May 11, 2008

Why I Pay Homage to Mothers: A Response to Garrison Keillor

Normally I love Garrison Keillor.

But I think his recent column about Mother's Day is a load of bunk.

It's well-meaning, I’m sure. And it's conclusion--that we love mothers because it's so amazing that they will always love us--is quite sweet.

But what about these claims about motherhood:

little does she know what cataclysm awaits her inside: the loss of individuality as she joins the Holy Order of Maternity.

Mothers were, at one time, young women with Possibilities…and instead found themselves cleaning up excrement and jiggling colicky babies…They hardly ever have time to read James Joyce. They sit down to dinner with adults and feel brain-dead. A bouquet of flowers hardly seems compensation enough. How about a million dollars and a house in the south of France?

The cruel injustice of motherhood is that, out of devotion to her brood, she sacrifices so much of her own life that her children grow up to find her a little boring...Mom is just the lady who runs the vacuum.

There is an important point being made here: motherhood is often overwhelming, and it does lead to a lot of boring exhausting brain-deadness, even when done under the best of circumstances. We should talk about that, and the unfortunate ways our culture intensifies this issue.

But the conclusion Keiller reaches seems to be that motherhood is an experience, begun by the violently painful experience of childbirth,* involving necessarily a series of boring, repetitive individuality-killing tasks (his examples are vacuuming, clothes-washing, and birthday-remembering),** which leads ultimately to a fundamental debtor relationship between mothers and their children: mothers give up everything, and you can never give them back to themselves, so you should buy them expensive presents and feel guilty.

I hate everything about this logic.

First: there is no inevitable relationship between birthing a baby and doing the laundry. If you feel like it’s important for a boring job like laundering to be done, then help out, Garrison .

Second: Garrison might be surprised to hear that I actually know a lot of mothers who talk about James Joyce. I myself mother and talk about narrative theory and the gendering of race in 19-c America; my mother mothers and talks about neurodevelopment and trauma in contemporary literature; my grandmother mothers and talks about early Mormon history. Other mothers I know both mother and talk about educational theory; domestic legal policy; environmental health; third-world poverty relief, and cinematography, just to name a few examples.

Many mothers actually continue to have an intellectual and professional life post-maternity, and the fact that they should be acknowledged as having that capacity was a major point of this thing you may have heard of, Garrison, which I like to call "Feminism." Who knew?

Thirdly, finally, and most importantly: MOTHERHOOD IS NOT CONTRADICTORY TO INDIVIDUALITY. For most women I know, mothering is exhausting, yes, but also invigorating, rewarding, and challenging. It is sweet. It makes us better. It makes us happier. It gives us more complex ideas about the world, and our role within it. It gives us fun projects, and it helps us be in the now.

It is stupid and ignorant to believe that the only sign of adult intelligence is to “talk about James Joyce.” It is equally, if not more, compelling and interesting to talk about mothering.

Keillor’s essay, to me, seems written by an overgrown boy who never paid enough attention to realize that not everything in his mother’s life revolved around him, and if it did, maybe they both could have made some changes to improve the situation, and should have.

Unlike Keillor, I honor the mothers in my life not because they “gave up their individuality” for their children, but because they took motherhood as a chance to grow as individuals--letting it enhance their lives without becoming the ultimate limit of their selfhood. I am grateful to my mother not because she makes me feel guilty, but because she inspires me to be a better individual, tapped into the ground of motherhood from which my sense of potential now grows.

*Really, don't get me started on his description of childbirth.

**Because laudering and remembering birthdays are similarly degrading, I guess? What?


Beck said...

Yes, that was seriously a big pile of crap. Geez, Garrison!

Michelle said...

Boys should probably not write (with any authority) about the experience of being female, much less a mother (neither of which, in my estimation, could he possibly have a clue about). AND THANK YOU FOR SPENDING PART OF YOUR MOTHER'S DAY WITH US!!!! I am very fortunate to know you, Sarah, the wonderful mother of Elliot the Amazing, as well as so many other strong, independent women (none of whom have become less interesting for having given life to another human being).