We live in a world where the identity of woman and mother are still often seen as interchangeable. As a result, there are many ways that women who do not (currently) mother in traditionally defined and valued forms can feel excluded. Furthermore, many of those without a mother similarly experience their difference to others as painful.
Mother’s Day, and accompanying Hallmark inspired celebrations, can be difficult for those who are motherless and/or nonmothers and yet these identities are more fluid than is often acknowledged. Mothering Sunday then might be a better term for such celebration given as it allows for the inclusion of our memories of being mothered and our past, present and future experiences of mothering children and other adults – in both our personal and work lives – in many and varied ways. This includes, but is not restricted to, women whose children have died, are estranged from them or who live far away; women who mother children to whom they are not biologically related; women who mother children (and adults) through their paid or voluntary work life; and the mothering of friends.
My personal identities as non/other mother (M/Other) and as daughter (now ‘orphaned’), alongside my professional identities as teacher, researcher, supervisor and mentor, have been significant to, and within, my auto/biographical work as a feminist sociologist (see for example Letherby 2017, Brennan and Letherby 2017). I have attempted a critical auto/biographical approach to explore aspects of my professional and personal identity with reference to (non/other) maternal status and experience. I have undertaken research and written (alone and with others) in the areas of perinatal loss, ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ (written in quotation marks to highlight problems of definition) teenage pregnancy and young parenthood; experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood for women living with long-term health conditions; identity issues for women with polycystic ovary syndrome; older motherhood; stay-at-home mothers; the ‘voluntary’-‘involuntary’ childlessness continuum; and non/motherhood within institutions (including universities and prisons). I have also recently begun to reflect and write on the experience of being mothered.
Alongside my academic writings I write fiction, memoir and political opinion pieces some of which refers or relates to my academic work in these areas. This is an extract from a piece I wrote for Mother’s Day (in the UK) in 2017:
‘Thirty-two years ago, when I had my miscarriage my central aim was to be a mother and I felt that I was only half a woman without a child. Any doubts or ambivalences I had about becoming a mother I denied. I now feel very different. I no longer see myself as a lesser woman (or less than adult) for not mothering children. I am also able to accept the equivocal nature of my desires – that is, a part of me enjoys the freedom that I have had and have because of my biologically childless state. And if I had become a biological mother I know that I would have felt opposing emotions in relation to that experience also. Of course, I cannot know how my life would have turned out if I had carried my baby successfully to term. My return to education a couple of years after my loss would likely not have happened but given the opportunities I have not had I will be forever grateful for the fulfillment my studies and subsequent work in higher education have given me. It is not only the intellectual stimulation I am thankful for but also the relationships I have made with students and younger colleagues. Indeed, most of my working life, as nursery nurse and as academic, has provided me with opportunities to support and encourage younger people. Although, I am amongst the first to critique the view that women should automatically be expected to care at work as well as at home, personally I feel privileged to be able to do this.’
As my maternal desires, intentions and experiences have changed I am aware that I have shifted my position on what James H. Monach (1993) calls the ‘voluntarily’/ ‘involuntary’ childless continuum. I prefer this to Anne Woollett’s (1996) description of her own move from ‘infertile’ to ‘childless’ for I have always had children in my life (through my work and in my relationships with the children and grandchildren of close friends). Now in my late fifties my life is a fulfilling mixture of paid and voluntary work (both within and outside of the academy) some political activism and time spent with close and loving friends (of all ages).
I still grieve for the children I do not have and am regularly reminded of what is missing from my life, in terms of daily interaction with children and grandchildren of ‘my own’. However, I appreciate the value of my life as it is and the many positives and privileges associated with it.
Throughout my career I have, on occasion, had my academic choices challenged. My auto/biographical approach has been devalued or dismissed as not academic (enough) even self-indulgent (Letherby 2000) but I have always felt confident enough to counter this with academic argument (e.g. Letherby 2013). The ‘critique’ of my personal, as opposed to my academic, identity has at times been harder, at least emotionally, to counter. On the break-up of his previous relationship my second (late) husband John was given custody of his two teenage sons. For the first eight years of our time together both boys lived with us full-time and on occasion spent long periods of time at home well into their twenties. These relationships made me think again about my own biological childlessness and were both a challenge and a revelation to me. I never defined myself as the boys’ mother and they did not see me this way either but I do feel that my relationship towards them was, for many years, parental.Thus, there were times when it felt appropriate to say yes when asked if I had any children and in an ironic twist on my status there were times when I felt like an ‘involuntary’ parent. When writing about this in a journal article the editor of the feminist publication changed my reference to ‘a parental relationship with John’s two sons’ to ‘a kind of parental relationship’.
Throughout our 53 years together, and since her death six years ago, friends and acquaintances have commented on the rapport and warmth between my mother and I. Indeed, not least with reference to my status as non(biological) mother. As I have described elsewhere: ‘I feel sure that I would not have survived intact, reformed as whole without my mother’s support and unconditional love. For her it was all about me, always about me and it was not until after her death that I realised she never, ever, spoke of her own loss, no babies for me, no grandbabies for her’. Despite this, it has been suggested to me, several times, at academic conferences and seminars and in published pieces, that a woman can never really understand, or be completely close to her own mother until she becomes a mother herself.
Outside of academia there is also exclusion. One recent experience demonstrates how my academic and personal identities interconnect. In 2017 At ‘The World Transformed’ at the 2017 Labour Party Conference a group called Mums4Corbyn launched. To accompany this the New Socialist put out a call for a series of articles on the ‘politics of contemporary motherhood’. I submitted a pitch for consideration:
My concern is with the political significance of all women whether mothers, nonmothers or other-mothers (women whose mother status is considered lesser, even ‘unreal’). This is important because the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other-mother or nonmother. Feminism can be criticized for focusing on motherhood at the expense of a consideration of sisterhood. Yet any (political) understanding of motherhood and mothering needs to embrace the experience of nonmothers and other-mothers. It is only through such holistic reflection on our similarities and our differences that as sisters together we can challenge that which divides us and holds us back and celebrate our ‘collective and communal relations’ which will enable to us work together for ‘transformative change’.
Sadly, the editors felt that my piece did not ‘quite match’ their intended agenda. Which in turn, I would suggest, is a further denial of the relevance of the very many of us who have an identity and experiences defined by society as lesser (see here for more on this).
This rejection has prompted more reflection and writing. I’ll end here with an extract from a piece of prose poetry:
. . . .
Yet, there remains a sense of difference, compounded at times by exclusion.
Still feeling other and sometimes being othered.
Being also, at least at some level, an expert in my own experience, and through much study and research the experience of similar others, does not always protect me from distress.
So what of the latest exclusion, that which forces me to relive my loss (yet again), and its’ social, emotional and material aftermath, more than thirty years on from the life-changing night when all this started?
This time a denial not only of our contribution and our value but also a rejection of my knowledge and expertise.
I appreciate then that my pride is hurt on top of all the rest.
I will recover, I always do.
But for the moment I’m left reflecting on the fragility of it all.
Contentment, self-worth, security in one’s achievements and meaningfulness, perhaps even some small legacy.
In a heartbeat all threatened.
Walking on ice.
Careful steps now …
Written by Professor Gayle Letherby, University of Plymouth
Brennan, M. and Letherby, G. (2017) ‘Auto/Biographical Approaches to Researching Death and Bereavement: connections, continuums, contrasts’ for Morality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 22(2): 155-169
Letherby, G. (2000) ‘Dangerous Liaisons: auto/biography in research and research writing’ in G. Lee-Treweek and S. Linkogle, S. (eds.) Danger, Gender and Data in Qualitative Inquiry London: Routledge
Letherby, G. (2013) ‘Theorised Subjectivity’ in G. Letherby J. Scott and M. Williams Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research London: Sage
Letherby, G. (2017) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): Telling Academic and Personal Stories of Mothers and Others’ in G. Rye, V. Browne, A. Giorgio, E. Jeremiah and A. L. Six (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: interdisciplinary perspectives from Europe London: Routledge
Monach, J. H. (1993) Childless No Choice: the experience of involuntary childlessness London: Routledge