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A sort of perfection
An interview with writer Jane Lazarre

page three

MMO: While reading "The Mother Knot," I felt a stab of envy when I came to the passage that describes you and Jean Rosenthal organizing a group for women who were "tired of being somebody’s mother, or somebody’s wife." When my children were very young, I was desperate to talk about my real feelings with a group of like-minded mothers. But it’s difficult to create that kind of setting; in general, mothers are still reluctant to admit they resent the mandates of ideal motherhood. What happened to consciousness raising? Do you have any suggestions about how today’s young mothers and wives can create forums where women can talk honestly about their lives?

Jane Lazarre: The fear you ask about -- of mothers afraid of admitting their own resentment of the “motherhood mystique” -- is, I would agree, still pretty formidable. I, along with many of my friends, are still trying to understand it as it pertains to being the mother of grownup sons and daughters. We are still, it seems, except occasionally and only with the most intimate friends, in whispers and occasional confessions, ashamed of our ordinary human failures, afraid of our children’s disapproval, terrified of a mystified sense of our power -- that we have caused or can cause damage to our children with the slightest limitation or mistake. We seem as determined as ever to live up to the impossible and tyrannical idea of the perfectly “good mother,” an idea that has proven itself to be literally maddening. In the 19th century, many women who were new mothers suffered breakdowns, were hospitalized for many years and in large numbers, because of the inability to live up to this false and destructive ideal in actual, ordinary life. This tragic history is well documented in fiction such as The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and in studies such as Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. In Toni Morrison’s great novel, Beloved, forces of racism and maternal desperation converge to create a searing exposure of American history -- its collective and personal “deep story” (Morrison’s phrase) -- from a mother’s point of view. It saddens and angers me that the literature that helped my generation of feminists to understand our condition in both political and deeply intimate ways is now so often untaught, unread, unknown by young women. Women friends, whether in personal relationships, informal groups or more formal discussion/reading groups, do not have to reinvent the wheel. The same goes for women my own age, mothers of grownups who are struggling to create and sustain relationships with our children which both respect boundaries and expect reciprocation. We can begin, as we always did, with our own stories, but if the stories and narratives that have gone before are not used, then we are truly sabotaging our own possibilities.

This is not to say the effort is any easier now than it was a generation ago. There is nothing more threatening, for me at least, than telling the truth when it might hurt or anger someone I love, and there is no one I love more than my sons, or when it might provoke public criticism and contempt, as honest writing can often do. And we live now in a time of regression and reaction, so I do not mean to suggest any of this is, or ever was, easy. I do have faith, though, in the importance and potential transcendence of personal story telling -- in private groups of like minded people, in intimate confessions, as an aspect of political organizing, and in works of art.

mmo : july/august 2005

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