Chapter 2 Thesis by Martha Joy Rose


The Encyclopedia of Motherhood begins its brief entry on “Motherhood Studies” by asserting that the subject of motherhood has emerged within the academy in the last thirty years as a significant topic of scholarly inquiry. It goes on to say that “Motherhood Studies has developed into three interconnected categories of inquiry: motherhood as institution, motherhood as experience, and motherhood as identity or subjectivity” (vol. 2, 831). In the case of Motherhood Studies, the study has been constructed around the word: motherhood. But, we have three words available to us: mother, mothering, and motherhood. Each word connotes something different. However, for the purposes of this thesis and for any scholar who wishes to study mothers, mothering, or motherhood in the academy, more development of this idea would be beneficial. In this chapter I explore the use of the words: mother, mothering, and motherhood. I wrestle with a theory of m/otherness or mother-ness and construct a working definition of what Mother Studies is, as well as track the history of its evolution. This evolutionary tale accounts for my own position within its trajectory. I also describe some of the challenges Mother Studies has faced in terms of earning legitimacy within the academy.

I begin with the broad statement that every human being is the result of procreative experience. This procreative experience and resulting birth action transpires via a mother, historically a woman, but perhaps sometimes in the twenty-first century via a man (a male mother as in the case of a trans man): perhaps in the future via an artificial womb? The intention here is to point out that we are defining a mother even in cases of more fluid identity. As I stated in the introduction, it is acceptable to formulate a position relative to a historical recognition of what has been and then move ahead in continual redefinition. For most of history (up until the last thirty years) very little has been studied, written about, or explored from the women’s perspective. Therefore I am comfortable acknowledging that fact and using it as a launching point for where humanity might direct itself in the future. Subsequent accounts may include gender discussions, as well as biological considerations. Those would be welcome. At this point in the development of Mother Studies however, we will look to the women historically, and to those enacting motherhood currently, with the expectation– definitions are changing, and humanity is evolving. In terms of exploring what it has meant to be a mother, and what it means to me to be a mother, I offer up the notion of “other-ness” which is a foundational concept. But, first let us explore further the use of the various words available to us.

In this section I aim to dynamically explore multiple articulations of mother, mothering, motherhood. I differentiate between Motherhood Studies, which examines the institution of motherhood, and mothering, which examines the praxis of motherhood. Motherhood is generally understood as the social system in which mothering is performed. Adrienne Rich articulates it thus, “[motherhood] the institution, has been a keystone of the most diverse social and political systems” (13). Mothering shall be defined as the action, which I will elaborate more on throughout this text, and mother is the individual, the identity of a person, or even a planet, in the case for example of “mother earth” as I have identified earlier. The premise for the discipline must examine the lived experience of mother, within all of these interpretations of mother, mothering, and motherhood. It is also important to acknowledge the external forces: physical, social, emotional, and scientific that act around and upon the mother. There is precedence in the academy with: “Food” Studies, “Fashion” Studies, “and “Queer” Studies,” which sound as though they are object studies, but they are not. They are multi-perspective, and inter-disciplinary.

To reiterate, mothers are defined as those performing mothering labor within social constructions of motherhood: their individual perspectives and experiences as well as a framework of fluid and varying gender differentiations and the oppositional constraints imposed upon them. Likewise, in some capacity or other every person has been raised by someone performing mothering labor. Mothering labor is the enactment of gestation, gestational contribution (perhaps even as in egg donation? I am mothering my eggs to give to another?), birth or caregiving work. Sometimes we say we are mothering a pet, a plant, or a project. These notions will require more theoretical examination, but not for the purposes of this thesis. For our purposes, mothering can be applied to all these things, and especially the ways in which it is currently recognized within contemporary society. This notion was seminal in Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, in which she asserted that men could mother, just as women do. “A mother is a person who takes on responsibility for children’s lives and for whom providing child care is a significant part of her or his working life” (40). In this way Ruddick attempts to assign the action of mothering as an activity that can be applied regardless of biological or gendered constructions. Rothman also seeks to destabilize limiting notions of gender, biology or genetics. She moves away from kinship as the primary definition of mothering, and expands the concept of family to, “more than genetics, more than lineage,” towards “families made interracially, inter -culturally, internationally, gay and lesbian, as alternative kinds of families” (19). One contemporary example of this unconfined status came to fruition on January 30, 2015 when media outlets announced that New York City hospitals now offer City Health Department forms that allow birthing mothers to identify as either female or male. Media outlets included the statement, “To be clear, it is possible for a person who has given birth to a child to identify as male,” said Susan Sommer, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people (New York Post).

The notion of exactly what makes a mother: birth, caregiving, egg donation, or identity can all be debated. Here our assertion is that however we define mother there is always a relational aspect, hence the idea of m/other, m/otherness, or mother-ness. I first saw the term m-other framed by the American artist Beth Osnes in 2008 (Mothers Acting Up). The separation of m and o gives a pause to the connections within the word. More recently the M/other Voices Project, in which m and other are separated by a slash was pioneered by the Dutch scholar Deirdre Donoghue who explored the idea further:

The maternal functions as a system of seeing, thinking, and relating to the world. A system which completely breaks away from the binaries of the feminine/masculine oppositions through the maternal body’s pivotal role to natality and otherness.   (Deidre M. Donoghue and Paula McCloskey in conversation. June 2013.)[1]

The theory of Mother Studies I propose examines the transformational nature of the constantly evolving intersections of personal and relational status of me + other (m/other). An essential component of this theory proposes an examination of how m/otherness or mother-ness is the experience of being connected, or disconnected, to one who is part of you, or of being a person who, as part of another and/or intrinsically linked to another, genetically, or through caregiving, or by association, might inform action in a world conceived as relational. This view differs from a history shaped by alienation and enacted by violent, external, institutional, hierarchical social constructions. As Rothman asserts in the Book of Life, “The world that I live in, and the world that I want for my children, is not a world of scattered isolated individuals, and not a world of walls. It is a world of communities, of social solidarity, of connectedness between individuals and between communities, a world in which people and communities grow from and into each other.” (233). She explains that motherhood is “otherhood.” He/she is one who divides, but through his/her division he/she is paradoxically increased. He/she divides and simultaneously multiplies. Likewise a theory of mother-ness privileges the conversation of difference (or division) and insists on tolerant engagement (connection) and intense intellectual curiosity as a fundamental practice.

Because Mother Studies dismantles norms and challenges pre-existing assumptions, its identity is constantly in flux within a system that insists on cultivating respect along with compassion. Respect could be what Sara Ruddick is arguing for in her “Maternal Thinking and politics of peace,” which should be explored more fully at another time. At this juncture, in order to move into the next section of the text where I trace the history of Motherhood Studies, I offer a working definition of what Mother Studies is: Mother Studies is a field of interdisciplinary study devoted to the issues, experiences, topics, history, and culture of mothers, mothering, and motherhood. As I have stated, it goes by different names according to who is teaching it. I have outlined an argument for calling this developing field Mother Studies rather than Motherhood Studies and I continue to expound. However delightful it might be to propose deeply intellectual assertions about theories of Mother Studies, its practical implications are still somewhat illusive. I move now to the history of how Motherhood Studies (as it has been called in the past), and how it progressed, or did not progress, in the university setting. In a 2011 article for the University of Chicago Press, Samira Kawash wrote “As the director of one of seven PhD programs in women’s and gender studies in the mid-2000s, I do not recall receiving a single graduate student application that proposed a study of mothering or motherhood” (271). Indeed, even today, as I am poised for graduation, my self-titled individualized major at CUNY, The Graduate Center, has been fashioned for this express purpose: to pave the way for others who would also impart knowledge of this distinctive area of expertise. My forthcoming degree in Mother Studies (a combined major in Digital Humanities and Women’s and Gender Studies) is a first, and aimed at facilitating the growth of the field. This degree has been over eight years in the making. I first engaged Lynn Kuechle, a good friend who was then teaching at Minnesota State University, in Mankato, to approach feminist scholar Jocelyn Stitt in 2007 to help us design and implement a degreed course of studies called “Mother Studies.” We met in a small classroom, bursting with excitement and passion over the prospect. We had just come from two years worth of multi-pronged activism and art that espoused mom-made poetry, music, crafts, and business in conjunction with Mamapalooza and the Women’s Media Center in NYC, alongside our collaboration for a Women’s and Gender Studies production of the same in Mankato. Stitt seemed interested, if a tad bit dubious. The wheels of time spun slowly while intermittent talks eventually went as far as the provost, with promises of the possibility of introducing such a program. Then Kuechle moved into another job, and I was in New York City managing multiple arts and media events among other things. Our efforts resulted in one online summer class called “Introduction to Mothering Studies,” which was put together as a Feminist course by Stitt. I immediately signed up and proceeded to have my world rocked to the extent that I am now here, enrolled in the university for my own degree.

After eight years of steady pressure, I questioned why more progress has not been forthcoming. Perhaps it was in part because of the diversity of aspects the field Mother Studies represents. In addition to such matters of identity as race and class, there are lesbian, gay, and trans-gender perspectives, adoptive experiences, surrogacy, IVF assisted technologies, and a plethora of other global perspectives. Was the subject too big? Was it just too unwieldy? Since Mother Studies in North America arguably emerged from the white middle class in much the same way feminism’s first and second wave did; was resistance to its establishment embedded internally as well as externally? In other words, not only could we not organize ourselves from an interdisciplinary perspective, but could we also collectively not agree on who would be included in the field? Perhaps more complicated than Fashion Studies, African Studies, or Food Studies, Mother Studies aims at such a universal experience fraught with personal, psychological, social, and political issues. Tackling the subject of motherhood, even from an academic perspective, drills to the core of everything that has been interpreted as wrong with us as individuals within our society. There is the familiar joke: If you have a problem, go and blame it on your mother. Books such as Good Mother Bad Mother[2], essays and articles (listed below) abound with language about “mother blame.” In addition there is the issue of the complex relationship each of us navigates with our own mothers. “There is a long history of society blaming mothers for the ill health of their children” or “previous generations found other ways to blame women. As late as the 1970s, ‘refrigerator mothers’ (a disparaging term for a parent lacking emotional warmth) were faulted for their children’s autism” (“Society; don’t blame the mothers,” Nature). Or, as Adrienne Rich goes on to analyze in Freudian terms in Of Woman Born, “Besides the very ancient resentment of woman’s power to create new life there is fear of her apparent power to affect the male genitals. Woman as elemental force and as sexual temptress and consumer of his sexual energies, thus becomes for man, a figure generating anxiety” (115).

In A World Without Women, Noble reflects on “patriarchal norms of pagan and Jewish society, with their assumptions of female pollution and women’s subordination to men” (43). In much the manner Nancy K. Miller describes an incident in her book Extremities, in the chapter “Memory Stains,” where the character of Annie Ernaux witnesses the violence perpetrated by her father on her mother, which is followed by collusion within the family to minimize the event for the sake of the collective, as if it never really happened, and insinuating that it should not cause permanent trauma (198). To elaborate on this, what if a daughter’s murky relationship to her mother is not constructed on an authentic need for daughters to disassociate from their mothers in order to negotiate autonomy, as many feminist texts have asserted, but rather a socially constructed world where women are base, with ties to earth, dirt, blood, and birth. They are literally associated with excrement, and therefore they are shit. Yet, now I am a mother, and I know that I am not shit. So, I must be suspicious of the part of me that views my mother as excrement and question whether that is an authentic gaze or a reflection of what my society has taught me to believe. Finally, the academic theory and praxis of something so ungainly; as well as thoroughly complex, intimate, and universal poses intellectual havoc on any who might inherit its realm. Be that as it may, those who have gone before have buoyed me up, and I will attempt to take up where they have left off.

The interdisciplinary study of motherhood has been active, yet fragmented within the university setting for all of its history. Before motherhood as a discipline of study could be assembled, much groundwork was laid by feminists like Rothman, Ruddick, O’Reilly, Kinser, and many more.[3] They have all written about, studied, and taught on a variety of topics: Maternal Health, Maternal Thinking, History of Motherhood and Feminism, and Feminist Motherhood. Some within institutions of higher learning believe that motherhood has enough merit to constitute a legitimate area of investigation and theory, while some remain unconvinced. It is this author’s assertion that in the same way that Food Studies, Fashion Studies, Gender Studies, and Digital Humanities have found their own degreed course of study, there is ample room to consolidate a degree or certificate program of Mother Studies.

The feminist movement of the 1970s and then that of the 1990s, while exploring motherhood as an academic subject as did Rich in Of Woman Born (1976), Ruddick in Maternal Thinking (1989), and Rothman in Recreating Motherhood (1989), did not result in an embrace within Women’s and Gender departments or Feminist Studies as a particular field, although plenty of academics are committed to teaching it. I reference Teaching Motherhood; a collection of post-secondary courses on mothering/motherhood (Demeter Press 2011). Also, women have written about the experience of being a mother in the academy as did Mama PhD (2008), and Mothering in the Academy by Stitt (2014). Motherhood in the academy is also an ongoing popular topic at annual conferences about mothers, of which there were no fewer than four this year: Annual Academic M.O.M. Conference (Museum of Motherhood, CUNY The Graduate Center, NY), Worn Out; Motherwork in the Age of Austerity (Sarah Lawrence College, NY), Maternal Subjectives (MIRCI in Rome, Italy), and Motherhood and Culture (Maynooth University, Ireland). At this point the feminist discourse has boldly divested itself of essentialist theories that once haunted the topic of motherhood. It almost seems at this juncture as though motherhood might be poised for a reexamination within the academy. As Kawah states “What has emerged in the last decade is a body of scholarship that simultaneously insists on the particularity and specificity of motherhood while at the same time rejecting any notion of a fixed or essential aspect of maternal experience, desire, or subjectivity” (972). Why the rise and fall, ebb and flow, but more significantly, inability to situate this vast cultural, sociological, and psychological field of Mother Studies permanently as a field in the academy? O’Reilly has consistently pushed ahead with attempts to bridge a feminist motherhood and has succeeded in maintaining sovereignty over the field; however, she has not successfully disseminated a distinct field of study that has expanded to a degreed track within multiple institutions. As Kawah corroborates, “For the most part, this effort has not been recognized or supported by the scholars, departments, and journals that have the most prestige and influence in academic feminism. Overall, the feminist engagement with motherhood in the last decade has been fragmented” (973). In addition, despite my goals in advocacy within the arts, I hit a dead end when Hollywood approached me as a music performer in the arena of “mom-rock” in the mid 2000’s with the same disheartening proposals for visibility that resulted in now familiar shows like “Housewives of Beverley Hills” and “Rita Rocks,” where one-dimensional characters embark on catfights and household chaos. So I think that it is not enough to approach Mother Studies as something that has obvious import. Rather, it is important to deconstruct some of the barriers to advancement so as better to keep an eye on the obstacles that stand between present-day articulations and the prize: viability, credibility, and legitimization in the academy.

There are currently three main obstacles to Mother Studies in the academy in addition to the ones I have just mentioned: mass, legitimization, and consensus. In direct response to these things I have proposed a journal, utilizing the astute advice of my advisor, Rothman, to directly address these issues. With regard to the first obstacle there are primarily the constraints of time, which we must continue to patiently and diligently observe while syllabi, books, articles, journals, academics, and students continue to emerge and multiply. This is what has arguably been happening over the last thirty years since Rich’s Of Woman Born, Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking and Rothman’s ReCreating Motherhood were published. At this juncture one can easily point to The Journal of the Motherhood Initiative (1999); Studies in the Maternal (2009); Fathering; The Journal (2015); the Encyclopedia of Motherhood (2011), and now The Journal of Mother Studies (2015). The collective mass will hopefully continue to swell with each new course that is introduced, and each new student that is enlivened by the contents of such a class.

With regard to legitimization; this is an obstacle that could easily be solved through university press publishing. While I in no way denigrate the caliber of the existing journals focused on motherhood, I intimately understand the inherent problems with new and emerging genres. As publisher for two cultural publications within the mother-sphere, The Mom Egg (2003-2005), and Mamazina (2008-2010), I saw music, poems, and prose in their infancy. There were undeveloped, arguably amateurish. They were the primal ramblings of women who had not quite gained their bearings—myself included. Now these women have developed their voices. Hundreds of texts have been published at this point, and academic conferences, literary happenings, and motherhood in the political sphere have definitely arrived. Therefore, as part of this JourMS project, we will write and submit proposals for university press publication.

Finally, there is the issue of consensus. While I am hesitant to criticize not only the ways in which women thwart each other but also the ways in which academic institutions pit professional against professional, the fact remains that this is a very real problem. As Kay Redfield Jamison writes in her book, An Unquiet Mind, “Tenure is the closest thing to a blood sport that universities can offer; it is intensely competitive, all-consuming, exciting, fast, rather brutal, and very male” (124). Competition and survival within the university setting can be frightening. The only antidote I can offer is a reminder that, in order to make women more visible, it is imperative that when sizing up a perceived threat to ego, security, or prestige in academia, it is against the spirit of knowledge in the new age to attempt to constrain inclusion. While I recognize competition as an important part of old patterns of intellectual accessibility, my argument for using the digital humanities is in direct response to this sort of pattern, as well as my argument for m/otherness, mother-ness perspectives.

I will build and launch The Journal of Mother Studies on the DH platform within the Museum of Motherhood, while eliciting partnership with an academic publisher. I do not doubt that it will be forthcoming. However, as Kawash notes, “Motherhood studies as an area of scholarship is on precarious ground: ignored by mainstream academic feminism, fragmented and discontinuous in the academic margins. The fact that neither the university system nor the institutions of academic feminism appear willing to support a scholarly community and a research program that explicitly foregrounds motherhood is discouraging” (996). In her notes on the Museum of Motherhood, of which I was the founder, as perhaps an optimistic paradigm within which to encourage future Mother Studies institutions and as an argument for the ways in which my journal project has been plotted to proceed, she writes, “One positive development is a new Museum of Motherhood, a real and virtual social change museum focused on amplifying the voices and experiences of mothers while connecting ‘the cultural family.” She goes on to list the importance of various social, political, artistic, and activist agencies committing themselves to this growing field and insists that “boundary crossing” is important and essential to its success. She concludes on the following cheery note:

Theorists, scholars, and writers, as well as feminist mothers and activists, have a lot to say to each other, and a lot to learn from each other, about motherhood. Motherhood studies needs the perspective and commitment of feminism as well as the institutional resources that feminism and women’s studies have accumulated over the past four decades. At the same time, feminism cannot possibly hope to remain relevant without acknowledging motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities. (996)

In this chapter I have defined what Mother Studies is and have described the history of its evolution along with my own position within its trajectory. Mother Studies as a field and as a theory has inherent challenges to face including the fact that it is a relatively new area of academic investigation. It shares some similarities with the rise of the Digital Humanities, an emerging field that explores the intersections of the humanities and computing technology within the academy, as well as Queer Studies, an area of study that deals with sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Both of these fields have many theories around which the fields respectively were created. Therefore, I have identified what might be a significant principle, namely the notion of m/otherness, mother-ness. Because the JourMS is built on a digital humanities platform, I am hopeful that ongoing discussion and interactive dialogue will be core elements of this developing and fluid field.

[1] From M/other Voices.Web. http://www.mothervoices.org/art-research-and-theory/

[2] Mothers today face relentless criticism and pressure. Breast or bottle? Work or stay at home? Routine or feeding-on-demand? The choices are infinite and at the heart of each question is the more controversial and divisive debate of what makes a good mother. http://www.amazon.com/Good-Mother-Bad-Gina-Ford/dp/0091954967

[3] The Museum of Motherhood has 60+ books comprising an “essential reading list” posted online for a sampling of some of the major texts. Web. http://mommuseum.org/readers-picks-barnes-and-noble-fundraiser/

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