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A sort of perfection

An interview with writer Jane Lazarre

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Each morning before school, while Benjamin watched Sesame Street, I wrote in my record books. On the days when he was with me I used his nap time to record my dreams. But it seemed so paltry, such a compromise that, hearing the mocking laughter in my head from the real artists, I would stop, ashamed. It is difficult enough to be a woman and a serious artist. But to be a mother too was to deny the lessons of history: the great women writers and the women shamans of non-Western culture had traditionally been childless. And I was not turning out to be a woman who flew in the face of history.

…"What in the world do you want?" James would ask me, as I continued to examine the contradictions between the woman I had turned into and the woman I might have been. "Perfection?"

"Well, yes, a sort of perfection. A situation where I could comfortably leave my child and then do my work."

-- Jane Lazarre, The Mother Knot, 1976

Although Jane Lazarre's remarkable memoir of her first years of motherhood was published nearly 30 years ago, the resonance -- and relevance -- of her story has barely faded. In The Mother Knot, Lazarre writes unsparingly of "the strange and paradoxical way in which the infinite kind of love we feel for our children is locked into the dull, enervating routine of caring for them," and of her personal struggle to liberate enough solitude and time from the steady pull of marriage and motherhood to honor her own creative drive. In her more recent works, which include the 1991 novel Worlds Beyond My Control and the memoir Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness (1999), Lazarre continues to use the lens of motherhood to expand the themes of attachment and separation, self and other, Blackness and whiteness, silence and the power of truth.

To reject the myth of the perfect mother and insist that women's lives are larger than "being somebody's mother, or somebody's wife" -- as Lazarre did when she when she wrote The Mother Knot -- was, and still is, a profoundly political act. As an activist at heart, I long for a sudden, sweeping social transformation to resolve the motherhood problem once and for all. Fortunately, I've also learned that the first step toward changing the world is starting a conversation. The MMO takes great pleasure in presenting an interview with Jane Lazarre.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
July/August 2005

MMO: In "Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness," you write that "the experience of motherhood and the many ways in which that experience reveals, sustains and constantly recreates my sense of connection to and responsibility toward a wider world" has been your lifelong subject. As your sons grew into men, how did the intersection between your motherhood and your creative work -- the push-pull you described so vividly in "The Mother Knot" -- change? Has anything not changed?

Jane Lazarre: From the time I was pregnant for the first time, in 1969, my awareness of my relationship to the world beyond my personal experience changed, although of course I was not fully aware of the change at first and could not articulate it as I might today. At the time I was a graduate student in anthropology and, because I was pregnant, I was focusing on narratives about pregnancy and child birth gathered from women in various cultures. It was obvious to me that a woman’s experience, from her own point of view, had been excluded from much of our records and even our art. I was greatly helped in this awareness by the fact that I was pregnant and had my first child at a time when women were coming to consciousness about our lives in the context of a broad social movement. The whole idea of “women’s groups,” then spreading across the country, was rooted in the belief that when people tell their own stories honestly, commonalities will emerge, and from these commonalities, political perspectives and possibilities for action. The movement for day care, as well as for reproductive rights, for equal pay, and for a revised analysis of housework and motherhood, all came out of this belief, out of this time.

Nevertheless, the “push-pull” as you call it between the demands of motherhood and the need for creative work, or simply for paying work, continued. In certain ways I believe this push-pull is inevitable -- an aspect of the human condition and in particular of the situation of parenting. The demands of others often conflict with one’s own needs. The demands of children do even more often. There is no way to alleviate this conflict completely, in my opinion. Mothers sacrifice one way or another. While I was working as a journalist, when my children were finally in public school in kindergarten, I wrote a story called "Soul Searching from 9 to 3:30." At that time, soul searching (which in my case meant writing) ceased. I picked them up at school and began the jobs most mothers are familiar with until I fell into bed at night. There was, though, a creative underside to this, one I have talked about over the years with my undergraduate writing students. I learned, by necessity, how to resist romanticizing inspiration through habits of discipline. This struggle went against many mystified narratives about "the artist," and it is one many feminist writers and artists who are mothers have written about. There were other times when I frankly put my children’s needs ahead of my own need for creative work, as when we decided to send them to private school and I took a full time teaching job I have just retired from after twenty-two years. Now, for the first time in my life, I have time to write with no other work responsibilities. This time is only just begun. I am frightened, of course, that the habits of structuring my own life, with no students to teach and no children to care for, will not be easy to resume, but there is also a great sense of excitement. I suppose I am saying, then, that at different times in a life the "push pull" is different. But the conflict, I assume, will always be a part of any passionate love.

At any age, or stage, however, the social structures and realities in the world either enable, make it difficult, or impossible, to find personal ways to encompass -- if not resolve -- these contradictions. Issues of child care, economic and housework equality, reproductive rights -- all permit a greater or lesser choice for women who are mothers or for anyone. An example from my own current life: As a full time faculty member in a liberal arts college, I have a reasonable pension. I am also married to a man who is not retired -- a personal as well as a social-economic reality. Colleagues who are "adjuncts" or part time faculty, doing much the same work as I did at less than half the salary, do not have the same pension rights or, therefore, the same choice to retire. There is a growing effort to alter this inequality through unionization of part time faculties across the country.

Being an artist and a mother confronted me with particular problems of time, the need for silence and solitude, the problem of exposing feelings about those I love or about myself that might hurt or offend those I love. The problems of time and solitude are resolved, for now. The others, as for any writer, remain.

MMO: How do you think motherhood, as a social experience, has changed since the early 1970s, when your sons were small? What hasn’t changed -- or hasn’t changed enough? Do you find it discouraging that mothers today are facing some of the same barriers to integrating mothering with other kinds of work as you encountered when you were a young mother?

Jane Lazarre: Motherhood as a social experience varies so greatly among cultures, classes, countries, it is not possible to answer the question in only one way. For most poor and working class women, which often includes women in what we call the “middle classes,” very likely not much has changed. For women in many parts of the world, there have been few changes. Wars kill mothers’ children. Women do not have domestic or economic power, access to health care for themselves or their children. Few women are in powerful political positions. Even for middle or upper middle class women in the U.S. it is dangerous to generalize. I can speak only from personal experience with some of the mothers I know – those of my children’s generation who now have young children, or babies, and are also committed to working lives through desire, economic necessity, or both. Most seem as ambivalent and torn as when I was a young mother in the 70s. The desire, or need, to work, is still treated as a personal/individual problem for individual families to solve. There is little public child care, pre or after school, that is reliable and good for children. The prevalence of “nannies” or housekeepers who care for children full time, is as prevalent as ever in New York City in the wealthier neighborhoods. There were, and are, complicated problems of class, racial and ethnic conflict implicit in the child/caretaker or childcare worker/working mother relationship. For the mothers, I sometimes think, not much has changed since I went to the playgrounds with my children and felt caught between the mothers who worked and had disdain for those who "just stayed home," and those who were full time mothers and homemakers who resented and judged those who worked full time. I have no easy answer for the problem. In my own case, the resolution was a parent run day care center in which mothers and fathers retained a strong voice and participated regularly. But that solution began to erode too as more families joined in which the mothers had full time jobs, rather than the free lance work done by many of us who created the center.

The “social experience of motherhood” you ask about was, and is -- even now that my sons are grown men -- intricately and inexorably intertwined with the psychological experience. One opens the other, the other opens the one. I expect this is true for mothers in many different situations, but for mothers whose lives are more or less privileged in a world filled with deprivation, the awareness of how closely the psychological-personal-intimate realm is connected to the social-collective-political realm can itself be a major shift in consciousness, what Virginia Woolf called a “moment of being,” that can suggest possibilities for individual or collective action.

Blackness and whiteness

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