someone
else’s words: my father’s last name and the cemetery lot number. Unlike the
plastic bones in my father’s closet, what would the real bones say? Sharon Todd
discusses, in Learning from the Other, the importance of creating a context for
listening, where attentiveness is a response to something more than speech.
Where undisclosed secrets, thought dead and gone, are revealed in other ways,
re-symbolized and read anew. Todd stresses the importance of listening to “that
which is not easy” (131) and which has a potential for disrupting a sense of
self. From this stance, ethical communication is not solely based on the content
of what is said, but as Lévinas puts it “the nearness and orientation we bring
to the other” (130). Keeping this relation in mind, when I reflect on the way
my father first said that my mother committed suicide, to the way that his
skeletons speak from within the closet—ethical listening requires one to listen
to what is not said but nonetheless expressed.
As Julia Kristeva posits, the maternal “I” exists in a space where no one is
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present to signify what is going on (Kristeva 127), and from this impossibility
of knowing what went on, all I have is the possibility of proximity, where I can
approximate without completely understanding my mother’s story. There is a
risk of violation in speaking of her, violently digging for answers, uprooting
what no one wants to know, or can know. There is a sense of silencing the silent:
of disrupting the silence of her body. Since “the maternal cannot be spoken of
except across the gap that forever separates language from the mother’s body”
(Kristeva 127), it is from this gap, that I trespass, interrupting her death with
language and medical labels that define her death as “postpartum suicide”.
Yet within the impossibility of knowing my mother, of bringing her back to
life, I had the possibility of imagining her beyond the voices of others. Just as
Nabokov, says, “I could invent the violin or be devoured by the void” (Nafisi
24) I invented a mother within the silence of the family plot, and the overdetermined text of the grave. Thus silences become opportunities for creation
and dreams. Silences are “spaces of critique in which codified culture does not
predominate or prevail but makes possible for multiple interpretations and
expressions” (Garoian 93). Therefore, I used the silence surrounding her death
as an opportunity to speak of suicide differently.
Staged Presence of Absence
Last year, inspired by my father’s artistry in renovation, I staged a fictional family dinner to collapse the “thick narratives” (Lear 71) that define my mother’s
death as a failure in motherhood. Heart shaped Little Debbie cakes sit beside
chicken bones on a colorful tablecloth of family photographs and magazines.
The juxtaposition is shocking. Sugary artificial hearts, wrapped intact, beside
the decaying bird bones, speak of unhealthy, almost hyperbolic, love contained
by the cellophane of nuclear family ideals, medical myths, and popular discourses of motherhood. Just as I could say my mother was a fake, postpartum
suicide falsifies the authenticity of motherhood as a sublime and wonderful
experience. Such work is meant to falsify dominant narratives of motherhood,
by re-inscribing its discursive presence in domestic and social fantasies. This
is the shock of collage: where worlds that normally never meet collapse and
collide creating something new, possibly something grotesque and beautiful.
I have never seen her bones, and I don’t remember her body, yet I know it is a
part of me. From these contradictions, my mother left an opportunity to use
the presence of her absence, to listen to the silence between fragmented family narratives, medical and philosophical theories of motherhood that cannot
tell the complete story. Just as collage embraces the chance meeting of found
objects, mementos, pieces and sounds of everyday life, I have pieced this story
from traces.
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And so the chicken bones in my installation tell the story of the family dinner
we never shared, traces of the body I don’t remember and the corporeality of
her death, which I have never seen. They are the language of the dead. As the
fictional dinner table is set with pink lace, porcelain teacups, flower patterned
teapots, lush green tapestry and heart-shaped sweets: the bones are decoratively
arranged around these ornaments suggesting their disembodiment and contrast
with the traditional, nuclear family dinner table, which subverts assumptions
about conventions of femininity, motherhood myths and sublime fertility.
Ornamentation paralleled with grotesque displacement, where hyper-feminine
elements of domesticity exist in the same realm as decay and death, helps to
dissolve motherhood myths beyond the essence of binaries. Bones, similar to
the people they once held together, are intricate. They have several functions,
holding a matrix of cells with inorganic and organic parts—categorized since
the Enlightenment. But what about the parts that often do not fit into clean
sermons and stories to be told at the family dinner table? The spirits of those
bones—where do they live, and can we “speak” with them? Bones rest as
evidence of being and not being, a reminder of the “spectral traces, phantom
voices and pamlipseptic discourses that shape a particular way of life” (Derrida
66). Thus the stories, in which I re-write and re-construct the contradictions
surrounding my mother’s death, are part of a critical conjuring process, where
postpartum suicide can nuance the discursive codes of motherhood.
I Thought the Bones Would Do: The Flesh of Collage Narratives
In my first college-level art class, the professor made us sit on the floor, and
listen to a Sylvia Plath recordings. As Plath read through the lines of “Daddy”
sternly, unflinching, I lingered on the following lines: “Bit my pretty little heart
in two/ I was ten when they buried you/ At twenty I tired to die/ And get
back, back to you/ I thought the bones would do.” She had stolen the words
from my mouth. And perhaps, from my mother’s mouth as well.
Later that year, I collaged a sculpture of found scraps from my father’s backyard. It was an imaginary sun with a tree stump for a face, metal shards for
rays, and a paint-mask for a mouth. Its ontological strangeness was made-up
of pieces from my father’s world, the natural world and what I imagined to
be my mother’s world. Without realizing it, I captured the estrangement and
familiar regret of Plath’s poem. “I thought the bones would do”.
But bones won’t do, just like words. They fail us, leaving us with only the
partial story, the plain fact. Perhaps, bones leave us with a truth too sterile,
too distant to assimilate and claim as our own. The knowing, or knowledge
that keeps us wondering. In a way, my early connection with Plath’s hauntings poeticize the socially constructed and discursive tragedy of my mother’s
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death with something other than words: with imagery. I did not have the
words to discuss my mother’s suicide, partially because I did not have a family
narrative to rely on emotionally, I searched for clues in everything outside of
myself: from art, philosophy, music, neuroscience to pulp fiction. As Alison
Wertheimer discusses in a Special Scar, “finding a language to talk and to write
about suicide is not easy, but perhaps as we talk more about people who takes
their lives and those bereaved by suicide, we shall find that we have the right
words” (15). I do not trust that I have the right words, and I do not believe that
such linguistic endeavours are productive. The way suicide is attended to both
personally and socially lacks ethical engagement: which may not be possible
with language alone. Even if it is right, sensitive, honest or politically correct,
language requires a body, it requires a gesture towards the Other.
Collage theorist and artist, Kathleen Vaughan, discusses the importance of
expanding academic syntax beyond language in order to capture embodied
modes of representation (Vaughan 8). Where embodied language helps researchers promote ethical engagement, and counter a Western positivist paradigm
(Vaughan 8) rooted in certainty and defined categories of knowledge production. Postpartum suicide was a new word that I had learned while watching an
Oprah Winfrey episode featuring Brooke Shield’s new book, about her struggle
with suicidal thoughts as a new mother. I liked the word. It gave me something
to hold on to, to say out loud with certainty. I was relieved to know that my
mother was not the only one who had died this way, that I was not an anomaly:
that other young women had lost their mothers to suicide. I took comfort in
explaining away the act (Szarz 45). Maybe she was isolated as a new mother,
maybe her and my father were not getting along. Maybe she could no longer
paint or make art. And perhaps all these maybes are true. Knowing that she
suffered from postpartum depression shaped how I interacted and engaged with
the traces she left behind, and how I learned to read her suicide as something
beyond my control. Yet, even with the comfort of having a way to describe her
death, a way to justify suicide with a mental illness, I tried to control the reading
of her death, to tame my feelings and stories of suffering beneath a medical
label that forgets a lot of the stories between language. The sounds within the
silence of suicide that must be listened to in order to attend ethically to those
who have died, survived, and continue to live-on with suicide.
Just as family photographs define our similar jaw lines, and psychoanalytic
theory historically affirmed that “hysterics” could not tell the story of their
lives (Anderson 45), I ripped up family albums, to renegotiate our photogenic lineage. As Plath’s poem conjured my mother’s spirit before I even knew
where she was buried, and the art class led me to dig in my father’s yard for
scraps that might remember her, the chance and randomness of it all seemed
coherent. It seemed to bring together the inability to explain, rationalize or
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categorize my mother’s death into perspective. The text remains scattered, and
inconsolable. Marjorie Agosin describes how collage is a way to pay tribute to
the souls of people who died violently. In Chile, shrines are erected on the spot
where an individual was killed (Agosin 317). They are often an assemblage
of mementos, photographs and personal belongings. It is believed that these
animitas posses the ability to perform miracles for people who pay tribute to
them in the form of collage (Agosin 317). With this in mind, collage theory
can be an interesting site to excavate our discomforts with suicide and death,
thereby moving from a comfort in certainty, where difficult subject matter and
personal stories are disregarded, to a place where they can be heard. Collage
theory creates contradictory conditions where meaning is “continually negotiated and teaching as a position of absolute authority becomes impossible”
(Garoian 37). Perhaps my father’s skeleton’s move through language, beyond
cliché meanings towards something so particular that it cannot be grasped, or
understood in a single encounter. It is a text that requires a continual return,
and a haunting proximity to be read.
Conclusion
But the real wardrobe is not an everyday piece of furniture. It is not opened
every day, and so like a heart that confides in no one, the key is not on the
door. (Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 79).
My father chose the above quote from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetic of Space. I
had handed him the book to skim through while we discussed my project. He
picked a page at random and began to read. When he landed on the above
quote, he told me that it pretty much summarized his feelings regarding my
mother’s death. If we consider closets as intimate spaces that “don’t just open
for anybody” (Bachelard 79) where we keep things safe and out of the way, then
my father’s gesture to open the closet door for me to see Halloween skeletons,
hanging, is more than a practical joke. It was an invitation, a welcoming, to attend to my mother’s suicide (otherwise.) Thinking back, it was probably the first
time that we ever spoke of her death and listened to each other. From opposite
ends, where he remembers her, and I imagine her, we found the key to open
the closet door. Afterwards we both laughed into the closet, and he closed the
door. We sat for a long time, quietly, with our thoughts. Until he turned to me
asked: “they’re pretty neat, eh?” I nodded. Not knowing why they were necessarily “neat,” (they were merely dollar store Halloween decorations) instead I
was baffled by how close we had come to speaking with my mother’s ghost in
such a haunted space. When I asked my father what he had learned from the
quote in relation to my mother’s suicide, he responded: “forgiveness.” Jonathan
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i thought the bones would do
Silin tells us that, “forgiveness provides the only way of freeing ourselves from
irreversible mistakes of the past” (18). Thus, my father’s forgiveness enables
the recovery of the family home both as an architectural and psychological
intervention. By mirroring his work, my forgiveness came through similar
processes of re-memberance that reconfigured the stigma associated with my
mother’s death, which I have cultivated using collage.
Extending from my familial home, I have explored how silence can speak
beyond what has already been said about suicide in order to facilitate a productive crisis in language. By listening to the skeleton’s in my father’s closet, they
remind me that there is no “true” or “authentic” way to be a mother: just as the
bond between my mother and I is a fiction. It only remains real enough for me
to express through art and affect. Collage is a site of excavation for exploring
contradictions and ruptures within motherhood narratives. It is also a method
for examining our discomfort with death and suicide, by merging objects
from different worlds into a single frame: they create a meaningful context: a
place where meaning can occur. And so despite the gaps and interruptions in
the family plot, my mother’s death does not have to be the site of stigma and
shame. It can be seen as a site of possibility.
References
Agosin, Marjorie. “Collage of the Spirit.” Collage: critical views. Ed. Katherine
Hoffman. Ann Arbor, Michigan: umi Research Press, 1989, 317-324.
Anderson, Linda. Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction. London,
uk: Edward Arnold, 1990.
Atwood, Margaret. Good Bones. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Britzman, Deborah. After Education: Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Psychoanalytic Histories of Learning. Albany: State University of New York Press,
2003.
Brokelman, T.P. The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern.
Evanson, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001.
Davidman, Lynn. Motherloss. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and
the New International. New York and London: Routledge Classics, 1994.
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Chicago: University pf Chicago
Press, 2001.
Drouin-Brisebois, Josée. “Ornamental Impulse.” [ED??? PLS VERIFY] Shary
Boyle Otherworld Uprising. Montreal: Conundrum Press, 2008. 27-39.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
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Garoian, Charles R. Spectacle Pedagogy: Art, Politics and Visual Culture. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 2008.
Green, André. On Private Madness. London: Hogarth, 1986.
Grumet, Madeleine. “Conception, Contradiction and Curriculum.” Bitter
Milk: Women and Teaching. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,
1988. 3-30.
hooks, bell. Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995.
Irigaray, Luce. Key Writings. London, New York: Continuum, 2004.
Kristeva, Julia. Stranger to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press,
1991.
Kumar, R. and I. F. Brockington, eds. Motherhood and Mental Illness 2: Causes
and Consequences. London and Boston: Wright, 1988.
Marlatt, Daphne. “Self-Representation and Fiction Analysis.” The Anatomy of
Gender: Women’s Struggle for the Body. Ed. Dawn Currie. Ottawa: Carleton
University Press, 1992. 244-247.
Mauthner, Natasha S. “Feeling Low and Feeling Really Bad about Feeling
Low”: Women’s Experiences of Motherhood and Postpartum Depression.”
Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne 40 (2) (1999): 143-159.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random
House, 2004.
Rail, Geneviève and Nathalie Beausoleil. “Introduction to ‘Health Panic and
Women’s Health.’” Atlantis 27(2) (2003): 1-11.
Steedman, Carolyn K. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. New
Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Taussig, Micheal. “The Language of Flowers.” Critical Inquiry 30 (1) (Autumn
2003): 98-118.
Tavin, Kevin. “Hauntological Shifts: Fear and Loathing of Popular (Visual)
Culture.” Studies in Art Education 46 (2) (Winter 2005): 101-114.
Taylor, Verta and Marieke Van Willigen. “Women’s Self-Help and the Reconstruction of Gender:The Postpartum Support and Breast Cancer Movements.”
Mobilization: An International Journal, 1996, 1 (2): 123-142.
Vaughan, Kathleen. “Pieced Together: Collage as an Artist’s Method for
Interdisciplinary Research.” International Journal of of Qualitative Methods,
2005, 4 (1): 1-19.
Wertheimer, Alison. A Special Scar: The Experience of People Bereaved by Suicide.
New York: Routledge, 1991.
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My Mother’s Chicken Soup
Recipe for Perspective
Using the metaphor of mother’s chicken soup as a symbol of elder experience, the author parallels historic events in her life with historic events in her mother’s history.
Writing enabled the writer to put her mother’s life in perspective with her own. For
example: her mother walked to a market to find a live chicken, have it slaughtered
and plucked, and subsequently cooked the soup, while this writer easily drives to the
supermarket for her cleaned and quartered chickens. Her mother travelled with two
small children by train and boat through foreign speaking countries, never again
to see her large family; eventually they were all killed in the holocaust. This writer
at a similar age, also with two small children, lost her siblings and father. More
support, however, through writing and therapy was available. Such realizations
through writing helped the author to mature, appreciate, and grow compassion for
the elder mother.
Recently a friend’s husband recalled how sadness overwhelmed me 35 years ago.
I obviously had recovered from those dark times, because now I was comforting
him at the loss of his wife. I expressed how his wife’s frequent visits cheered
me, how she respected my writings, and how she gave me space He and his
whole family loyally read a monthly column I wrote at that time.
“I wrote myself out of it, didn’t I?” Unexpectedly, I blurted this out.
“You certainly did,” he agreed with a pat on my back.
This essay will illustrate the benchmarks of this change. Documented by
memories of past writing and family photographs from my albums, the process
of transformation from anger and pain is assisted by a maturing self-search using religion, therapy, and collegial support. Beginning the tragic and successive
sister, brother, both in their mid-forties, and father soon after the birth of my
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third child, my sorrow turned to an emerging anger at my mother until her
death 13 years later, when the anger transformed to a growing compassion.
Comparing her life to mine as I aged, I slowly came to new realizations, which
grew out of my writing. Memories arose unbidden and allowed me to grow an
appreciation of my mother. I went from the mother-blame as an exploration
in therapy to empathy that a growing meditative practice encouraged.
The first trigger memory arose recently while I was making chicken soup
for a Sabbath meal, that stereotypical product of Jewish mothering. I was, as
was my mother’s habit, sucking the over cooked bones, when I recalled my
mother’s six month fall into dying from a stroke. Nostalgia unearthed the ritual
we both shared even before I was enrolled in school. My pre-school learning
began at the Canadian open market in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, close to
the Detroit River. My mother haggled for the live chicken rwith a farmer,
carried the fowl in a wooden basket to the kosher slaughterer, witnessed the
quick death required by the rabbis to guarantee the least pain, and helped my
mother’s friend Peshke hand pluck the feathers to stuff our pillows and blankets.
The bald fowl was wrapped in newspapers for our long walk home to prepare
the Sabbath meal with the other food purchases from the market.
Today, I buy kosher chickens in prepared packages from Whole Foods, and
somehow miss the adventure of the open-air market full of banter, bargaining,
and local character. As a teenager I was embarrassed at my mother’s energy: she.
could fill any room with her shrieks and geshreis (outbursts), a habit agitated
and multiplied by her constant anxiety over money. Now I miss the energy that
used to make me recoil, sometimes in fright and sometimes in embarrassment.
Coupled with an arising calmness, is a present urge to understand, and with that,
a poignant longing to understand her more, so I can understand myself. Once
damned up by the immediacy of loss. I have developed a meditation practice
that can wait for the storm to clear. My mother’s recipe was more than birds
and vegetables, and I have developed my own. As I scrape over every vertebra
of the chicken necks, I desire the bare bone of real memory and wisdom about
this most important loss, my mother. Writing this will unearth what I seek.
So is my ultimate faith in this process.
Her life, I now realize, was so much harder than mine. Just witness the difference in shopping for food. With this frame, I went searching in old albums
to see what such comparisons could teach me, and how I could glean some
insights from the process writing.
My recipe for grieving is writing, as I am doing now. I’ve written about it
for so many years that I can’t tell what is memory and what is wish and what
is projection. To help I enter a search in Google for “grief and writing,” I find
over seven million items.1 There are organizations like poetry therapy 2and
journal therapy. 3There is even art therapy 4numerous ways to use artistic expres114
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my mother’s chicken soup
sion to work through
emotions. As if that’s
not what artists and
writers have been doing for centuries. I have
taught these courses and
even documented how
artistic expression of
the loss of a mother has
transformed the artist
(give citation),
However, I have never written about my
own transformation,
documented or undocumented in my life over
the loss of my mother.
My first separation was
in public school, Frank
W. Begley Elementary
School in Windsor Ontario. I had to be five when she dropped me off for grade one. I stayed at the
link fence for what seemed like a day watching her disappear from sight. I
must have been so happy to see her that afternoon when she came to get me.
Above is a picture of that time of my life, 1942.
For years I couldn’t imagine such affection especially as I grew older and
became cursory in my communications with her. Writing and life experience
colors our perspective of life-altering events, and so much was to happen
between this doting embrace and affection in the years to follow. My youngest grandchild is this same age and the loss of his mother’s presence is quite
profound; symbiosis is so natural and can be quite loving as it was here and
with my grandson. Both my daughter and my mother gave such unconditional
love that separation from it in the cold impersonal world is as profound a loss
as any tragedy. It is more than the writing, but the maturity that evolved, the
ability to look at the past and realize that, yes I have lived that age, the age
my mother was when I clung to her and felt that going to school that first
day was a tragic loss
I found the oldest picture of my mother at approximately the same age as
me, when we went scrambling to that Canadian farmer’s market. Here is a
picture of my mother’s family; she is the youngest girl standing in front of her
father, my grandfather whom I never met. He was probably trying to hold her
journal of the motherhood initiative
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rosie rosenzweig
still for the photography session, which was typically long at that time. This
had to be taken in the early 1900s.
Earlier in my life, I could not understand her anxiety and her hysteria at life’s
events. In the years that followed my mother was to lose her entire family of
83 to the Holocaust to perish by fire in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Such an event scars and tears at the heart and can turn a happy person dour.
I remember the day a letter came and she just stared. That’s exactly what I
did following the three family deaths decades ago. However, I was unable to
even speak to my mother without being curt and dismissive. It was too much
for me. I couldn’t even consider what these three additional deaths did to my
mother, so lost was I in fear and anger.
Since then I have published numerous poems about her and each one helped
to dislodge the defensive anger that protected the heartache and fear of being
the next in line to go.
My sister had died suddenly when I was almost 30; her kidneys collapsed.
When I also stared out the window, my children couldn’t comprehend this.
My sister and I shared the same bed with me and, because she was almost 15
years older, became a mother figure to me as well. My brother died the next
year from and my father followed, probably dying of a broken heart. Even
though publishing this poem comforted me, I never equated my losses with
her larger losses from anti-Semitism:
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my mother’s chicken soup
Family
I feed the image of a sister
Against that one bloated by despair,
Warmed double by the anger round her neck,
Jostled and strung taut by her going,
Burdened by her heartbeats,
Until they stopped.
I look for her in all the women that I meet.
I nurture a brother close by
Against that rack of bones
Sacked and sewn after a cutting,
Bagged into a bed too soon to know himself.
His young dreams blown with him
Over the hills of clouds.
I look for him in every man I know.
But I hold my father, oh my father,
Before that velvet paper box,
Lowered with a faltering crank,
Covered with these handfuls of dark soil.
I grow a memory of him that is not him.
Someone else must look for fathers,
Hear them out in old age homes,
Men who know their silence
And allow me mine....
While with my mother I listen
For the seeding of my own green time.5
My mother, at a similar age, did something far more courageous. She left her
family with many more siblings than I, to join her husband in North America.
She would never see them again, never have the warm support of her large
extended family in rearing her children in a foreign atmosphere.
Now as I am over 70, I look back and see a different perspective. Loss makes
one lose the present life because the feelings are so overwhelming. I neglected
my life, as she sometimes did not connect with me. However, the therapy that
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rosie rosenzweig
followed was directed
by searching for the
answer and had some
mother-blaming in
it. Unreasonably, I
thought my mother’s
hysteria drove my siblings to distraction so
that they died. I was
afraid that I was next
if I allowed myself
too much contact
with my poor mother’s over wrought
state of mind. My
conversations with
her were short and
never chatty. I did
her a great disservice because I
was overwhelmed
with the losses first
of my surrogate
mother and then
my brother and father. She mustered
up the courage at
this same age of 28, to leave her family and
home, to travel over land to Gdansk, through England, and across the sea, ill
at the unfamiliar food.
However, something changed in me as she lived out her next 20 years as a
widow. She needed me to help her However, something changed as she lived
out her next 20 years as a widow. She needed me to help her with surgery.
By then I had weathered the losses with therapy and a new career. My poetry
appeared in various prayer books, in healing anthologies, and I was rewarded
when I heard my poetry read in houses of mourning. This was now 15 years
after the original three losses, and when my mother needed cataract surgery,
I was very willing and eager to nurse her through her recovery. This was 1978
when recovery from the long surgery took six weeks and involved some pain.
Now I was amused at her drama, and here is a picture of that time.
She’s a bit older than I am now, and I have just scheduled my own cataract
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my mother’s chicken soup
surgery. However, today’s technology allows for fewer traumas and a shorter
recovery. But once again my perspective changes as I live through the ages she
has lived and through my own similar events. My eldest daughter visited her
in the years that followed and her photos document her grandmother’s final
years ravaged with old age and loneliness that I can still feel how my chest
became gripped with exhaustion and heartache.
Now I always refer to her as “my poor mother” and realize what a life of hardship
and loss she endured to bring me to this country that I might have a better life.
And I have thanks to her. I also can make, because of her, a dynamite chicken soup.
Postscript
I seem to understand my mother much better through these maturing experiences in my own life. Curiously enough, my imagination becomes quite
activated when I wonder what she would think of this event in the family and
that event in the world. At these times, it would not be uncommon for her to
materialize when I am waiting for a red light to change and I am pause in traffic.
Even though I know I am conjuring up dialogue, I find it amusing that I am
getting along with her so much better than at any time in my life. Strangely
enough she seems to be with an escort, a young intelligent young man with
glasses. I recall that her first-born died, or so the midwives told her in Poland
when she was barely 20. Perhaps she has found him in this imagined afterlife,
and now her first tragedy is being healed, just as I am in these later years of
my life. Beyond petulance and blame, somehow purged through writing and
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rosie rosenzweig
ageing, I now remember her brave spirit as someone who had the courage to
leave family and friends with her two small children to come to this continent,
live in a foreign place like Windsor Ontario, and give me a beginning to life
there. On the previous page is a picture of her fresh from a painful operation
in the days when the doctors held one’s head down with sandbags to perform
a cataract operation that would take six weeks’ recuperation. It makes me want
to go make a good pot of chicken soup for my family.
<http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=writing+and+grie
f&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8>.
2
<http://poetrytherapy.org>.
3
<http://arttherapy.org>.
4
<http://journaltherapy.com/index.html>.
5
Rosie Rosenzweig. “A Search For Community.” Voices: The Art and Science of
Psychotherapy: A Journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists (Winter
1971-72): 18-21.
1
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Memories of Post Natal Depression
Memories of Post Natal Depression (pnd) is a narrative of one woman’s experience
of undiagnosed post natal or post partum depression. It serves to help broaden the
existing definition of ppd that relies on the inability of the sufferer to function at a
normal daily level for a diagnosis. What happens to women who manage to get up
every day and keep going? Who notices them and how can they be diagnosed?
I am driving in my white Datsun 180b with a black vinyl roof. It is a 1979
model. Very reliable with wish bone suspension, whatever that is, but I know
it’s good, the cadence in the mechanic’s voice tells me so. I bought it for $2000
in Sydney and it is my lifeline, my conduit to the outside world.
I am driving around in my Datsun 180b with my two small children in the
backseat. They are properly restrained according to the laws of the day. We
are driving the winding dirt roads showering ever more dust over the already
drought dusty bush. The drought seems interminable. We drive to the school
bus, the supermarket, the bank, the preschool, the post office, the general store
and the beach. My daughter hates being restrained for the first two years of
her life. She hates the motion of the car and begins screaming about fifteen
minutes into any trip anywhere. Only when she can understand the need and
purpose and the destination does she learn to tolerate the car. My son is older
and has always loved the car, the adventure, the motion. and sings and chats
and sleeps without ever getting restless or bored. He rarely asks ‘How much
longer?’ or ‘Are we there yet?’
I am driving around in my dust covered Datsun 180b filled with my children
and our collective effluvia: books, matchbox cars, stuffed animals, spare clothes,
beach stuff in a stripey bag, sometimes the groceries and a rifle in the trunk.
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I am driving around in my dirty Datsun 180b, my children mostly in the
backseat. In the trunkt I have a .22 rifle. The loaded magazine is in the glove
box. The rifle belongs to a friend of my husband. We have borrowed it to shoot
foxes but I have it in the trunk of my car and my husband hasn’t noticed its
absence from the house or at least he hasn’t spoken of it. I don’t seem to think
it odd to have a gun in the car.
Before the 180b there was the vw beetle. It began back there when my
daughter was new, about two months old perhaps. The trips to town still dusty
and even at that early age she was intolerant of the car. How do you explain
to a wee baby that you have to get to the bank, supermarket? You can’t and
she screams a lot and it wrenches at my stomach and tightens my chest. On
one occasion I stop 16 times in about 90 kilometres on our way to the city,
360 kilometres away. In the end I drive and she cries for an hour and a half
until exhausted, she sleeps.
It begins in the supermarket. An iron tourniquet grabs my chest. I can‘t breath.
My blood pounds in my ears. The cornflakes and canned pineapple crowd me
as I fight for air.
I leave the trolley in the aisle, half loaded with our frugal supplies and simply
go home. Our town is spread out and involves any number of stops to complete
the week’s chores. Inevitably, it seems, I run out of whatever keeps me going,
before I run out of things which must be done. I hustle my son and cram my
daughter into their seats and flee with my heart banging against my ribs, my
lungs struggling for air. I know I’m going to have to come back, a thirty kilometre round trip, to finish the chores. That knowledge doesn’t seem to save
me, so I find us heading back to town earlier than might be, to get the things
I left abandoned in the supermarket aisle. In the car my thoughts float and
meander, take curious, unexpected turns with a tendency to spiral downwards.
Too difficult to explain to a querulous husband why I haven’t come home with
the coach bolts, bacon, butter. So I don’t explain. There is a feeling that if I let
it out, this thing growing inside me, our world will fall apart and I must hold
it together. My silence contains it.
I must get up in the morning and be a mother, a wife.
When my son was born, the homebirth midwife said to me, “If you can’t cope,
if everything is too much and you don’t know where to turn…” I thought she
was throwing me a lifeline, that she would be my friend.
“Get up an hour earlier,” she said. I think it’s good advice and I do. I get up
earlier and earlier. My children are not good sleepers, or maybe I have never
figured out how to make them sleep. The sound of a baby or child crying
breaks my heart. I cannot do what I am told and let them cry. This inability
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leaves me terminally tired. I end up with them, each in turn and sometimes
together, in our bed, breastfeeding in a zombie state through the night. It is
a good day when I can function past lunchtime. I fully understand why the
Geneva Convention considers sleep deprivation a form of torture.
I am driving around in a dusty, dirty Datsun 180b with my children mostly in
the back. I am planning and waiting for the right moment when I can drive
alone down a bark strewn logging track to nowhere and put the rifle in my
mouth. I imagine how it will taste, the metallic smell of oily steel, the hard,
cool rim of the barrel end against the roof of my mouth and where the bullet
will go. I don’t want to botch it and end up a brain dead burden on the state. I
have no idea why the rifle and not a rope or poison or a razor blade or the car.
I am left handed, never joined guides and can’t tie knots, so hanging would
likely leave me a quadriplegic. My husband doesn’t seem to like me much now
and I can’t imagine he would cope with an invalid version of me. A razor is
messy and we mothers and wives don’t like to bleed on things, which is why,
I suppose, so many do it in the bath.
I don’t actually put the gun in my mouth, I just imagine it.
I imagine it while I am driving my children to the beach, while I am driving
to work, as I am driving home. I spend so much time inside the vw and later
the Datsun 180b.
My car is my carapace.
The moments of panic continue and grow. The butcher shop is difficult. I
can’t look at the meat. I can cook it with an effort and have no trouble eating
it; it’s just the shop which is tricky. This started when I was pregnant with my
daughter and grows.
When my husband’s friend needs his rifle back, I settle on the car. Far more
appropriate since I spend so much of my life here. I keep a roll of duct tape, one
of the miracles of modern invention, inside the vacuum cleaner and imagine
simply drifting off. We are not on the electricity grid, so the vacuum cleaner
is not often used. I haven’t tested the hose to see if it’s long enough, but the
180B is quite short so it should do. I imagine simply putting my foot on the
accelerator and letting go, but either the children are with me and I still see
hope for their small lives or I am on my way to them and their need of me
outweighs all else.
I find I can’t get home after sunset. As the sun sinks, I panic. No matter
where I am or what’s happening, I must go home. My chest tightens, and
the now familiar fear threatens to drown me. This begins in the early days of
the vw, coming home from my part time job at a women’s refuge to a cold,
dark house with no dry wood and no lights, a hungry child and a cranky baby.
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The tilley lamp primer keeps going out before I can turn the kerosene on, the
generator won’t start, and I can’t get the wood stove going.
My husband deals with his own private hell by going to the pub, which is
where he generally is on these occasions.
I tell no one of this. That would be letting it out, letting go, giving it a name,
a being. My children need me to be in control. If I don’t give it a voice, maybe
it doesn’t really exist.
One evening I arrive home after dark and am fighting with the tilley lamp and
stove when my parents phone. My dad actually, which is even more rare. They
must sense something is awry. Maybe I haven’t written to them. Dad makes
the mistake of saying “How are you Ducks?” and I fall to the floor weeping and
can’t speak for a long time. I think they get the message that all is not well.
They pay for the children and me to visit them as we have no money. It is
a long and complicated journey involving a five hour ride to the city airport,
squeezed into some kind friends’ car, a much delayed flight to Hobart via
Melbourne, another hour drive home. My son, who so often mirrors my state,
is manic in the airport. Hyped on unaccustomed Easter chocolate and excitement and the delayed flight, he climbs over seats and furniture, picks his nose
in front of the elderly passengers and uses words picked up from his dad while
building the house. As we finally leave to cross the tarmac he warns a cleaner
of a particularly smelly nappy I have just dumped in the bin. Bless him. On the
plane he drinks coke and visits the pilot. I sit very still, my daughter held tightly
in my arms. I’m not sure who is saving who. The air stewards avoid us.
My trance state continues at my parents’. They guide and prompt me through
the day. I get up and feed my son and daughter, or maybe my mother does.
At some point in the morning my father suggests that my daughter should
be put back to bed.
“They grow while they’re asleep, you know,” he says.
My son relishes the attention and perhaps the sense of security. I can’t go out
the gate for the first week. The picket fence is my protection. I feel safe inside,
sleeping in my childhood bed with lace curtains choreographing the morning
sun as they have for thirty years. Neither of my parents addresses me directly
about my vague, laissez faire behaviour. I do eventually make it out the gate to
my sister’s. She doesn’t see it either. Or maybe they do. There’s only so much
rescuing family can be expected to do.
At night my mother takes charge. She wakes me for my daughter’s ten
o’clock feed and retrieves her before I drop her some time later. I am asleep
in a sitting position on the bedside. I am confused to find myself sitting with
my daughter sliding slowly to the floor.
I feel like I’m drugged. My parents probably wonder if I am. I am after all
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the middle child, the black sheep, the hippy.
There are sunny times. Days on the beach introducing each child in turn to
the magic of the ocean fringe. One of the great joys we share.
In winter I begin taking the children somewhere on Sundays. Sometimes we
drive up the mountain behind us and explore the rocky rainforest creeks which
my son calls ‘Fairyland’. From some points we can see way out over farmland
and bush to the sea and the island. Being there gives me a sense of peace and
distance. The children are happy. Some Sundays we go down to the bay and
play on the swings or practice skipping stones when the sea is still. In summer
I carry our stuff in the big stripey bag down to the rock pool where I teach my
son to swim and my daughter explores for tiny sea creatures and shells. The
shore is bountiful in this little place.
There is a time when my husband is working full time for six months. The
drought has ended by then. This is a golden time filled with sunshine. I play
with my daughter; it feels, for the first time. I play with my son; have time
for myself. Maybe this is later, when my daughter is three. I’d stopped carrying the gun in the car by then and was using the vacuum cleaner hose for its
original purpose.
Sometimes my children seem to embody the spirit of the times of their
conceptions and gestations. My son is optimistic and enthusiastic about life,
eager for the next adventure. At the beach from a very early age, he likes me
to sit still on our beach towel so he can roam way down the shore. He can go
anywhere, but I must stay there for him.
My son was conceived in a time of optimism and adventure, my daughter in
the longest drought and toughest time I had then known. Life is more difficult
for my daughter. She is gifted in many ways but still life is difficult. I know my
state of mind during her earliest years has contaminated her.
At 23 my daughter goes to a palm reader, a friend’s grandmother. The palm
reader tells her, among many other things, that she was disconnected emotionally at a very early age and asks if her mother suffered from post natal
depression. My daughter says no, and then later asks me: “Did you have post
natal depression with me, Mum?” This is the first time those sad and desperate years have been given a name. I feel both sorrow and lightness when I say,
“Yes, love, I think I probably did.”
I weep for those years for the very first time. My beautiful daughter, my
joyous son. How I grieve for those precious years.
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Secrets of an “Illegitimate Mom”
I use autoethnography to tell one of my secrets of mothering. I tell the story of being an
‘illegitimate mom’. I tell my story retrospectively using first person and present tense.
This is woven with reflections from different times and places in my life to create a
multilayered and multidimensional emotional account of my life experiences. It is
an evocative account meant to bring the readers into the story so that they can relate
the story to their own experience or experiences. I have many struggles and shame
related to being an “illegitimate mom.” The shame is not about getting pregnant; it is
about giving my baby away. Using autoethnography as methodology, I tell my story
to my baby—my 40-year-old son, Dave. I write him a letter. Perhaps at the end of
the letter I will see my circumstances through a different lens. Perhaps it will provide
healing for both Dave and me. Perhaps it will reduce the shame and loss. Perhaps it
will connect and open a conversation with and about ʻillegitimate moms.ʼ
I believe autoethnography, and ultimately stories, are often multilayered, multidimensional emotional accounts. I tell my story retrospectively using first person
and present tense. The sights, sounds, feelings, emotions, and impressions are
brought to the surface. In this way, I hope to bring the readers into the story so
that they can relate the story to their own experience or experiences—sometimes
similar experiences, sometimes not. In this way I acknowledge, recognize, and
examine all components of the human lived experience.
I use autoethnography to look back to my teen years and my struggles with
being an “illegitimate mother.” I have carried that shame for a long time and
have allowed myself to separate from it. The sharing of that situation, and the
decision I needed to make, is one of the biggest secrets I have ever kept. And
I don’t understand why. I still find it very difficult to tell this story. Perhaps
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it is about the loss and the shame. The shame is not about getting pregnant;
it is about giving my baby away. And so I tell my story. I tell my story to my
baby—my 40-year-old son, Dave. I write him a letter. Perhaps at the end of
the letter I will see my circumstances through a different lens. Perhaps it will
provide healing for both Dave and me. Perhaps it will reduce the shame and
loss. Perhaps it will connect and open a conversation with and about other
“illegitimate mothers.”
May 22, 2009
Dear Dave,
You were born 40 years ago today. Happy Birthday! I wanted to write this
to help you understand our history together. This is a story about you, but
mostly about me. As I write this to you I think back to the letter I received
from Social Services. It was a surprise, an awakening.
The letter read:
Dear Ms. Murray,
I am trying to locate Barbara Lee Murray. I believe you are this
person. I have important family information to share with you.
In the event you are not this person, please call me to advise, so I
may continue my search elsewhere.
I am hoping you will respond to this letter by calling me collect. Your
cooperation and understanding is most appreciated. I look forward
to hearing from you.
Sincerely, Social Services Program Worker
It didn’t make sense at first, and when I realized what it was about, I left it
and didn’t respond. This all seems very ridiculous and incomprehensible now
that I know you. I don’t know what I was afraid of. I don’t know why the secret
seemed important to protect, perhaps because I have protected it for so long.
Maybe I don’t know how to tell. I have had so few tellings of this story, and I
don’t know what to expect for a response. I don’t even know what response I
would hope for. Am I afraid I will be judged? There have been a few occasions
where I had the opportunity to tell.
I am sitting in the lunch room at work and talking with the other nurses
about a young patient we had cared for and her decision to give her baby up
for adoption. One of my colleagues says, “That could be me in there. I’m just
lucky I didn’t get pregnant at her age. I got into a lot of trouble in those years,
but pregnancy wasn’t one of them.” I struggle to say something. I remain silent
and the moment passes. I wish now that I had had the courage to tell my story
then, maybe even to my young patient.
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I am out for coffee with a few of my friends and we are talking about the
trials and tribulations of raising teen-agers. One of my friends says that adolescents today are so much more informed than we were. “They seem to have
healthier relationships and are more knowledgeable about sexually transmitted
infections (stis) and birth control,” she says.
“Knowledge may have prevented stis and pregnancy, but has it developed
healthier relationships?” I reply.
“Maybe not but at least they can talk about birth control and they can take
‘the pill’ if they choose. We never had those options. We were afraid to even
talk about it. We were afraid of being bad girls,” she insists.
We all nod our heads in agreement. I think back to my own story of teen
pregnancy and want to tell, but I don’t and I wish I had. I think they would
have understood.
What was it that stopped me from telling in these instances? I feel bad
when I think of you and wonder how this may make you feel. I want you to
understand that the decision not to tell is about me and not about you and
maybe that isn’t fair. I wonder if the not telling is about deceit or self-deception.
Or is it my fear of being judged? Standards have changed. I wonder if it would
be helpful for you to understand how the norms and standards of society have
changed somewhat from the time you were born.
Teen moms are more accepted now and they receive much more support and
understanding. There is much less pressure for unwed/teen mothers to give their
babies up for adoption. Unwed mothers were considered somewhat suspect at
that time if they did not give their babies up for adoption, and social welfare
was reluctant to provide support without careful investigation and surveillance
( Juffer 743). It wasn’t until the mid-’70s that the term “unwed mother” was
replaced by “single mother.”
Pre-marital sex is generally more acceptable now and not as taboo as it
used to be. However, I tend to judge myself and perceive being judged on the
standards of society at the time of my pregnancy. There was a lack of harmony
between my behaviour and what was acceptable at that time. The normative
discourse did not include discussion about conditions that contributed to teen
pregnancy such as lack of knowledge, lack of access to birth control, lack of
sexual education and the possible lack of consideration for the determinants
of health in the young mother’s situation.
I was quite aware of those standards as a young unwed mother to be. When
I read the literature now, I begin to understand that my reactions and responses
were quite typical of unwed mothers of the time. I’m sure the literature is quite
boring to you, but some reflection on it may help you understand the situation
and dilemma I faced as an unwed teenage girl expecting a baby in 1969.
Illegitimate pregnancy and unwed mothers were hush-hush in the culture of
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the ’60s. I exposed “the limits of what were culturally thinkable about proper
sex and motherhood” (Reekie 77). My predicament was considered a purely
female transgression. My growing belly destroyed the image of chastity. My
pregnant body was evidence of my unacceptable sexual behavior and transgressions and I became a sexual, social and moral deviant (Pietsch 65). My
behavior appeared to challenge my subordinate role as a young woman, and I
was labeled as mutinous, rebellious, uncontrollable and uncontrolled, unclean,
disorderly, deceitful, disrespectful, misbehaved, as getting myself in trouble, and
as a social problem (Solinger 35, 215; Vance 4). As an illegitimate pregnant
woman, I was stained and marked.
The culture of the time supported a secret adoption plan where “the unwed
mother could put the mistake—both the baby qua baby, and the proof of nonmarital sexual experience—behind her” (Solinger 346). Repentance was most
often achieved through an adoption arrangement (Pietsch 71), which also
provided the infant with a normative (two-parent, heterosexual, traditional,
married) family (Solinger 346) who were financially and morally fit (Wegar 82).
The illegitimate mother could revoke her sin, restore a semblance of normalcy,
delete the illegitimate child from existence, and expunge her sexual past. Was
any of this behind my decision to adopt? Was it the agenda of others? I never
meant or thought about you as a mistake. I was naïve and made a mistake in
judgment. I never wanted to delete or deny your existence, but is that what
I have been doing by keeping it a secret over the years? On a conscious level
that was never my intent.
I wasn’t striving to have my bad behaviour expunged nor did I want to hide
my baby. But is my secret of illegitimate mothering part of the image I have
portrayed in the past? Is there an attempt to maintain this image of success
and morality? Probably in high school I would have been considered the girl
most likely to succeed and the least likely to get pregnant. Does my past as an
unwed mother have anything to do with my success (or not) or my morality?
Does my reluctance to tell maintain the normative discourse of unwed mothers? Does it maintain and reinforce this distorted idea of illegitimate mothers
being social and moral deviants?
My awkwardness and reluctance to tell comes from a place deep inside me, a
place where explanation is difficult to find. I am trying desperately to sort this
out, to help both of us understand why this is a difficult story to tell. Perhaps,
once I tell, I become vulnerable. There is no turning back or taking back. I
am left wide open to absorb the reactions of others. Part of what gets in the
way of my telling is the expected response of the listener. It is difficult to share
something so intimate and yet central to one’s life (Bok 75). When I tell, I
want the listeners to share the burden of the story. I want them to understand
the circumstances of the time, the difficulty of the decision, the impact of my
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youth and to empathize with my sadness in giving you away and my joy in
meeting you after all this time. I also want them to ask questions to further
their understanding and perhaps, in so doing, to further mine. I also hope
listeners may assist in a possible interpretation of my sharing or disclosure,
and ultimately assist in reaching through the layers of secrecy: “Once named
[secrets] are forced into the light, compelled to take an identity” (Bok 77).
Perhaps it is this identity I am afraid of.
The need for privacy and time also hinders my telling. The disclosure of intimate secrets takes time: time for the telling and time for the listening and
exploring. I am reluctant to share my secrets unless I have a sense that the
listener and I will have the time and also the privacy. And both are very difficult
to guarantee. I have this visual picture of entering this ideal cone of silence,
listener and teller together, for an agreed upon amount of time. I suppose, with
all my preconceived conditions of disclosure and the sharing of secrets, it is
not a surprise that I still hold some secrets very close.
I also wonder if the listener will be discreet in the retelling. Some secrets I
want to tell myself and only to whom I choose, but I realize that, once told,
secrets have a way of seeping out to include one more person at a time and
unfortunately we are unaware of all those who know. In writing autoethnography and having it available in the public domain, I need to assume everyone
has the potential to read my work and know my secrets. Will the telling of
my secrets allow me to heal and reconcile those things in my past that I do
not readily share? My regrets about not telling are usually related to a missed
opportunity for possible intimacy and healing. Will it be an opportunity to
recreate myself and gain new insight that is not possible through introspection
itself? Will the telling alleviate my guilt and bring forth transformation? Will
the telling provide healing?
I think the first person I want to tell is you. I want to tell you about your
birth and our week together as mother and son.
I was almost 18 years old when you were born.
It is dark and I stand and gaze out the window. My back is sore, and I rub
it and walk around the house. I don’t want to wake my Aunt Irene. I have
been away from home for a month, staying at my aunt and uncle’s home. I am
seeing an obstetrician rather that our family physician and I will deliver in a
city hospital rather than our local hospital. I am out of sight.
I don’t feel well, but I don’t really feel sick. My back hurts and I just want
to walk around as fast as I can. I guess my walking wakes my aunt. “Are you
okay?” she asks concerned.
“I don’t know. I’m scared,” I whisper. She asks me if my stomach feels
tight.
I answer, “No but my back is so sore. I feel like crying . . . but it comes and
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goes and I think I can stand it if it goes away soon.”
My aunt phones Sandra (her daughter, the nurse). She is at work at this
very moment on labor and delivery. “Does it sound like labor pains?” my aunt
asks.
“No but bring her in anyway, just in case, and we’ll assess her,” Sandra
replies.
The nurse is trying to do an admission and assessment on me, and I am
already holding on to the top of the hospital bed and everyone is trying to
settle me down. Sandra gives me a cigarette and tells me to try to relax. I can’t
relax; I have to go to the bathroom. I want to push. People are starting to look
anxious; someone checks me again and says, “Let’s move her.”
Move me where? I have to go to the bathroom!
They are trying desperately to locate my doctor. I hear the commotion, the
hurrying, the bustling, the almost panic. Now I am scared. My back hurts and
I want to stand up. I can’t stand lying on my back. They are making me lie on
my back, and they are putting my legs up in the air. What is going on?? Where
is Sandra??? She looks upset, she looks a bit panicky, and she looks like she is
going to cry. Help!! I want to be brave, but I don’t know what is happening.
Soon I hear Sandra’s voice, very quiet, very gentle, “It is almost over Lee, you
can push now, push your bottom down into the table, don’t lift your bum off
the table … push! You’re doing good … just a little bit longer, hold it … you
can do it … that’s a girl … It’s a boy!”
I hear the doctor say to take the baby away if he is okay. The baby is fine
despite his fast delivery. He is dark, cute, funny looking, red, crying, yelling
and I want to hold him. The doctor says to take him away and I say, “i want
to hold him!”
He is gentle but firm: “Lee, if you hold him and get attached to him you
won’t be able to give him away.”
“I promise I will. I just want to hold him.” I hold you and I fall in love. You
are gorgeous, you are red, and you quit crying. You look at me as if you know
me and all I want is to hold you and love you for as long as I can. And I do.
I keep you in my room for the next six days and they keep taking you back. I
sneak into the nursery during the day and I take you out. I go back at night and
hold you and rock you and talk to you and sing to you. I tell you everything I
think you need to know. I read to you. I sing some more and kiss and hug you
constantly, and all they care about is if I will be able to give you away. I assure
them daily that I will. I know I can; it is the best for you and probably for me.
They continue to take you back to the nursery, and I continue to take you to
my room and keep you in my bed. We were the first rooming-in couple.
Finally, I have had enough. I am mad at the nurses, I am mad at the doctor
and I am mad at myself for reassuring them that I will give you away. Finally
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I explain, “I have had enough … If I give my baby away I will have only these
five days to give him all the love I can, and it needs to last him for a while so
leave me alone, please!” And they do, and I give you away.
The day you stayed at the hospital and I left with my mom was the hardest
day I ever had. I took you a whole pile of clothes and diapers I had bought. I
told them which outfit you were to wear home from the hospital, and I walked
away crying and I felt I would never stop. There was a terrible sense that I
would never see you again. my heart broke. I left you and, with you, a
part of me. I built a wall around that part of my life and tried to move on, but
there was always a sense that something was missing.
In 2003, you decided to find your birth mother. You received a letter from the
Post Adoption Division of Community Resources and Employment describing
your birth and your biologic mother.
David’s natural mother was a young girl of 18 years at the time of
David’s birth. She was of Scottish ethnic origin and of the Protestant
faith. She had a grade 12 education and was an excellent student.
She planned to go into Nursing. David’s first mother was an attractive, out-going girl, about 5’5” tall, weighing 110 lbs. She had light
brown hair, greenish eyes and a fair complexion. She had an ovalshaped face, well shaped brows, straight nose, high cheek bones, well
shaped mouth, large eyes and a round chin. David’s natural mother
was very musical, having a grade seven in piano and a grade two in
music theory. She also played a clarinet in a school jazz band. She also
enjoyed sports and drama. She participated in swimming, volleyball,
curling and competed in track and gymnastics. She was also active
in drama, choir and glee club.
David’s birth mother was quite easy-going and friendly, related well
with people but tended to be make impulsive decisions on occasion.
She rarely angered and did not hold a grudge and was not a moody
person. She involved herself quite deeply with other people; she was
quite determined but not obstinate. She was inclined to be a group
leader. When it came to health, she had never been seriously ill. She
had undergone prenatal care for seven months prior to David’s birth
and there was no history of epilepsy, mental illness or retardation,
cancer or heart disease in her family.
David’s birth mother was single and David was her first child.
I read the description of myself and I struggle to recognize this person.
I barely remember the interview. I remember you telling me, after we met,
what a difficult time it was for your parents waiting for the time period to be
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up when I could change my mind and take you back. That time period was
difficult for me as well but for very different reasons. I will never forget the
day we were re-united
I am sitting on the couch and scanning the hotel lobby and mostly watching
the door. I am somewhat nervous but not as nervous as I thought I would be.
I have thought about this, dreamed about this day and the whole atmosphere
feels surreal. I don’t really know what to expect. I keep watching the door with
anticipation as I sit quietly on a couch. I see someone come out of one of the
hallways, look around and then go back down the hallway. I think that maybe
it is you, but I’m not sure. I think that perhaps you are a bit shy or hesitant,
and it is difficult for you to approach me. We have sent pictures to each other
so we have an idea of who we are looking for. I decide to get up and follow
you. I say “Dave?” and you turn to face me. It is you! You explain that you
were actually going back down the hall to catch the score of a hockey game. I
totally understand that, and we both laugh.
And so here we stand, mother and son, meeting after 36 years. Where do
we begin?
There doesn’t seem to be any degree of real awkwardness; we seem to connect
and relate quite easily to each other. It would be interesting to hear what your
initial impressions were. We spend a wonderful afternoon together sharing
our lives thus far, asking and answering questions and realizing that we have
probably been in the same place at the same time on different occasions. We
have similar interests (in particular hockey and golf ), we view relationships
and the world in general in a similar way and we both love Elvis! I tell you
about listening to the song, “In the Ghetto,” in the hospital after I had given
birth to you. I listened to that song repeatedly during that time, and since that
time it has always made me feel sad when I hear it. In fact, I have turned it
off on occasion because the sadness became overwhelming. Listening to that
song always takes me back to that time and place and to the struggle of that
life altering decision that impacted both of us--and will for the remainder of
our lives.
You tell me that “In the Ghetto” is your favorite Elvis song. Of course it
is! You listened to it over and over for the first week of your life. I heard that
song several weeks after I met you, and I was no longer sad. I merely smile
now when I hear it and think about you and our reunion. At that moment, I
realized I had begun to create new memories and new perspectives regarding
your birth and the future of our relationship.
As we say goodbye and make plans to meet again soon, I feel so happy, yet
I feel so sad. Sad perhaps, because we have not met sooner. Sad, for missing
36 years of your life. I brought you into this world, but I did not have the
opportunity to nurture, support and raise you, to watch you grow and mature
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Caption????
and show you every day that I love you. Sad because I am your “other” mother,
not your “real” mother.
***
A young girl who gives her baby up for adoption becomes a mother of sorts,
the biological mother; illegitimate and invisible. When she is reunited with
her child after several years, she attempts to claim an “other” mother maternal
identity (Downe 165). But lo and behold … it is to feel like an illegitimate
mom once again. Mothers who relinquish their babies become “separate, different than and less than full mothers” (Lynn 4).
If I had kept you, my baby, I would have been seen as a shameful, filthy,
and worthless person, but when I gave you up for adoption I was seen as selfish and uncaring (Lauderdale). I only wanted the best for you and I thought
adoption was in your best interest. There was a perception from others that
I would forget about you and move on. I never forgot you. However, I never
let myself grieve openly because it was not socially acceptable at the time to
speak of my unwed mothering experience. The normal grieving process was
inhibited and prolonged with no real resolution of the grief. I never felt coerced
into making the decision to adopt—persuaded perhaps, but not coerced. This
may have assisted in the adaptation period following your adoption, but I never
felt I had an opportunity to express my feelings regarding the adoption and to
acknowledge my unresolved grief (DeSimone). When I read the literature I
realize that my experience may have been somewhat different from the norm.
I can relate to the sadness and grief at the time, but the resulting depression
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and despair did not grip me in the years to come as is reflected as a common
response in the literature. An unplanned pregnancy and the relinquishment
of a child for adoption are outside the range of typical adolescent experience
and may threaten the successful negotiation of the developmental task of
adolescence (Lash Esau). However, I believe I developed a stronger identity
and a higher commitment to succeed (Lash Esau) to prove that I had made
the right decision.
I think a small hole in my heart still remains and that is my regret that we
didn’t meet sooner and we can not be closer. I wish I could grab my grandchildren and hug them and kiss them and have them be happy to see me, but
I am mostly a stranger to them. I also don’t want to be too intrusive. I want
to maintain connection, but I don’t want to overwhelm you or make you
feel uncomfortable. I have read about birth mothers fearing rejection, loss of
contact and losing their child a second time (Howe and Feast 360). I don’t
have that fear exactly, but I do have a fear that we may slowly lose contact if
we don’t commit to an ongoing relationship. I wonder how we can work out
a relationship that reflects that we are mother and son and still recognizes
and accepts the fact that I am an “other” mother separate from your adoptive
mother, your “real” mother. You are my son, but our relationship is different
from the relationship I have with my other three children.
Unfortunately you have not met one my sons yet. I am a bit disappointed
with his reluctance, but I try to understand where he is coming from and also
how that may make you feel. If it helps at all, he was a bit reluctant to have
his little brother in the family as well. I remember telling him I was expecting
a baby. I was holding him, and he was sort of perched on my tummy while I
attempted to explain to him about my growing tummy, a baby growing inside,
the excitement of the impending birth and the arrival of a new sibling. He
looked at me with his big, green, sad eyes and replied, “I hope it’s a dog.” So
don’t feel bad; he just needs a little time to come around perhaps. And where
is this kid that used to think my story was so cool?
I believe our reunion brings the potential for healing for me and perhaps
for you, too. You have obviously had wonderful parenting, and I appreciate
meeting your parents and their understanding that you will always have some
connection with your natural family. I truly thank you for your initiative in
making the effort to find me.
Take care and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Stay in touch.
Love, Lee
Our reunion brings with it an opportunity for healing and also a recognition
of the enormity of the loss. But as I face my grief and shame and acknowledge
it, I also realize that I am able to reclaim that part of myself that was lost.
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References
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Books, 1989. Print.
DeSimone, M. “Unresolved Grief in Women who have Relinquished a Baby
for Adoption.” Dissertation Abstracts International 55 (1994): 9-A. (umi
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Downe, P. J. “Stepping on Maternal Ground: Reflections on Becoming an
‘Other-mother.’” Mother Matters: Motherhood as Discourse and Practice. Ed.
A. O’Reilly. Toronto, ON: Association for Research on Mothering, 2004.
165-178.
Juffer, J. “Domestic Intellectuals: Freedom and the Single Mom.” Maternal
Theory: Essential Readings. Ed. A. O’Reilly. Toronto: Demeter Press, 2007.
726-755.
Howe, D., and J. Feast. “The Long-term Outcome of Reunions between Adult
Adopted People and their Birth Mothers.” British Journal of Social Work 31
(2001): 351-368.
Lash Esau, A. M. “Family Contexts of Birthmother Identity and Intimacy
Development.” Dissertation Abstracts International 61 (2000): 9-A. (UMI
No. 9986409)
Lauderdale, J. “The Unbroken Cord: The Experience of Infant Relinquishment through Adoption.” Dissertation Abstracts International 53 (1992): 4-B.
(umi No. 9226185)
Lynn, K. “Mothers Who Have Lost their Children to Adoption in Canada
from the Nineteenth-century to the Present.” Paper presented at the conference Mothers Without Their Children, Association for Research on Mothering,
Toronto, 2001.
Pietsch, N. “Un/titled: Constructions of Illegitimate Motherhood as Gender
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Reekie, G. “History and the Bodies of the Illegitimately Pregnant Body.”
Australian Feminist Studies 12 (1997): 25.
Solinger, R. “The Girl Nobody Loved: Psychological Explanation for White
Single Pregnancy in the pre-Roe v. Wade Era, 1945-1965.” Frontiers 11 (23) (1990): 45-54.
Solinger, R. Wake Up Little Suzie. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Vance, C. Pleasure and Danger. Boston: Rivers Oram Pres, 1984.
Wegar, K. “In Search of Bad Mothers: Social Constructions of Birth and Adoptive Mothers.” Women’s Studies International Forum 20 (1) (1997): 77-86.
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An Adoptive Mother’s Reflections
Another Voice from Inside the Adoption Triad
This feminist narrative draws from a series of letters the primary author wrote to
her daughter from the day she and her husband were contacted about a pregnant
woman named Marissa, through the moments in which she and her daughter met
the birthmother for the first time. We consider, from a distance of six years later, the
significance of this meeting for complicating the literature and practices that construct
the emotional experiences of birthmothers and adoptive mothers as separate experiences.
Both adoptive and birth mothers face a deeply-inscribed ideology of motherhood that
defines their experiences and choices as lesser, as somehow frayed around the edges, as
a poor substitute for the “real” mothering that women who create, carry, birth, and
raise their own biologically-produced children in traditional normative arrangements, do. Mothers are too often conceptualized as selfish or nurturing individuals
rather than shared actors in collective decision-making and caring that contribute
to the development of children. However, as this narrative describes, to talk with the
only other person in the world who could fully understand the specific grief, loss, and
gain associated with this situation and this child was a profound gift. Two women,
two strangers, two mothers found that despite their ways in which they differed in
backgrounds, education, life choices, and socio-economic levels, they shared much more
than outsider status to society’s mothering scripts; what mattered most was that they
also shared this child.
January 5, 2004
… At 4:45 p.m. the phone rang and it was Joanna [pseudonym] at [our attorney’s]
office.… Joanna told me about a young woman, Marissa [pseudonym], who was
pregnant for the second time and would be unable, for multiple reasons, to raise and
parent this child.…
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These words, written in the first of a series of letters to my daughter, mark
the beginning of my second experience in becoming an adoptive mother. At the
time, I couldn’t have foreseen that this second adoption journey would include
a post-birth meeting with my daughter’s birthmother that would unexpectedly transform me as a mother; it would also cause me to question literature
and practices that construct the emotional experiences of birthmothers and
adoptive mothers as separate experiences.
Early prescriptions that viewed adoption as a “one-time legal event” (Rosenberg and Groze 522) included the conviction that the process would progress most
smoothly and productively if all parties in the adoption triad severed contact and
moved on as quickly as possible (Harris and Whyte 41; Rosenburg and Groze
524). The only people whose voices seemed audible in adoption process were
the attorneys and other professionals who handled the legal particulars. More
recently, adoption scholarship has begun to offer crucial space for the voices,
feelings, and experiences of birthmothers as well as sensitivity to the complex
issues they must navigate in adoption. For example, the literature today strongly
suggests that providing birthmothers the opportunity to say goodbye while
the mother-unit child is still legally and emotionally united matters in terms
of how well they deal with the grief of surrendering their babies (Cushman,
Kalmuss and Namerow 272; Lee and Twaite 582). As one researcher found,
“Those [birthmothers] who had no such opportunities were left with unending emptiness, grabbing at airy fantasies of the children they brought into the
world” ( Jones 68) and they sometimes carried unresolved grief throughout their
lives (Cushman et al. 271; Ge et al. 876; Janus 268; Rosenberg and Groves
524). This is a critical, and still emerging, perspective on adoption that merits
sustained attention in both feminist literature and in adoption practices (Ge et
al. 529). It foregrounds the significant emotional experiences and potentially
lifelong reverberations for mothers who birth their children, and for a variety
of complex reasons, make the decision to surrender them.
As scholars work to better represent and explore mothers’ experiences in
adoption, the voice of another mother, the adoptive mother, typically remains
silenced and without an established place. I am twice that mother. In this
reflective essay, I process my own experiences to offer an additional voice
from the adoption triad with the hope that my story may contribute additional perspective to established views of adoption processes and the assigned
roles within it. I write with the deepest of love for my children, a son and
two daughters who are ours through a combination of adoption and biology,
and out of respect for the birthmothers who made two of their lives, and my
mothering of them, possible.
Although feminist theorizing concerning contemporary mothering continues
to expand, we still have much to learn about the experiences of adoptive mothers.
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Indeed, given the historical erasure of birthmothers’ voices, it is a delicate matter
to suggest that adoptive mothers should have a voice at all. Accordingly, they
remain a central, yet silenced, character in the adoption triad. And yet adoptive
mothering is a form of mothering that women undertake, a form that comes
with varied challenges and joys, that violates dominant social constructions
of mothering, and that contributes to the nurturing of children. Exploring its
contours in feminist scholarship can expand understanding of women’s varied
roles in mothering and the constructions that shape women’s lives. I share my
experiences with some fear that others might interpret inclusion of adoptive
mothers’ experiences as disrespectful to birthmothers, or that I am striving to
speak for all adoptive mothers—neither of which is my intent. I also write it
with continuing concern for my daughter’s privacy, for my family’s privacy, and
for her birthmother’s privacy. If it were not so important that we understand
and make space for all of the people in the adoption triad, truly for what is best
for the children, I would not attempt this narrative at all.
Even as I am an advocate for all voices to be heard in adoption and with
a co-author to help me frame my experiences in a way that I hope positively
contributes to the adoption literature, I write solely from my individual experiences and perspective as an adoptive mother of two same-race newborns who
were adopted privately and domestically. It is a situated and partial perspective, my own, the only one I can offer. The second author is a feminist, friend,
and colleague whom I asked to co-write this narrative. Although she did not
witness my adoption experiences, her perspective and training as a feminist
scholar make her critical to the writing process and I, frankly, would not attempt this without her. This narrative draws from a series of letters I wrote
to my daughter that begin on the day our lawyer called my husband and me
about a pregnant woman named Marissa, who chose us as adoptive parents,
and continue through the moments in which my daughter and I met her
birthmother for the first time. My co-author and I consider, from a distance of
six years later, the significance of this meeting for further enriching our social
constructions of mothering.
Although an undercurrent of my experience was my belief that meeting
Marissa would someday be important for my daughter’s understanding of her
adoption story, in this narrative, I primarily focus on Marissa and me. Despite
the ways Marissa and I differed—backgrounds, education, life choices, and
socio-economic levels—I believe we found, together, that what mattered far
more than our differences was what we shared: this child. I know that, for me,
to talk with the only other person in the world who could fully understand the
specific grief, loss, and gain associated with this situation and this child was
a profound gift. Through highlighting the details of this experience between
two women, two strangers, and two mothers, my co-author and I hope to
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carefully and respectfully, yet honestly, navigate tensions inherent in women’s
adoption experiences and, in doing so, to add to the literature on adoption and
the intricacies of mother grief.
Social Construction of Biological Mothering
As Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues, and feminist theorizing of mothering has
detailed, “for most of the twentieth century an idealized model of motherhood, derived from the situation of the white, American, middle class, has
been projected as universal” (3); like gender, such constructions of mothering
“take form not just in the realm of ideas and beliefs, but importantly in social
interactions, identities, and social institutions” (4). Through my previous
experiences with infertility and adoption, I have come to understand in
a palpable, embodied way the powerful constructions of the physical carrying and birthing of a biological child as the “ideal” path to becoming a
mother—the right way, the good way, the first choice. Adoption, in contrast,
is often viewed as some ineffable and inadequate back up plan. And yet, as
many contemporary mothers in diverse family arrangements might echo, I
have always believed that love, firm commitment and willingness to sacrifice
are the basis of real families, and that bloodlines have little to do with the
matter. After all, regardless of any woman’s individual abilities or desire to
become pregnant and the origin stories of their children, mothering any
child is a choice.1
Dominant constructions of mothering ironically cast both adoptive mothers
and birthmothers as the “bad guys” in the human drama of grief and pain that
surround a birthmother’s decision to relinquish a child. Neither is fulfilling
her socially scripted role—one is not producing a baby through her body, and
the other one is choosing not to mother what her own body has produced.
I experienced this bad guy characterization during our first child’s adoption
when the nursing staff treated me as if I was a thief, lying in wait to steal this
precious child from his rightful mother. And, indeed, after witnessing the
deep grief my son’s birthmother experienced in the hospital room when she
relinquished her child, a small part of me was convinced I was, in fact, the
bad guy to even have considered collaborating in the creation of such pain for
another human being, for another mother.
What I did not realize then was that birthmothers are also constructed as the
“bad guy.” As Jones reports of one birthmother’s experience, “the head nurse …
was hostile and snide. ‘I remember [the nurse] holding the baby and remarking,
‘This is such a beautiful child. How can you give him up?’ I think I asked her,
in a post-partum haze, if it would be better if he were ugly, but her comment
stung, nonetheless’” (64). Neither birthmother nor adoptive mother, it seems,
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can escape such painful reductive constructions to get on with the business of
mothering, acts of nurturance that Sara Ruddick theorizes as both philosophical
and active practice. In this sense, acts of mothering might include not only the
physical and emotional labor of pregnancy and childbearing but the loving act
of surrendering a child to an adoptive mother, and the subsequent labor the
adoptive mother chooses to undertake.
Emotional Traces from my First Adoption Experience
January 6
I, and your dad, have very mixed feelings about [Marissa’s decision to not see
you or us]. However, this adoption plan … has been set up so that we don’t [even]
know her last name.
I felt deeply unsettled when I first learned of Marissa’s decision to not
meet us and the extent to which we would be cut off from the baby’s genetic
information. In particular, it contrasted sharply with the lessons we learned
through our first adoption, as well as with contemporary adoption practices.
In our first adoption, we were matched to a birthmother who was only a few
months pregnant and lived four hours away from our home. In contrast to
Marissa, this birthmother wanted to include me in all “baby-related events.”
These events included doctors’ appointments, her sudden craving for food
that was only available 65 miles away from her small town, a new wardrobe
of maternity clothes, and an impulse to cut her long hair—all needs she asked
me to fulfill. Initially I was thrilled that she wanted to include me in every
nuance. In addition to allowing me to be part of the unfolding pregnancy, the
extensive time I invested allowed me to learn critical medical information and
family background that might someday be important to my son. However, I
soon learned that my involvement did not come with any decision making
rights. I spent six months “on call” and on the road, sometimes with only a
few hours notice—rapidly canceled professional commitments discarded like
litter in my rear view mirror. Spending time at the doctor’s office and looking at
the in-utero photographs kicked in all of my mothering desires and protective
impulses; in every cell of my being, I felt this was my child and, even while I
understood that his birthmother controlled the adoption process, I was willing
to sacrifice all to bring him home safely.
In this first experience with adoption, I had few models—and little literature—to guide me. I found myself struggling to keep up an ever grateful,
ever happy, ever willing adoptive mother façade, and I had many moments
of anticipated grief when I believed my son’s birthmother would change her
mind. By the time the baby was born, I was exhausted and physically ill from
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the stress—uncertain that I would ever be the successful one from within the
streams of parents hoping, and waiting, to adopt. I felt powerless and taken
for granted. However, my emotions of anger, hurt and resentment were lost
in a sea of confusion once I witnessed the birthmother’s anguish after my
son’s birth—as she hunched over him, almost making him invisible in her
lap, still in a cheap hospital gown, in unrelenting sobs. It is an image, and a
recognition of her deep grief and loss that is seared deeply, permanently, into
my emotional memories.
It was 16 months after this experience with our son’s adoption that we
received the call from our attorney’s office that began our daughter’s adoption, the focus of this narrative. Based on my previous experience, I believed
that at least one meeting with Marissa, the baby, my husband and me might
launch the critical grieving process for the woman who would make me a
mother for the second time. To me, deep grief, as painful as it is, is a necessary and healthy part of letting go; it is too complicated, too much a part of
what it means to be human, for a tidy or quick release. It mattered to me
that Marissa would be okay, that her own happiness was not sacrificed in the
process of granting me this profound gift. In addition, and more selfishly,
I also thought such a meeting might help convey to the birthmother that I
was a fit mother to receive this child to help minimize, somehow, the chance
that she would experience second thoughts. On yet another level, I also felt
frustrated that I had no say in her choices and feared the implications of
having little medical and biological family information for our child.
The complex brew of emotions I experienced were a complicated byproduct of the adoption triad for me, the adoptive mother—negotiating feelings
of powerlessness, feelings of empathy for the birthmother, the desire and
hope to become a mother, imagining how to provide what my child might
need in future, and all the while feeling forced to silence and waiting to be
told what to do in hopes that the birthmother would grant me the right to
mother this child.
My Benefactor. My Enemy?
Wednesday, January 14
…We wish we had more [information about Marissa] but we’re glad she gave
us what she did! Unfortunately she also signed paperwork, at her request, to seal
the original birth certificate. If she had not, you would have been able to access it at
18… [Despite our request,] Marissa has also refused to leave a picture of her with us
… We have no wish to violate her privacy but will … store away any information
we can find [through the process] in case you ever want it. We’d like you to have a
choice [about what you know].
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An important aspect of my experience was my concern for how Marissa’s
decisions would shape what information I would be able to later provide my
daughter. The passage above highlights the balancing act I felt between, on
one hand, respecting the birthmother’s privacy and her choices, and, on the
other, my concerns for the child I would soon have. As Elizabeth Stone captures eloquently,
The particular human chain we’re part of is central to our individual
identity. Even if we loathe our families, in order to know ourselves, we
seem to need to know about them, just as prologue. Not to know is to
live with some of the disorientation and anxiety of the amnesiac.
From early meetings with our attorney, I knew that searching for the baby’s
birthfather was impossible, which meant that Marissa was the child’s only
available link to her family and genetic heritage.
I wondered if my daughter would later grieve her loss of knowledge about
her origins and her agency to discover them, and I feared that she may someday
call me to account for what we didn’t, or couldn’t, do. I was poised to mother
but was powerless in shaping how this mothering story would begin. As my
discomfort grew, I began to characterize Marissa’s decision to not meet us as
a potential threat to my impending family. However, I also knew that to react
negatively to her decisions, to utter any concerns, was unacceptable, because
social constructions of mothering and my previous experience conveyed to
me that my prescribed role in the adoption process was to behave well, to be
continuously grateful, and to demonstrate that I was an appropriate mothering
figure worthy of the gift I would receive. After all, I was an interloper in the
biological mother-child pairing, and with a single sentence, the birthmother
could stop the adoption process. To do so was a fundamental right in her agency
as a woman, and an inevitable aspect of the process that I as an adoptive mother
supported and knew I must learn to bear or risk sacrificing all women’s rights
to control their bodies and reproductive decisions. So, behind my façade that
all was well, I anticipated and prepared for deep grief, my own, as I awaited
the arrival of the baby and unknown outcome. What if in Marissa’s own grief
she changed her mind?
To Bolt or be Strong? The Invisible Role of Anticipated Grief
Thursday, Jan 15
Dear little one—
…We got the call at 1:13 p.m. and raced down the hall to the nursery. It’s a girl!!
You are beautiful and look just like [my sister]. You have reddish-blond hair and
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ivory skin, 6 lbs 9oz! … I did ask about Marissa. The nurse said she is doing well
and all went smoothly. She did not choose to see you … Welcome to our family! We
love you so much!
6:56 p.m.
… [Katie, pseudonym,] the social worker stopped by and said Marissa was doing very well … She has never dealt with a birthmother who didn’t want to meet
the adoptive parents. She said that Marissa asked for all of the details on you and
is thinking about seeing you tomorrow before she leaves, as well as meeting us … I
hope she will see you to have a chance to hold your image in her heart.
Despite my calm tone in this letter to my daughter, just hours after her birth,
and my repeated insistence that meeting was in everyone’s best interests, the
sudden possibility that Marissa would meet us after all evoked an unexpected
desire to just take the baby home without “dealing” with Marissa at all. Driven
by my own fear of loss, I dreaded a repeat experience of the first adoption,
witnessing the birthmothers’ heart-wrenching and deeply-personal pain and
grief. These fears, and the fear that Marissa might change her mind, began
to shake my resolve to do the “right thing.” But other significant questions
muddied these impulses: Wouldn’t my daughter want to know later that her
birthmother wanted to see her? Wasn’t I, as the “lucky one,” obligated to help
Marissa say goodbye and support her grieving process? Shouldn’t I set aside my
own feelings, my own fears that the baby would be whisked away, that I would
be the one left grieving, to ensure that Marissa was at peace with her decision?
And, what if she decided not to go through with the adoption—wasn’t that
something I should know now, not later? These are complicated emotions and
desires that pushed and pulled me in a dizzying array of directions as I awaited
word about what Marissa would choose to do. Waiting, I had learned, was a
constitutive aspect of the adoptive mother’s experience.
The opportunity to flee from the meeting fell away when, the day after my
daughter’s birth, Marissa asked to see me and the baby. I learned…
… it was to only be the two of us [and her].
Katie … escorted us to Marissa’s room about 12:30 p.m. It was a strange walk
down the hall to take, what was now in my heart, “my baby” to voluntarily see the
one woman who could take you away with just one sentence. But I knew it was right
for you and for me for us to go.
As I read this passage now, six years later, I am struck anew by the absolute
absence from this record of my child’s first days of the boiling cauldron of emotions that I felt as I walked down that corridor—amazed by my own assertion
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that “I knew [the meeting] was right.” Amazed because even today my memories
of walking to Marissa’s room are so clear; I can still smell the hospital corridor
and feel my hand pushing the baby bassinet, hear the swoosh of the wheels
turning … each swoosh, step, swoosh, step echoing loudly on a hospital floor
that seemed to have suddenly fallen absolutely silent … and, finally, turning
the last corner to Marissa’s room. Even as my intellect told me this meeting
was vital for my child, and my heart told me it was vital for her birthmother,
a voice inside my head said that once Marissa saw the baby, she would not
be able to let her go. Once she saw me in the flesh, she would consider me
inept or incapable, able to see through my pretenses that I was a good mother
despite my “asking” other women to birth my children. Instincts jangled out
a message of impending danger that told me to grab the baby and run. The
dread heavy in the pit of my stomach contrasted sharply with the confident
face I was determined to project to the audience of nurses trying hard not to
stare as we walked down the hallway. “Judge not what you do not understand,”
I thought defensively as I moved by, “all is well with me.” The judgments in
adoption—both internal and external—sometimes feel relentless.
In addition to my sense that I must contain my own feelings, I suppose that
as I wrote about the walk to Marissa’s room, I also anticipated that someday
my child may read the words I scribbled three days later. After all, I wrote
the letters with the intent of offering her a positive record of her journey, and
visible in my writing are traces of an unconscious compliance to dominant
constructions of “good” mothering that any mother would want her child
to read. Legible in my carefully worded entry are my needs to demonstrate
unselfishness and concern for all those involved in this adoption, as well as
the protective impulse to avoid imposing my own angst on my daughter at a
time when she might expect a more joyful and less complicated description
of her origins. This, perhaps, is a quintessential struggle of mothering: the
battle between my personal feelings and the responsibility I felt for everyone
else all shaped by profound constructions of what mothering is supposed to
be. And these varied and conflicting emotional forces that adoptive mothers
experience—anticipated grief, carefully moderated hope, the need to appear
worthy, the struggle to maintain an acceptable outward façade—are virtually
invisible in the literature on mothering and adoption.
Blessed with the Right to Mother
[Sunday, Jan 18, letter continued]
When we arrived [Marissa’s] room was empty. I was standing in the hallway
alone with you when I turned and saw her walking toward us down the hallway.
I just knew immediately that it was her.…. I sat beside her bed, she sat on it with
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her legs pulled up and crossed under her, and you stayed in the rolling bassinet to
my right. While it was nerve-racking, there was also a sense of peace in the room.
I told Marissa I was so glad she had changed her mind about seeing both of us. She
smiled and said, yes, she was too. We then talked for about 30 minutes and never
did we lack in something to say. It was like sitting down to talk with a long-time
girlfriend. We had a bond that few women have—we share a precious baby. We were
two mothers. We each had an intimate understanding of what she was giving up
and where there was joy in my heart that we would have you, there was [genuine]
sorrow for her loss. I think it is safe to say that she, too, felt both joy and loss. As we
talked she continuously stole looks at you but wished to keep you “parked” several feet
away. She did note that you have her hair and her skin color.
I cannot recreate for you on paper how peaceful this meeting was … Marissa and
I both remained very calm throughout but both struggled with the wayward and
occasional tear. Unfortunately I cannot remember word for word what was said but
Marissa did talk about making a mistake … She never referred to you as a mistake,
only the decision that came before. In fact it [seemed] clear that it wasn’t that she
didn’t want you near her, she feared your getting too close. My impression was that
she feared it would be too difficult to let go. … She said there are multiple reasons she
decided on adoption … She said she can “barely raise” the child she has already….
[She seemed to be] a woman who knew her own mind and made her own decisions … I told Marissa that I know she doesn’t want any contact after the adoption
is complete but that I would send pictures and updates every year to [our attorney’s]
office … I told her that if she simply needed to reassure herself that you are safe and
happy, she could go into [his] office to see what’s there and walk back out taking
nothing. She simply nodded, and I suspect she tucked this information in the back of
her mind for later, not really knowing how she feels about it now.
Marissa then went on to give me some things to expect from you … you should
be strong-willed with a personality to match your hair colour. She hoped we are
ready for that. I assured her this is a perfect fit with our family! She also said your
fingernails will grow “strangely.” She said her dad’s, [her daughter’s] and hers all
grow the same and showed me how hers [looked].
She also said that she … is calmer than she thought she would be and that meeting me had helped tremendously. She said she could look in my eyes and know for
certain that this was right. This, my child, felt like the passing of your care and life
to me—it is an awesome and precious responsibility. We were just two moms during
that moment, both loving you, and [it seemed as if we were] in perfect understanding with each other.
… At one point in our conversation, Marissa said she had done all the “sick at 3:00
a.m. parts” and I said “yes, and I will potty train her,” [and] we laughed together.
I told her a little more about our family and she [seemed very] pleased. She wanted
you to have parents “who don’t wonder where their next meal is coming from” and
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lots of extended family. I assured her that you will. It was then time for us to go as
you were expected in the nursery. I asked her if she wanted to see you any closer. She
hesitated a moment and then said “yes.” So I rolled you right next to her bed. She
leaned over and lightly stroked your face and hand with her finger as she talked to
you, but I didn’t feel at all excluded and stayed right there with my hands on the
bassinet. She told you that she knew we would take good care of you and love you.
She told you to be good for us. She said how beautiful you are. Then she just stroked
your face and sat quietly for a moment. Then she looked at me and said “Okay.” I
moved you to the side to prepare to leave the room. She stood and hugged me and
I was overwhelmed with gratitude and respect for her. There was no question [for
me] that our new family had her blessing.
As … I rolled you out, down the hall to the nursery (with every nurse I met checking
my face as the whole floor seemed to know where I had been) and then went back to
your daddy’s arms where I cried a bit and assured him that we were definitely taking
you home … He said okay and we didn’t talk much then because … it had been too
precious of a time to expose it to the light too soon.
In the quiet of that room, with just the three of us—Marissa, the baby, and
me—I felt a blessing from my child’s birthmother that allowed me to relax
the emotional façade I had carefully maintained in the hours and days prior,
to begin to claim what became my right to mother this beautiful child, and
to experience a genuine hope that this meeting would contribute to Marissa’s
own processes of grieving, letting go, and moving on. This was a transformative moment for me, a marking of the passing of our child from her to me,
and, significantly, an interruption of the powerful image of “good” and “bad”
mothers that societal institutions dominated by patriarchal values have too long
constructed. There were no “good” or “bad” mothers in that hospital room, only
two women, each with individual losses and changes to negotiate, and each
laboring to identify and fulfill the best interests of one small child.
Reconsidering the Good Mother
March 24
Dear Baby Girl—
Today was the hearing to terminate your birthfather’s rights … all is done now …
I have greeted this news with mixed feelings—relief, joy, and looking toward a sure
future as the final legal threat is removed—those were all my initial feelings. . . Guilt
too … as I do realize that while the termination of your birthfather’s right is a gift
and a huge relief for us, you have lost something and I don’t how you will feel about
that as you grow older … . I also feel sadness for [Marissa] and for your birthfather
because they will never know the pure joy of raising and loving you. Through …
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loss comes one of the greatest gifts of our lives. It seems the emotions of an adoptive
mother are never simple … April 24 is the day we will finalize your adoption and
make legal what is already in our hearts. I will be glad to have everything finished
and simply be a family looking toward a bright and happy future.
Love you always, Mommy
p.s. I sent a picture of you at your baptism and one of you and [your brother] to
[the attorney’s office] in case Marissa wants to see you.
As scholars have noted, and diverse women have experienced, the ideology
of what constitutes a good mother can assault the psyches and embodied lives
of women who mother in ways society at any given historical moment deems
nontraditional, deviant, even unnatural. Both adoptive and birth mothers face
a deeply-inscribed ideology of motherhood that defines their experiences and
choices as lesser, as somehow frayed around the edges, as a poor substitute
for the “real” mothering that women who create, carry, birth, and raise their
own biologically-produced children in traditional normative arrangements do.
Mothers are too often conceptualized as selfish or nurturing individuals rather
than shared actors in collective decision-making and caring that contribute to
children’s development. In our case, Marissa and I shared outsider status in
relation to society’s mothering scripts, regardless of how differently our scripts
read or were experienced; we also shared one of the most powerful bonds two
women can share … we shared this child.
When I approached this fateful meeting with Marissa, fighting to squelch
my fears of loss and fulfill my responsibilities to Marissa and the baby, I never
could have imagined how transformative this experience would be for me. Out
of those brief moments, I felt reassured that Marissa felt some semblance of
peace with her decision and, thus, I felt permission to stop worrying about
her as we both moved forward. But, more importantly, I gained confidence
in myself as a mother. The quiet faith in me that she conveyed through our
conversation, her laughter, her choice to meet with me and to see the baby,
spoke louder than the clanging of my traditional family’s beliefs of mothering,
stronger than the harsh social judgments and suspicion about my long-time
intent to adopt, and more pure than my own internal doubts. In this young
woman’s spoken trust in me, in the outward peace she displayed with my having
this precious gift, she conferred to me a right and a sense of entitlement to be a
primary mother (Zamostny, O’Brien, Baden, and Wiley, 2003: 661)—to being
this child’s mother—a notion that previous judgments and my own emotional
confusion rendered, at best, precarious.
I do not know whether she recognized any of this at the time. I cannot know
truly how she felt then or how she feels now. These stories must come from
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women themselves, from birthmothers in their own diverse circumstances,
so they can define their experiences in their own ways. However, I know
that my sense of being a “good” mother—the right and intended mother for
this child—that emerged from my time with Marissa was transforming for
me. Imposing traditional constructions on contemporary family structures
and mothering arrangements does a disservice to the complexity of mothering in these historical and social circumstances. As a birthmother in Jones’
study stated quite eloquently, “The birthparents have guided them into the
world; the adoptive ones guide them through childhood. But we do not own
them. We are not in competition for deeds or titles. We are united in love. If
we can remember that, we can be resources to each other, for the children’s
sakes” (283). In other words, we are neither each other’s enemy nor the bad
guys; such constructions perpetuate the demonization of diverse women and
mothers and undermine the visions of mothering we choose to construct and
enact through our own personal and contextual circumstances. For Marissa
and me, we are both contributors to a process of mothering that, only to a
limited degree, is about us.
Just as Jones discovered during her study of birthmothers, meeting Marissa
led me to accept that, “sometimes, there are no easy solutions for complicated
problems, no convenient bad guys to soak up the blame” (xv). My child will, I
suspect, feel fluctuating pain and loss as she grows old enough to fully process
her adoption story. Like any child who was adopted, she may wonder what her
life might have been like had her birthmother made different choices during
our meeting six years ago. As I have, she must process various implications
of having limited information about her genetic heritage. But I will be there
beside her, more freed from my own guilt and pain than I could have been
without meeting Marissa, and, therefore, better able to help her navigate the
complexities of her rich and unique adoption story, with its two mothers, than
I otherwise might have been. Because when Marissa quietly slipped out of
the hospital that next day, she carried her own grief with her—and also took
a part of mine.
Postscript
Months after the first draft of this [2009] narrative, my children began asking
for information about their origins. Both developmentally, because they are
close in age, and because one question always seems to be seized by the others,
all three asked birth-related questions at the same time. I devised “hospital
day.” On that day I loaded up a bag for each child—a bag that included a
scrapbook, a family tree inclusive (where appropriate) of both biological and
adoptive ties, pictures and information about each birth family and, as I closed
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kerri s. kearne and lucy e. bailey
each bag, what felt like the whole of my heart. Perhaps I should have been
resentful that my husband simply kissed me goodbye and went on to work
that day, but I wasn’t. Mothering is unique to mothers, and I knew I was more
strongly suited for this part of the journey. On this day, and for our family, I
would walk down whatever path my children needed me to with as much love
and grace as I could manage.
At our second stop of “hospital day,” we walked through the doors of the
building where Marissa gave birth. This, I told the wide eyes of my child with
her little hand clasped in mine, was her birthplace. I could still see Marissa
standing in the hallway—the hallway that I could only describe to my child
because the nurses would not let us onto the secured floor no matter how I
explained the reasons. So I took my child to the hospital’s chapel and there I
told her as much as I know about her first mother, Marissa. And I answered
every question I could and was careful not to devise answers I don’t have—even
in an effort to stave off what I feared would create pain or confusion. Today
on a shelf in her room stands three carved wooden figures chosen from the
hospital gift shop on that day—one is called “Blessings” and is a young child,
arms spread and palms toward the sky. The second is called “Cherish,” a
woman with arms lovingly wrapped around her obviously pregnant middle.
The third is called “Love,” and if you lift up this female figure, the bottom
reads, “in honour of mom.” My daughter’s story is interwoven with mother
love and mother grief—both Marissa’s and mine. This is part of what makes
my precious daughter who she is.
This narrative is written from my own partial and subjective experiences as
an adoptive mother and with the deepest of love for my daughter, the deepest
of respect for her birthmother, and for those who will share diverse mothering
paths. May you be just as blessed as we are.
Jeremiah (2006: 26) reminds readers that the idea of mothering as a “choice”
is a recent, Western idea. We use the term because it best embodies resistance
to reproductive and biological determinism that affects all women and that
is particularly important in conceptualizing the adoptive triad. However, we
recognize that what is constructed as individual “choice” is in fact historical
and contextual and that social, economic, and corporeal circumstances shape
any woman’s capacity to mother—or not to mother.
1
References
Cushman, Linda F., Debra Kalmuss, and Pearila B. Namerow. 1993. “Placing
an Infant for Adoption: The Experiences of Young Birthmothers.” Social
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Work 38 (3): 264-272.
Ge, Xiaojia, Misaki N. Natsuaki, David M. Martin, Leslie D. Leve, Jenae M.
Neiderhiser, Daniel S. Shaw, Georgette Villareal, Laura Scaramella, John B.
Reid, and David Reiss. 2008. “Bridging the Divide: Openness in Adoption
and Postadoption Psychosocial Adjustment Among Birth and Adoptive
Parents.” Journal of Family Psychology 22 (3): 529–540.
Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 1994. “Social Constructions of Mothering: A Thematic
Overview.” Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency. Eds. Evelyn Nakano
Glenn, Grace Change and Linda Rennie Forcey. New York: Routledge
Press: 1-29.
Janus, Nancy G. 1997. “Adoption Counseling as a Professional Specialty Area
for Counselors.” Journal of Counseling and Development 75 (4): 266-274.
Jeremiah, Emily. “Motherhood to Mothering and Beyond: Maternity in Recent Feminist Thought.” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering
8 (1): 21-33.
Jones, Merry Bloch. 1993. Birthmothers: Women who Have Relinquished Babies
for Adoption Tell Their Stories. Chicago: IL: Chicago Review Press.
Lee, Judith S. and James A. Twaite. 1997. “Open Adoption and Adoptive
Mothers: Attitudes toward Birthmothers, Adopted Children, and Parenting.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 67 (4): 576-584.
Rosenberg, Karen F. and Victor Groze. 1997. “The Impact of Secrecy and
Denial in Adoption: Practice and Treatment issues.” Families in Society 78
(5): 522–529.
Ruddick, Sara. “Maternal Thinking,” Feminist Studies 6, no. 2 (Summer 1980):
342-367.
Stone, Elizabeth. Retrieved 5-2-10 from http://www.fordham.edu/academics/programs_at_fordham_/english/faculty/english_faculty/elizabeth_stone_
28585.asp
Zamostny, Kathy P., Karen M. Obrien, Amanda L. Baden, and Mary O’Leary
Wiley. 2003. “The Practice of Adoption: History, Trends, and Social Context.” The Counseling Psychologist 31 (6): 651-678.
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Temporary Mothering
Grieving the Loss of Foster Children
This article discusses experiences of grief and loss I experienced as an African Canadian woman and foster mother. Many child welfare agencies implement policies,
programs and services to support foster children through difficult transitions. In
contrast, there is a dearth of service for foster mothers who especially need the support
when dealing with foster children’s grief while in care and more acutely the experiences of grief when children leave the foster home. This grief and loss is exacerbated
by the intimate interactions that agency staff encourages between foster children and
foster mothers. The article addresses this gap and demonstrates ways in which agency
staff continually fail to support foster mothers when they experience grief and loss
in relation to foster children.
Severed relationships, such as separation and divorce, can trigger painful emotions. Many child welfare agencies implement policies, programs and services
designed to support foster children when they go through difficult transitions
in their home lives, transitions that mean changes in intimate relationships
with family and friends. In contrast, there is a dearth of such services for foster
mothers, who need support when dealing with foster children’s grief while in
care and, more acutely, who need support as they experience their own grief
when children leave their foster home. Yet there is an overwhelming amount
of literature discussing (1) the increasing need for foster parents (Dozier and
Lindhiem; Miedema; Rindfleisch and Bean; Swartz; MacGregor et al.; Coakley
et al.; Critelli); (2) the reasons foster homes continue to decrease (Rindfleisch
and Bean; Swartz; MacGregor et al.; Critelli; Brown and Campbell; Butler and
Charles; Wozniak); and (3) suitable characteristics of foster parents (Brown
and Calder 741). Where research exists, much of the focus is on foster parent
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retention and most of the research about foster care is based on a white, heterosexual, two-parent family context (Firth; Gil; Haight et al.; Rhodes, Orme
and Buehler; Marcellus). While there is an increasing amount of literature
about African- and Latino-American foster parents (Swartz; Critelli; Denby
and Rindfleisch), there is a decided gap in research about foster mothering
generally and African-Canadian foster mothering in particular.
I feel sick again today
From the somersaults that won’t stop
I have fallen and can’t get up
Help me breathe, someone…anyone
The world threatens to destroy our family
But I have no power to stop it
She is not mine
I’m only a foster parent
A disposable mother
So I have no claim to fame
I have to watch a piece of my heart walk out of my life
One more time … again
Ah time fi ban mi bellie and bawl
This article demonstrates and explores the grief and loss I experienced as
an African-Canadian single woman and foster mother—the grief I felt while
living with foster children and the loss I suffered at their departure. While the
cultural and racial aspects of grief and loss remain obscure in this article, it must
be noted that the level of grief I experienced is also based on my belief of what
family constitutes (see Mullings). Furthermore, because I foster-parented as a
single woman, I had less personal support in my home and, therefore, possibly
could have benefited from agency support; I was, after all, providing fostermother services for the state. I wanted to provide a safe, stable, and nurturing
home for children unable to live with their parents or kin. But in spite of
my intentions, there were many disruptions of continuity of care, mostly the
result of my devalued status as a temporary mother. Foster mothers have little
decision-making power; their mothering skills are scrutinized and challenged
constantly, yet they are expected to accommodate the needs of the children,
their biological families, and the agency consistently, whether changes happen
suddenly or gradually. These responsibilities create intense relationships that
allow foster mothers to grieve the loss of foster children.
Foster mothers’ grief and loss is shrouded in invisibility and is therefore
referred to as “disenfranchised grief ” (Edelstein, Burge and Waterman 12-15;
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Kaczmarek qtd. in Doka). Disenfranchised grief is described as losses in the
mourner’s life that are not socially acceptable or sanctioned, and so the person
experiencing the grief cannot mourn publicly or participate in grief and loss
rituals (Kaczmarek 254; Edelstein, Burge and Waterman 12-15). Foster mothers experience disenfranchised grief in their daily contact with foster children,
who are themselves grieving the loss of their families while in care.
Grief and Loss Every Day
Burke and Dawson argue that the child welfare “agency is dependent upon
the foster parents and makes great demands of them. They need to be able to
respond quickly to agency needs and usually receive 24 hours notice or less.
They make many trips to the agency, hospitals, and court rooms. Their family routine revolves around the needs of the children and the agency” (37);
furthermore, foster mothers are asked to emotionally attach to children and
love them unconditionally. Edelstein, Burge and Waterman (6) note that
historically, foster parents were instructed to refrain from becoming attached
to the children they cared for. That policy has changed, as evidenced by agencies’ preference for foster parents who intend to adopt the children in their
care. But the intimate interactions that agency staff encourages exacerbate the
feelings of grief and loss for foster mothers while caring for children and after
they leave the foster home. According to Edelstein, Burge and Waterman (8),
“foster parents have to deal with grief in many guises: the grief of the parents
whose child they are caring for; the grief of the child in their care; their own
grief upon losing a child to reunification, other placement, or adoption; and
the grief of other family members as a foster child leaves.” Children display
their grief by crying, withdrawing, and being aggressive (Edelstein, Burge and
Waterman 10; Thomas 202-204).
In my experience, children also express grief by stealing, self-harming,
discussing how they miss their mothers, making requests to be placed with
other foster families, or insisting on returning to the homes of their biological
parents. Each child arrived at my home seemingly laden with a sense of loss
and apprehension about the new foster home, as well as regret about having
to make yet another adjustment to an unknown place with new rules, names,
and expectations. This concurs with Edelstein, Burge and Waterman (9), who
suggest that “when a child is placed in care, he or she experiences the loss of
the previous caregiver, the familiar environment, and established relationships;
this in spite being neglected and abused, traumatized or having highly conflicting relationships.” Children going into care feel sadness, loneliness, and
anger (Fernandez 356). Accordingly, my grieving began the moment a new
foster child walked through my door. I had to support children coping with
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their grief and loss while dealing with my own grief for them. Some children
grieved the loss of their mothers and wanted to return home, as evidenced by
a note to me from one of my foster children:
Dear Aunt Del,
I don’t know what there is to talk about yesterday we had that
whole computer thing and now my mom who promised me she would
be at the visit and then was tested positive and broke her word promise
to her daughter which makes me Very sad/upset I don’t know why
she would do that to me!!
It makes me so upset and I really want to be home with her:
P.s. can I go to the library tomorrow? and are we going to that
thing at 7 tonight?
p.s.s. Thank for always being there for me!
LOVE YOU ♥ (tl)
The child expressed disappointment with her mother’s actions and sadness
at her own inability to be home with her mother. I experienced this child’s grief
deeply when I heard her crying at nights in her room or when she returned
from a family visit in which her mother was unexpectedly absent. Over the
years, I received similar notes from foster children when their grief seemed
unbearable. With such notes, my grieving intensified as I struggled to hold
on to the children in my care, while reminding myself that they were not my
children and I had no right to harbour feelings of loss at their departure. Foster
mothers must constantly recite the mantra that agency workers relay: “These
children are not ours. We must care for them, love them, become attached to
them, but let them go without emotion when they leave our families.”
Children’s requests to leave our family came in many forms, ranging from
shouting, “I wanna move!” to written notes that simply requested a new placement. One such note said:
Ms. Mullings,
…I would still really like to have other arrangements made to go
live somewhere else … there have been times I have asked to leave
(kh).
This type of request shows the vulnerability of foster mothers and highlights
the temporary nature of a role that invites a contradiction and perpetuates
the notion that foster mothers are not real” mothers. This misconception is
embedded in the thinking and actions of agency workers, the children, their
families, the schools, and community members (Mullings 31-39). There are
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times when foster mothers create special bonds with foster children, the attachment between them is obvious, and both children and mothers recognize
the milestones they have” achieved. These intimate connections exacerbate
grief and loss when children leave, regardless of the circumstances that take
them away from foster homes.
Systemic Racism and Stereotyping of Black Motherhood
Another aspect of grief involves the loss of safety. As a Black woman mothering
White children, systemic issues of racial discrimination occupied a permanent
place in my relationship with the children I fostered and with the agency workers.
White foster children declared that they felt uncomfortable living with a Black
family, and with me in particular as a Black mother; the children said that the
discomfort was sometimes more acute in public spaces. For example, one White
child repeatedly asked for a placement change because we were a Black family
and another asked that I hide and not enter the playground so that she could
avoid questions about why we looked racially different. Children’s requests and
feelings are not problematic in themselves, given that the children are simply
attempting to navigate their environment under a unique set of circumstances.
However, the majority of agency staff, also White, were uncomfortable with
the subject and were unable to adequately respond to the children’s feelings
and requests when I reported them. All they seemed able to do was regularly
reiterate that most foster children preferred to keep their family status private
and so tried to avoid being with their foster parents in public. Occasionally,
workers said that they were unaware of the children’s feelings—even though
I documented these feelings in monthly reports to them.
Failure to address the children’s concerns resulted in severe consequences
for my family, including the removal of children. Some children reported that
they were afraid of me and that I was too strict. Some workers admitted being
afraid to approach me at times, and most stereotyped me as authoritarian, which
Bumpus and Boyce Rodgers (1375) note is consistent with research that suggests
African-American parents often use behavioural control (McLoyd) and display
characteristics of authoritarian parenting (Bumpus and Boyce Rodgers 1375
qtd. in Steinberg & Silk) more frequently than parents of other ethnicities. But
Nakano Glen (20) notes that historically, reformers and middle-class women
have attempted to control immigrant and working-class women’s parenthood
by defining what constitutes acceptable or inferior parenting (2), and this has
led to further stereotyping and minoritization of Black foster mothers.
Another way that systemic racism affected my parenting was the notion that
I used the “race card” to address issues that were common to all foster families,
whatever their ethnicity. Failure to understand the complexities of power relations
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and the insidiousness of systemic racism allowed agency personnel and other
foster parents to label me with ease. And while I mothered White children,
I also grieved the loss of my ability to mother the children from my unique
perspective as a Black mother in a White-dominated and -controlled agency.
The conflict between the children’s discomfort with me as their foster mother
and their love for me was unmistakable. There is no intent in this argument
to contest or critique the children’s love. Rather, the argument is intended as a
place from which we can begin to acknowledge and discuss how racism affects
the mothering experiences of Black foster mothers and how support might be
offered to these mothers when children leave the foster home.
When Children Leave: My Story
Foster children leave foster homes for various reasons. Policies and procedures
are in place to ensure their emotional well-being, but programs, training, and
mechanisms to help foster mothers cope when foster children leave are lacking.
Further, Edelstein, Burge and Waterman (12) argue that when children leave
foster homes, it is assumed that an emotional bond was not formed and so
grief and loss is absent, or that foster mothers understood that the children’s
placements were temporary and so they had no right to feel a loss. The agencies’
lack of appreciation for the bonding that occurs between foster children and
foster mothers and the minimization of foster parents’ grief when the bond is
severed contributes to the non-committal support that workers offer to foster
mothers. Katibian (18) argues that foster mothers experience heartbreaking
grief when foster children leave and that some degree of psychological separation accompanies a physical separation; therefore, coping with transitions has
special meaning in foster family care (51-52). When a foster child is removed
from one foster home and sent to another, it complicates the grief and loss
process. Moving the child is seen as a “placement breakdown,” and it is also a
public event, given the number of individuals who are aware of the breakdown,
including agency personnel, the children and their friends, schoolteachers, and
so forth. There is no recourse for the public shame that foster mothers feel—but
I can tell you, shame is a lot easier to manage than losing a child.
The child in question, a 14-year-old girl, came into our family and stole our
hearts. Notwithstanding our love for each other, we had ongoing conflicts and
disagreements, many of which were typical coming-of-age issues and the normal
conflict mothers sometimes encounter with adolescent daughters. The major
point of conflict involved the child wanting more unsupervised community
freedom and my wanting more accountability from her. Unfortunately, it appeared that both her biological mother and the agency workers involved with
her case agreed that she needed more freedom, but did not address the need
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for accountability. Throughout the time she lived with our family, my mothering and her commitment to personal growth allowed her to overcome serious
health and behavioural problems and improve her academic performance. An
indication of her growth is displayed in a letter she wrote to me two months
prior to her removal from my care. In part it said:
Because you have tried so hard with me I feel I should never come
to let you down… You have been a mother to me and have took me
in under your roof…I know you don’t believe in god, but sometimes
i do believe he sent you as my angel, my guardien angel…I know
because of you i will grow into a person no one ever thought I could
be, because of you i don’t get what i want because you see right past
my smile, because of you i know I will not be pregnant at the age
of 16. And finally because of you I am living this moment at this
very second….(ta
In the note, the child exhibited personal power, which gave me a sense of
gratification and pride as a foster mother. This is not unlike other foster mothers
who report that “success meant watching the children change in positive ways,
[and they] felt hopeful for the children in the long and short term.” Success
also meant realizing “when children know you are there for them” (Brown and
Campbell 1018). In addition, many mothers say that “the highest amount of
gratification resulted from their role as mothers, such as helping children”
(Critelli 66). I contributed positively to my foster child’s growth, but the
feelings of gratification and pride were insufficient to sustain me on moving
day, given my lack of preparation for the loss of yet another family member
identified as a foster child.
Moving Day
I had no reason to believe that the foster child I was losing that day would
remain in my life after she left. My experience concurs with (Baring-Gould
and Kleinkauf, Miller) findings that suggest that 45 percent of foster parents
indicate that they or foster children “never” received service in preparation for
the removal of children from the foster home; 69 percent were “never” informed
as to how their former foster children were doing after they left; and 74 percent
were “never” helped to stay in touch with the children following removal (qtd.
in Urquhart 198). I had to let her go in spirit and with love.
She was a member of our family for more than a year. We saw her as one of
us for the last time on a hot summer’s evening in July before she was placed
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ning the day she was to move, and I gave her the news that she had gotten her
wish—she was going to another foster family. I watched as she sat in stunned
silence and disbelief. As she tried to reconcile the meaning of my information,
her face became bright red; she tried to smile but those sparkling eyes were
already brimming with tears, and as she looked down at her tanned fingers,
big teardrops splashed on her hands. I held back my tears and tried to explain
my reluctance to have her leave our family, but that she had asked repeatedly
to go and her workers agreed that I was not the foster mother for her. With
those words she sobbed loudly and I moved swiftly to embrace her. We sat on
the sofa as mother and daughter for the last time and cried together.
The last few minutes in our front yard were equally intense. Two Children’s
Aid Society representatives were present: a resource worker to support the
family and an unknown residential worker filled in for the customary one,
who was away on vacation. I remember fighting hard to hold back the tears
that were just below the surface and being aware of the dam threatening to
release the floodgates. As the impending moment of departure moved closer,
the dam began to slowly open, releasing hot salty tears. I hugged her, told her
to be nice to her new foster mother, and reminded her of her potential to be
someone great and far beyond what she was at the moment. She began to cry
again, hugged me tighter than ever before, and kissed me on my left cheek. I
began to sob as I allowed the residential worker to gently pry this child who
had become mine while being someone else’s from my arms. She climbed
into the car that would transport her out of our lives permanently, still crying.
The car drove off and my remaining family waved goodbye to her. I could see
her puffy red eyes, stained with mascara, as she pressed her face close to the
back windshield of the moving car. She waved goodbye until the car was out
of sight, and that was my cue to break down in deep, uncontrollable sobs. My
heart seemed to clog my chest as I fought to find a way to stay alive without
this child in my life.
That Friday evening in July was the last time our family saw that child as
a member of our family. As a temporary mother, I also knew that the child
whom I had mothered would never again call me Mom, and all contact with
her would be lost. Our family became one fewer in number with the stroke of
a pen; the agency worker had rejected me as the child’s mother and the child
got the freedom without accountability she wanted. Life was normal in the
daily grind of a foster mother’s life of grief and loss.
There is no doubt that this was a difficult transition. Burke and Dawson
capture the experience when they argue that
placement day evokes the extremes of emotions. In the eyes of the
adoptive parents and biological parents, the foster parents represent
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the child’s past. In order to avoid acknowledgement of the child’s past
situation, they may exclude, avoid, or ignore the foster parents and
their place in and contribution to the child’s life. (36)
This has indeed been my experience with both the biological mothers and
foster parents who were not African-Canadians. In two of the cases, I had
mothered the children for approximately 26 and 14 months respectively. One
child was reunited with the biological family member and the other was placed
with another foster family. The child who was reunited with the biological
family moved to another province, but while she lived with me and prior to
the reunification , I communicated regularly with her relative by telephone and
electronic mail. After the child moved, communication stopped immediately.
The child who was placed with another foster family lived fewer than five
kilometers away from our home, yet neither the new foster mother nor the
agency workers attempted to help the child maintain contact with our family.
As a temporary mother, I was ostensibly forced from the children’s lives. “This
action and exclusion can cause foster parents more pain at a time that they are
most vulnerable” (Edelstein 469). According to (Urquhart):
Foster mother respondents found separation and loss to often be the
most difficult experience for them and their families to face. Many
attested to particular losses years after the fact. Numerous comments
indicated considerably more pain and grief were experienced when
the child’s case was felt to be bungled or mismanaged. (204-205)
In the narrative that I shared above, I felt that the child’s case was mismanaged; that systemic racial biases permeated the handling of the case, and had
I been her biological mother or kin, she would have resided with our family
until she left our home or circumstances changed. I cried for almost four weeks
alone and in silence after this child left our family. For months I found little
objects, pieces of clothing, or other telltale signs that she once was a part of
us. I kept her pictures on display and at times became sad and teary when I
looked at them. I occasionally saw her from a distance in our neighbourhood,
but was always apprehensive about meeting her directly, not knowing if my
emotions would betray me. I received no official support from worker in the
agency as I dealt with the loss of this foster child.
As I discussed earlier, and it bears repeating, there is a good deal of literature
about the needs of foster children, suitable foster homes, and the parental skills
necessary to provide the best support to foster children. In contrast, there is
a lack of research on the needs of foster parents and their families and foster
mothers in particular, the majority of whom are the primary caregivers for foster
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children. I have written this article to challenges the practices of child welfare
agencies that continue to ignore foster mothers’ emotional needs while caring
for foster children and watching those children leave. I hope, with this article,
to open the door to a dialogue about foster mothers’ support needs and the
experiences of Black foster mothers, which can then trigger research on these
important subjects. Such research must include foster mother’s perspectives,
rather than foster families in general, and if child welfare agencies expect to
retain current foster mothers as caregivers of children for the state, serious attention must be given to foster mothers’ experiences of grief and loss.
References
Brown, Jason and Calder Peter. “Concept Mapping the Needs of Foster Parents.” Child Welfare 79.6 (2000): 729-46. Print.
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Making Sense of Loss
The Disenfranchised Grief of
The incidence of unintentional childlessness in women who have, as popular
comment puts it, “left it too late,” is rising markedly in many western nations yet
the experience is not well understood. This paper draws on an exploratory psychosocial study of the experiences of 27 New Zealand women in their 30s and 40s
who are “contingently childless’; that is women who have always seen themselves
as having children but find themselves at the end of their natural fertility without
having done so for social rather than (at least initially) biological reasons. They
are engaged in a process of coming to terms with probably not becoming biological mothers and are in the unusual, but not uncommon, position of being neither
“voluntarily childless” (since they would like to have a child), nor “involuntarily
childless” (since they were/are, at least initially, biologically capable of doing
so). Grief and a strong sense of loss emerged as a major theme in the study. The
analysis draws on one aspect of this theme; the social “invisibility” of these women’s
experience, and the ways it constructs the public and private grieving they do. The
paper discusses how the perceived social illegitimacy of these women’s grief creates
a painful sense of isolation and alienation for them, and contributes to the silence
and lack of understanding that surrounds their experience.
Because it’s so invisible … you struggle with it so much on your own …
you think by talking about it people are going to go “what?” That they
won’t get it. (Kate 36)
The incidence of unintentional childlessness in women who have, as popular comment puts it, “left it too late,” is rising markedly in many western
nations yet the experience is not well understood. It is an experience that
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appears to be constructed through a cultural silence on its very existence. In
New Zealand (where this study that this paper is based on was conducted)
no distinction is made in official statistics between those who are childless
by decision, and those who do not have a child as a consequence of other
events in their life (Boddington and Didham 3). This paper draws on an
exploratory psycho-social study of the experiences of women in their 30s
and 40s who are “contingently childless’; that is women who have always
seen themselves as having children but find themselves at the end of their
natural fertility without having done so for social rather than (at least initially) biological reasons.
I use the term “contingent childlessness” to describe the situation where a
woman’s reproductive decisions are contingent on other circumstances in her
life, with the aim of contributing to the possibility of a more diverse set of
narratives for women who have not borne a biological child. These women
are engaged in a process of coming to terms with probably not becoming
biological mothers and are in the unusual, but not uncommon, position of
being neither “voluntarily childless” (since they would like to have a child),
nor “involuntarily childless” (since they were/are, at least initially, biologically capable of doing so). While there is a body of work on the experience
of medical infertility (See for example, Becker and Nachtigall; Cussins;
Greil (Infertility and), (Infertile Bodies); Inhorn and Van Balen; Thompson;
Whiteford and Gonzalez), and on voluntary childlessness (See for example
Bartlett; Cameron; Gillespie), there has been little research on this specific
form of non-medical involuntary childlessness, particularly of women’s qualitative experience of it.
Grief and a strong sense of loss emerged as a major theme for all of the
women in this study. Within that theme, there are a number of common
strands: the meanings women create around the experience of not having
become a biological mother when (as far as they know) they are physically
capable of doing so; the ways in which they conceptualize their experience
as a loss and what it is that is “lost’; the times and circumstances in which
they feel the loss most keenly; the sense that loss will continue on into their
futures, affecting other members of their wider family as well as themselves;
the process of accommodation to the loss that they are engaged in; and the
invisible nature of their experience, their loss, and the grief associated with
it in their private and social worlds. In all of these strands the social and the
personal are inextricably tangled and constitutive of one another, and this
has implications for the ways they conceive of their experience as a loss, and
grieve for it. In this paper I focus attention on the last mentioned strand;
the quality of the “invisibility” of their experience and the ways it constructs
and shapes the public and private grieving they do.
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Research Process
In 2009/10 I conducted individual and group interviews with 26 women in
their 30s and 40s from New Zealand’s four major cities.1 Respondents were
recruited via their responses to information about the research promulgated
in a variety of ways: posters in a large government department’s head office;
notices in the national newsletters of a fertility consumers” support group and
of the local branch of a national organization of counselors;
a university women’s group email list; and personal links between some of
the women I interviewed. The information about the research explained that
I have worked in the past as a counselor, and several respondents commented
that they were only willing to talk to me because they believed my experience
would mean that I would approach the topic, and them, “gently” and sensitively.
Most of the women I interviewed are university graduates, several are lecturers,
and all demonstrated a considered form of self-definition and reflexivity.
I used semi-structured individual interviews of about one and a half to two
hours and, in three centers, a follow-up group interview of one hour with
about seven women. I invited all the women I interviewed individually to be
part of a group interview; some were unwilling to do so. Time constraints
in one center made it impossible to run a group interview there. The groups
began with a drawing exercise where I asked each woman to draw about her
experience of childlessness, and then to describe the drawing to the rest of
the group. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed; pseudonyms
have been used to ensure anonymity. I was interested in these women’s stories
and the ways they might reveal the complexities and contradictions of this
aspect of their lives.
Though I was careful not to presume their experience in terms of loss and grief
in my research design, I suspect for many women my having been a counselor
in some way legitimated their framing their experience in their discussions with
me in this way, perhaps for the first time. Perhaps because of this, there was
a high level of emotionality in almost all of the individual interviews - most
women cried at several points - but less so in the group interviews. I relate
this to the ways that women described constraining their articulation of their
experience grief publicly, and it is the origins of this constraint and the ways
that it contributes to the invisibility of their particular form of childlessness
that I will go on to discuss.
During the interviews, transcription and analysis I paid careful attention to
times when their narrative faltered; in repetitions, stuttering, long pauses, and
unexpected links in the narrative and so forth. These moments might be seen as
possible indicators of areas where unconscious and conscious conflicts or areas
of ambivalence “leak” into the carefully maintained personal and public image
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a respondent has constructed of and for herself; they “make visible otherwise
invisible internal states” (Hollway and Jefferson 151), which is important in
a context where a woman’s private feelings might be at odds with what she
judges to be socially legitimate.
The “present absence” of contingent childlessness
[It was] incredibly difficult. And still difficult … It was difficult because
[pause] um I think it was difficult because [pause], I think it was difficult
because [pause] I had never [pause] and in a way still haven’t, um, relinquished a, sort of [pause] sense of myself as a mother [trembling, quiet voice,
tearfulness]. Um [pause], [it’s] very hard to describe. (Deborah 45)
Deborah spoke articulately and strongly in her interview until this moment:
the point at which I asked her to talk about how she felt about her decision,
after meeting her husband in her mid thirties, not to try to have a baby. As a
child she cared for a sister who has serious intellectual disability. Aware that
there was a “rising risk” of disability with pregnancy at her age, she described
feeling that
on the one hand we acknowledged we couldn’t cope with caring for a child
with disability and on the other hand we did not feel able to deny a child life
[through termination that might be offered after a prenatal testing procedure]
once that life had begun, for failing to be our view of “perfect.”
Like Deborah, many of the women in this study spoke in very poignant ways
of the grief they felt, (and still feel) about not having had a child. Gina (46),
for example, described it as “really hard. Really hard. And sad. I felt sad and
as if I didn’t belong, and I felt as if I didn’t have a [pause], a signature … that
it wouldn’t make any difference if I didn’t exist.” They described an imaginary
picture of themselves as a mother, and the child or children they had always
expected to have, often in very vivid terms. Some women had named their
fantasy child(ren), had developed a clear picture of what they will look like,
imagined themselves interacting with them in quite specific ways and contexts, and had taken concrete steps in their life in anticipation of their future
child(ren); they had bought clothes for them, chosen a house with a child in
mind, and made work and career plans based on their imagined future. Kim
(44) described this potential maternal subjectivity as “something that is present
as an absence” in the lives of women who, like herself, have this experience. It
was this sense of absence that was vividly and often painfully present in the
conversations I had with the women in this study.
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Alongside this powerful sense of loss there was an eagerness to talk about
their experience and, through that talk, to make sense of it for themselves. The
lack of a socially acknowledged space or category for these women’s experience,
either officially or within their more intimate social spheres, was apparent
across the narratives. With little public circulation of their narrative, women
struggled to make sense of their experience for themselves.
I find it quite hard to explore it, and understand it [pause]. There’s times
when I really could have done with some [pause] support [pause], and I,
and also like I’m, you know, I know I can’t be the only [pause] woman who
has gone through some of the [pause] thoughts, and angst that I’ve been
through, but you don’t [pause] it’s hard to read about it. Not in a kind of
sophisticated [pause] intelligent way. (Lynne 39)
Lynne’s comments point to the difficulties in making meaning of her life for
herself, and also to the ways the invisibility of her circumstances in public
discourse constrains her finding social support from others. In the excerpt
that follows Maree (33) interprets these circumstances as having developed for
women through a societal “shift,” and suggests that the lack of understanding
or awareness also carries a judgment and an inhibition about what she and
other women like her might be “allowed to feel,” because they should in some
way carry the responsibility for their choices in life:
… it’s not something that I talk about with anyone or process very much
because, um, you know, there’s no label or box or term for it to fit in, [pause]
… . so I still, I’m not, you know, I’m not completely clear on exactly how
I feel about it all [pause] … if I’m feeling something it’s hard to explain
it to someone else if they don’t really know of its existence … I just think
it’s a shift that’s occurred in society in general and hasn’t been fully recognised or acknowledged, um, it’s kind of crept up on us, so not really seen
… [Women] are not allowed to feel any loss about it, “cause they’ve made
that happen that way.
“Disenfranchised grief ’
Over the last century grief has been largely academically theorized (and popularly
understood) within a psychological framework as an individual’s response to
bereavement when someone dies, making it difficult to consider a mechanism
by which individual women might feel inhibited in grieving for the loss of their
potential subjectivity as a mother and imagined child(ren), as Maree suggests.
A psycho-social perspective of the experience and expression of grief creates a
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different perspective for consideration of the ways women in this study might
experience loss. Rather than seeing the individual as a discrete person who
is impacted by a number of factors – including social and cultural factors – a
psycho-social perspective is engaged with analyzing and describing the ways
social interactions in effect construct the psychic life of the individual; in the
case of grief, how social interactions co-construct the experience and expression
of grieving, and the societal correlates of that experience. Brabant (28) writes
that from this perspective “the collective response and the individual’s response
to loss are inextricably interwoven. The individual grieves as an individual; he
or she also grieves as a member of a social system.” A “lived” experience of
grieving entails a process of social recognition and acknowledgement.
Doka’s [WHICH REF?] concept of “Disenfranchised Grief ’, which postulates
that some grief, some losses, and some grievers are stigmatized, minimized
or rendered invisible because they fall outside of a set of normative boundaries, is a useful way to think about the experience of grief for women in these
circumstances. Extending this idea, Corr (Revisiting 41) suggests that the
normative order establishes “who have a right to experience and express their
reactions (to significant losses), and who can expect to have their losses and
their subsequent reactions and responses to those losses acknowledged and
supported by society.” Doka’s [WHICH REF?] metaphor of enfranchisement
evokes a rights discourse of the privileges accorded to those who belong and
have a valid place in society; disenfranchisement refers therefore to those who
are judged socially invalid in some important respect and who are therefore
unable to have their voices heard. The metaphor carries a strong sense of the
role of the social in the construction of people’s experience of grief in the
suggestion that the freedom to grieve is one that is bestowed on a person—or
withheld from him or her— by others.
There are a number of ways in which the participants in this study appear
to fall outside the set of people who are socially permitted to grieve, and I
have space here to elaborate on only two of them. The first relates to the type
of loss they are dealing with. In the following excerpt, Deborah distinguished
her loss from that associated with a death. Though she struggled to articulate
what is “lost’, in her insistence that her loss is a reality she claimed her experience as “grief ’. Her repetitions at the end of the excerpt however suggested
a determination to defend its existence; that its validity might perhaps have
been called into question socially:
It’s not loss in the sense of something known. You know how if one loses a
parent, or loses a sibling … (i)t’s not loss in that sense, and yet it is loss of
[pause], I don’t know, a vision or a hope or a dream or an expectation, or
[pause], so there is grieving that goes with it. Just, I don’t know that it’s the
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same grieving as the loss of something that was known to exist. But I think
it exists. That [pause], that sense of loss, and the grieving for something not
fulfilled is, you know, does, does exist. Yeah. Yes. (Deborah 45)
The process by which those around him or her disenfranchise a person’s
grief may be simply one of a lack of awareness, such as might be experienced
by thoughtless comments made to a woman about her being “lucky” to be
childfree; however Corr (Enhancing 4) writes that it may be much a more active one of “disavowal, renunciation, and rejection.” Deborah, who described
her relationship with her nieces and nephews as being extremely important
to her, spoke of her outrage and hurt in a situation where she was offering to
care for her brother’s children:
He said to me [pause] “get your own children, and don’t steal mine” [incredulous small laugh]. And I just, I was, I didn’t say anything, I’ve never
said anything to him about it … you know, it’s [pause] it’s, yeah [quavering
voice]. Those are the times, I think, when I feel the pain the most, is when
I get a sense that a judgment is being passed. When I feel that people have
no reason to be making the judgment. (Deborah 45)
In these women’s stories it is possible to see some of the features that lie underneath the construction of normative rules that define how and when people
might expect public support in their grief. The second “infringement” of social
laws of grieving that renders these women’s right to grieve illegitimate draws
on the idea that there is a natural “logic” to grieving, implying that grieving
people are necessarily passive victims of circumstance; that those who have
played a part in bringing about loss in their lives are by inference not eligible
for support from others (and perhaps even from themselves). Maree’s comment that women “are not allowed, “cause they’ve made it happen that way”
illustrates this point. These women often struggled with a conflict between the
notion of taking personal responsibility for their lives - that they had “made
their bed and now must lie on it” - and a sense of injustice that the complexities of their decisions are not acknowledged socially. For many this struggle
is played out in a painful choice between staying with a man they love (who
refused to have more children), and leaving him to try to have a child with
someone else or on their own. Gina for example said, “(y)ou know, your calculus
is choosing between this abstract scenario that might or might not work out,
or this real live person that you’re in love with. There’s no discussion about
what that’s really like.” In the excerpt that follows she struggled to make sense
of the decision she made and the ways she understands this as constraining
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her ability to seek support from others in dealing with the difficulties she felt
in not having a child:
Oh it’s complex isn’t it. Maybe I should have made this choice [to leave her
husband] long ago and … given that I didn’t, I don’t have any right to
gripe about it now.. But I didn’t want to leave him. I didn’t want to leave
him. And that’s why I didn’t. So I mean [pause] I think the implication is:
it’s my life, there’s my desires, or putative desires, so if I [pause], I made my
choice and I should not feel regret or grief about it … [Making that choice]
wipes out any avenue for complaining about it, or even talking about it
really [pause]. I reckon that’s a big mechanism at work in women’s tendency
to stay isolated and not discuss it. As a woman, as soon as you bring something up, you’re implicitly seeking support, emotional support. And so you
have to have the [pause] right to seek that support. (Gina 43)
For many of the women abortion plays a major role in this perceived struggle
between the fruits of agency and the “right” to grieve. In the excerpts that
follow Maree and Lynne discuss the complexity of their decisions and impact
that abortion has had on their experience:
I had the opportunity to have a child, um, so I don’t have the right to be
sad about not having children ….in society’s eyes, yeah. I give, I, yeah I
give myself the right, privately, yeah…I understand what, you know,
“cause it seems logical looking from the outside in, um, if a woman had the
opportunity to have a child and, and didn’t and then was sad about not
having children that wouldn’t make much sense. (Maree 33)
I think that has made it really hard for me to talk to people about it [her
childlessness]. The sort of irony of wanting children and having had two
abortions … they just made me realise how hard decisions are, and how
messy life is sometimes … I was really ambivalent about it, because I was
aware that actually I wanted to have children. (Lynne 39)
Along with a feeling of injustice that the “messiness” of life is not accounted
for in the judgments others make, a painful sense of isolation was a very strong
element in the narratives of the women in this study. It was often reflected
in their drawings; many featured a single figure separated from others by a
membrane of some sort. Some talked about the rejection they experienced in
the very places they might have expected support; family and social connections such as church for example. Discussing the impact of this isolation due
to disenfranchised grief Kauffman writes:
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A basic part of the loss inflicted by disenfranchisement is a loss of the
shelter of community. Cut off in his or her grief from social recognition, the disenfranchised griever is prone to experience an underlying sense of alienation and loneliness, shame, and abandonment.
The experience of being disenfranchised by a social group alienates
one from that group, and it may contribute to a degeneration of the
individual’s sense of being part of the social fabric. (69)
Perhaps the most serious outcomes of this isolation are the constraints
the women felt in seeking support and sharing stories with others in similar
circumstances. This affects the social resources they have available to them,
and adds to the social invisibility of their experience. Very few of the women
I interviewed told me they felt able to speak to others, and then only rarely,
with perhaps one other woman. Gina’s doubts about having “the right to seek
support” from others is one reason for the constraint. It represents an internalizing of the societal rules about grieving in which she is immersed. In the
excerpt that follows Lesley (43) suggests another reason; an awareness of the
depth of her own feelings and a fear that she might “open a Pandora’s box” of
difficult feelings for them:
[I don’t talk] even with close friends. Mainly just because I think I would,
you know, cry a lot, like I have this morning. And I just don’t want to do
that. And I actually don’t know how some of my other friends have come
to terms with it, and to what extent they are sitting on the same sort of
emotional depth that I am. (Lesley 43)
Conclusion
I’m really hoping that people … are more aware that there is that invisible
grief out there, that it’s brought out more into the open, and so it’s normalised
that it’s actually something that people might be going through. I think …
people knowing about it and opening it up for conversations … I’m hoping
that’s what this research would be able to help. (Kate 36)
Conceiving of grief as a social construct makes it possible to consider how
different conceptualizations of grief might shape the ways women who are
“contingently childless” understand and articulate their experience. If, for
example, “contingent childlessness” is not socially recognized as a loss, then
women who may be grieving for the loss of their fantasy child or identity as a
mother may not conceive of and articulate their experience as grief. Similarly,
if grief is understood as a passive process whereby a grieving woman is posi172
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tioned as a victim of her circumstances - someone others might pity perhaps - a
woman who sees herself as taking an agentive stance in her life may question
the legitimacy of her own grief. This raises the possibility that women may
not talk about their experience in terms of loss, and their response in terms of
grief, for a range of reasons: they may reject the notion of loss and subsequent
grief because to do so positions them as victims of their circumstances rather
than as agentive selves making active choices in their lives; they may not see
themselves as having “valid” loss in the way that women who have always
been biologically infertile do, or they may not conceptualize it as a loss since
no one has died and their loss is not validated as such by others. This study
has highlighted the invisible nature of these women’s experience, and of their
grieving. It is hoped that it can contribute to a growing understanding of the
complexities of this experience.
The study has approval from University of Canterbury Human Ethics Committee.
1
References
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Boddington, Bill, and Didham, Robert. Busy Making Other Plans: Increases in
Childlessness in New Zealand. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand, 2007.
Becker, Gay and Nachtigall, Robert. “Eager for Medicalization: The Social
Production of Infertility as a Disease.” Sociology of Health and Illness 14
(1992): 456-71.
Brabant, Sarah. “A Closer Look at Doka’s Grieving Rules.” Disenfranchised
Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice. Ed. Ken Doka.
Champaign: Research Press, 2002. 23-38.
Cameron, Jan. Without Issue: New Zealanders Who Choose Not to Have Children.
Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press, 1997.
Corr, Charles. “Enhancing the Concept of Disenfranchised Grief.” Omega
Journal of Death and Dying 38.1 (1999): 1-20.
Corr, Charles. “Revisiting the Concept of Disenfranchised Grief.” Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice. Ed. Ken
Doka. Champaign: Research Press, 2002. 39-60.
Cussins, Charis. “Producing Reproduction: Techniques of Normalization and
Naturalization in Infertility Clinics.” Reproducing Reproduction: Kinship,
Power and Technological Innovation. Eds. Sarah Franklin and Helena Ragone.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. 66-101.
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Doka, Ken, ed. Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies
for Practice, Champaign: Research Press, 2002.
Doka, Ken, ed. Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. Lexington:
Lexington, 1989.
Gillespie, Rosemary. “When No Means No: Disbelief, Disregard and Deviance as Discourses of Voluntary Childlessness.” Women’s Studies International
Forum 23.2: 223-34.
Greil, Arthur L. “Infertile Bodies: Medicalization, Metaphor, and Agency.”
Infertility Around the Globe: New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender, and Reproductive Technologies. Eds. Marcia Inhorn and Frank Van Balen. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2002. 101 – 118.
Greil, Arthur L. “Infertility and Psychological Distress: a Critical Review of
the Literature.” Social Sciences Medicine 45.11 (1997): 1679-704.
Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony. “Panic and Perjury: A Psychosocial
Exploration of Agency.” British Journal of Social Psychology 44 (2005): 147163. Print.
Inhorn, Marcia and Van Balen, Frank. Eds. (eds.) Infertility Around the Globe:
New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender, and Reproductive Technologies. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2002.
Kauffman, Jeffrey. “The Psychology of Disenfranchised Grief: Liberation,
Shame, and Self-disenfranchisement.” Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions,
Challenges and Strategies for Practice. Ed. Ken Doka. Champaign: Research
Press, 2002. 61-77.
Thompson, Charis. “Fertile Ground: Feminists Theorize Infertility.” Infertility
Around the Globe: New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender, and Reproductive
Technologies. Eds. Marcia Inhorn and Frank Van Balen. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2002. 52-78.
Whiteford, Linda M. and Gonzalez, Lois. “Stigma: The Hidden Burden of
Infertility.” Social Science & Medicine 40.1 (1995): 27-36.
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Rediscovering Maternal Passion in
the Photographic Portrait
The photographic portraits in the m/others series facilitate a rediscovery of maternal
passion and surrender to a maternal return after the loss of separation. Combining theory with practice, the images incorporate Julia Kristeva’s ideas on the abject
and maternal passion to acknowledge the complexity and conflicting dynamics of
the maternal. Consequently, the accommodation of maternal ambivalence via the
illumination of the abject within the portraits sharpens the capacity for subjective
interpretation with a refusal to idealise or vilify the mother. The m/others portraits
magnify the ambiguous pleasures of the maternal bond through a representation
of the coexistence of beauty and menace to emphasise mutual recognition between
mother and child.
As a mother and photographer I have increasingly turned the camera towards my
own children, and in so doing I have realised that with each slam of the shutter
a part of them is lost to me; this loss confronts and saddens me. Photography
is the means through which I ask questions of a maternity that is simultaneously fulfilling and demanding, it thus “wounds and increases me”. Hence, the
photographs I make intimate my own tangled, melancholic maternity, which
is tender and fierce. To better understand these personal feelings of maternal
loss that significantly influence my creative output, I embrace Julia Kristeva’s
ideas on maternal passion and the abject, which engage with both negatives and
positives to reclaim a more powerful opportunity for the maternal. Kristeva’s
(2005) maternal passion acknowledges the conflicting dynamics, violence and
ambiguity that inhabits the maternal and is therefore at odds with conventional
western ideas of maternity as a “sanctuary for the sacred.” I argue that attention
to the ambiguities and ambivalences of maternal passion, which are explored
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through the photographic portraits in this particular series, titled m/others,
acknowledge a complex maternal and combine theory with practice. The
photographs incorporate contradictions and involve the intricacies of love, loss
and melancholia that inhabit the mother/child web, to facilitate transgression,
emancipatory opportunities for subjectivity and a rediscovery of the maternal
via the photographic portrait.
It is through a departure from the maternal that we arrive to ourselves,
through the crisis of separation from the mother we deviate, and then following
the remorse that accompanies this loss we may rediscover the mother. Kristeva
suggests that Melanie Klein recognized the potential for a rediscovery of the
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mother after separation: “The self never stops re-creating the mother through
the very freedom it gained from being separated from her. The mother is a
woman who is always renewed in images and words, through a process of which
”I” am the creator simply because I am the one that restores her” (2001: 131).
Indeed, Kristeva further describes motherhood as a “reconquest that lasts a
lifetime and beyond” (2005: 2) and I illustrate this “reconquest,” when I use the
camera my own mother gave me to make portraits that are imbued with my
own maternal experience. While these photographs of m/others reference my
own personal lament of the continual movement of my own children on their
journey of separation from me. They also revel in the possibility of a maternal
return that I rediscover via the photographic portrait.
The m/others series contemplate the wider complexity of the maternal relationship and “maternal passion.” According to Kristeva in “Motherhood Today,”
reflection on the significance of maternal passion has been lost in contemporary
culture, “we have become the first civilization which lacks a discourse on the
complexity of motherhood” (2005: 6). Throughout these images I resurrect
maternal passion and elevate its significance to redress the continued vacancy
of a complex maternal in the media and contemporary visual culture, which
remains preoccupied with the paternal function over the complex maternal.
This lack of engagement with maternal passion springs from an avoidance of
the ambiguity and “passionate violence of the maternal experience” (Kristeva
2005: 1). To oppose any dodging of maternal, the images in this series illuminate the coexistence of beauty and menace in maternal passion. Subsequently,
the potential risks and benefits that accompany the maternal experience are
exposed throughout the works.
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Each image represents the maternal bond as ambiguous and ambivalent
and reflects the concurrence of conflicting dynamics that operate in the maternal realm. The incorporation of uneasy pose and gesture and the reliance
on intimacy between the sitters unsettles, confuses and disrupts to impart an
alternative discourse of maternity that allows multiple interpretations. Furthermore, abjection is included as a mechanism to disturb viewing pleasure, to
facilitate transgression and to subvert conventional depictions of the maternal.
For example, I include older mother/child interactions to create tension and
depart from conventional representations of motherhood as sacred and linked
to innocence and youth. Kristeva maintains, “It is not lack of cleanliness or
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health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What
does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between the ambiguous,
the composite” (1984: 4). I celebrate abjection within the images when I
blur boundaries and reveal subjects that allude to fragility and disjunction,
embrace confusion and delight in the delicate manner that mother and child
fall between each other.
These frayed borders are facilitated by the inclusion of the maternal abject
in the images, which extend the maternal as powerful and compelling. In
m/other #7 the abject is revealed where the mother holds her baby who feeds
from her breast and simultaneously excretes her breast milk, the newborn’s
unstoppable slimy, flowing faeces are seen running down the mother’s leg and
this disgusts yet holds ones attention. Here, we are assured of the power of the
maternal abject, “the abject is something repulsive that both attracts and repels.
It holds you there in spite of your disgust. It fascinates” (Oliver 1993: 55). This
particular image demonstrates the sway of the abject and incorporates theory
in practice to serve as a visual metaphor for Kristeva’s thought in the Powers of
Horror. Oliver expands on Kristeva’s thought on the maternal abject:
The most archaic boundaries of the clean and proper self, of course,
are those regulated by the maternal authority, in particular anal and
oral drives. Food not yet the body, is expelled through the anus. The
boundaries between body and not-body are controlled by the mother.
And both the subject, and society, which depend on the Symbolic order,
depend on the repression of this maternal authority, which represents
the threat from beyond the borders of the Symbolic. (1998: 57)
In m/other #7 the mother is steadfast and unperturbed while the yellow
slime oozes down her thigh, she appears satisfied that the healthy excrement
indicates that her beloved infant is sustained by the milk from her breast. “For
the mother, the infants shit … becomes the way the child communicates….
Through this shit: its colour, consistency and frequency, the mother faces the
abject and returns herself to the pre-verbal stage of signs in order to interpret
the child’s needs” (Astore 20). m/other # 7 displays maternal passion and reveals
the power the mother wields as the keeper of the infant’s body.
Burgin believes that the maternal body highlights to men their own mortality
and he reiterates Kristeva’s position in Powers of Horror that, “fear of the archaic
mother proves essentially to be a fear of her generative power. It is this power,
dreaded, that patrilinear filiation is charged with subduing” (cited in Fletcher
and Benjamin 116). m/other # 7 accentuates the strength of the mother’s body
and makes clear the power of the relationship between mother and child. In
a cultural economy that downgrades motherhood this image celebrates the
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power of the maternal and demonstrates that “the mother- child dyad provides
a foundation for all social relations” (Oliver 1998: 65). Thus, the representation
of the maternal abject elevates the status of the maternal figure and unveils her
as the curator at the boundaries between the individual and culture.
To further elevate mutual recognition between mother and child I engage
with a diverse, multi age range of mother/child combinations and do not isolate
new mothers but rather, seek out more disparate mother/child subjects whose
intense and intimate maternal bond allow me to introduce the perverse. My
interest in the perverse stems from its companionship to the abject, “the abject
is related to perversion ... The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor
assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts”
(Kristeva, 1982: 15). The incorporation of perversion urges conventional notions of maternity and identity towards the point where meaning collapses and
heightens the absurdity of a cohesive maternity or fixed identity. The perverse
is at play in m/other # 1 where the embrace of an unusually ambiguous mother
and child coupling is seemingly uncomfortably passionate. Within the image
a complex opportunity for the maternal arises that is rarely depicted in traditional mother /child photography. Photography when used as a tool by the
maternal artist can acknowledge the ambiguity of motherhood, as Liss states,
“it is the feminist mothers admission that ambiguity is often the norm.” (xvii).
Maternal photography works against mutual exclusion and rather encourages
the promise of subjective fluidity that accompanies mutual recognition between
mother and child. Throughout m/others I utilise the perverse to offer a complex
opportunity for maternal relationship and to acknowledge the impossibility of
the Symbolic realm to sever the potent mother and child bind.
The title of the series m/others also emphasises the connection between the
other and the maternal on more than one level. It acknowledges what Kristeva
believes is the maternal ability to accommodate the other within, through the
shared mother infant body experience, reflects the status of maternity as other
in dominant culture, and also references the participation of child/ren, the
maternal “first other” in the images. m/others work against the stereotypical
institutional constructions of motherhood as uniform and singular. Instead,
the images portray the ambiguity of maternal passion and create variables, to
which “many values can be assigned”; they reveal that which Kristeva names
“subjects in process.” Kristeva recognises the contradictions in maternity and
draws a correlation between the complexity of identity and the maternal body.
Oliver expands, “like the maternal body, each one of us is what she calls a subject
in process. As subjects in process we are always negotiating the subject within
… like the maternal body, we are never completely the subjects of our own
experience” (1998: 3). Kristeva frees up contemplation regarding self and other
in the subject by comparisons to, and consistent espousal of, the double identity
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within the maternal body. The maternal body then, creates a crisis for stable
foundations of identity, as Kristeva reveals, “It is an identity, that splits, turns
in on itself and changes without becoming other” (1986: 297). The maternal
body denies a clear binary subject and object exchange in identity and instead
introduces a more complicated possibility – a paradox.
The photographic portrait like the maternal body also introduces paradox
and therefore establishes itself as an ideal space to cultivate and exemplify the
correlation between maternity and subjectivity. Like maternity the photographic portrait is complex and unstable. Susan Bright says of the photographic
portrait:
Laden with ambiguity and uncertainty the portrait is perhaps the
most complex area of artistic practice … a portrait is the questioning
or exploration of self and identity through a literal representation of
what somebody looks like. The paradox is that the inner workings
of the complex human psyche can never really be understood just by
looking at the picture. (20)
The establishment of the photographic portrait as a complex entity renders it
a suitable art form by which to investigate maternal passion. “The experiences
of motherhood and art alike should occur in a place where contradictions,
become variants… They are variables to which indefinitely many values can
be assigned” Kristeva (cited in Oliver 1993b: 99). The photographic portrait
is ambiguous and consequently possesses the potential to act as a compelling
site for the incorporation of Kristeva’s complex maternal passion, and the
development of a symbiosis between creativity and maternity.
“The signifying process as it is practised by texts - those “truly free works”
transforms the opaque and impenetrable subject … into a subject on trial”
(Kristeva, 1984: 105). While my intention to create “truly free works” may
appear ambitious, I question stable identity through rupture and divulge visual
ambiguities in the portraits with uneasy expressions, gestures and intimate
poses. On the portrait Avedon states “ it may be miraculous or indifferent,
but it is always a solution of the objective and the subjective, the prepared and
the improvised the self and the other. As depicted the person in the frame
is a new creation” (19). The portrait then has the ability to dissolve divisions
between self and other, create new possibilities for the subjective discoveries
and to radically alter identity.
This body of work extends the photographic portrait as a difficult subversive
site that encourages subjective exploration, recognition and revelation. However, I accept that it is impossible to guarantee the way that meaning will be
generated through my images as Balfe clarifies, “the meanings of any image are
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neither inherent to it, nor fixed: they always involve the interaction of creation
and interpretation, both by the artists and the original and subsequent audiences” (142). Consequentley, each viewer may be affected in different ways by
the photographs as meaning is impossible to fix and Sturken and Cartwright
agree that, “meanings lie not within their image elements alone, but are acquired when they are ‘consumed’, viewed and interpreted. The meanings of
each image are multiple” (25). Hence, these photographs refuse secure notions
of sexual identity and rather embrace fluidity to develop an opportunity for
multiplicity of identity. The images therefore, enrich concepts of subjectivity
by illuminating the complexities and continual struggles involved with being
a ‘subject in process’ in their constructedness.
The pleasure of motherhood as the indescribable, pre language, unification of the mother and child is relished by Kristeva, though she reveals it as
a “demented jouissance,” in reference to the melancholia that accompanies the
pleasures of the maternal. Kristeva acknowledges the contradictions and struggles
that inhabit the maternity and maternal passion is described by Kristeva as a
“passion pregnant with madness and sublimity” (2005: 6). These portraits bask
in the ambivalence of separation and the maternal function; they reflect my
own experience of motherhood, which is, anxious and sorrowful yet fervent
and enduring, they encompass negatives to facilitate positives. Mothers who
appear detached, as well as devoted, are shown in order to offer a range of the
maternal and to provide an alternative model, which posits the negative crisis
of separation from the maternal body for both the mother and the child.
Kristeva also celebrates “anxiety as a conduit of pleasure” (2001: 14) and is
heavily influenced by Melanie Klein’s thoughts on negativity and matricide.
According to Kristeva, “in truth matricide, which Melanie Klein was the first to
have the courage to consider, is, along with envy and gratitude, at the origin of
our capacity to think” (2001: 13). Klein was the first psychoanalyst to consider
matricide and developed her theories with particular attention to the maternal
function in a way that had been overlooked by Freud. Klein puts forth that after
being weaned from the mother’s breast the infant loses or puts the mother to
death via fantasy, this loss creates mourning for the maternal but is ultimately
accepted by the child and this enables the infant to form the capacity to love.
Kristeva (2001) states:
Kleinian negativity, which, as we shall see, guides the drive to intelligence by way of fantasy, chooses the mother as its target; in order
to think, one must first lose the mother. The paths toward this loss
diverge: splitting leads us on the wrong track, whereas the depression
that follows the separation/death is much more befitting. In the end,
a pure positivity—it too, innate—serves the capacity for love. (130)
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An awareness of matricide feeds my own maternal melancholia, the knowledge that my own children will necessarily have to “put me to death” to gain
independence creates an emptiness that becomes a timeless ache. On matricide,
Kristeva states that it should be understood as a “‘putting to death’ and a ‘flight’
to be taken both with the mother and against her—it is a necessary precondition for the psychic freedom of the subject: that is what Klein had the courage
to proclaim … without equivocation.” (2001: 131). The acknowledgement
that my children must separate from me is a bittersweet realization and one
which Kristeva and Klein as mothers may also have felt intimately. Nevertheless, I depend upon what Klein believes is the child’s innate ability to love in
my own children, to calm my fears of loss and strengthen my own capacity
as a dynamic mother, despite their own melancholia caused by separation
from me. I do this with the understanding that although they may distance
me in their own search for autonomy, they will also find me again through
remembering the bond of love that is facilitated by the freedom independent
thought affords the psyche. I use my melancholic maternity as a motivation
in these portraits, to invoke a remembrance of the deep connection in the
mother/ child dyad.
There are several key photographic elements and considerations that were
strategically incorporated in the construction of this body of work, to develop
content and a visual style that did not subscribe to conventional photographic
depictions of the maternal. The same camera and lens were used in this project
to photograph all m/others, however, the bearing of each subject is revealed
in various ways. In the series m/others are seen sitting, standing, looking at
the camera, looking away from the camera, engaged, detached, embracing,
separate, vulnerable and strong. The different postures and expressions of
the subjects work to establish contradictions about maternal relationships in
the photographic portrait. The introduction of variables is significant as it
articulates an alternative dialogue on the maternal figure, which is ambiguous and ambivalent and accommodates maternal passion. Subsequently, the
photographs counteract sentimental images of maternity “to uncover the full
range and potency of maternity hidden within the codes and myths which
disguise its underlying meaning and full power” (Van Buren 9). One lens
was utilised to capture complex and multiple maternities, in order to refuse
traditional depictions that accommodate a secure and singular proposition
for the maternal.
A single tungsten light source was used in all photographs; the rationale for
this in my methodology was to create a particular visual style and to further
introduce visual ambiguity. Tungsten light sources produce a warm yellow
colour cast when used with daylight film without a filter. Consequently, a
print is then less clear or accurate in terms of colour reproduction as those
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illuminated by daylight or strobe flash. Therefore the tungsten light produced
a tonal value in the pictures, which suggests comfort through warmth but also
offers an organic, bodily tone, which is more closely linked to the abject and
the unclean. London, Stone and Upton state, “Light can affect the feeling of a
photograph so that a subject appears for example, brilliant and crisp, hazy and
soft, harsh or smooth” (227). Significantly then, the atmosphere produced by
the tungsten light encourages an emotional affect from the images that would
not have been achieved with daylight or flash.
The quality of the light was also an important factor and a direct, hard source
was used instead of the diffuse soft light conventionally used in print media
to depict the maternal. I used a strong, direct spotlight to create tension and
discomfort in the subjects in order to render an unsettled maternal relationship. The spotlight, while confronting for the subject at the photography stage,
appeared to envelope the mothers and children in the final print, and this created an intimacy and intensity that illuminated the power of the mother /child
bond. The contrast between the warmth of the tungsten colour cast and the
harshness of the spotlight introduced a paradox. This strategy was specifically
used to establish contradiction and variables, which are symbolic of maternal
passion. The competing qualities of the light source intimate a complex and
unstable proposition for maternity that encourages open resistant readings of
the images and refers to m/others as subjects in process. The spotlight was also
used symbolically to render an unyielding maternal figure that withstands the
glare of the spotlight ready to emerge from the shadows.
Significantly, the majority of these photographs were taken in or around
the internal spaces inhabited by the mothers and children pictured. The
interior spaces were home settings that reflect intimacy, familiarity and inner
strength, rather than domestic scenes, which represent service to the home.
I am aware that mothers have traditionally been shown in domestic settings
as a way of tying the maternal to the private sphere in servitude to hearth
and home. Abby Arnold in The Rhetoric of Motherhood maintains, ”In the
past, motherhood was held to be an idealized state, glorified through myth
and pithy statement to keep women anchored to their homes and families”
(1). In contrast, I include parts of the home environment in some images to
bring interior spaces into the public domain via the contemporary documentary approach to photography. I use intimate, internal spaces as a source of
potency, to express the significance of the maternal figure as a keystone in
society, rather than one that is suppressed. Subsequently, the capacity of the
maternal figure in m/others cultivates opportunities for the development of
unique identities in the future.
In m/other # 7 the mother and child are seen in the home environment where
the birth process had recently taken place. The significance of the birthplace
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was the motivation for its inclusion in the shot, this intimate, personal space
was the site for the paradoxical union and separation of the mother and child.
The paradox illustrates theory in practice by illuminating the complexity of
the maternal relationship and unstable and vulnerable foundation of identity.
Furthermore, it recognises the continual struggles involved with being what
Kristeva calls “a subject in process” and encourages richer possibilities for fluid
identities. In other images like m/other # 3 the three figures are surrounded
by darkness which itself references an internal yet unstable, endless space. By
including different elements of familiar environs I worked against a restrictive position that ties women to home, and yet captured the intensity and
closeness of the maternal bond, without suggesting women have a singular
responsibility for children.
Each participant in this project was invited to be photographed after careful
consideration of several factors: the age of the mother and child, gender of
child, number of children and the subject’s willingness to participate in the
project were all contributing imperatives. It was necessary to have a diverse
group of subjects to “create a multiplicity of meaning about motherhood”
(Bassin, Honey and Kaplan 8). The wide-range of m/others also enabled the
depiction of a complex and diverse maternity that offers greater opportunity
for interpretation of the images. Moreover, the variety of subjects subverts
traditional, prescriptive, fixed ideas of motherhood as singular and universal,
linked to youth. These m/other subjects were specifically chosen so that the
portraits would engage and depict the conflicting dynamics of Kristeva’s
maternal passion.
Overwhelmingly, those who agreed to take part in this project were my
friends, many of who have appeared in my previous practice. The connections
between the subjects and myself blurred the boundaries of self/other in a
way that would not have been possible with strangers, this contributed to an
ethical approach. According to Sturken and Cartwright (95) “Photographs
often function to establish difference, through that which is defined as other is
posited as that which is not the norm or the primary subject.” I chose subjects
that were familiar, so that the images themselves were less likely to function
in a way that emphasises difference. Ruddick (cited in Bassin, et al. 37) states
that, “I have found that it is simply impossible to comprehend mothering in
the world, to compare and contrast very different mothering practices, to listen
to, let alone speak with mothers, without acknowledging the ubiquitous and
tenacious connections among being female, giving birth, and mothering”. Like
Ruddick, I recognise that while the other mothers in this series may have an
individual approach to motherhood, there is also similitude.
This photographic portrait series rediscovers the complex dynamics of
maternal passion through the undertaking of theory in practice, in order to
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toni wilkinson
facilitate and magnify the ambiguous pleasures of the mother child bond. The
representation of the coexistence of beauty and menace through the images
reflects the conjoined subsistence of negative and positive within maternal
passion. Moreover, the accommodation of maternal ambivalence, via the illumination of the abject and the perverse within the portraits, sharpens the
capacity for subjective interpretation with a refusal to idealise or vilify the
mother. m/others then, emphasises mutual recognition between mother and
child, creates a dialogue on the significance of maternal passion, and encourages surrender to a maternal return following the loss that accompanies the
crisis of separation.
References
Astore, M. “The Maternal Abject.” Sydney College of the Arts, 2001. Retrieved June, 2007, from <ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/500/2/adtNU20030623.10042401front.pdf>.
Arnold, A. “The rhetoric of motherhood.” The Mothers Movement Online,
2003. Retrieved June, 2009, from <http://www.mothersmovement.org/features/rhetoric_motherhood/rhetoric_motherhood.htm>.
Avedon, R. (2002). Richard Avedon Portraits. New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
Bassin, D., M. Honey and M. Kaplan. Representations of Motherhood. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Bright, S. Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Burgin, Victor. “Geometry and Abjection.” Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The
Work of Julia Kristeva. Eds. John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin. London:
Routledge, 1990.
Kristeva, J. “Motherhood Today.” 2005. Retrieved March 30, 2010, from
<http://www.kristeva.fr/motherhood.html>.
Kristeva, J. Melanie Klein. Trans. R Guberman. New York: Columbia University
Press, 2001.
Kristeva, J. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. T. Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
Kristeva, J. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. Roudiez. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Liss, A. Feminist Art and the Maternal. [city?] University of Minnesota
Press, 2009.
Oliver, K. Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers.
[city?] Rowman & Littlefield, 1998
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Oliver, K., ed. Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writings. New
York: Routledge, 1993
Oliver, K. (Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double Bind. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1993.
Sturken, M. and L. Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual
Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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margaret lynn mitchell
Death and Rebirth
Healing with the Eleusinian Mysteries
The timeless story of a mother and daughter’s love, loss and return grew to be immortalized and re-enacted yearly on an epic scale in ancient Greece as a path of
initiation for those seeking love, liberation from grief and death, and ultimately
rebirth in the lap of the goddess. These sacred rites in homage to Demeter and
Persephone came to be known as the Eleusinian Mysteries which were celebrated
annually for thousands of years, beginning c. 1450 b.c.. Through scholarly research
and a conscious reenactment of the nine day ritual at the core of the Mysteries, the
author finds healing amidst the intense grief experienced upon the deaths of her own
mother and daughter within the same year.
Gracing the cover of Meinraed Craighead’s art book, The Mother’s Songs: Images
of God the Mother, is a beautiful painting of an embracing mother and daughter
facing each other and locked in a blissful state with eyes closed, touching forehead
to forehead with braided hair intertwined. In their hands each holds a bouquet
of poppies and a bundle of wheat while the waxing and waning moon hover
separately overhead and a large cut-open pomegranate appears in the hollow
space between them. Craighead simply identifies this painting as “Mother and
Daughter” and briefly speaks in a caption inside of her midwestern journey
to her grandmother Memaw’s home each year as her mother put her on the
train and “every summer sent me on the journey of return” (11). But it is clear
to see from the loving and yet poignant embrace alongside the nature symbols
of poppies, wheat, and pomegranate that this painting illustrates a far greater
story—that of Demeter and Persephone of ancient Greece.
This timeless story of a mother and daughter’s love, loss, and return grew to
be immortalized and re-enacted yearly on an epic scale in ancient Greece as a
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path of initiation for those seeking love, liberation from grief and death, and
ultimately rebirth in the lap of the goddess. These sacred rites came to be known
as the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated annually for thousands of years.
The major theme of this paper emerged from my study of the Eleusinian
Mysteries and my attempts to make sense of their historical presence in Greek
culture and the complexity of their importance to the evolution of that culture. I also wished to ascertain any possible meaning for our culture today as
part of my quest in my Woman’s Spirituality doctoral studies to examine and
reconstruct ancient women’s stories as a tool for empowerment and healing
for modern women, including myself.
As I dove deeper into the scholarly material, I was amazed at the many
connections and possible origins of the Mysteries from ancient Crete. I had
experienced Crete first-hand while on a sacred pilgrimage with a group of
women in 2003, so this became a valuable lens with which to explore the
material of Athens and Eleusis. Upon further reflection, I realized that I had
unknowingly experienced a series of purifications and an ultimate transformative healing event while in Crete that echoed many of the themes of the
Eleusinian Mysteries.
Furthermore, my experiences were precipitated by own attempts to understand
and reconcile the grief and abandonment I felt at the death of my daughter
and mother within the same year. These emotions had consumed me and
constricted my experience of life, although I did not realize that at the time I
journeyed to Crete. When I learned more about the rituals of the Eleusinian
Mysteries with their homage and ultimate celebration of the Mother-Daughter
death and rebirth reunion story of Demeter and Persephone, I knew that I had
entered into this mystery unconsciously.
What follows is my attempt to process my journey and healing in Crete
through a conscious reenactment of the nine-day ritual at the core of the
Mysteries.
Day One: The Gathering. The Eleusinian Mysteries began after sundown on
a starlit evening near the annual turn of the calendar known as the Autumn
Equinox. They were re-enacted annually for thousands of years (beginning
c.1450 b.c.) in ancient Greece. They had a profound effect on the social and
religious life of the people and ultimately upon the general psyche and evolution of their culture.
My own journey to Crete began at this same time of year, yet a mere six
years ago. After saying good-bye to family, friends, work and home in Philadelphia, I journeyed alone 5,000 miles through the air, touching down briefly
in Paris and Athens before the final plane ride whisks me into the hot and
crowded Heraklion airport of Crete. I feel burdened, exhausted and thrilled as
I’m greeted with the warm Greek hello of yasas. Although I have never been
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here and I do not speak the language, I immediately feel completely at home.
I wait and wait and wait and my suitcase does not arrive. Thus, the initiation
and letting go begins.
Undaunted at the moment by this sudden twist of events, I journey onward
to the Olympic Hotel for the initial gathering of our sacred group of pilgrims,
here to explore the path of the Goddesses of ancient Crete. I emerge onto the
rooftop deck at sunset, gasping at the beauty of the setting sun over the now
golden rooftops and gasping in recognition of the eight other women gathered
there waiting for me. Although none of us has previously met, I instantly feel I
recognize each of them. It turns out that there are three women with the name
Margaret, including myself—a name that I have never been called although it
is my birth name. This “official” name, needed because of passport issues, feels
alien and yet strangely comforting.
This name is also my grandmother’s name and I now realize that Hekate
had entered the pilgrimage with me, to protect and guide me much as my
grandmother had done for me when my own mother was falling apart during
my childhood. Hekate played a little known and yet important part in the
Demeter and Persephone story. She appears early on in the Homeric Hymn
to Demeter soon after Persephone was abducted while flower-picking on the
Nysian plain:
The lord Host-to-Many rose up on her with his immortal horses, the
celebrated son of Kronos; he snatched the unwilling maid into his
golden chariot and led her off lamenting. She screamed with a shrill
voice, calling on her father, the son of Kronos highest and best. Not
one of the immortals or of humankind heard her voice, nor the olives
bright with fruit, except the daughter of Persaios; tender of heart she
heard it from her cave, Hekate of the delicate veil. (Foley 2)
In her commentary on her own translation above, Helene P. Foley comments that, “Even Hekate, like Demeter, only hears the cry, from her cave, a
place between the bright world above and the dark world below, which closes
off her vision” (36).
At age five, I with my family moved from the Midwest to the East coast, far
away from my grandmother’s warm house and loving embrace. Yet, somehow
I always felt she was the only one who could hear my cry as her own son, my
father, turned a deaf ear to my lament for my mother’s dark descent into a
world of paralyzing anxiety and prescription drug and alcohol abuse.
I was at once both Persephone and Demeter in my childhood. I was Persephone
abducted into the underworld by my mother’s own darkness, and Demeter
searching and grieving always in my futile attempts to pull my mother out
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of that darkness. Little did I realize in this sunset gathering on the roof that
my own descent into the living and breathing caves of the Goddess’s womb
in Crete would become the catalyst for the healing of my own Mother and
Daughter story.
We gathered the next day amidst the ancient artifacts of Crete in the Heraklion Museum, staring at the trance like eyes of the Minoan Snake Goddess,
the golden horns of the sacred Bull, and the ancient scripts circling round the
Phaistos Disc evoking memories and establishing new connections in our sleeping brains. Senses heightened, we journeyed on to Knossos, the magnificent
temple complex at the heart of Crete and then on to an unexpected surprise,
the sacred tree at the Paliani Convent in the village of Venerato.
According to Anna Kofu, in her detailed guide to Crete, the Paliani Convent
is one of the oldest convents in Crete, having been mentioned in texts by the
name Palia or Pala as far back as 688 a.d. (144). The church is dedicated to the
Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Koimisitis Theotokou) containing beautiful icons
to honor her and symbols of thankfulness for her healing blessings. Korfou
also guides us “To the rear of the convent is a myrtle bush, over a century old,
in the trunk of which, according to tradition the miracle-working icon of the
Panaghia Mytrtidotissa (feast day on September 24) was hidden” (144).
Is it a coincidence that the feast day for the icon of this bush/tree is celebrated
within the same timeframe as the Eleusinian Mysteries? We were all drawn to
and gathered under the tree, reading poetry and placing our prayer ribbons of
intention in her branches which seemed to reach down and embrace us. The
nuns spoke to us of spending their entire lives in devotion to this sacred tree.
A little girl visiting her aunt (who was a nun here) stomped on the ground as
she insisted that she would never again leave that tree and she also wanted to
spend her entire life caring for the beloved tree.
Again, I was drawn back into my childhood when gathering amidst the trees
became my healing refuge. As the line from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter mentioned above laments upon Persephone’s abduction “Not one of the immortals
or of humankind heard her voice, nor the olives bright with fruit…” (2). I feel
this phrase implies the deep connection of the Greek people at this time to
nature, to the common belief that even the olive trees could hear our cry.
Crete is filled with this palpable and ever present sense that the surrounding nature is here to embrace and nurture us, and that we are called upon to
embrace and nurture her. The ancient iconography and mythology at every
turn speaks of a regenerative Mother Goddess in multiple forms revealed
in the mountains, the caves, the olive groves and the constantly humming
bees of the hillside hives. Worship of these myriad manifestations remains
in the culture today, and was evoked by our gathering in prayer around this
myrtle tree.
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This prevalent nature kinship, common at the time of the Demeter and
Persephone mythology, makes the story even more poignant as Demeter’s grief
leads to the loss of this ancient connection, and the death of the vegetation on
Earth (now symbolized as the yearly cycle of the dormancy of winter). There
is a great deal of evidence that Demeter may have been born in Crete and thus
was an offspring of this culture.
Pamela Berger validates this ancient connection to nature in Crete in her
book The Goddess Obscured:
Though numerous material remains document the religious life of
ancient Crete, texts to assist and control interpretation are lacking.
Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish certain features of the Minoan religion, in particular the dominance of the female deity. The
Minoan as distinct from the Mycenean phase of Cretan religion was
dominated by a goddess, one of whose manifestations was linked to
a sacred tree. Palaces, shrines, and sanctuaries have produced votive
offerings, frescos and seals that suggest a tradition of vegetation worship dominated by a goddess…. (15)
Now I was gathering beneath this sacred tree, circling around in ancient
homage within this ancient land. I truly felt as if this tree and the fruit-laden
olive trees all around could certainly hear my cry. I lovingly caressed her
branches while tying my prayer ribbon upon them. I have entered into the
secrets of the Greater Mysteries by re-entering into the old religion of the
Great Mother Goddess and my day of gathering and remembering comes
to an end.
Day Two: Purification In the Sea. Now that I have answered the call of the
Eleusinian Mysteries and gathered with my fellow initiates, I am ready for
my day of purification in the sea. We begin the journey to the sea by stopping
to explore the ancient temple of Phaistos, site of the discovery of the still
undeciphered Phaistos Disc. I stare at this disc and see an ancient journey or
instructions for a series of rituals depicted in symbols that appear to tell their
story in the shape of a nautilus seashell.
Kofou provides us with a wonderful description of this captivating disc:
The most important hieroglyphic text is the famous clay disc from
Phaistos which is dated to 1700-1600 B.C. and is definitely of a sacred,
ceremonial nature. It is stamped on both sides of the disc, spiraling in
from the edge to the centre, where impressions made by movable seals
depict human forms, parts of the body, tools, implements, weapons,
animals, plants, a boxing glove and even ships. (44)
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I ponder upon the possible meaning of these symbols and their distinct
groupings separated by vertical lines. Could these be depictions of specific days
of a ritual like the Greater Mysteries? Could this be evidence of community
rituals originating on Crete that predate the Eleusinian Mysteries by thousands
of year? Fortunately, by the time of these mysteries in ancient Greece, writing
had been invented and many texts survive with first hand accounts of events
surrounding the rituals and the historical context has been examined extensively
by many scholars. Yet, the core of the rituals remains a mystery as initiates were
forbidden to talk of their specific experiences. We are only making plausible
assumptions about what actually took place, so in many ways the core of the
Eleusinian Mysteries remain as undecipherable as the Phaistos Disc.
I circle around the magnificent ruins of Phaistos climbing The Grand
Staircase and peering into her circular wells until I gravitate toward a sparse
grove of trees on her periphery. Our group gathers here and sits in grateful
relief from the heat while gazing out upon the valley of olive groves below.
We read poetry and sigh at the immense beauty before us before boarding
the bus for our journey to the sea. A chant arises in my mind and I teach it to
the group—“Mother carry me, your child I will always be, Mother carry me
down to the sea.”
Chanting and laughing in our air-conditioned bus, we quickly arrive at the
seaside village of Kalamaki on the Libyan Sea. Within minutes, we plunge
into the salty and bracing azure sea and our purification begins.
This journey to the sea was not quite so easy for the initiates on Day Two
of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In fact, Jane Ellen Harrison comments that “The
procession to the sea was called by the somewhat singular name elasis ‘driving’ or ‘banishing’, and the word is instructive. The procession was not a mere
procession, it was a driving out, a banishing…The bathing in the sea was a
purification, a conducting out, a banishing of evil, and each man took with
him his own pharmakos, a young pig…the driving, may have been literally the
driving of the pig, which, as the goal was some 6 miles distant, must have been
a lengthy and troublesome business” (Prolegomena, 152).
It is not clear whether or not this pig was actually sacrificed at the end of
this ritual or simply that its presence was the symbol of purification. Harrison
asserts that, “The pig of purification was a ritual element, so important that
when Eleusis was permitted (350-327 b.c.) to issue her autonomous coinage
it is the pig that she chose as the sign and symbol of her mysteries” (153).
I did not carry a pig to the sea, but I carried my leather wallet which I
promptly lost. My driver’s license, my charge cards and my money were all
gone. The underlying theme of this journey that seemed designed to force me
to let go and face my grief was beginning to intensify.
Day Three: Sacred Offerings. We begin each ritual throughout this Cretan
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pilgrimage with sacred offerings for the various Goddesses of honey, wine, milk
and olive oil. Today is my day to bring honey for our ritual to honor Aphrodite
high atop a mountainside in one of her many shrines. We pour the libations
and read poetry of love and beauty by Sappho, an ancient Greek female poet
from the beginning of the sixth century b.c. I am overwhelmed with feelings
of love and gratefulness for the immense beauty of our planet and for my
abundant life upon her nurturing lands.
The golden honey glistens on the sacred objects we have each brought to the
altar that day and we laugh and cry together at love gained and lost. I feel at
one with the gentle wind and the incessant humming of the honeybees in the
hives lining this fertile mountainside. On this journey, I have been introduced
to the sweet bee goddess of Crete and have fallen in love with her iconography, such as the Golden Bee Pendant found in Malia. Suddenly, my reverie is
interrupted by a shrieking from one of the women in the group as she is stung
by one of the bees and she is deathly allergic. She was tended to immediately
by many healing hands and was ultimately fine. Yet I was left shaken and my
mood broken. Why amidst such beauty and joy in this world is there also such
pain and grief as we are “stung” with sickness, death and the violent abduction
and rape of so many women in our patriarchal culture?
In many ways the Eleusinian Mysteries symbolized the ancient Greeks
response to this fact of life as they sought to both honor and reconcile this
great story of Demeter and Persephone as it was played out in their own
lives. Sacred offerings were brought to both celebrate the abundant harvest
at that time of year and also, I believe, as part of a common cultural ritual
of the times to appease the Goddess and ensure her favor for blessings in
the future.
In her book, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece,
Joan Breton Connelly refers to the many agricultural festivals of the calendar
year in which the priestesses of Demeter and Persephone had responsibility
for. Connelly elaborates that, “evidence attests to her role in the Kalamaia,
an agrarian feast celebrated in early summer…The priestess also presided
at a festival known as the Haloa, a women’s ritual that took place during the
season for cutting grapevines and tasting wine…Of course, the priestess of
Demeter and Kore played a central role in the great women’s festival of the
Thesmophoria” (65).
Archaeological excavation at Eleusis has revealed a specific vessel, the kernos,
which may have been used to hold these sacred offerings. As we toured Crete,
I remember several of these more primitive and larger vessels on display in
the ancient sites of Gournia and Malia and they appeared to be large stone
circles with multiple evenly-spaced indentations that could have been used for
holding grain, seeds, nuts, or oil.
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Carol Christ, the leader of our pilgrimage to Crete and author of a book on
her personal odyssey with this pilgrimage, offers a great description of one of
these vessels utilized during ritual:
The kernos stone is a flat circular grey slab about three feet across
with thirty-four shallow round indentations around the outside, and
two larger and deeper ones in the center, for offerings and libations.
We placed the fruits of the earth on the stone: beans, onions, garlic,
apples, tomatoes, eggplants, and squash; purchases I had made from a
gypsy’s truck at Nirou Hani. We thanked the Goddess for the harvest
that had provided the wonderful food we had been eating in Crete.
Then we named and gave thanks for the spiritual harvest. (Odyssey
With the Goddess 111-112).
Other implements which may have been used in ritual have been excavated,
such as a very intriguing cup mentioned by Carl Kerenyi in the preface to his
book Eleusis. He states that “…the cup which I now assume to be the earliest
extant representation of Persephone. It is from the beginning of the Middle
Minoan period (shortly after 2,000 b.c.) and was found by Professor Doro
Levi in 1955 in his excavation of the first palace of Phaistos” (xix).
Kerenyi’s argument is that this cup represents a triad of personages, such as
Persephone and her companions at play with Persephone bent over admiring
the flower. Kerenyi asserts that this scene is recognizable as the same scene
preceding the abduction of Persephone. I am further intrigued with the placement of this excavated cup, which was found at the same site as the Phaestos
Disc I refer to above and dated to several hundred years before the dating of
the disc. Is it possible that the Demeter and Persephone story was that old and
indeed originated in Crete? Is it possible that the disc reveals steps in a ritual
in honor of this story as I mentioned earlier?
Day Four: Healing Dreams. I have offered my libations and given thanks
before retiring to a deep sleep. I awake with awe after a beautiful dream of my
daughter who died midway through my pregnancy. She is playing with dolls
inside an enormous seashell (like a giant clamshell) under the sea and she is
happy and radiant with joy and love. The dream sequence is suffused with
rippling prisms of rainbow light. I am sad to awaken and move away from this
blessed dream state and return to my present reality in which grief has begun
to arise within my being again.
Tears are stinging the back of my throat as I recognize those dolls as those
of my childhood—my beloved Barbie dolls that I played with for hours. Then
I remember the beautiful clothes that my mother used to make for these dolls,
often creating outfits that matched my own. My daughter seemed so happy
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without me…happy without me by her side making clothes for her and her
dolls. The lineage has been broken. My daughter is dead and I will never have
these treasured moments with her. A beautiful dream is not enough solace for
my aching heart.
Then I realize that I have been unconsciously collecting little gifts for my
daughter, and in honor of my mother’s gift with sewing and embroidery, for
the entire journey. I have been picking up little beaded dolls, teacups and
lace; embroidered pillowcases, napkins and tablecloths; and thimbles which
my mother always collected. I realize I have been buying them in a type of
dream state, as if I could return home and give them as gifts to my mother
and daughter, but they are both dead.
I contemplate the dreams of the initiates on this fourth starlit night and
wonder how many dreamt of loved ones that had passed on? How many awoke
to share their dreams with healing attendants or each other with a yearning to
physically reach out and touch their beloved dead?
Day Five: Procession. Every day is a sacred journey, but when immersed in
the midst of ritual and ceremony, each step takes on a new meaning of purpose,
connection and remembrance. On this day of the rites, according to Keller
in her article “Eleusinian Mysteries: Ancient Nature Worship of Demeter
and Persephone,” the initiates and the community journeyed westward from
Athens to Eleusis, carrying at the head of the great procession the boychild
‘Iacchus’ (49).
It is believed that the priestesses of Demeter carried baskets containing sacred
objects for ritual or the hiera (holy things). Connelly explains that:
Women who led these processions marched in a spotlight that underscored their agency and highlighted their symbolic capital within the
larger group … we saw that the priestesses of Demeter and Kore led
the procession of initiates in the Mysteries from Eleusis to Athens, and
back again, carrying the holy things as they marched (167-168).
Day Six: Nightlong Revelry. Keller utilizes a classical literary reference as
she expresses the collective importance of this type of ancient “worship” when
highlighting the ritual aspects of this pannycheis, or nightlong revelry which:
…included dancing by the women near Callichoron, the Well of Fair
Dances. According to Euripides (about 484-406 b.c.) in his play Ion,
all of nature responded to the dance of the women:
the starry ether of Zeus takes up the dance
the moon Goddess dances, and with her
the fifty daughters of Nereus dance in the sea
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and in the eddies of the ever-flowing streams
so honoring the Daughter with the golden crown
and the holy Mother [Demeter]…
The ancients believed that if these rituals were suppressed, if the
collective purpose of the community would no longer find expression,
the cosmos would fall apart. (49)
While in Crete, I walked in procession with the other women in the group
down many Sacred Ways of the vast temple-complexes of Knossos, Phaistos,
Gournia and Malia. We hiked in single file down a sacred gorge through
Minoan cave tombs above Kato Zakros in reverence and awe or hiked up a
mountainside to an ancient shrine atop Mount Juctas to give our thanks to
the ancient goddesses with our silent meditative prayer.
Often these sacred moments gave way to spontaneous laughter, song and
dancing. We danced in circles to the beat of ancient Cretan music high in the
Psiloritis Mountains and danced in the moonlight around a seashell labyrinth
built upon a seaside cliff near the fishing village of Mochlos. Throughout Crete,
archaeological excavation has revealed a dancing and celebratory culture as
evidenced in the surviving frescos and artistry of such artifacts as terracotta
clay figurines in circles of dance or golden seal rings.
One such ring mentioned by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in their
book The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, shows four women who
appear to be dancing and raising their hands in worship. Baring and Cashford
theorize that this ring, which was found in a tomb at Isopata, near Knossos,
and dated from c. 1450 b.c. illustrates an “Epiphany scene showing the Bee
Goddess, priestesses and child in a field of lilies” (118). Again, there is a possible connection here between the iconography of the adult woman and child
in a field of flowers and the mythology of Demeter and Persephone, similar
to Kerenyi’s interpretation earlier of the cup found at Phaistos.
The most remarkable frescos of Crete often show a sacred procession followed by a type of acrobatic dancing and revelry known as the leaping of the
bulls. Both young boys and girls are shown doing this marvelous and joyous
leaping. Again, these seemed to be community events. Our dancing in Crete
indeed evoked worship of the goddess, homage to the nature around and within
us, and a deep strengthening of our community bonds.
Day Seven: Descent. After a night of song and dance, it was time for the
initiates to enter the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis. They
first had to cross a bridge over a river where they were subject to teasing
and ridicule by tricksters in their path. All of this was designed to humble
the participant and further break down the self-imposed pretensions and
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arrogance that may stand in the way of receiving the full impact of the core
of the Mysteries.
Distilled to its essence, the crossing of this bridge represents another form
of purification. The pattern and intent of my series of purifications while on
my sacred pilgrimage in Crete, such as the loss of my suitcase and wallet, left
me feeling exposed and vulnerable. All of my lifelong defenses of control and
attachment to “things” around me were being stripped away. The bubbling up
of my childhood grief and anger, amplified by the recent loss of my mother
and daughter, was becoming unbearable.
The caves of Crete became my sacred sanctuary of Eleusis into which I
began my final descent into the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone. I had
become increasingly preoccupied and confused on the journey, and initially
banged my head quite strongly while entering the cave of Eilitheia, the Goddess of Childbirth. Women had journeyed to this cave for thousands of years
to ask the goddess for fertility and assistance in the actual birthing process.
Recent tokens of worship were in evidence on this day. My anger at this goddess rose as I felt her abandonment and betrayal for the death of my daughter
while still in my womb.
Later we prepared to descend deeply into the series of caves at Skoteino by
lunching first on homemade moussaka in a neighboring village. Many of the
local women waiting on us were widows, dressed in all black that they had worn
since their husband’s death and would continue to wear until their own. Their
gentle compassion and open acknowledgement of their grief triggered a new
wave of emotion rising up within me. I felt consumed by severe anxiety and
stark fear at the very idea of death and became almost paralyzed with dread at
the thought of crossing the threshold and entering the Skoteino cave.
Yet, I faced this fear and began the descent guided by many gentle and
encouraging hands. My torchlight was my miner’s flashlight that illuminated
the steep and rocky path ahead. It was a truly frightening and difficult experience as we slid and crawled our way deeper into the sculpted caverns. What
seemed like hours passed and we finally reached the bottom floor of the cave,
which appeared to have been hand carved into the shape of a magnificent
temple, yet it was all natural.
We sat near each other in silence and awe and then we were asked by our
guide to extinguish all our lights. The darkness was overwhelming—the blackest black I have ever experienced. Breathing through my fear and anguish, I
felt the finality and apparent nothingness of death all around me. Tears were
stinging my eyes and throat and then suddenly I felt the actual heartbeat of
the earth and heard singing from the rocks. The singing was actually a sweet
lullaby of joy and love sung by one of the women in the group in honor of her
precious mother who used to sing it to her.
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My heart cracked open and out of the darkness and grief, love came pouring
in. Suddenly the cave-temple was illuminated with all of our lights coming
back on, and my healing began. I felt safe and caressed within the womb of
the Mother Goddess herself, and my void was filled with the regenerative
energies of love. I experienced this love as an embracing, enveloping energy
field capable of perpetual rebirth.
At the time, I experienced this energy as the regenerative power of the
ancient Snake Goddess of Crete. Now, through my study and personal exploration into the Eleusinian Mysteries, I also experience this energy as the
ever-renewing power of the Mysteries honoring the story, love, death and
rebirth of the great Goddesses Demeter and Persephone. For me, the great
fire or flash of light revealed to the initiates within the sacred sanctuary at
Eleusis is love.
Day Eight: Ascent. My profound healing and transformation within that
Cretan cave from an inner worldview clouded over with grief and anger to a
life permeated with the sustaining, nurturing and regenerative power of love
was also the same story of the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries thousands
of years ago. I had descended into the darkness, heard the hymn of Demeter to
Persephone and experienced the mystery and fire of love permeate my being.
The similarities between my experience and the re-constructed experiences
of the initiates by scholars such as Keller are uncanny. The very fact that my
experience took place in a cave after many days of purification and ritual is
astounding for as Keller writes:
The seventh and eight nights were the nights of the mysteries, when
the mystai entered the Telesterion, the temple of Demeter, the hall of
initiation. (Perhaps in more ancient days they had gone down into a
womblike cave, the cave at the edge of the sanctuary, later named the
Ploutonion, doorway to Hades)…During initiation, the mystai may
have felt abducted into the underworld, there remembering whatever
they had lost to disease, pain, or death…; felt overwhelming grief;
and then experienced the healing, joyful embrace of the sacred union
and the arrival of new life. (50)
I climbed up and out of that cave toward the light and toward a new life.
I boarded the bus for our final journey in Crete, back to the capital city of
Heraklion and the flight home to my loved ones.
Day Nine: Celebration in the Lap of the Goddess. Keller describes this ninth
and final day of the Mysteries as a day for “further prayers, pouring libations
to the dead, and returning home” (50). Our group poured our final libations
of milk, honey, wine and olive oil in a ritual ceremony of thanksgiving and
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closure. We returned to the Olympic Hotel for final packing and dressing up
for a celebratory feast. I was glowing as we gathered on the rooftop once again
for our final meal together and a gift exchange.
A call came through to our group leader from the tourist police. They
had found my wallet! It was turned in by a woman cleaning out a museum
bathroom. This miraculous return was so symbolic of my death and rebirth
experience. In celebration I bought a gold reproduction of an ancient seal ring
which portrays a scene of three women or goddesses, in an apparent relaxed
and playful pose surrounded by trees with a lily patch growing up out of the
center, similar to the Phaistos cup.
I see and feel deep emotions as I stare at this precious souvenir on my finger. I
see Demeter and Persephone reunited in love and adoration with the abundant
vegetation of the earth surrounding them. I see that the two goddesses are
somewhat elevated while the third is busy on the ground bent over tending her
tree. I now perceive these two goddesses as my mother and daughter, united in
Heaven, while I am busy here on Earth tending my garden and surrounded by
their love. I am surrounded by the love revealed in the Mysteries celebrating
the great story of Demeter and Persephone’s death and rebirth.
References
Baring, Anne and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an
Image. London: Arkana Penguin Books, 1993.
Berger, Pamela. The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress
from Goddess to Saint. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.
Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, ma: Harvard University
Press, 1987.
Carlson, Kathie. Life’s Daughter, Death’s Bride: Inner Transformations through
the Goddess Demeter/Persephone. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.
Christ, Carol P. Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess.
San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
Christ, Carol P. Odyssey with the Goddess: A Spiritual Quest in Crete. New York:
Continuum, 1995.
Connelly, Joan Breton. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient
Greece. Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Craighead, Meinrad. The Mother’s Songs: Images of God the Mother. New York:
Paulist Press, 1986.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Princeton, nj:
Princeton University Press, 1991.
Keller, Mara Lynn. “The Eleusinian Mysteries: Ancient Nature Religion of
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Demeter and Persephone.” Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. Ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein. San Francisco: Sierra
Club Books, 1990. 41-51.
Keller, Mara Lynn. “The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone:
Fertility, Sexuality and Rebirth.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 4
(1988): 27-54.
Foley, Helene P. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Kerenyi, Carl. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Translated by
Ralph Manheim. Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Kofou, Anna. Crete. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 2000.
Mellersh, H. E. L. Minoan Crete. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.
Rigoglioso, Marguerite. Bearing the Holy Ones: A Study of the Cult of Divine Birth
in Ancient Greece. Diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, 2007.
Spretnak, Charlene. Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic
Mythology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Williamson, Margaret. Sappho’s Immortal Daughters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1995.
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Grieving Conceptions
Making Motherhood in the Wake
In Ireland, reproduction has been part of a complex web of social, religious, and family
politics that positions womanhood as synonymous with motherhood and naturalized
gender roles. This paper describes how grief offers some women a means of appropriating, redefining and maintaining a motherhood identity, even among those who
remain childless. Based on eighteen months of fieldwork collecting interviews with
forty women and some of their partners, this paper explores how a long standing
ideology of motherhood and the reproductive politics of choice continue to resonate in
the changing social context of twenty first century Ireland. I also explore how childless
women challenge the societal construction of their “failure” to conceive as a failure
to embrace the cultural ideal of motherhood. I show how grief provides a social and
emotional opportunity to give a sense of personhood to the children they conceived of
without conceiving physically. This paper describes the formal and informal rituals,
services and memorials created by many women in Ireland to legitimize grief for
lost children in the wake of an inability to conceive and to lay claim to a motherhood identity. I draw on the narratives of the women in my study to illustrate this
complex identity politics of motherhood. These women’s stories contest the notion that
motherhood begins with a biological or social moment and challenge conception as a
material achievement defined and understood through a medical or scientific lens.
In Ireland, reproduction has been part of a complex web of social, religious, and
family politics that positions womanhood as synonymous with motherhood
and naturalizes gender roles. The experiences of women who do not conceive
children because they, or their partners, are infertile are thus counter to dominant
pro-family, pronatalist social norms and expectation. This paper describes how
grief—a profound sense of sorrow and loss—offers some women a means of
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appropriating, redefining, and sustaining a motherhood identity, even among
those who remain childless. Drawing on narratives from interviews conducted
in the Republic of Ireland I will provide examples of grieving as a strategy that
seeks to materialize loss, rendering tangible and legitimate an otherwise invisible motherhood identity. Moreover, grief serves as a means of making sense
of infertility experiences as a disruption of life plans while also reaffirming the
dominant social values and norms inherent in those life plans.
This paper is based on my Ph.D. research in anthropology during which I
spent 18 months in 2004 and 2005 living in Ireland. Using a critical medical
anthropology focus I explored the political, medical, moral and social meanings
attributed to fertility and infertility. I examined these meanings in a context
where motherhood has been co-opted into state discourses as part of national
identity making and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church has
shaped the reproductive politics of the nation. The project is a qualitative
interview based ethnography in which I use the interviews themselves as part
of participant observation since I am as much a part of the story’s unfolding
as the narrator.1
The discursive constitution of infertility as both socially and medically
abnormal and “deviant” exemplifies what Michel Foucault describes as the
“anatomo-politics of the human body” (139-140). Reproduction is at the heart
of Foucault’s description of “biopower” exercised by defining norms and regulating bodies of both individuals and populations. Heather Paxson describes
the “pathologization of infertility” as part of the process in which “the social
problem of childlessness is folded into nature” and the desire for motherhood
is constituted as natural (220). How can an inability to conceive be seen as
anything but “failure” in this context?
Within the larger story about complex and often contested meanings of
fertility, infertility, motherhood and family I began to recognize stories of the
need to lay claim to motherhood, as an identity, in the absence of children.
For some women this need for legitimacy is rooted in the naturalized heteronormative progression between marriage and motherhood in Ireland. Many of
my participants described this progression in narratives about a kind of social
imperative conveyed in people’s assumptions and the constant questioning they
faced about having (or not having) children. I will begin with the imperative
to be mothers.
“Anything Stirring?” Confirming the Ideology of Motherhood
Central to the analysis in this paper is an understanding of the depth and
impact of an ideology of motherhood in Ireland. Judith Butler emphasizes
the performative aspects of gender identities—that subjectivities are about
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performing and about doing. In this sense doing is being (3). It is through the
performance of an identity that we experience the processes of subjectification
and enact them. For women in Ireland this form of subjectification employs
the embodied ideals of fertility centered in women’s bodies with motherhood
as its ultimate representation.
An ideology of motherhood in Ireland is embedded in and sustains both
a nationalist identity and a patriarchal norm as the basis for family and state
structures. In fact, the Irish Constitution of 1939 has been cited by many feminist scholars as discursive evidence, in and of itself, for the social and political
folding of women’s identities into the ideals of a motherhood ideology.2 This
goes hand in hand with what many describe as an ideology of familism in
which there seems to be little opportunity for alternatives to hetero-normative
identities (Byrne 72). The sense of oneself as ‘always already’ a mother even in
the absence of children can be explained in part by what Louis Althusser has
described as “interpellation or hailing” wherein people recognize themselves as
“always already subjects” (48-50 emphasis original). The relationship between
ideology and subjectivity is one in which ideology “recruits subjects” and in the
process of interpellation, the sensation of being hailed or called, draws upon our
awareness that we are already both “concrete individual” and “concrete subject”
(Althusser 46-48).3 We are called and at the same time recognize ourselves as
subjects. Women, by virtue of recognizing themselves as women, are thus already
constituted as mothers and there is little social acceptance of an alternative.
Several women talked about the Irish expression “anything stirring?” - a
frequent question to newly married women in the past and one that still makes
its way into conversations, particularly with older relatives. This question locates the responsibility for fertility, conception and reproduction in women’s
bodies and puts a particular onus on them to answer for childlessness in a
marital relationship.
Jane: When you are one or two years married people say to you “how long
are you married” and they say “hmm time for a family.” Then when you
say I’m six years married they go “oh.” And they don’t ask. Cause it’s kind of
like, it’s that way in Ireland. Two or three years it’s like the waiting time.
And after that, that’s it. So I know that people know and don’t say it. In
a way maybe that’s a good thing and I have never had anybody be really
insensitive or brutal. I think that has changed in Ireland. There’s a lot less
of the “anything stirring?” stuff. You know that used to be a program on
years ago and this man used to be constantly saying to his wife “anything
stirring?” and it meant are you pregnant. The Irishisms. But I think people
have become more aware through all the information and they don’t ask
and they kind of figure it out and leave it alone you know.
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Jane points out how an assumption that children will follow marriage in
quick succession has endured in Ireland as part of a logical or ‘natural’ life
trajectory for women. Any deviation from the anticipated trajectory engenders
feelings of inadequacy and exposes people to questions by others that suggest
they have somehow “failed.”
Lisa: I find it very annoying with people. So, yeah, people used to ask;
‘and so when will there be the pitter-patter of little feet?’; ‘now you have
the house’ and blah, blah, blah, and ‘you shouldn’t be working so hard that
you’re not thinking about having a family’—that kind of thing. I find that
kind of thing childish really.
Carol Ann: And then you just take it for granted that you will get pregnant and that’s it.
Vince: And a lot of people take it for granted that … you know how people
say ‘how many children have you got?’ …Uhm …none. And there’s this kind
of aura like’ oh there’s probably something wrong with you, is there?’
ca: Hmm, do you remember my mother, when we were married just before
we started going for treatment? It had been about two years and I had told
her nothing at the time, like. And she did say to me,’ you know, you want
to be thinking, Carol Ann, about having a baby.’ […] And she actually
said ‘because you know, people expect it….’
The constant questioning of childless couples in Ireland is located by Flo
Delaney, as part of the “freemasonry of the fertile” (73). Delaney links the
hetero-normative ideal of marriage and children to pronatalism fuelled by
Catholicism but the political symbolism of marriage, motherhood and family
extends to the nation’s Constitution as well (Conrad 72-3; Curtain 48; Smyth
7). Even in an era of post-Catholicism,4 in which people can at once critique
and acknowledge the influence of the Church’s ethos, reproduction remains
central in sustaining the meaning of family in Ireland, supporting the current
emphasis on fertility as a norm.
‘Conceived in the Heart’: Motherhood in the Absence of Children
Catherine’s story introduced me to the idea that conception was not always
about biology when she spoke about “conceiving in the heart.” Although I
heard similar stories from six of the forty women in my study, Catherine’s
story exemplifies best the experience of being childless while embodying what
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seemed to be a motherhood identity. She describes the puzzle of grieving for
something that is not—something that may never have existed materially but
is experienced as real nonetheless. For many years Catherine struggled with
what felt, to her, like a contradiction in her identity—an identity in which
she felt she was a childless mother. Eventually she asked her parish priest to
hold a mass for the children she had not physically conceived. Catherine felt
certain that she had two children—a boy and girl—whom she had named
and wanted to “introduce” to her family and friends in order to make her loss
tangible for others to share.
Catherine: They don’t understand that you would have had a loss… of
something that hasn’t ever been. Even though in one’s heart you would have
conceived them. That’s what Father J. said to me. You know, he said they
were all conceived in your heart. They were conceived. I decided to hold a
mass because I felt where am I to grieve? … I’d like to have a mass for my
unforgotten dreams and for all the unforgotten dreams in my family.…
It was just absolutely amazing. And that became more important to me.
This was huge. And then at the mass we were singing and I had picked
out all the hymns and it was just beautiful.. I felt that they deserved ….
My children deserved to be known by their names. The fact that they [the
children] didn’t come didn’t mean that they weren’t wanted. So everybody
who was important to me knew and knows their names now.
Catherine used this opportunity to appropriate a familiar public religious
ritual to define her hidden sorrow in a very specific way for others to grasp. In
the commemorative mass her ‘conceived of ’ children were materialized and
symbolically embodied as if conceived.
Catherine: Because at the point I would have written a poem. When I
wrote that in ‘96, for me that was the beginning of the end. The beginning
of coming to….
J: Coming to terms?
C: Coming to terms, or whichever you’d call it. I’m not comfortable with the
word “terms” because I do live with it. And they are within me. You know
the children that didn’t come. The love is still contained within me.
J: Right, the potentiality was there all the time.
C: Oh yes, oh yes. So it was kind of realized and forgiven, and resolved.
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Within myself, you know, letting them go. Letting them be free. Saying to
my children, sort of at the end it’s okay. I forgive ye…. It’s a pity you didn’t
come but it’s alright. I’m alright now.
Catherine’s need to forgive the children for not coming imparts to them a
measure of personhood. Her narrative was filled with coincidences involving
the two names she had chosen and these anecdotes confirmed for her the
existence and connection she felt with children who had not come but were
nonetheless real. Even as she talks about letting go, her narrative is really about
sustaining an identity. Pointing out the inadequacy of a phrase like “coming
to terms,” Catherine resists the idea that she must relinquish her embodied
notion of herself as a mother. For women like Catherine who do not manage
to conceive or adopt children, motherhood lingers as a presence of absence in
their identities and sense of themselves.
Elsa: And it was really kind of important to me that we could grieve for
the children that weren’t born.… I mean my children haven’t been born or
died for whatever reason but I feel they are still very much there.
Like Catherine’s story above, Elsa describes the sensation of continuity when
she talks about grieving for children who were not conceived but are still very
much a part of her lived reality. Both Elsa and Catherine suggest that accepting
childlessness is not the same as accepting that they are not mothers. This differs
from Marcia Inhorn’s discussion of childless women in Egypt who forestall
notions of social failure by remaining liminal, like pilgrims “searching” for the
children who have not yet come (29). The women in my study claim an ongoing
motherhood identity by reconfiguring themselves as having children who did
not come. In so doing, they resist the stereotypes and stigma associated with
being women who are “other than mother” (Letherby, Other 359). Grieving in
this light recasts their experiences as conforming with the social imperatives,
allowing them to claim to be mothers who have lost a child.
Elsa suggests that her children have died and will not be forgotten but this
idea must be re-shaped in order to make sense of her infertility experience as
a loss. Below Anne describes how she used an analogy to convey the pain she
experienced to someone who she felt misunderstood her situation.
Anne: Well I had somebody say to me once “why don’t you just adopt and
don’t do the ivf5? You’ve been through enough?” And that person had 3
kids. And I said I’m going to take away your 3 kids and murder them and
you’re going to have that heartache and that grief. That all consuming …
(pausing) I can’t even explain it. That horror inside you. That pain. I’m
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going to leave you with that. How would you feel now? Wouldn’t you want
your kids back? She said yes and I said that’s how I feel everyday and that’s
how my husband feels. That’s the only way to explain it. It’s not just the
loss of your dream. It’s a sorrow that won’t go away.
Like Elsa, Anne’s illustration compares her loss to the death of a child. For
women like Anne, their sense of loss is as tangible as death but the fact that
children never came makes the grief difficult for people to understand. The
context of a death provides a way of making sense of people’s lack of understanding of the impact of infertility loss.
Lorna: People who have experienced a mother or father or brother or sister
death know what that is like but this is a very different type of death and
I always feel angry when I hear people say ‘they’ve lost a child and sure she
has other children.’ I am absolutely so angry when I hear people say that.
That is your child. You wanted that child equally as much as you wanted
the ones that came before, the ones that came after. That child is a huge loss.
That huge sense of loss will be there for ages and ages.
Lorna also describes the social or cultural notions about what constitutes legitimate
forms of grief, suggesting there is an imagined hierarchy among experiences of
loss. Like Anne’s story above, Lorna expresses a lack of faith in people’s capacity
to understand the equation of absence with loss. All of the stories above employ
powerful metaphors that draw on the social meaning of the death of a child in
order to convey the emotions necessary to legitimate grief.
Stories like these raise questions about the relationship between subjectivity,
embodiment and reproduction. Clearly Catherine’s sense of being a mother was
deeply embodied in a way that necessitated reconciliation with a body that did
not produce children. Gayle Letherby notes the descriptive inadequacy inherent
in a simplistic distinction between the “biological condition of infertility and
the social condition of involuntary childlessness” (Letherby Challenging 277).
From this standpoint, the experience of infertility, as an embodied phenomenon, challenges the unified subject of woman as mother. And yet the kind
of grieving that Catherine describes also incorporates an embodied sense of
maternity—a way that childlessness can be articulated with the embodiment
of an ideal of motherhood.
Motherhood and (Re)Conceptions of Loss
The search for ways to validate motherhood through the recognition of loss
and grief often begin with familiar institutional spaces and rituals or events.
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Maureen: And this priest is fantastic, actually, because he makes a big
deal of everything. Every Mother’s Day in the church he has hundreds of
daffodils up there—hundreds. He buys daffodils in this bunch and he goes
through ‘you’re a mother, you’re a daughter ….’ He goes through everything.
But he said, this really was important because before all of those things you
are you. You’re an individual. So the last time everyone was gone, and I
just said ‘ look, Father James, would you just include women who aren’t
mothers and who would like to become mothers, you know, and all the
mothers who had lost babies … and through ivfs like … failed ivf cycles.
Those are the people who weren’t mentioned today. Motherhood that doesn’t
happen.’ He said ‘I never thought of it from that point of view’. You know,
and I really pictured that at the Mother’s Day mass.
While on one hand Maureen’s narrative captures the issue of multi-subjectivity as women embody a number of social positions and relationships, what
is missing in her search for legitimacy and recognition is “motherhood that
doesn’t happen.” Her search for acknowledgment for this missing component
suggests that the value of motherhood in a moral and religious context remains
significant as a site of continuity and social validation (Becker 4).
One of the most concrete examples of a need to formally recognize sorrow
and provide a space for grieving is an annual memorial service held for couples
who have been unable to conceive. The idea of an event similar to the one
Catherine organized for her own friends and family appealed to members of
a support network called the National Infertility Support and Information
Group (nisig). The organization subsequently developed interdenominational
memorials that have been held annually since 2003.
Kate: And we find now that at the interdenominational services that
even people who have adopted still haven’t laid to rest their grief over
failed treatment. Or even if they didn’t go for treatment, to be able to
acknowledge the fact they have never become a mother within, as in a
biological mother.
Kate describes the importance accorded to birth and suggests that becoming
a mother “within” is still socially differentiated from other paths to motherhood.
The Memorial to Unforgotten Dreams is held in a garden called the Leanbh
Memorial behind St. Benedict’s Priory at Cobh, Co. Cork.6 Separated by
hedges and walls from the rest of the cemetery, the Leanbh contains no
headstones but is a quiet garden where stillborn and miscarried children are
memorialized with flowers, shrubs and trees. NISIG asked that a space for
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grieving and memorializing the losses in infertility be formally included in the
mandate of the Leanbh. They were given permission from the Church to utilize
the garden as a place to remember embryos lost after infertility treatment or
the children who had not been conceived but were nonetheless wanted. This
inclusion accorded an important public and institutional recognition that
such loss could be tangible. It was a way of reaffirming motherhood through
grief - recontextualized as the presence of children as “unforgotten dreams.7
For some this has served as a form of spiritual recognition, filling a gap left by
church communities that offer little or no recognition of loss or the legitimacy
of grief for infertility.
A number of women I spoke to during the research talked about the personal things they had done to recognize or memorialize their “conceived of ”
children. Evelyn talked about nasturtiums in her garden being a constant
reminder and described having transferred plants from one garden to another
when she moved house as a symbol of the continuity of her grief. Gail was
one of several women who gave names to embryos that failed to implant or
implanted briefly and then were lost through early miscarriage.
(Re)Constituting Conceptions of Motherhood
Some women refer to themselves immediately after ivf as “pregnant until
proven otherwise,” in an attempt to experience however briefly, the sensation
of being a mother, and a means of validating that identity. Alexis describes her
desire to experience this sensation of having achieved conception in order to
have something on which to base both a feeling of motherhood and the grief
of losing something.
Alexis: I’ve never had the embryos back. I’ve had the egg collection but I’ve
never had the transfer.… I’ve never had them inside me and I’m missing
out on that bit. I know some of the girls would be on the ivf websites saying something about their embryos and I would be thinking god, you’re so
lucky to even have them inside. I’m probably better off waiting the three
days and then if the embryos don’t make it, they’re gone instead of waiting the two weeks. But the embryologist said if he had his way everybody
would wait until day three. You wouldn’t have to wait the two weeks
then because you’ll know. And I was saying, ‘surely, the best place for the
embryos is your womb’, and he said, ‘no, the conditions in the lab are just
as good, if not better.’
Alexis found the sadness of never even contemplating the presence of embryos
in her own body difficult to deal with emotionally. Although transferring
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embryos two days after fertilization is common the embryologist assumes he
is foreclosing grief for women by insisting that only embryos that survive in
the Petri dish (in vitro) until the third day get transferred to the womb of the
mother. His focus is on creating an ideal physical site for incubating rather than
nurturing an embryo; what he is actually foreclosing is an opportunity for some
women to experience a performative aspect of motherhood. His perspective
aligns with Sarah Franklin’s description of the often contradictory and variable
meaning attached to “achieved conception” (145). For women the meaning of
achieving conception is embedded in the significance of becoming a mother.
For practitioners, however, it is the scientific and biological accomplishment of
having fertilization and implantation occur through the craft of medicine—a
scientific and valuable achievement in and of itself. In stories like the one told
by Alexis, the scientific measure of success or failure can leave women feeling
external to the process of their own procreative events when they embody the
social role without being able to embody the biology as well. This leaves them
not only bereft but somehow unable to situate their grief in ways that others
will understand.
Lydia: But as I say when you do ivf there’s almost a numb feeling. It’s
kind of a denial you know. It’s when you get your period and it doesn’t
work it dulls your feeling. There’s a delay in grief if you know what I
mean. It’s almost as if I couldn’t cry. There’s a complete numbness inside.
It’s like … you’re almost like ice inside because you’ve been building up
to be so strong. But you know I think it may not work, it may not work
and make yourself believe that. I couldn’t cry. And I wanted to cry and I
couldn’t. And it doesn’t hit you until about 3 months after, really hit you,
you know? So we did the next one I suppose, we waited a year I would
say until the next one.
Lydia describes the delayed reaction of sorrow and grief she felt as she worked
through her own denial both before and after ivf as a kind of protective
cloak.
Treatment failure, and the grief that accompanies it, can also be re-framed
in terms of pregnancy loss.
Donna: After my last embryo transfer … and it didn’t work, and I had
said to my siblings and quite a few close friends of mine that I’d been for
infertility treatment. And when I said that it had failed, I didn’t get
much empathy from them. It was like it really didn’t matter. Well I rang
the Miscarriage Association and I asked their permission to say … could
I say I had a miscarriage.… And I felt the recognition of my baby would
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be… And they were absolutely brilliant. They said “of course you can,
because you did have embryos inside you and you don’t know, they might
have implanted for a few days.” I went home to my hometown and I told
my siblings and they hugged me and they cried. But I thought that was
very sad that the grief of infertility was not … that I had to say I’d had a
miscarriage to get my needs met.
Donna seeks an alternative but authoritative, medicalized definition of what
happened, allowing her to shift the meaning from a domain of “failure” to a
domain of loss through which she might gain legitimate access to empathy.
In other words, a pregnancy or a “baby” can be lost whereas an ivf treatment
only fails. The miscarriage support network relies on the biological definitions
of conception and implantation to assure her that her grief and her claim to
motherhood are real experiences. The process of ivf itself makes the embryos
visible in ways that complicate a relationship between bodies and claims to
maternal process and identity. A number of women in my study re-contextualized their treatment failures as miscarriages in an effort to make sense of their
embodied motherhood in the absence of a conception.
Conclusion
Grief can make room for alternative forms of maternal legitimacy even in
the absence of wider social recognition of loss. For some people grief is an
emotional mechanism that forestalls or mediates the sensation of “failure” to
conceive by re-constituting a failure to conceive as the loss of a child. I have
argued here that redefining the absence of conception as an absence of children through grieving creates a conceptual space that legitimates a sensation
of material loss and sorrow. At the same time however, grief is a medium of
resistance to societal perceptions that women who do not conceive have not
embraced the values of parenthood, family and generational continuity that
are hallmarks of Irish social life
Even in the absence of becoming a mother some women still experience,
subjectively, a sense of being that is motherhood. This represents a challenge to
the meanings of reproduction that remain anchored to subjectivities powerfully
inscribed on the gendered bodies of women and men. The kind of conflicted
subjectivity in which women feel as if they are “always already” mothers creates
a need for social validation of their conformity with an ideology of motherhood and embodied social values in Ireland. Through thoughtful redefining
and attention to their sensations of grief, many women in my study simultaneously challenged and reaffirmed the social convention that all women will be
made mothers by conception. These women’s stories contest the notion that
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motherhood begins with a biological or social moment and challenge conception as a material achievement defined and understood through a medical or
scientific lens.
Thanks to Deatra Walsh for comments on an earlier draft.Thanks also to the anonymous
reviewers who gave suggestions that strengthened the paper. Any errors or omissions
are my responsibility alone. My research was supported by the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council (sshrc) and the Wenner Gren Foundation.
Social scientists in a number of disciplines, including anthropology, gender
and feminist studies, acknowledge the importance of narrative in revealing the
complexity of multiple subject positions (Holstein and Gubrium 11-15). As
James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium suggest in their collected volume Inside
Interviewing: New Lenses, New Concerns, interview research is “more than a
simple information gathering operation: it’s a site of, and occasion for, producing knowledge itself ” (4).
2
The Constitution of Ireland, as written in 1939, enshrines a value associated with the heterosexual, nuclear family, protecting marriage and ascribing rights to the family unit. Women’s gendered responsibilities are spelled
out succinctly in Articles 2. 1° and 2.2° which state “In particular, the State
recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a
support without which the common good cannot be achieved … The State
shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by
economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the
home.” (http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/attached_files/Pdf%20files/Constituti
on%20of%20IrelandNov2004.pdf )
3
Althusser refers to interpellation as a kind of “hailing” in which someone
responds to a call because they know themselves to be the person being hailed.
It is through this process that they become the subject of the hail. Althusser
points out that because of the ‘always already’ nature of subjectivity there is
no temporal sequence to such recognition. It is a matter of at once knowing
you are the subject and being the subject (Althusser 48).
4
I employ the term post-Catholic to describe an era in which Catholicism is
deconstructed as a source of social influence in the same way as post-modernism
can critique and understand the constructedness of modernism.
5
In vitro fertilization.
6
Leanbh means ‘child’ in the Irish language.
7
Linda Layne describes the making of memories in the context of pregnancy
loss and miscarriage in the US. She notes that this kind of “memory making is pro-active” since memories, in this case, are constructions rather than
reconstructions (129).
1
journal of the motherhood initiative
213
jill allison
References
Althusser, Louis. Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1970.
Becker, Gay. Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997
Byrne, Anne. “Familist [VERIFY SPELLING] Ideology and Difficult Identities: ‘Never-Married’ Women in Contemporary Irish Society.” Reclaiming
Gender: Transgressive Identities in Modern Ireland. Eds. Marilyn Cohen and
Nancy J. Curtain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 69-90.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Conrad, K. Locked in the Family Cell. Madison: The University of Wisconsin
Press, 2004.
Curtin, Nancy J. “‘A Nation of Abortive Men’: Gendered Citizenship and
Early Irish Republicanism.” Reclaiming Gender: Transgressive Identities in
Modern Ireland. Eds. Marilyn Cohen and Nancy J. Curtain. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 1999. 33-52.
Delaney, Flo. “Infertility: The Silent Period.” Motherhood in Ireland. Ed. Patricia
Kennedy. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 2004. 64-76.
Franklin, Sarah. Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception.
London: Routledge, 1997.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books,
1978.
Holstein, James and Jaber F. Gubrium. Inside Interviewing: New Lenses, New
Concerns. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2003.
Inhorn, Marcia. Quest for Conception: Gender, Fertility, and Egyptian Medical
Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
Layne, Linda L. “Making Memories: Trauma, Choice, and Consumer Culture
in the Case of Pregnancy Loss.” Consuming Motherhood. Eds. Janelle S. Taylor, Linda L. Layne and Danielle F. Wozniak. London: Rutgers University
Press, 2004. 122-38.
Letherby, G. “Challenging Dominant Discourses: Identity and Change and the
Experience of ‘Infertility’ and ‘Involuntary Childlessness’. Journal of Gender
Studies 11 (3) (2002): 277-88.
AUTHOR??? “Other than Mother and Mothers as Others: The Experience of Motherhood and Non-Motherhood in Relation to ‘Infertility’ and
‘Involuntary Childlessness’.” Women’s Studies International Forum 22 (3)
(1999): 359-72.
Smyth, Lisa. Abortion and Nation: The Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary
Ireland. Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2005 Print.
214
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Auto de Resistência1
The Collective Action of Women Relatives of
Victims of Police Violence in Rio De Janeiro
Similar to other countries, such as Argentina and El Salvador, Brazil, and more
specifically Rio de Janeiro, has witnessed the mobilization of relatives of victims of gun
violence, mainly led by State law enforcement agents. These groups have conducted
research, presented complaints, and closely monitored police inquiries and judicial
procedures. Generally, mothers, sometimes sisters and wives, are the ones who start
the journey on the path of justice in the hope of finding some meaning in what is left
to them and in the effort, not always rewarded, to fight against impunity. The aim
of this article is to map the challenges and opportunities that relatives of victims of
gun violence face both individually and collectively in their struggle to overcoming
grief and obtain justice and reparation. Through the analysis of a concrete experience—the development of a support program for relatives of victims of police-led
massacres—this paper discusses the nature, the risks, the possibilities, and tensions
of this type of collective action.
Private Bereavement, Public Struggles
The impact of urban gun violence cannot be understood as merely a logical
consequence of violence, nor as a statistic of suffering (Beristain). It [WHAT
IS IT?] has faces, histories and voices as well as unique and diverse mechanisms
of support, organization, and resistance. These need to be made visible in order
to avoid a victimized image of the victims and acknowledge their demands
and needs for justice and reparation.
This article addresses the issue of how deaths resulting from urban gun violence
are at the root of the emergence of activist groups which struggle for justice
and violence-reduction and how the so-called indirect victims that make up
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tatiana moura, rita santos and bárbara soares
these groups (the relatives and friends of the victims of gun violence) perceive
and construct themselves individually and collectively in these contexts. It also
aims to shed light on the ways in which the initiatives aimed at minimizing,
preventing, and transforming of violence, led by women, contradict the trend
of women’s invisibility and absence as social actors in both peace and war
scenarios. In this article, we focus on the trajectories of the relatives of victims
of homicide or forced disappearance by law-enforcement agents in the city of
Rio de Janeiro on their path from mourning to struggle for justice.
At War: Masculinities and Femininities
The roles and contributions of women have been historically marginalized,
both in peacetime and wartime. This phenomenon has its roots in the very
process of social construction of the meanings of war and peace stereotypically
associated to both sexes.
The stereotypes “violent men” and “men as agents of formal peace” as well
as the stereotypes “women victims” and “peaceful women,” which result from
perceived female dependency in relation to men and from maternal biological
determinism, are a synthesis of a system of hierarchical dualisms rooted in the
patriarchal matrix that subordinates women and other marginalized groups.
Departing from the observation that one of the structural and cultural
factors sustaining violence is indeed the patriarchal system, and based on the
analysis of specific violence experienced by women, some feminists establish a
continuum between several types of violence (Moser and Clark 31) (domestic,
armed, social and economic violence, amongst others). In line with this understanding, the traditional concepts of war and peace are not only questioned
for their artificialness and narrowness, but also for their perverse implications.
These tend to neglect structural and cultural violence, which operate in the
long-run and are at the root of several large-scale violent expressions, hence
naturalizing micro violence at play in the interpersonal sphere (not exclusively
by women, but mostly by them) but common globally. This, in turn, feeds new
violence spirals.
Along these lines, some feminists have contested the analytical separation established between declared war scenarios and other violent practices,
namely phenomena of high concentration of gun violence in micro-territories
(neighbourhoods, urban communities, suburban zones), within a national
context of formal and institutionalised peace, highlighting its constructed and
counterproductive character (Pureza and Moura; Moura 2005). By drawing
attention to the proximity and connections that these micro expressions of
violence maintain with conventional war theatres internationally - namely
concerning actors and victims of violence, mobilisation factors, war strategies
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and funding sources—these researchers deconstruct the conceptual basis of
violence analysis, surpassing its dichotomous and excluding nature, and reveal
the implications of its inadequacy in terms of formulation of alternatives to
violence (Pureza and Moura; Moura 2005).
Taking cue from the idea that the conventional paradigm of security constitutes in itself a mechanism of insecurity production, especially at the individual
level, feminist advocates propose a wider concept of peace and security, which
embraces a multidimensional (economic, social, cultural and military) and
multi-scale (macro, formal and micro, informal) perspective (Tickner 62),
proportional to the expansion of the concept of violence. This conceptual and
potentially political expansion corresponds to an attempt to bridge the traditional separation between public and private violence. By refusing to silence
private expressions of violence, one contributes decisively to give visibility to
the existing articulations between those types of violences.
Surviving Loss and Violence: Activism for Human Rights, Memory
and Reconciliation
Alongside with lobbying initiatives for negotiated solutions to traditional
armed conflicts and the minimisation of war effects, women’s groups have been
actively engaged in fighting impunity, defending human rights and advocating
for reconciliation, particularly in the Latin America region.
Submersed in a past of civil war, state repression, impunity and widespread
poverty, countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador
witnessed the emergence of groups of mothers, grandmothers and widows,
namely the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Chilean Relatives’ Association,
the National Committee of Widows of Guatemala and the El Salvadorian
Committee of Mothers Monsignor Romero. These groups, mostly constituted
of women belonging to economic medium/low classes, with very little political
experience, soon became symbols of the struggle for social justice, memory
and national reconciliation.
War experiences, although traumatic, mainly in the contexts where violence
against women was rampant, have not held up women from organising themselves collectively, participating in public protests, leading judicial inquiries or
campaigns for truth. Quite the contrary, in many cases it was the very own
personal experience of violences and the feelings of loss and grief that prompted
women to political activism (Schirmer 35).
One of the key characteristics of these forms of female organisation and protest is the politicisation of the private domain2 that is, the use of the domestic
roles associated traditionally to women, especially those of mother and wife,
and to the “moral capital” underlying these (Bull 3) as a strategy of entering
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tatiana moura, rita santos and bárbara soares
the public sphere. Some feminist movements of the North, particularly in the
United States of America and in Europe, perceiving this as legitimating the
traditional gendered labour division, tend to criticise and underscore these
forms of activism, classifying them as non-transformative or non-emancipatory
(Elshtain 544). While in some cases the appropriation of the traditional roles
of women in the domestic sphere can be attributed to strategic considerations
only, enabling the penetration of the public sphere and lending legitimacy and
protection to these movements, these discourses have also been employed,
particularly in Latin America, as a conscientious refusal of the “white, western
and heterosexual feminism” (Radcliffe and Westwood 5). Instead of eliminating
motherhood as a reference in the construction of femininity, the deliberate use
of this discourse aims to bring the feminine perspective of motherhood to the
political system. In other words, it aims to “create a political role for motherhood” (Howe 47), thereby challenging the very meaning of motherhood and
care and the stereotypes which define women as apolitical and passive.
Moreover, and despite the fact that most of these movements did not aim
directly at challenging women’s subordination, associativism and politicization
of more immediate needs and experiences can contribute to a greater awareness
of subordination and hence broaden the scope of social acceptance of their
new protagonism (Safa 367).
It is also important to question whether these women, in addition to contributing to redefine their own identity conceptions, have collaborated in the
structural transformation of social roles, namely in the private sphere, paving
the way for the redefinition of male roles (including those regarding violence)
and, thus, introducing new changes in the public sphere. Along these lines,
these forms of protest that emerge amidst violence constitute important peace
resources, which need to be made visible and encouraged.
Mothers’ Groups in Brazil: Small Big Steps
Brazil is currently one of the most violent countries in the world, with gun-related mortality rates similar to many war scenarios. In 2006 it registered 35,969
gun-related deaths (Rede de Informação Tecnológica Latino-Americana et
al. 94), 2,235 of which occurred in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the State with
higher prevalence of gun deaths. Also, in the year 2006 alone the Police was
responsible for the death of over one thousand civilians (Lira).
The massacres and summary executions, with roots in the military dictatorship, constitute to this day extreme, visible and frequent expressions of gun
violence in Rio de Janeiro. And if in the past, they marked the frontier between
the civilised world and barbarianism, currently they are spread out, escaping
their geographical limits and becoming part of the city’s reality (Alves 16). And
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this geographical dissemination is matched by the dissemination of destruction
and disruption of ties and lives.
From 1979 to 2000, three hundred to six hundred thousand people survived
violent deaths in Rio de Janeiro (Soares et al.). That is, gun violence marks,
differentially, the lives of the population and goes way beyond the official
statistics on firearms-related deaths and injuries, which reveal only the most
visible impacts of this type of violence. In the spirals and continuuns of gun
violence that are manifested internationally and are expressed locally in Rio de
Janeiro, the ones who die (male and female) do not constitute the sole victims
(Moura 2007). Indeed, relatives and friends of direct victims of violence suffer
differentiated impacts, physically, psychologically, socially and economically.
In addition to experiencing the trauma of losing a loved one and having to
cope, on a daily basis, with violence and its effects, these survivors, generally
mothers, sometimes sisters and wives, but rarely fathers and brothers, have yet
to face the obstacles and slow pace of the judicial system and the absence of
social support networks. In face of this scenario, and like in other contexts of
overt violence, namely Latin America in the 80s, groups of relatives of victims
of gun violence, particularly those victims of police-led massacres, mainly
mothers” groups, have been emerging, seeking collectively to cope with violence and its effects. In fact, relatives of victims of police massacres such as the
Acari massacre (1990), Vigário Geral (1993), Candelária, Borel and Via-Show
(2003) 2003, have come together and constituted groups such as the Mothers
of Acari, Mothers of Vigário Geral, and Mothers of Rio. More or less organised
and institutionalised, these groups have been conducting research, presenting
complaints and following closely the evolution of police investigations, as well
as judicial proceedings, in the effort of fighting impunity.
The group of mothers and relatives of victims of massacres with which we
have been working with constitute an example, albeit embryonic, of this kind
of collective activism. Similarly to the Argentinean, San Salvadorian and Guatemalan mothers, they face serious financial and emotional distress, as well as
family disruption and often social stigmatisation, whenever they are accused of
being a “thug’s mother” and hence required to prove their children’s innocence
- a stigma with a similar weight to the “subversive” label, commonly used in
the Latin-American contexts of political violence during the 1980s.
In the words of one of the mothers:
People who don’t follow closely our reality are oblivious of our difficulties in entering a police station, in meeting the Justice Promoter
or monitoring police enquiries. The press doesn’t write about this.
Apparently, the difficulties we face trying to solve our cases do not
sell newspapers (Soares, Moura and Afonso 116).
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tatiana moura, rita santos and bárbara soares
Also similarly, the mourning of these women, their subjective experience of
violence, was transformed, at first spontaneously, into the desire of fighting for
justice and non-violence. The objectives of their struggles, namely the search
for justice, dignity and memory are also common.
The similarities of their testimonies, the pain lived and re-lived since the tragic
event and their own struggle for the accountability of the murderers, hitherto
led individually, constitute the keystone for their association, the monitoring
of each others” processes and the search for a new meaning of life collectively
(Moura 2007). In the words of one of the mothers of the group, “We are driven
by our grief and no-one knew. Our pain was transformed into fighting”.
Existing groups, such as the Mothers of Cinelândia, the Mothers of Acari,
the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, sos Queimados, Fórum Reage Baixada and other ngos, enable, to a certain extent, some
connection with the public office and the denunciation of rights abuse. The
role of these movements is thus considered essential by the group of relatives.
Scarcer, is the connection of these mothers to international movements, such
as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. For these relatives, this type of connection,
albeit exceptional, allows them to give visibility to their struggle at the national
level and especially at the international level.
In fact, despite similarities in terms of female protagonism, violence impacts
and struggle objectives, there are important differences between this mothers”
group and the Latin-American counterparts, mainly due to their degree of
politicisation and their socio-economic profiles.
Despite the existence of collectively planned and coordinated initiatives,
namely public demonstrations and monitoring of judicial proceedings and
trials, many problems remain, particularly in terms of joint demand for public
policies consistent with the struggle against impunity and police abuse. To great
extent, at the origin of these obstacles are the socio-economic profiles of those
who make up the groups of relatives. Contrary to other mothers” movements
referred above, most victims” relatives in Rio de Janeiro belong to the poorest
segments of the population, being not only structurally more vulnerable to
violence, but also in a harder position when it comes to mobilisation, due to
lack of resources.
The Experience of the “Support Programme for Relatives of Victims
of Police-led Massacres”
The Programme, conducted by Cândido Mendes University, Brazil (cesec),
and University of Coimbra, Portugal (ces), has sought to contribute to amplify
the voice of the existing women’s groups advocating for justice and reparation
in Rio de Janeiro, through the promotion of their emotional and psychological
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strengthening as well as access to information and to justice.
In order to support the passage from an individual perspective to a collective one, a network of psychologists was set up, which offered free consults to
those interested in treatment. Additionally, group meetings were promoted
on a monthly basis, in the format of a self-help group, where political and
organizational issues as well as personal topics were addressed and discussed.
Thus, these were spaces of personal exchange, enabling self-expression, mutual
identification, and lobbying.
In this context, and taking into consideration the training needs identified
by the mothers of the group during the course of the meetings, a training
course of Popular Legal Educators (plp) was set up, using the methodology
developed by the ngo themis, in Rio Grande do Sul. This format, lauded
as a success tool in the promotion of access to justice for women in popular
communities (Fonseca et al.), was then adjusted to the needs and aspirations
of the programme’s group. Since then, two modules of the course were organized (in 2008 and 2009), with 56 hours each, addressing topics such as
human rights, the Brazilian criminal justice system, income generation and
public speaking skills. Meetings of psychosocial and psychological support
as well as legal advice and leisure activities also took place during the course
of the sessions.
During the course of these meetings and training sessions, and for the first
time in the history of the mothers” movement in Brazil, the idea of collectively
writing a book and preparing a documentary honouring the memory of the
loved ones and the daily struggle of these survivors began to take shape. Three
years after the initial drafts, the book Auto de Resistência: Relatos de Familiares
de Vítimas de Violência Armada3 was published and the documentary “Right
to Mourn” released.4
In the words of one of the mothers,
“This film is an historical document. It addresses a very painful subject,
but a necessary one. It portrays what happens after violent incidents,
the feelings of the family and friends, the difficulties in fighting impunity. It gives visibility to our struggle and it humanises the victims.
It shows that these aren’t just statistics. They had a history.”5
One of the aims of the plp courses and the parallel activities was to facilitate
access to knowledge and contacts necessary to the structuring of the relatives”
struggle, namely through the establishment of a collective movement or a
consolidated organisation.. To some extent, the judicial successes of some of
the relatives involved in the group, namely those associated to the Baixada
(2003)6 and Via Show7 massacres can be attributed, not exclusively, to the
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greater access to media and information, namely facilitated by the participation
in training courses such as the plp.
However, and despite the will of the majority of the group’s members, the
aim of structuring the group’s struggle has been undermined by several motives.
One of them lies in the ambiguity of the subjective condition of victimhood
(direct and indirect). If, on the one hand, the massacre contributes to a greater
awareness of violence and the public manifestation of justice activism on the
part of the relatives, the legitimacy of this demand results from, on the other
hand, a social role which is difficult to surpass. In fact, whilst the mothers have
unquestionable moral capital, they become partially imprisoned to the condition
of victim. This mechanism is aggravated by the fact that public recognition
often brings secondary benefits, such as media attention, access to political
authorities and celebrities as well as other circles hitherto excluded from their
range of opportunities.
Despite the intrinsic contradictions of the struggle for justice, attempts
to structure a survivors’ organization in the State of Rio as well as signs of
mobilization around a potentially national association have recently surfaced.
A part of the group has taken on an active role in meetings and conferences
on public security regionally and nation-wide, bringing together a network
of people (mainly women) willing to engage in activism. This is thus a key
moment not only to testify the emergence of a new organisational level in the
group and of the constitution of a new social actor, but also to contribute to the
reinforcement (and visibility) of this effort. Several factors hinder the opening
of social spaces external to the dynamics of violence at play in conflict scenarios
(Beristain). Experiences of resistance as those described above, need to open a
civilian space amidst a conflict which tends to control all their initiatives.
Conclusion
In Brazil, as in other urban scenarios of armed violence, men are the main
victims and perpetrators of gun-related violence. Because of this global trend,
often those who survive are the ones that attempt to counter violence, devoting themselves to the development of mechanisms and strategies to restore
normalcy and re-establish peace and security. And the face of survival is
frequently female.
At first individually and, later on, collectively, women’s reaction against
violence is normally marked by informality and spontaneity. However, as the
time passes, some of these groups begin structuring themselves politically and
strategically. Women’s collective and organized participation, similarly to men’s,
is thus a product of a deliberate choice, often made due to and shaped by their
personal experience of violences, the macro political context (war, dictatorship,
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hybrid scenarios), micro circumstances (namely if they are politicized or not),
as well as their social, economic, and cultural backgrounds.
Assuming distinctive forms from traditional political activism, namely
concerning the centrality that aesthetic forms of demonstration and demand
assume and their preferred modus operandi, these constitute political forms of
intervention, even if manifested at a micro level.
Often, however, women activism (and especially mothers’) is undervalued or
even silenced, as a result of being perceived as natural and apolitical. In hybrid
contexts of violence, which escape traditional concepts of war (and peace),
like Brazil and particularly Rio de Janeiro, this marginalisation appears to be
even more evident. In this case, several layers of analytical “formatting” are
intersected, expressed in the utilisation of and reference to traditional concepts
of politics, power, war and peace, each manifestly insufficient to capture reality and particularly the complexity of the violences and the strategies that are
being developed to counter these.
Ignoring or marginalizing these initiatives translates into a waste of potential
resources of minimisation, prevention and transformation of violences that
arise in particularly difficult contexts.
Auto de resistência is the legal term used in Brazil by the police when a violent
incident is justified on grounds of self-defence (i.e., when someone is killed in
the course of a shooting between the police and crime suspects, namely those
involved in drug trafficking).
2
The political use of motherhood is not, however, exclusive to the LatinAmerican context nor exclusive to the South, broadly speaking. For instance,
the US-Based organization Women Strike for Peace lobbied for a ban on
nuclear tests, drawing attention to the its potential risks for the children’s
health (Swerdlow).
3
Auto de Resistência: relatos de familiares de vítimas da violência armada. Rio de
Janeiro, 7 Letras, 2009. Written by 19 relatives of the group, with the support
of the program’s technical team.
4
Produced by Cinema Nosso, Jabuti Films and tv Zero and directed by Luis
Carlos Nascimento. Twelve women of the group participated actively in the
documentary, namely as screenplay writers, researchers and camera operators.
5
See <www.lutocomomae.com>, section Testimonies.
6
On the 31st March 2005, 30 people were shot dead in several locations of
the Baixada Fluminense by a group of policemen of the battalions of Nova
Iguaçu e Queimados. These were of the retaliation to the prison of nine military
policemen from the 15° Battalion. The prisons took place in the course of the
1
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tatiana moura, rita santos and bárbara soares
operation Navalha na Carne, which aimed to combat police corruption and
malpractice.
7
On the night of December 5th, 2003, the brothers Rafael (18 years old) and
Renan Medina Paulino (13 years old), their cousin Bruno Muniz Paulino (20
years old), and their friend Geraldo Sant’Anna de Azevedo Júnior (21 years
old), went to a concert, at the venue Via Show, in Baixada Fluminense. Three
days later, their bodies were found inside a well, by the police, in Duque de
Caxias, with signs of torture.
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grupos de extermínio.” Impunidade na Baixada Fluminense—Relatório 2005.
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Beristain, Carlos Martín. Reconstruir el tejido social. Barcelona: Icaria Editorial, 1999.
Bull, Sheana Salyers. “Machismo/Marianismo Attitudes, Employment, Education and Sexual Behaviour among Women in Ecuador and the Dominican
Republic.” Journal of Gender, Culture and Health 3 (1) (1998): 1-27.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Exporting Feminism.” Journal of International Affairs
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Fonseca, Claudia, Aline de Lima Bonetti and Elisiane Pasini. Novas Formas
de Liderança: um olhar antropológico sobre o Projeto Themis: Promotoras Legais
Populares. Porto Alegre: Themis, 2001.
Howe, Sara. “The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo: Asserting Motherhood; Rejecting
Feminism?” Journal of International Women’s Studies 7 (3) (2006): 43-50.
Lira, Renata. “Survivors of Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro: Dealing with
Impunity.” Paper presented at the Seventh International ciss Millennium
Conference, “Global Security and the Re-configuration of the International
System: Vision and Reality.” Buçaco, 15 June 2007.
Moser, Caroline and Fiona Clark, eds. Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. London/New York: Zed Books,
2001.
Moura, Tatiana. “Novíssimas guerras, novíssimas pazes. Desafios conceptuais
e políticos.” Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais 71 ( Junho 2005): 77-96.
Moura, Tatiana. Rostos Invisíveis da violência armada. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras,
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Pureza, José Manuel and Tatiana Moura. “Violência(s) e Guerra(s): do Triângulo
ao Continuum.” Revista Portuguesa de História 37 (2005): 45-63.
Radcliffe, Sarah A. and Sallie Westwood, Sallie. “Gender, Racism and the
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Politics of Identity in Latin America.” Viva: Women and Popular Protest
in Latin America. Eds. Sarah A. Radcliffe and Sallie Westwood. London:
Routledge, 1993. 1-29.
Rede de Informação Tecnológica Latino-Americana, Instituto Sangari, Ministério da Saúde, and Ministério da Justiça. Mapa da violência dos municípios
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Safa, Helen Icken. “Women’s Social Movements in Latin America.” Gender
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Schirmer, Jennifer. “The Seeking of Truth and the Gendering of Consciousness—the CoMadres of El Salvador and the conavigua Widows of
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Soares, Gaúcio et al. As vítimas ocultas da violência urbana no Rio de Janeiro. Rio
de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2006.
Soares, Bárbara, Tatiana Moura and Carla Afonso, eds. Auto de Resistência:
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Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical
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journal of the motherhood initiative
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jocelyn fenton stitt
A Gold Star for Grieving
Cindy Sheehan, Military Families Speak Out,
and Gold Star Families Speak Out
Maternal activism is often derided in popular culture and within feminist theory
as not being “real” activism. Some contemporary feminist theorists are dismissive of
women’s activism and agency when it stems from their identities as mothers, naming
it maternalist or “accidental activism.” The work of peace activist Cindy Sheehan
and other “Gold Star Mothers” whose children have died while in the military provide complex examples of the rhetoric surrounding appropriate maternal grief and
appropriate maternal citizenship. The essay argues that the kinds of maternal grief
that are considered publically appropriate are a reflection of what kind of maternal
subjectivities are allowed culturally and by the state. Utilizing work by Carole
Pateman, Norma Alarcón, Jessica Benjamin, and Gayatri Spivak, “A Gold Star for
Grieving” illuminates the discourses surrounding Gold Star Mothers while provides
new connections between theories of citizenship, motherhood, and subjectivity. The
essay concludes by arguing that limiting maternal agency and subjectivities, either
in bereavement or as activists, constrains women’s citizenship.
The work of peace activist Cindy Sheehan and anti-war organizations such
as Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families Speak Out (made up
of members whose children have died while in the military), provide complex
examples of the rhetoric surrounding appropriate maternal grief and normative ideas of mother’s roles as citizens. The kinds of maternal grief that are
considered publicly appropriate reflect the kind of maternal subjectivities that
are allowed culturally and by the state. Complicating discourses about public
maternal grief are the ways in which mothers who are activists are often derided
as over-emotional, as neglecting their children, or as being inappropriately
involved in the public sphere. Maternal peace activists, in particular, are often
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charged with being bad mothers and being unpatriotic. Furthermore, peace
activists who publically air their grief over losing their children to military service open themselves up to charges of undermining their country, the military,
and other families who have lost children to war.
In response to this inflammatory rhetoric, this essay challenges the dismissal
of maternal peace activists publicizing their grief and the charge that mothers’ activism is not radical enough. In contrast to the terms maternalism or
accidental activists (discussed in the below), I use “maternal activist” in this
essay to denote mothers involved in activism who nonetheless challenge sexist
notion of mothers’ capabilities, mothers’ place within the private sphere, and
an individualist focus on caring for one’s own children rather than a broader
political agenda focusing on social justice for all people. I do so by drawing
on research emerging from field of Mothering Studies, which argues 1) that
mothers’ experiences are often not told from their point of view, but rather from
the point of view of outsiders or children and 2) there is a difference between
the patriarchal construct of motherhood and women’s own work performing
mothering. While this might not sound revolutionary, E. Ann Kaplan reminds
us that “We have very little evidence about the actual nature of mothering
work in any historical period, or about the quality of mother-child relations,
or how historical mothers ‘managed’ their institutionally assigned roles” (18).
The specific examples of grieving mothers protesting an ongoing war is highly
unusual, historian Michael Beschloss explains, since military families historically have not publically protested war, “We’re seeing something that really is
unusual because military families in history have been pretty much inclined
not to do this sort of thing. It’s in a way sort of part of that culture. And the
fact that they are doing it now shows how deeply many of them feel about
the fact that they were never convinced at the beginning of this war that it
was the right thing to do” (Hochberg). The examples of the maternal peace
activists provide us with evidence of mothers who use their status as the basis
for a radical political platform.
Sheehan’s very public grief over the loss of her son Casey in Iraq in 2004,
coupled with leading a protest movement against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,
have made her a polarizing figure in contemporary American politics. Rather
than providing an overview of Sheehan’s career as a peace activist, something
that has been covered in recent feminist scholarship, this paper instead first
examines the rhetoric surrounding Sheehan and other activists associated with
Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families Speak Out through the
framework of accident activism or maternalism as a way to think through
existing cultural ambivalences about mothers as activists.1 These two organizations and Sheehan were chosen for analysis because of their high profile
in the media and because they define the urgency of their activism through
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their familial identities. The discourse surrounding Sheehan makes apparent,
I argue in the first section, the contradictions inherent in maternal activism, in
both U.S. culture and within feminist theory. The second section demonstrates
how Sheehan and other maternal peace activists have challenged negative
stereotypes of activist mothers in several ways, but perhaps most innovatively
by expanding the definition of a “mother” and maternal activist subjectivities
from an individualistic role of taking care of one’s own children to a definition
more strongly connected to a community-based social justice movements. The
essay concludes by arguing that limiting maternal agency and subjectivities,
either in bereavement or as activists, constrains women’s citizenship.2
Nothing-But-Mothers and Media Whores
Questions over the propriety of maternal activism exist not only in the culture
at large, but within feminist theory as well. Beth Osnes, activist and co-founder
of Mothers Acting Up, notes describes a dominant cultural message this way,
“Being politically active and being a good mother are mutually exclusive”
(280). In an interesting corollary to idea that good mothers should not be
activists, it seems that being a maternal activist and good (radical) feminist
are mutually exclusive. Maternal peace activists represent a particularly vexing figure for feminists, given that they at times use essentialist rhetoric of
the “naturalness” of peacemaking to women in general and to mothers in
particular (Moore 282). Such movements are often classified as a kind of
second-class feminism.
As important, some feminists, especially Western feminists, have tended to
be rather scathing about women’s activism or sense of agency or entitlement
to civil rights based on their status as mothers. Using one’s status as a mother
as a basis for activism leaves one open to charges of essentialist identity politics (Antrobus 159). Feminist scholar of global women’s peace movements,
Cynthia Cockburn, argues “Instead of speaking for themselves as autonomous
women, [mother identified activists] … seem to be reducing themselves to
nothing-but-mothers, to a biological function and a stereotypical role, thereby
reinforcing what society already imposes” (210). Women’s activism as mothers
has been defined as either “maternalism,” so- called because women are using
their patriarchal sanctioned roles as mothers as leverage in the public sphere,
or as “accidental activism,” as when mothers protest public policies that make
their traditional private sphere duties difficult, such as providing education or
health care to their children. Maternalism has its roots in nineteenth-century
social movements that stressed women’s essential difference from men, and
found their impetus in advocating for social reform on behalf of women and
children (Edmonds-Cady 207.) Typical maternalist concerns include advocating
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for social services for mothers and children, legal reforms to protect children,
and anti-war work.
Sheehan first became a peace activist in 2004 in response to her son Casey’s
death in the Iraq war. Her activism at first took the form of joining Military
Families Speak Out (MFSO), taping pubic service announcements against
the war, and giving interviews to the media. In 2005 she co-founded Gold
Star Families for Peace (GSFP), an activist group of family members who lost
children through military service, or its aftermath. This group splintered in
October of 2005, and another group was created, Gold Star Families Speak
Out (GSFSO), which is affiliated with the umbrella organization MFSO,
founded in 2002.3 Sheehan is not longer affiliated with either group and in
recent years has continued her activism by runing for the senate and hosting
a radio show in addition to writing anti-war books. MFSO’s and GSFSO’s
activism ranges from asking members to lobby Congress to end the war, to
organizing conferences and informational workshops, to giving and receiving
support from other military families. The MFSO 2010 Mother’s Day Action
encompassed all of these anti-war approaches, by reminding members of its
pacifist in honoring deaths and casualties of the Civil War. MSFO’s One Nation Working Together event in October 2010 with a coalition of anti-war
groups is a recent example of a public action by that group.
Media portrayals of Sheehan were sympathetic at first, since her initial activism—publically declaring her mother’s grief and questioning the wisdom of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—place Sheehan’s activism into a maternalist
framework. Joe Klein wrote in Time in August 2005
the awkward anguish of Cindy Sheehan has struck a chord, despite
her naive politics and the ideology of some of her supporters. She
represents all the tears not shed when the coffins came home without public notice. She is pain made manifest. It is only with a public
acknowledgment of the unutterable agony this war has caused that
we can begin a serious and long overdue conversation about Iraq,
about why this war—which, unlike Vietnam, cannot be abandoned
without serious consequences—is still worth fighting and why we
should recommit the entire nation to the struggle. (Klein)
Sheehan is portrayed here as a mater doloroso—maternal anguish personified.
Describing Sheehan primarily as a grieving mother, rather than a political activist, is one example of how news reports are four times more likely to describe
women in familial roles and twice as likely to describe women as victims in
comparison with news stories about men (Marcharia et al.). Portrayals such
as Klein’s should rightly alarm feminists, since Sheehan is represented here as
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having not having agency, but as merely being a symbol of grief for the nation.
Rather than Sheehan herself leading the discussion, Sheehan’s pain should
spark debate about the war.
Public actions by Sheehan and other activist groups such as Gold Star Families
for Peace, such as attempting to enter the Pentagon to meet with Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld in early 2005 and the 50 city Bring Them Home
Now Tour in the Fall of 2005 led to intense media criticism. Members of mfso
were accused of undermining the war effort and of lending aid and comfort to
the enemy (Hochberg). Mothers like Laurie Loving who spoke out publically
with mfso were belittled as being just “terrified mothers” (Rose).
In 2005, Bush administration officials noted that Sheehan’s status as a grieving mother meant that she needed to be handled “very carefully” (Carney).
However, once Sheehan set up Camp Casey (a two-acre base camp near
then President Bush’s Texas compound) in August of 2005 media coverage
began to change. Sheehan’s shift from a grieving mother asking to meet with
President Bush to a political activist occupying land near his vacation home,
meant that she could be attacked as “just another voice in the debate—easy,
in other words, to neutralize” (Carney). Sheehan and her coalition might still
have been framed as maternalist by political opponents as well as the media,
but with the added twist they had embraced a kind of malignant maternalism
more concerned with their own political power rather than mourning their
lost children. “Sheehan shamelessly exploits the death of her son for her
13 [sic] minutes of fame” as one conservative blogger wrote in September of
2005 (Geller).
Much of the criticism of Sheehan as an individual focused on her as a bad
mother, rather than on her critiques of foreign and military policy. In Not One
More Mother’s Child, Sheehan writes with indignation of being told repeatedly
to “go home and look after your kids,” arguing that no one ever told George
Bush to go home and look after his children (118). The book American Mourning went so far as to suggest that Casey joined the army because the Sheehan’s
house was unclean (Moy and Morgan 63). Cynthia G. Franklin and Laura
E. Lyons note of the almost 1.3 million Google results for “Cindy Sheehan
and Iraq”: “The volume of commentary on Sheehan is excessive and excessively personal and nasty” (237, 238). Much of this commentary focuses on
accusations of Sheehan as a bad mother, as well as on sexist slurs, such as ugly,
fat, bitch, whore, and cunt (Franklin and Lyons 239). My own Google search
of Cindy Sheehan and bad mother returned 24,000 hits. The top result was
a blog that created the “World’s Crappiest Mother Poll” and listed Sheehan
as one of the choices, along with mothers who killed their children such as
Andrea Yates and Susan Smith (Simon). Sheehan led the reader votes in the
comments section.
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In May 2007 Sheehan decided that she could no longer be involved in the
peace movement (she later changed her mind and continued her work as an
activist, and later ran a brief campaign for Nancy Pelosi’s senate seat). Her essay
explaining that decision was published in the recent anthology The Maternal Is
Political, and was titled, “Good Riddance, Attention Whore,” giving prominence
to two phrases commonly used in conjunction with her activism. Sheehan states
that she has been labeled “a radical,” ironically not for being too leftist, but for
calling both Republicans and Democrats to account for funding and continuing the War on Terror (“Good” 260). The conservative organization Gold Star
Families (gsf) released a statement in response to Sheehan’s choice to leave
the movement, stating, “We are very pleased to hear that Cindy Sheehan is
ending her disgraceful campaign to discredit the United States military and
the heroic men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Steinhauer
and Marshall). Predictably, gsf accuses Sheehan of undermining the troops.
From the perspective of sexist expectations of mothers to concern themselves
with the private sphere and upholding normative decorum, it is interesting
that gsf couched their condemnation of Sheehan as “disgraceful,” as if chiding
Sheehan for not being more circumspect and ladylike in her grief.
Sheehan’s refusal to work through the two party system has a link to her
refusal to conform to the two dominant cultural norms of a grieving military
mother that I believe also mark her as radical. Mothers involved with gsmso
also violate norms for the bereaved military mother. These two norms consist
of either private grieving or a more public grief that continues to support the
nation’s militarization.
The non-profit organization American Gold Star Mothers (agsm) embodies this latter more publically acceptable type of grief. American Gold
Star Mothers formed in 1928 as a support group for mothers who had lost a
child in combat. agsm initially volunteered in veterans’ hospitals, and more
recently continue to advocate for veteran’s issues. They view themselves very
differently than gsfso whose first stated purpose is to “end the occupation
of Iraq” and only secondly to offer support to anyone who has lost a military
family member since 2001 (“About”). agsm’s website frames these mothers’
involvement as a kind of accidental activism. Several mothers’ personal stories
emphasize that it is their children who are heroes, not them. agsm’s incoming president Ruth Stonesifer’s writing on the agsm website underlines her
son’s greater importance as well as her accidental activism. Stonesifer states,
“I am a firm believer that my son’s death as he served his country made him
a hero, not me” (“Home”). Stonesifer emphasizes that her leadership is not
something she chose, but was thrust upon her because of her grief over her
son’s death, “I had this great safe plan mapped out for my life. I was going to
be in my basement making quilts for grandchildren and avoiding the world.
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However the world slapped me upside the head just after the events of 9/11
(“Home”). A conservative blogger captures the way Sheehan is perceived to be
the opposite of the son/hero and mother/appropriate griever binary: “‘Mother’
Sheehan can either have her son remembered as a victim ... or a hero. She’s
choosing to push victimhood. On the other hand, in this scenario, there’s only
room for one hero” (“Darkly”). The critique of Sheehan as putting herself above
her son and as benefitting from his death is common, and so it is interesting
to see the efforts the members of agsm put into making sure they do not
give that impression.
Redefining Motherhood through Radical Maternal Activism
The difference between the activism of agsm and many of the women involved
in ending the u.s. war in Iraq and Afghanistan exemplifies what Peggy Antrobus, Caribbean transnational feminist activist and co-founder of Development
Alternatives with Women for a New Era (dawn), calls the uneasy relationship
within global women’s movements between women who are “mobilized on
the basis of motherhood and the political virtue of women’s values” and those
who are “concerned about the price women have always paid for this kind of
‘essentializing’” (159). In other words, there is always a danger for women
when they base their claims for reform on an identity, such as being a mother,
which has links to essentialized notions about all women. The pece activists
discussed in this essay encourage us to reconsider why a maternal identity is
dangerous and possibly discrediting to anti-war activists.
As the previous section discussed, many negative characteristics are attached
to women who use their maternal identity as their primary reason for their
peace activism. Sheehan, gsfso and mfso peace activists frame their right
to speak and protest in terms of their familial identity. They do this in spite
of the mocking of maternal activism as too emotional, or unseemly in public.
For example, gsfso member Karen Meredith argued in 2005 in a speech
before the American Friends Service Committee that both mothers and fathers
should speak out against the war, but that the pubic would be more receptive
to hearing calls for peace from mothers:
As long as the human costs are hidden, this country cannot begin to heal.
The mother’s
voices will end this war, they have to; and the father’s can too, but it’s mostly
the mothers they will listen to… Imagine, for one minute, my sense of peace
knowing that my speaking out might end the war one day earlier and possibly
save the life of one of the pro-Bush, pro-war families. Their loved ones will
come home because I raised my voice to question this war. (“Impassioned”).
Meredith’s writing does not necessarily invoke a essentialized idea of moth232
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ers as naturally more peaceful than fathers, but she does suggests that mothers must lead this movement because they are more credible witnesses to the
destructive nature of war.
Sheehan’s writing, in particular, uneasily straddles a line of maternalism
and maternal activism. She insists that her activism be taken seriously as
a political critique while occasionally invoking a sexist norm of the “good”
grieving mother as a shield against criticism. “How can anyone question a
mother-in-mourning’s motives, when all she is doing is trying to save other
mothers from the same gut-wrenching experience,” Sheehan pleads (Peace
142). This is a rather disingenuous description of Sheehan’s activism in 2004
and 2005, given that her political agenda called for Bush’s impeachment on the
ground that he lied to the American people. That year Sheehan had travelled
to London to be part of the Downing Street Memo hearings. These hearings
were convened when evidence surfaced that the intelligence that weapons of
mass destruction in existed Iraq (justifying the invasion) and been faulty and
possibly fabricated.
Nevertheless, Sheehan’s, mfso and gsfso member’s actions and writing testify to agency in their maternal activism, rather than an accidental
activism. In contrast to Joe Klein’s description of Sheehan’s grief as her
most important contribution to the national debate over the war, Sheehan
emphasizes her previous activist work as leading her to create this protest.
“Many people think that I just fell off the pumpkin truck in Crawford on
August 6 and got involved in the anti-war movement,” Sheehan writes, but
in reality she was already scheduled to be a featured speaker at a Veterans
for Peace convention in Texas when she decided to protest at Bush’s vacation home in Crawford, Texas (Peace 133) Sheehan writes extensively in her
autobiography Peace Mom of the importance of mfso, Veterans for Peace,
the non-profit Crawford Peace house, and the activist group Code Pink to
the success of Camp Casey.
In addition to insisting on their right to be part of the public sphere debate
over the war, Gold Star Families for Peace and Gold Star Families Speak Out
took one of the most potent symbols of military grief and turned it into a critique
of the Iraq war. The Gold Star is a traditional military symbol representing
a family member who has died during military service. Sometimes family
members wear a gold pin issued by the military, or sometimes they display a
small banner bearing a gold star in their home or on their front door. Despite
this long-standing tradition, many Americans are unaware of the significance
of the gold star.
Some family members of soldiers killed since 2001 feel that their loss and
their grief were marginalized through the Bush administration’s efforts to keep
a lid on media coverage of casualties. Peace activist and Gold Star Families
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Speak Out member Karen Meredith writes, “Very few people have actually
met a Gold Star Mom. It is important that people know what it feels like to
be in my situation” (“About”). Maternal peace activism insured that Gold Star
mothers’ perspectives were on the public agenda and put a face to the mothers
who had lost children in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
gsfso mothers and Sheehan politicize their grief by using it as a platform to call for political change. In a 2008 article, Sheehan comments
that Memorial Day is always a “double-whammy” since it is also her son’s
birthday. Sheehan asks her readers to transform Memorial Day from being
“grief-soaked” to a national day of peace. She charges us to “look into the
face of grief ” and recognize that Memorial Day is not a day to celebrate
nationalism and patriotism, but rather a day to acknowledge the thousands
of families who have been torn apart by war. “We need to rededicate our
lives,” Sheehan writes, “to opposing war and unbridled presidential power
so that Memorial Day is not grief-soaked for thousands more families to
come” (“No”). Sheehan further connects her family’s grief to that suffered
by Iraqi families during the war. In making this cross-cultural connection to
other mothers and other children who have died, Sheehan practices maternal
intersubjectivity—linking her wellbeing as a mother with the wellbeing of
other mothers and children.
Maternal activists’ anti-war resistance reshapes our ideas of what a mother
is. Sheehan, like many contemporary maternal activists, insists that she can
define her maternal practice herself rather than being constrained by patriarchal notions of motherhood. In 2006, Sheehan promoted the idea of the
“Matriot” as a complementary identity to that of a patriot.4 In defining this
term, Sheehan claims that we are all linked by having been born of a mother,
and that if our mother’s care of us has been nurturing, that both men and
women can use this model to critique and protest militarism. Sheehan writes,
“A Matriot loves his/her country but does not buy into the exploitive phrase
of ‘My country right or wrong.’ (As Chesterton said, that’s like saying, ‘My
mother, drunk or sober.’)” (“Matriotism”). Using her perspective as a mother,
Sheehan argues that a Matriot would not send her children, or anyone else’s
children to war. Sheehan frames herself and other Matriots mothers as ready
to do battle for their children:
[A Matriot] would march into a war herself that she considered just
to protect her child from harm. Aha! Matriots would fight their own
battles, but take a dim view of having to do so, and would seldom resort
to violence to solve conflict! Patriots cowardly hide behind the flag
and eagerly send young people to die to fill their own pocketbooks.
(“Matriotism”)
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Matriots protect their children from male defined notions of patriotism that
would send them to their deaths.
Many of the maternal peace activists advocate for a public and communitybased social justice mothering practice. While not recognized as such, I argue
that this reframing of public maternal subjectivity stands at the forefront of
the maternal peace activists’ accomplishments. Celeste Zappala, a well-known
member of gsfso, wages weekly anti-war protests in Philadephia. Zappala
has continued to do so even after President Obama announced the troop draw
down in Iraq. Zappala argues that her political actions have a more expansive
meaning than a protest over her son’s death. “It’s not joyfully that I can say
the war is over, because it isn’t,” Zappala notes, “The consequences will go on
forever. They’ve changed the name, but our people are still in danger and there
are still going to be people injured or dying” (Pompilio). Sheehan concurs that
women can and should make social justice claims from their positionality as
mothers by expanding private acts of mothering into a public sphere communal activity: “I believe what I am doing is for my children, and for the world’s
children” (Not 118). She elaborates, “We as mothers need to stop buying into
the load of misogynist crap so that our children need our constant presence
in their lives so that they can thrive and grow…What we as moms need to
stop doing is giving our children to the military-industrial war complex to be
used as human cluster bombs” (Not 119). Thus, maternal peace activists call
not just for government or foreign policy change, but for mothers themselves
to change their vision of caretaking.
The tension surrounding mothers’ abilities to make social justice claims as
mothers is not just a problem for feminist theory. It has deep roots in how
citizenship is conceived. Modern citizenship and duties such as voting, holding office, and serving the in military were constituted as specifically male,
in contrast women’s service which would come from being good mothers.
Carole Pateman’s work discusses the incorrect perception that in attempting
to gain citizenship rights first wave feminists wanted to solely to be equal
with men. In fact, early proponents of women’s rights wanted “both equal
civil and political rights, and that their difference from men should be acknowledged in their citizenship” (Pateman 17-18). Thus, women historically
have demanded civil and political rights based on claims to equality with
men, but also based on a claim of difference from men through their “service”
and knowledge as mothers. And this is where it gets tricky. If citizenship
was designated as the province of men from the French Revolution on,
motherhood was designated as the way women could participate in public
life through republican motherhood.
Claiming a voice as a citizen and a mother is difficult, since mothers have
not been traditionally counted as a political constituency (Reiger 318). Instead,
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mothers have been expected to embody and perpetuate the nation while not
being active citizens. All female activists, from radical feminists to socially conservative women’s groups, then, are caught in a binary that Pateman describes as
one that “continues to oscillate between ‘difference’ (maternal thinking should
be valued and brought into the political arena) and ‘equality’ (citizenship not
motherhood is vital for feminists)” (21). The binary between equality and
difference, Pateman reminds us, is usually framed as an open question about
whether gender and gender specific experiences such as mothering should be
considered pertinent to politics and social change. Instead, feminists focus on a
different issue: “how to subvert and change the manner in which women have
already been incorporated, and so to transform the relation between ‘equality’
and ‘difference’” (Pateman 27). Considering the roles mothers like Cindy Sheehan, Karen Meredith and Celeste Zappata play in the public sphere, whether
through activism or transforming acceptable modes of grieving, it might be
possible to have both equality of political participation and recognition of
difference in mothers’ experiences of loss.
Conclusion
I would like to conclude this essay by taking up Pateman’s challenge. I propose
to outline some theoretical problems stemming from terming all mothers’
activism as second class regardless of the nature of their agenda. First is the a
priori assumption of a Western individualist subject that can be summoned at
will to stand in for the second-class identity of the mother. As Normal Alarcón
explains, the individualist subject (a self-sufficient individual adult) of AngloAmerican feminism is not universal (363). Alarcón argues that “reconfiguring
the subject” of feminist theory is necessary in order to explore the difference
between women (357). Philosopher Patrice DiQuinzio postulates that Western
feminist ideas depend on an individualist subject demanding individual rights
that cannot be reconciled easily with mothers’ communal demands for rights
such as healthcare and childcare. Challenging the hegemony of the individualist
subject and the role that subject has historically played in allocating citizenship rights allows us a better understanding of constraints of the activism of
radicals such as Cindy Sheehan and conservative groups such as American
Gold Star Mothers.
Second, in concert with Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic theories of intersubjectivity, I am not sure that describing mothers as autonomous subjects
matches the living experience of many (but clearly not all) mothers. The
material and psychic interrelationship between the mother’s and child’s well
being gives lie to the idea that mother should speak and act as autonomous
subjects in order to create social change. Instead mothers might strategi236
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cally choose to speak for themselves and others, or not. I do not mean that
women should not have individual civil rights such as citizenship, but that
rather when theorizing about liberatory processes for women, assuming an
individualist subject may be exclusionary. As Benjamin notes, “Denial of
the mother’s subjectivity, in theory and in practice, profoundly impedes our
ability to see the world as inhabited by equal subjects” (31). The rhetoric
surrounding Cindy Sheehan, such as that she should relinquish the public
sphere, experience grief without anger, and take care of her children as her
primary activity stems from a cultural ignorance or willful blindness that
mothers have diverse subject positions. Indeed, it is a denial that women
have the right to be maternal citizens.
Thirdly, if a subjectivity needs to be individualist to be emancipated, that
comes with some strings attached, as Gayatri Spivak notes. Spivak bridges
Cockburn’s fears of maternal activism as essentialist and Alarcón’s discussion
of feminist individualism, cautioning against the “individualist” subject making of Western feminism precisely because it does so through two narratives:
“domestic-society-through-sexual-reproduction cathected as “companionate
love” and “the imperialist project catheted as civil-society-through-social
mission” (244). So Cockburn’s and others’ calls for individual independent
subjectivities as the basis for activism or agency or empowerment draws from
a long line of Eurocentric subjectivities defining themselves through and
against the colonized subject. Requiring an individualist subjectivity as the
basis for activism marginalizes the public work many maternal activists.
So where should we go from here? The distinction between motherhood
and mothering was first made by Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born in 1976
and then expanded upon by the Andrea O’Reilly. Rich defines mothering as
a “freely chosen practice” in distinction to patriarchally defined motherhood,
like that found in the expectation that women bear children in the service of
the state but do not actively participate in politics or social change. This leaves
open the possibility that maternal activists might be radical on two counts:
through the nature of their political agenda, but also through their efforts to
challenge the historical interpellation of mothers as outside active citizenship.
However, O’Reilly notes there do not exist many descriptions of what that
practice would look like. In closing, I’d like to suggest that we can learn more
about a radical maternal politics, and diverse performances of public maternal
subjectivities (like the grieving Gold Star Mother), by not dismissing all of
those engaged in maternal activism as second-class feminists or as accidental
activism. If it is true that women’s status as mothers (or not) always already
enters into their status as citizens and agents of social change, then working
to subvert traditional notions of motherhood can be just as radical as refusing
motherhood altogether.
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See Natalie Wilson, Cynthia G. Franklin and Laura E. Lyons, and Laura
Knudson for recent scholarship on Cindy Sheehan and her activism.
2
I want to thank Natalie Wilson and Meghan Gibbons for introducing me to
the controversies surrounding Sheehan and other maternal activists.
3
Private conversation with Karen Meredith, October 12, 2010. I would like
to thank Ms. Meredith discussing the history of Gold Star Mothers Speak
Out, her activism, and her leadership of that group. Meredith’s son Lt. Ken
Ballard was killed in Iraq.
4
“Matriot” is the title of a 1992 poem by Frances Payne Adler that advocates
that older women rise up and work for an end to war, universal healthcare,
and ending pollution.
1
References
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