restricted access 11. Narrating Maternal Subjectivity: Memoirs from Motherhood
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187 Narrating Maternal Subjectivity: Memoirs from Motherhood | by joanne s. frye 11 In a paper presented in 1997, at the first conference of the Association for Research on Mothering, I posed a question: “What does it mean to write as a mother?” And I began by reframing the question in terms that were familiar to most feminist literary critics of the time: “Why do we so rarely hear the voices of mothers in narrative form? Why is it that even women who are both mothers and writers are unlikely to portray mothers as active subjective presences? Why is it so difficult to find in narrative form the kinds of experiential insights that we assume derive from living as a mother?” (Frye 1). More than a decade later, I return to these same questions, aware that we are in the midst of an explosion of books by mothers, even as we continue to struggle with the meanings of maternal subjectivity and the difficulties of portraying it. For this undertaking, I find particularly valuable the resources of memoirs by mother-writers, autobiographical forms that set out to explore the experiences a woman undergoes as a mother and to render those experiences freshly through a heightened self-awareness. I am convinced of the value of maternal memoir, despite the thematic difficulties that Ivana Brown has accurately identified in her reading of contemporary examples: “gender essentialism and dichotomous categorization An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Association for Research on Mothering Conference, York University, Toronto, October 2004. 188 joanne s. frye of gender” (209), by which memoirs “naturalize the social origins of gender inequalities” (210). But in my view, this is often only an apparent naturalizing , part of the long struggle to articulate what has been silenced from within a culture that continues to insist on motherhood as a ground for gender inequality. Thus I wish to join in a project that Laura Major has attributed to poet Alicia Ostriker: “re-imagining and confronting maternity … tackl[ing] the problematic areas of reproduction and their representation” (193). Though some maternal memoirs do participate in perpetuating essentialism and gender dichotomies, I find in a select group the ability of language and narrative form to extend our understandings of the actual lives of women who mother and to initiate alternative understandings that resist the hazardous cultural constructions with which we continue to wrestle. I begin my analysis by identifying the reasons why narrating maternal subjectivity is such a difficult task, so long in coming to fruition. I then discuss the particular problem of “representation” for maternal narratives and point toward possible ideas of “self” that may have special utility for this project. Finally, I examine three examples of mother-memoirs: Carole Maso’s The Room Lit by Roses, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, and Anne Enright’s Making Babies. Even though they cannot entirely elude the problems that remain embedded in the cultures they portray, these mother-writers point valuable directions for revisioning our ideas of maternal subjectivity. In 1997 when I initiated this project, the questions I posed were already familiar to feminist literary inquiry into motherhood. Beginning in the 1970s, when Tillie Olsen’s Silences and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born insistently reminded us of the missing insights caused by maternal silence, feminist critics had been posing and re-posing these same concerns. In Olsen ’s words, “Not many have directly used the material open to them out of motherhood as central source for their work” (32). And the same concerns had persisted into the 1990s, for example, in such collections as Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities (1991), edited by Brenda Daly and Maureen Reddy, and Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood (1996). The editors of the latter, Katrina Kenison and Kathleen Hirsch, echoed Olsen’s statement from 20 years earlier: “Invariably, we found ourselves asking, ‘Why aren’t more women writing about motherhood?’” (7). Before that, Marianne Hirsch had, in 1989, already provided a compelling analysis of what she called “the mother/daughter plot,” reaching—toward the end of her analysis—a series of germinal questions: “Do mothers write their own experience as mothers? What shapes and plots accommodate those experiences, and what is the relationship of maternal narratives to … cultural projections…? To what extent do women writers who are mothers co-conspire in their own silence…?” (Mother/Daughter Plot 176). 189 narrating maternal subjectivity In my analysis in 1997, I focused a good deal of attention on...