With a heavy heart, I write in honor of two women who spent much of their time writing and thinking about motherhood.
Two weeks ago, feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick (1935-2011) passed away. The author of the highly influential Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Professor Ruddick focused attention on the day-to-day activities of mothering (a practice she did not restrict to mothers). In her obituary, New York Times reporter William Grimes writes that she
developed an approach to child-rearing that shifted the focus away from motherhood as a social institution or biological imperative and toward the day-to-day activities of raising and educating a child. This work, she argued, shaped the parent as much as the child, giving rise to specific cognitive capacities and values — qualities of intellect and soul. Doing shapes thinking, in other words.
He quotes Andrea O’Reilly, scholar and founder of Demeter Press and the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, on the impact of Ruddick on the study of motherhood. Professor O’Reilly cites Maternal Thinking (along with Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution) as “the most significant work in maternal scholarship and the new field of motherhood studies.” In 2009, Demeter Press published an edited collection of essays, Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice, that explored the impact of Ruddick’s book on maternal scholarship.
Her ideas influenced many fields. On the Feminist Law Professors blog, Pace law professor Bridget Crawford writes that Ruddick’s influence “was seeping into feminist legal theory” and provided the groundwork for much “contemporary legal scholarship on caretakers and vulnerability.” Her loss is felt by many of us who have been deeply influenced by her thinking about mothering.
Although I did not know Sara Ruddick personally, I did know Jessica Nathanson (1968-2011), a contemporary and a Women’s Studies colleague who passed away earlier this week. Jessica was an inspiring human being. She was a smart, creative, and accomplished professor, writer, and blogger, and a generous and committed mother, friend, and activist. She fought breast cancer with an indomitable spirit.
I first met Jessica at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, where she was an active member of several groups, including the Feminist Mothering Caucus. She always had an incredibly thoughtful and perceptive answer, whatever the question. (And as a newcomer to the Feminist Mothering Caucus, and later as a co-chair, I asked her many questions.) Over the years, we had several opportunities to talk about mothering, research, creative writing, blogging, teaching, job searching, and trying to fit it all in. But, I now realize, not enough opportunities. Nowhere near enough.
Jessica thought a lot about motherhood, parenting, and work. She co-edited a book with Laura Camille Tuley, Mother Knows Best: Talking Back to the “Experts,” published by Demeter Press in 2009. Her book gives voice to mothers who contest what “experts” have to say about motherhood and mothering. I reread her essay this morning and was brought to tears by her voice: smart, honest, and fierce.
Jessica wrote her essay, “What Mothers Don’t Say Out Loud: On Putting the Academic Self First,” when her son was 2 ½–a time in her life when she was finishing her dissertation, interviewing for academic positions, and starting her first full-time job as a professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Women’s Studies and the Women’s Resource Center at Augsburg College. In her essay, she writes honestly about the conflict between her need to live an intellectual and creative life, and her need to be close to her young son. She writes movingly about the pull of her body towards her son, about his need (at times his demands) for her body, and about the embodied dimensions of mothering young children: the physical intimacy of hugging, breastfeeding, and simply being near one another.
But she also claims her own need to write, create, and teach. While the “struggle for a life of the mind” can be difficult and exhausting, it’s also essential. The ability to continue creative and intellectual work sustains us; it is what enables us to parent. She realizes that
If my academic self struggles for a life of the mind, and my mother self is rooted in a contested body, then allowing myself to be an academic mother helps to resolve this split. It also makes me a better mother. Teaching and research give me a creative and intellectual outlet. Because I am engaged in activities that support my selfhood, challenge my intellect, and provide a creative outlet, I can come back to mothering refreshed and energized. If I can live my own life for part of the day and then spend time with him, I can really be with him, and enjoy him, and be a better parent to him. I am not an engaged mother when I don’t have this time.
Her call at the end of the essay speaks to me now, from the moment she wrote down these words to the present moment as I read them, thinking of her and her family and all the people who knew her, learned from her, and loved her.
We need to speak this truth to ourselves and to each other: the sacrifices involved in motherhood do not need to be complete and self-annihilating. Putting the academic self first is not selfish. It is an honest investment in mothering.
Jessica, you are deeply missed.