Reflections on Mothering

Prof. Jennifer Nedelsky

From the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Nexus.

Next to falling in love with my husband, having my two children is the best thing that ever happened to me. As a woman who came of age in the sixties and became active as a feminist in 1970, it seems embarrassing, even shocking, to write such a sentence in a public, feminist essay. In my early days as a feminist, much scorn and opprobrium was heaped on marriage and the nuclear family-and with good reason. The fact that my own nuclear family is now the center of my life, is central to many of the dilemmas of motherhood that I experience in my daily life.

My dilemmas have been those of isolation, of public and private responsibility, of caretaking, and of balance in my life. Of course, these are many of the same issues that generated the early critique of the nuclear family. These issues continue to pose dilemmas because fully adequate solutions are not possible at the individual level; the necessary systemic changes have still not taken place. For me, however, the dilemmas are framed by the passion that I feel for my children-something I never heard about in the feminism of my young adulthood.

I am glad finally to bring my scholarly attention to the issues so central to my life. I offer the following personal reflections on these dilemmas as they have come to me: by thinking back over my efforts to balance my needs and commitments while mothering my eight and eleven-year-old boys.

The Astonishing Joy and Stress of Infancy

I was thirty-six years old when my husband Joe, who was forty, and I decided to conceive. When I brought my first child, Michael, home from the hospital, I was overwhelmed by joy and by chaos. Over and over again I wondered why no one had told me how wonderful it was to have a baby. I fell in love with Michael with a passion and intensity that took me completely by surprise. Part of the astonishing joy was being consumed by a love that had no quid pro quos, no contractual dimension, no fairness or reciprocity issues. I realized that I had been plagued by anxieties about my capacity for such feelings, at the same time that I was unsure whether they were possible for anyone. I saw myself as obsessed with self-protection, vigilantly guarding the precarious balance of equal power relations with Joe, wary and subtly hostile toward those with power over me. But now I reveled in an all-consuming attentiveness to Michael's needs, an endless fascination with the bond between us. I think there is something miraculous about the love one can feel for a baby, how it can bring out the best in you beyond what you thought was possible.

The astonishing joy of infancy ultimately brought its own dilemma. The surprise of the intensity of the pleasure and passion brought with it a kind of anger and resentment: The question of why no one had told me about this was not just rhetorical. I felt a sort of sense of collective betrayal by my feminist sisters. Why hadn't I read dozens of stories and articles about this special joy; why hadn't all my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with children raved to me about their experiences?

Sometimes people are puzzled when I tell them about this sense of not having been told; after all, the culture is full of various forms of glorifying motherhood. But, in fact, I think there is relatively little detailed depiction of the special bond of infancy. In the beginning I told everyone within earshot how wonderful it was having a baby. I taught feminist theory the fall after Michael was born and talked about my experiences in class whenever the opportunity arose. But gradually I became anxious about the message I was sending. Was I subtly (or not so subtly) implying that no woman should miss this experience? And did that, in turn, imply that a woman without children was not a real or full woman? Was this the "pro-natalism" some feminists were concerned about? As the years passed I said less and less. I could not find a way to be forthright about my own experiences without running the risk of causing inadvertent pain. In the end, I found myself complicit in the silence that had so angered me in the beginning. And that is where it has stood for some years now. I have not been able to figure out a way to share my experiences in the way I wished other women had shared theirs with me. I now think that this non-communication is part of a broader pattern of isolation and privatization.

Caretaking and the Bonds of Connection

One of the most important insights I got from having my children was the importance of routine physical caretaking for forming the basic bonds of connection. Even feminists who talk about the importance of caretaking sometimes assume that the mundane activities such as changing diapers and taking out the garbage can be done by anyone; they are of no consequence in the formation of self or relationships. I came to understand their consequence in a visceral sort of way by not doing a lot of the mundane caretaking when Michael was an infant.

When Michael was born I did not have tenure and the terms of my job were explicit. I had to finish my book or lose my job. In July, when Michael was three months old, Joe gave him his first bottle so that I could go to my office to work in the mornings. I would come home and nurse him at noon and try to work in all the interstices of time for the rest of the day. After a while we established a pattern: I would go upstairs to work after dinner every night, leaving Joe with all the evening clean-up. He would also get Michael ready for bed and, usually, put him to sleep after I had come down to say goodnight to him. I nursed him and played with him, but for the following year I did less and less of the mundane caretaking. I worked everyday, including weekends, and every evening for eighteen months until I finished my book. (I still remember that I celebrated that day by walking over to Woolworths to buy Michael clothes for the first time.) In many ways I was satisfied with my capacity to write, teach full time, and have quite a lot of time for Michael (I remember calculating it once as about six hours a day). But I felt the loss of the connection through caretaking. The diaper changing, the feeding, the dressing turned out to have been an essential part of the intimate bond I had formed with him.

Over the years my initial insight about caretaking and connection with children broadened into a belief that physical caretaking is part of what roots us in the world and permits us to feel a connection with the material foundations of life, from the care the earth requires to respect for the labor that permits us to live as we do. The dominant culture of North America treats virtually all forms of physical caretaking with contempt. The more successful we are, the less caretaking we do - of our children, our houses, our cars, our material possessions. The definition of being successful is that our time is too important for mundane work. Until there is a shift in this basic stance, those who do the caretaking will be treated with contempt; they will be paid little and defined as unsuccessful.

Isolation, Engagement, and the Need for Community

Middle-class affluence removes a whole network of public, community engagement that was once part of the routine of childhood. We rent videos instead of going to the movies, we buy books instead of going to the library, in Canada many families go to cottages instead of public parks in the summer. The schoolyard conversations with other parents are eliminated if babysitters pick up the kids or they go directly into day care. In general, the opportunities for unplanned, but routine, encounters with other parents become very limited.

One of the consequences is that many middle-class mothers do their mothering without a "community of judgment" in which to ground the daily decision-making of motherhood. The term community of judgment is derived from Hannah Arendt's argument that when we judge, we do so by imagining how others in our judging community would judge. We compare our initial approach with those of multiple others, and in forming our judgment we imagine persuading them. It is this relation to the judgment of others that gives judging its distinctive nature as fully subjective and yet "valid" for the judging community. As I interpret this insight, we can only engage in the process of judgment if we are routinely engaged in conversation with members of our community. The part of the process that draws on imagination can only work if it is based on the experience of actual exchange.

The 1970s critiques of the nuclear family often focused on the isolation of mothers within the private realm of the family. While this was surely an important problem, I think it too narrowly construed the forms of "public" life. Mothers who met regularly in the playground or for coffee must have routinely compared their experiences of childrearing. The judgments they had to make, that all mothers make all the time, about how to handle the challenges of raising their children, could be made in the context of ongoing exchange of information. The casual forums in which this exchange took place formed an important kind of public space, the basis for a judgment community of mothering.

Ironically, the important public dimension that my academic career brings me has worked to exclude me from the traditional public spaces of motherhood. As I juggle my competing demands, I cannot find the time for such regular, informal exchanges. Not surprisingly, the feminist critique did not anticipate this new form of isolation in the public world of professional life. Of course, there are now enough mothers in the professions to make it possible, in principle, to create new communities built on ongoing informal exchange. But the norms of professional life do not make it easy to be open about the constant stresses and inevitable sense of failure to meet our own expectations of ourselves.

The dilemmas of motherhood are genuine dilemmas because there are no fully adequate solutions available to them. We cannot see the possibilities for change if we do not talk openly about how we experience our dilemmas and how we feel about the imperfect solutions we have arrived at. The silence isolates us. It makes it impossible for us to know what we need to know either to make our own immediate (imperfect) choices or to figure out how to change things. Communities of judgment cannot emerge from silence. And the isolation and privatization of contemporary professional life make it harder to break the silence.

All solutions to the mutually reinforcing silence and isolation take time. And this means finding time in lives already strained by the impossibility of achieving a healthy balance given the escalating demands. The increasing pace of professional life exacerbates the existing problems and makes it harder to grasp even the short-term available solutions of better connection among women. But it is this solution, the connection of open dialogue, the constitution of new forms of community, that seems the best hope for understanding and coping with existing dilemmas and for their ultimate transformation.

This essay is excerpted from a much longer essay by Professor Nedelsky that was originally published in Mother Troubles: Rethinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas, Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick, eds. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. Professor Nedelsky's two sons are now 16 and 19.