- On Maternal Thinking
Thirty years ago, in the late 1970s, I spent some time hovering over a possibility suggested by Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born. Could it be, Rich asked, that women are "even now thinking in ways which traditional intellection denies, decries or is unable to grasp?" I had no use for the special graces of "women's intuition" or "feminine sensibility," gifts that marked the absence of mind, not its distinction. Women could reason with the best of "us"; the capacity to reason was a human good. The ways of women's thinking that intrigued me would arise from the activities in which women engaged and that strengthened them. Women bear a disproportionate responsibility for the labor required by people who are ill, illiterate, frail, despairing, very young or very old—who are, in sum, in need of care. I set out to elucidate the "rationality of care," 1 taking mothering, and the maternal thinking it expresses, as a primary instance.
Now, thirty years later, I am returning to my question, only with more specificity. Could it be, I ask, that practices of mothering prompt or require distinctive cognitive capacities, metaphysical attitudes, and conceptions of virtue? If so, to what uses could this maternal thinking be put? Three feminist thinkers have joined me in reflecting on this question: Ranjana Khanna, Andrea O'Reilly, and Amy Richards. I am grateful for their generous attention, which helps me to understand my ideas.
Andrea O'Reilly gives us an opening by providing a scene for reading that is also a motherhood scene. With little money and no car, Andrea has left her partner at home and traveled with four children, six years old and younger, to her mother's small cottage. Her intention is to rest and prepare for an upcoming eight-hour exam. But her mother, who adores her grandchildren, is too overwhelmed by the crowd in the small cottage to offer much help. Andrea can barely study or rest. She does, however, begin to read Maternal Thinking. Sometimes she sneaks off with the book, like "an addict in need of a hit." Other times, her children play in the near distance, [End Page 305] as she watches closely but not too closely, "scrutinizing" as she reads about scrutinizing in the book.
The cover of the edition Andrea reads portrays a woman of indeterminate ethnicity who is somewhat lost in thought. The blurb on the cover describes the book as "the first attempt to describe from a philosophical perspective the thinking that grows out of the work that mothers do." Andrea cites from the book lines that she believes were life changing for many women: "The work of mothering demands that mothers think; out of this need for thoughtfulness, a distinctive discipline emerges" (24). Andrea writes: "The lines are underlined, and the page number circled twice and the paragraph remains soiled by sand and water. Yes, mothers think!"
Elsewhere, Andrea has said that she is drawn to the details of Maternal Thinking. "I love scrutinizing, I love holding, I love concrete thinking, welcoming change, humility and so forth." I love Andrea for loving the details. But here she outlines major organizing themes of my account of maternal practices, more clearly and energetically than I could manage. I believe, however, that I have sowed a confusion that needs neatening.
I have said, and Andrea emphasizes, that the work or practice of mothering is distinct from the identity of the mother. Mothering may be performed by anyone who commits him- or herself to the demands of maternal practice. Mother is as mother does. Nonetheless, it makes sense to say, "This mother mothers other mothers' children at a distance from her own children whom she mothers indirectly" (I describe a familiar situation of immigrant mothers). The self of mothering should not be slighted. It is inherently relational and generational—marking temporal identities that are at once past and future, legacy and promise. Our maternal stories tell us who we are as well as what we do.
Raising children righteously up—a marvelous phrase left us by Grace Paley—signals relationship, identities, and, emphatically, the work that we do. Amy...