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A sort of perfection

An interview with writer Jane Lazarre

July/August 2005

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

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.

MMO: A central subject of your work is being a white mother of Black sons. We seem to be living in a cultural moment when racism, like sexism, has disappeared from the national dialog. But racism is still a pressing issue in the U.S -- and it clearly impacts the lives of mothers and children of color. What do you think is going on? How might a mothers’ movement play a role in encouraging an honest discussion about race in America?

Jane Lazarre: When you ask about racism, its increasing invisibility in public discourse and its impact on mothers, I think not only of mothers of color, for whom, as for any person of color, racism is still pervasive and powerful, but of white mothers, and not only of white mothers like myself, whose children are Black. I think about whiteness as a historical/social/psychological phenomenon. The impact of racism on mothers of color is often discussed and written about eloquently by mothers of color in both fiction and non-fiction - (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Patricia Williams, others.) But I would like to respond to the question in terms of the impact of racism on white people, including mothers.For many years, in addition to teaching writing at Eugene Lang College in New York, I taught courses in the African American autobiographical tradition, from the narratives of enslaved Americans to contemporary works by writers such as James Baldwin or Audre Lorde. In Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, a famous narrative by Harriet Jacobs, a woman enslaved in North Carolina in the 1800s describes the particular conditions of mothers during that holocaust that lasted over two hundred years. The problem of whiteness -- what it was, as an idea, an ideology, a system of strict and ruthless privilege -- is inseparable from Jacobs’ experience not only as a slave but as a mother. For more than two centuries, children were sold away from their mothers for the profit of slave holders, while women and girls were forced to produce children through rape. This is our history, a part of the history of American motherhood. What is this whiteness that allowed such atrocities to continue over so extended a period of time? I saw I had to include in my course a curriculum of works, both classic (mostly by Black writers such as Jacobs, Frederick Douglass and others) and contemporary, by both Black and white scholars, that addressed this problem of whiteness. It was difficult and enormously fulfilling to work with young white students who were wrestling with the issue, learning to separate their sense of themselves as individuals from the historical injustice -- Baldwin called it a “lie” -- of whiteness as an institutionalized system of skin color superiority and privilege. As years passed and I grew older, my relationship to my students included certain maternal aspects, and I experienced this effort to help them understand race in America as, in part, a kind of maternal work.

Another story: Recently, when I was giving a talk at a college on this subject, reading from my memoir about being a white mother of Black sons, a white woman introduced herself as a professor who discussed race in all her classes, as she teaches courses in the African novel. Her question involved her son, a student at mid-western university, who had recently been mugged. What should I tell him, she asked, identifying the situation in no more specific way. I asked if she were saying the muggers were Black, and she nodded, yes. I asked if the question could be turned around for a moment. When my son was five, and we were vacationing at a famously liberal beach town, he came home one day and said the little girl down the block had called him a nigger. This was the first of many racist experiences he and his brother would endure from early childhood into adulthood and the present. What should I have told him, I asked, that all white people were bad? She looked surprised -- perhaps she got the point -- but I felt, as many times before, confirmed in my understanding that racism is pervasive and powerful in our country in every institution and in many personal interactions. I agree with you that it is often erased now, either denied outright, or distorted and diluted in wider categories such as “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “global studies.” These categories are themselves, of course, worthy and important in many ways, but racism against people of African descent has a very specific history in our nation. This history belongs to us all and its continued denial is virulent for all Americans interested in progressive change, including mothers. White mothers and their children who tolerate this denial, or worse, subscribe to overt beliefs regarding the racial superiority of white skin (and this, I know, is common from fifteen years of reading brave and beautiful autobiographical writing by white students) are settling for a half life in many dangerous ways, both political and psychological. Anyone interested in this subject should read James Badlwin’s essay, “A Stranger in the Village,” in the collection Notes of a Native Son, and “Whiteness as Terror in the Black Imagination,” by bell hooks in the wonderful collection Black on White, edited by David R. Roediger.

MMO: You were politically active before becoming a mother, but you write in “The Mother Knot” that you sometimes felt motherhood made you invisible to other feminists. Many mothers today feel the same way. Do you think there’s a way to make contemporary feminism more mother-friendly without undermining the feminist argument?

Jane Lazarre: When I was a young feminist, and a young mother, two life changing situations that in my life coincided, there was a strong and destructive conflict between the two, at least on the level of public discourse. I attended many feminist meetings and conferences, even small consciousness raising groups, in which mothers and the maternal experience were trivialized, placed in contradiction to "women’s liberation," even treated with disdain. On the other hand, mothers, proud of their traditional roles, dismissed feminists as "bra burners" whose fight for equality had nothing to do with them. Since that time, much has been written that exposes this polarization for the false story it is. Works such as Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, studies by feminist psychoanalysts such as Jessica Benjamin, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, revisions of literature by and about mothers, historical reinterpretations -- all reveal the important links between motherhood and feminism, often written by passionate feminists who are also passionate mothers. It is infuriating and discouraging at times to read in the popular press and elsewhere that the polarization continues, to hear so many young women use the word feminism as an epithet, assert their belief in gender equality with the caveat, I am not a feminist, but… I can only say it seems to me feminist writers and scholars have a responsibility to analyze and interpret the experiences of motherhood as one crucial path in female identity, as fundamental to some as sexuality, the need for creative work, the importance of financial independence and political power. Many have taken on this responsibility. And it seems to me equally true that women and men who value liberty and equality, including all matters pertaining to gender and sexual identities, sabotage their work and the chance of expanding their own freedom if they do not attend to the feminist analyses now available to us all. This analysis includes not only a critique of conventional femininity as it has been associated with passivity and submission, qualities which are certainly dangerous for mothers, but to masculinity as it has been and continues to be associated with violence and war, which are dangerous to us all.

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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