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Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, by Adrienne Rich

April 7, 2012

Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, by Adrienne Rich. W. W. Norton & Company (1977), Paperback, 322 pages.

A feminist classic about women’s need to understand themselves as daughters and as mothers.

Adrienne Rich died last week. What I did to honor her was to reread Of Woman Born, a book that had a great impact on me personally, as a mother and as a daughter, and on my decision as a historian to explore the history of mothering.

The primary thesis of Rich’s book is that motherhood is both the private reality that women experience as mothers and the social institution of motherhood that limits women to their nurturing role. In the 1970s, no one had paid serious attention to motherhood, beyond sentimental praise or mother blaming. Many of us were rebelling against the lives we saw our mothers living, especially those of us in the white middle-classes. We were matriphobic, fearing we would become our mothers. We intended instead to “give birth to ourselves.” As Rich describes “Matrophobia can be seen as a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become purged once and for all of our mother’s bondage, to be individual and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” Rich urges us to move beyond that split.

In powerful, poetic language, Rich writes autobiographically of her own conflicted experience as both a mother and a daughter. Realizing that her version is different from the ones others would tell, she believes that “only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours.” Accounts of motherhood can never be more than “partial,” and she envisions women “with different training, backgrounds, and tools” working together and assembling the “immense, half-buried mosaic in the shape of a woman’s face.”

In the opening chapter Rich describes her own experience of “exquisite suffering” as a young mother in the 1950s and 1960s. She felt “the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alteration between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and the blessed gratitude and tenderness” that she felt toward her baby sons. For her, becoming pregnant had felt like initiation into the community of other women, but soon she felt doubts at her own adequacy as a mother. Looking back she says that “the good and bad moments are inseparable to me.”

The relationship of mothers and daughters is “the core” of her book for Rich because it shapes how women relate to other women and to themselves as women. Writing autobiographically, she recounts how she, like other women, has “tried to return to her mother, to repossess and be repossessed by her, to find the mutual confirmation from and with another woman that daughters and mothers alike hunger for, pull away, make possible or impossible for each other.” She writes about the ways in which patriarchal institutions foster guilt as a barrier between mothers and daughters. “The institution of motherhood finds all women more or less guilty of having failed their children; and my mother in particular, had been expected to help create, according to my father’s plan, a perfect daughter.” Alienated from her mother who tried to shape her as directed, Rich felt invalidated, “unmothered,” and she senses that same need in other women. “Only when we begin to meet that need in each other can we create a world in which strong mothers and strong daughters can flourish.” In Rich’s eyes, the physical closeness of a mother and her infant girl can led to sexual attraction and lesbianism, but her vision is much larger one. We cannot have sisterhood, we can not even heal our internal divisions, until we reconcile and address these needs.

Rich was truly radical in writing personally about mothers’ anger and about women bonding with other women sexually and/or with deeply loyal friendships. These were taboo subjects when she wrote. Today such topics are generally accepted. To some degree, we have begun to change the “institution” of motherhood as she urged. Becoming a mother is no longer assumed to be the goal of every woman. Among women who do have babies, the intense privatization of caring for a baby that Rich experienced is less common. Increasing numbers of new mothers return to employment almost immediately. What we have is hardly a “village raising a child,” however, and there have been losses as well as gains in the process. We still need to rethink and explore alternatives. Part of Rich’s genius is her insistence that we not separate and polarize the needs of mother and child.

Rich’s account of patriarchal definitions of motherhood is less compelling than her description of her own experiences but then, institutions always are less appealing than human stories—which is part of the problem with them. Her discussion of motherhood as an institution is scattered through her treatment of other topics. When she wrote this book, so little serious attention had been paid to mothering. She had little solid information on which to draw, a situation that has changed since she wrote, making some of what she says outdated. Formal research as well as fictional and autobiographical writing by women have begun to create the collective understanding she envisioned.

What is not outdated about Of Woman Born is the power of her language and her ideas. Rereading the book this week, I was caught up in the total relevancy of her critique of men seeking to control women because of their own infantile needs.

Much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother. Much male fear of feminism is infantilism–the longing to remain the mother’s son, to possess a woman who exists purely for him.

Perhaps this is the reason behind the drive by Republican men against contraception and women’s control over their own bodies.

I heartily recommend reading Rich’s Of Woman Born. For mothers and daughters, Rich will strike some receptive chords; for non-mothers and non-daughters Rich will provide insight into those of us who are.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2012 4:39 pm

    Reblogged this on Inspiredweightloss.

  2. April 17, 2012 8:15 am

    I’ve yet to read anything by Rich but news of her death did make me yearn to try something as I keep hearing fantastic things. Thank you for this review of what sounds like an important and interesting book – even to me who is not a mother and has no inclination to become one any time soon.

    • April 17, 2012 5:29 pm

      And you are a daughter which Rich says is as important. Her contrasting of expereinces and institutions is interesting. And do look up her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” even if you aren’t particularly a poetry person.

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