Autoethnography and Maternal Pedagogy: Storytelling noncustodial motherhood and pedagogical praxis

Marilyn Preston

Moments in noncustodial mothering:

One. Trying like hell to keep it together at the airport before sending my kids back to their home in a state 1000 miles away. I joke and make sarcastic comments, I slip handwritten notes of love and support into their carry-on for them to find later. I work to allow only a small bit of sadness out so that they don’t carry my grief with them onto the flight. Once they board, I am required to stay in the gate area until the plane is in the air. I sit stoic and alone, turning away from a few curious looks, and watch the plane wondering if they can see me out of the window. I walk back to the car slowly, holding winter coats they won’t need where they are going, heavy with their absence. I get into the car and drive home to a house that is not only silent but hollow and empty, even if my wife and our baby daughter are home. I crawl in bed and cry for hours. Their absence is a loud clock, ticking away moments that they get farther and farther away from me.

Two. My daughters’ phone calls go one of two ways: they are effusive in sharing their lives with me, the smallest details of their days and conversations with friends and teachers, or they are short, curt responses that give only the slightest information about their lives. When they are struggling, I feel helpless. I cannot fix their home-life with their father, I cannot step in and keep them from the pain they feel in that space. I cannot take their temperature when they are sick, or even make sure they are seeing the doctor when they need to. I can only sit and listen to what they let me hear. I feel helpless and useless.

Three. At times my colleagues and friends share stories of their own lives with me. The stories are often things that people assume are shared experiences around parenting; having to navigate kid schedules, worrying about empty nest syndrome, silly hijinks their teenagers get into. Each conversation leaves me keening with loss. I won’t know empty nest syndrome for my daughters – my nest has felt empty for ten years. I only negotiate schedules for six weeks each summer, and I often feel like I cannot afford to argue with my daughters because our time is so limited that arguing it away feels silly and painful.

Four. My oldest daughter was recently given a choice by her father and me, to move in with me or to stay where she is. She and her father have a terrible relationship, by all accounts. They fight and withhold love, she struggles to find her place in his household. Despite this, she chooses to stay with him. In my rational mind I know it is because she needs her friends like she needs water – that is normal for a teenager. I know it is because her life with him is a known quantity; she knows her school, her teachers, her neighborhood and it provides some level of comfort that she craves. I know it is not because she doesn’t want to be with me. Despite this knowledge, however, my grief is amplified by a feeling of failure. I have a good relationship with her, but I cannot make her stay with me. It feels like rejection even though it is anything but.

Conflicted is the best word to describe my relationship with mothering. Discomfort is another word that I can relate to if I am being honest. I have been a mother to my daughters for fourteen years, and each semester I find myself mothering another 120 individuals. I have been practicing this form of mothering for ten years. It has taken all ten for me to begin to ask why I am troubled by the idea of maternal pedagogy when I live it every day.

I am trained in the social sciences. My doctorate is in Family Studies, my minor in Gender Studies. I have had the privilege of a formal education steeped in empiricism and theoretical insight into family development, identities, social structures and psychological theories. When people ask me what I do, however, I tell them I collect stories. I work to collect stories that let us make a connection and create belonging amongst ourselves. This is one such story – an autoethnographic exploration of my own role as a mother, and my maternal pedagogy. This story is an attempt to make visible my invisible struggles as embracing these dual roles in my professional and personal life.

Autoethnography is a method of culling the researcher’s own experiences in order to theorize larger phenomena. It is, according to Ellis (2004) “the method and product of researching and writing about personal lived experiences and their relationship to culture” (as cited in Boylorn & Orb, 2016 p. 17). Autoethnography asks you to turn your ethnographic eye on your own experience and it forces one into a state of vulnerability. This method requires I lay bare my own life in a way that paints a muddy picture in order to reflect fully on the ways in which mothering, specifically noncustodial mothering, shapes my teaching identity and practice.

Let me start with this vulnerability – eight years ago I became a noncustodial mother. I retained joint legal custody of my two older daughters, but my ex-husband retained physical custody and my time with the girls was reduced to 10 weeks a year. Six years ago, I moved to start a new position and found myself well over 1000 miles away from the day to day lives of my daughters. The first few years I did not talk about my children, or if I did, I talked around our reality. I did not mention their school’s location, their father’s house. I shared generic stories of their lives – leaving out key details. I did this partly out of the ignorance: I was not privy to many of the stories of their lives because I was not present to observe the details myself, but a larger part of me did this out of shame.

Mothering, in theory, and practice is complex. Scholars in family studies describe mothering as a relational role achieved through engaging in “socially constructed set of activities …involved in nurturing and caring for people” (Glenn, Brown and Forcey, 1994. p. 357). In this sense, the role is both about one’s positionality in relationship to another {person/human/life}, as well as one’s ability and commitment to engaging in pragmatic activities that demonstrate nurturing and/or caregiving.  As a scholar and mother, I struggled with this duality. Could I be a mother if I could only experience one aspect of that definition? Was I a mother if I had borne children, but not a mother if I didn’t actively parent them? What if I nurtured and provided care, but was not a mother to them?

Obviously, as a culture, we have come to see the practice of mothering as accounting for more than simply a biological connection. We see adoptive mothers, step-mothers, foster mothers, grandparents, house mothers and other mothers as valuable and as mothers in every sense. My own life begs the question: can I count myself as a mother if I do not practice my mothering on my own daughters daily but do practice it on strangers’ children? Before I can begin to think through what this means, here is an overarching concern that must be addressed.

The role of embodiment and gender in mothering presents an incredibly frustrating question. On one hand, mothering is consistently tied to female bodies in our culture, which makes invisible the maternal work of non-gendered, male-gendered, or bi-gendered bodies who mother. On the other hand, mothering and maternal works are often dismissed in academia because anything feminine is somehow less than worthy of study. These two questions compete in me for answers: Can I proclaim a maternal pedagogy without adding to essentialist notions of maternality? How can I queer the maternal?

Therein lies a light in the distance. Let me tell you a story about a mother I admire:

Marsha P. Johnson was a poor, Transwoman of Color living in New York City in the 1960s. She mothered dozens of young queer folk through life in New York. She had a large personality and a fierce dedication to her “children”. On the streets, she was sometimes known as “Queen Mother” for her work to shelter, feed, and protect the most vulnerable of her community. Her commitment to nurturing and providing care for marginalized young queer folks, many of whom experienced familial rejection, helped start the modern Queer rights movements. She was, by many definitions, a fantastic mother. Her mothering was radical in many senses of the word.

From Marsha P. Johnson I can take the idea that mothering can be an act of resistance. It can be the use of our humanity, our relationality, and our commitment to others to heal wounds and create community.  With my queer foremothers in mind, I want to state this: when I consider mothering in an ideal sense, it is not gendered, but rather it is about the undervalued interpersonal labor that supports, to shapes, and to moves individuals and communities towards interconnectedness and justice. Marsha’s story allows me to connect my pedagogical identities and praxes because it allows insight into how truly queer maternal pedagogy can be, and how adopting a maternal pedagogy can queer my praxis and identity.

I adopt a maternal pedagogy when I create classrooms centered on belonging and connection. I explicitly work to structure my courses around marginalized voices, and to encourage self-reflexivity from students. Importantly, I engage in practices meant to destabilize traditional understandings of the norms of classroom behaviors and expectations. For example, in one class, I had students bring in items that were meaningful in a personal way to themselves. They had to explore each others’ items, suggest stories about why an item might be important to someone, without knowing whose item it was, or why it really mattered to them. Finally, the students shared the story of their item with a classmate, and the classmate had to tell that story to the class. We talked about what it means to tell another’s story, how emotions and experiences can connect us to each other and to the material. We talked about vulnerability and building intimacy in a space in order to approach our studies in a way that allows for a challenge while holding space for humility and humanity. This is part of my maternal, queer, pedagogy.  Understanding how my role models, like Marsha, used maternality to create change allows me to claim it in my own classrooms.

On to maternal pedagogy

I have a new baby, she is three months old. Every day I hold her, play with her, and stare at her face; her chubby fingers, her long toes, her dimples and greenish eyes. I have memorized her face and can tell you the exact day and time she took developmental leaps.  When I pick her up from daycare, she snuggles her face deep into my coat. In the morning I cannot put on lipstick because I will just smudge it all over her tiny face.

I love my two older daughters so much that my love feels like a vice sometimes, squeezing out my ability to function. I have always loved them, but their infancy feels far away. I don’t remember if I squeezed them this way; Did I stare deep into their eyes and note their development? Could I anticipate their cries and know which toy they wanted before they wanted it? I don’t remember.

A couple of weeks ago, on the first day of a class I have taught well over 10 times in the last five years, a student asked me if I remembered her brother, who had taken my class. “His name is Sean”, she said and I remembered.  He was a quiet, reticent student in the first section of this class that I taught. He was shy and I often felt my nontraditional pedagogies made him uncomfortable or turned off. He gave a beautiful lecture on symbolism in Bechdel’s (2007) graphic novel Fun Home, and on the very last day of class, when all the students present their final projects, he went last. We ran out of time and I had to cut him off. Only later that day, at home, reading his email, did I realize his project was a coming out. He had come out to his family, and he had written a beautiful piece exploring that process and connecting it to the material we had covered in class. I remembered him in all the smallest details.

I lost custody of my daughters when they were six and five. The years preceding that were difficult for me. I was in a high conflict marriage, a high-stress graduate program, and felt overwhelmed with the weight of the decisions I had made to have children, to marry young, and to pursue a career. My memories of the girls during the time before the loss of custody is hazy – either with time or because I didn’t have the foresight and ability to sit within each moment. Truth be told, it wasn’t until I was already living a thousand miles away from them that their absence hit me. I recall a moment during that time when a friend introduced me to someone as having two daughters. When the stranger asked where they were, I burned with shame and grief. I cried the entire train ride home from that interaction.

In the years since we have moved geographically farther and farther apart, and I have sought to grow our relationship and provide support and nurturance to them despite the distance. Our relationship now is stronger then it was, mediated by texts and phone calls and visits multiple times each year, I know they feel my love for them. I work to be as present as possible, to know their friends, to tune in on their regattas via the internet, to read their stories for school, but I don’t get to be there in the details. I don’t know when they are sick, or when they have a bad day in school. The landscape they live in is so fundamentally different from my own it might as well be Mars, and I spend too many hours trying to wrap my head around what their lives actually look like in that place. I may have more opportunities to talk to my daughters now than I did ten years ago, but I still grieve not being able to physically see and touch them daily. That grief often manifests in my inability to recall the small moments of my daughters’ lives.

Do I remember Sean, and other students like him because I don’t remember my own daughters in those details? Do these things connect in any way? When I started this autoethnographic writing I began to realize that I often see my students as transitional objects, as stand-ins for my children, and I bring the love I have for my own kids into my classroom as a pedagogical tool. So, perhaps in my grief and loss, I remember my students so that I can somehow make up for not remembering the sounds of my daughters’ laughter as infants.

Does the fact that I acknowledge this somehow delegitimize my pedagogy? I worry it does, sometimes. In the world of academe, I use the method and language of pedagogy to justify my praxis. In my perfect world, I would just teach, and be taught, and allow my maternal pedagogy to exist without justification or question. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be writing this paper. I wouldn’t feel the need to defend the classroom practices I’ve developed that call for emotionality, connection, and intimacy. I wouldn’t have to describe them with technical jargon in order to justify that they work to bring students into the space in a way that opens it up for deep learning.

There have been ongoing conversations about how faculty women are often treated differently as if we are less capable than our male colleagues, and other essays that suggest women who are faculty refuse to engage in emotion-work or other stereotypically feminine labor so that they will be taken seriously as colleagues and teachers. I take issue with some of this critique. I acknowledge that my position as a cisgender woman in a patriarchal society means I will be evaluated by different standards than my male colleagues, and I find that reprehensible, but I refuse to engage in certain practices because they might delegitimize me.  I believe, from a maternal and pedagogical standpoint, that care work can sit at the core of teaching practice.

It is only within the realm of cis-heteropatriarchal capitalism that care work is devalued. Marginalized communities, communities of color, queer communities, and others have long known that successful collaborations for justice involve relational and collective intimacy and nurturing. To accept that engaging in maternal behavior lessens your value as a scholar is to reify that women’s work is less important. Care work and relational work has been coded as feminine in most of society, and power in our society is defined and delineated by those who are already in power and have a vested interest in remaining there. This means that in our society success is often defined through patriarchal terms. These terms leave no space for the messy space that is nurturing and care work. How can we, as scholars and teachers, model justice for students if we do not challenge these traditional definitions of success and pedagogy?

Maternal pedagogy is a broad term that can overlap with other forms of praxis, including liberationist, critical, queer, humanist and caring pedagogical theories. Maternal pedagogy is, at its very heart, seeing everyone in the classroom, teachers and students alike, as humans first, in need of recognition and nurturing in order to blossom into thinkers and knowers.

It requires reciprocity in how one emotionally responds to another. It humanizes both student and teacher, and it creates currents of empathy that create new pathways towards knowledge. Importantly for me, maternal pedagogy, like queer pedagogy, is about becoming –a becoming with no predetermined end in sight. Whitlock (2012), in her discussion of an embodied maternal pedagogy, discusses the ways in which mothering is performative. Mothering is created, defined, and reified through bodily and affective performance of relationships, care, nurture, but also of distance, frustration, inaction.

Another story: occasionally, some students become and demand a stronger connection than others. Last year I had one such student – I noticed them struggling on the day after the election of Trump. I had printed out poems for another class, poetry dealing with anger and loss and frustration, but also community and justice. In a last-minute decision, I made extra copies for this student and handing the poems to them quietly as class ended. This small act of noticing – really seeing the student and responding to them – demonstrates what Noddings (2013) might call engrossment, or being open and receptive to a student’s needs. This one act led to an ongoing relationship with the student, that eventually led to a dialogue after several classes together. The student had decided to come out to their parents, and in response to their coming out, their mother had sent a letter full of maternal anguish, confusion, and quite a bit of shaming.  The student came to me in a moment of vulnerability – not within the bounds of a class, or topic, or academic treaty, but in a moment of pure, personal grief. I responded with a letter to the student in which I wrote, first as a teacher and mentor grounded in empirical knowledge of queer identities and social histories, and then as a mother, grounded in knowledge of being both a mother and one who was mothered. My pedagogy here blurs the lines of traditional teaching and maternal relationality. I offer it as an example of how a maternal pedagogy not only challenges the boundaries of teaching, but also blends and moves across spaces to create moments of connection, security, and growth. This story won’t go into my tenure file, but it should. It demonstrated, to me, how a pedagogy that is maternal fits within a queer worldview and classroom praxis – it queers the boundaries of those spaces, and the goals of the teacher, to embrace the humanity of both my student and me.

This brings me to a concluding thought for this paper, although nothing near a conclusion in its finality. It is easier for me to embrace the queer in my pedagogy than the maternal, because of my own relationship with my mothering identity. My noncustodial status remains a source of deep vulnerability for me, even while I make cogent and scholarly arguments about the legitimacy of my status as a mother.  It is because of the social difficulties I face as a noncustodial mother that I have felt the need to translate my maternal pedagogy into academic jargon, but this authoethnography is a way for me to bridge these parts of myself – to make myself

whole through reflection and reflexivity.

I struggle to reconcile these my mothering and my teaching even when I am comfortable thinking of ways they coexist. In truth, my two identities transform one another. I am who I am as a teacher because I am a mother, and I am the mother I am in part because of my teaching self. Freire (2018) discusses the role of love in transformative educational praxis. He says that without love, a dialogue is impossible, and that revolution itself is based on love. I have come to understand that the love I have for students is foundational to my pedagogy, but that the structure, the bounds, and the scaffold of that love come from my own experience as a mother.  My relationship with noncustodial parenting illuminates the way that one can embrace discomfort, and I use that knowledge to create caring pedagogies with students.

The loss and grief I feel as a noncustodial mother, the inability to parent my own children, and the aching feelings that leave me grieving allow me to see how I enact a maternal pedagogy. It is possible that without the experience of noncustodial parenting I might not see my pedagogy as maternal, but the sharpness of that loss opens my own eyes to the ways in which we nurture and support our students, and allows me to articulate the ways that I enact mothering in my own classroom. Seeing this, and articulating it, allows me room to breathe. It doesn’t detract from my pedagogy, it gives me a new language for my praxis. It allows me to see how maternal pedagogy can be experienced, engaged and practiced.


Bechdel, A. (2007). Fun home: A family tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Boylorn, R. M., & Orbe, M. P. (Eds.). (2016). Critical autoethnography: Intersecting cultural identities in everyday life. Routledge.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Glenn, E. N., Chang, G., & Forcey, L. R. (Eds.). (2016). Mothering: Ideology, experience, and agency. Routledge.

Noddings, N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. University of California Press.

Whitlock, R.U. (2012) Where Desire Endures: Intimacy and Mothering a Bodied Curriculum in S. Springgay and D.  Freedman (Eds.) Mothering a bodied curriculum: Emplacement, desire, affect. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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