Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mothering as Spiritual and Political Resistance to Patriarchal Structures of Oppression by Liona Rowan

Painting by Elisabeth Slettnes

Valuing women and women in their roles as mother will not occur until there is a return to a consciousness of a Divine Female or Divine Mother. We have invested our male gods with the power to create life without the involvement of female gods or women. As a result, women have been denigrated, objectified and seen as required only for raising “men’s sons” and providing future breeders/helpers. In many cases, this role of helper is little more than glorified house keeper and sex slave. While that may seem shocking at first, it is the reality that we live with – under the guise of marriage, commitment, diamonds and promises of equality that never seem to materialize.

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and other patriarchal religions have subordinated women, a misogyny that has persisted to this day, under a veneer of glorification of mother as selfless, self-sacrificing, all forgiving and nurturing to both their children and men. Greek and Roman history is full of examples where women are used as prizes or spoils of war. Stories of men giving their daughters to other men or sacrificing their daughters to the Gods are retold to our children as examples of honor. Mothers taken from their children or having their children killed in front of them (for whatever reasons the men in these histories deemed necessary) are then expected to be good wives to the men who killed their children. How is any of that honorable – and for whom?

Using an autoethnographical (Stevenson 1) approach – combined with a feminist viewpoint and feminist spirituality based in a deep and abiding belief in a Divine Female that is immanent and transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – I will examine my mothering as a spiritual and political act of resistance to patriarchal structures of oppression. Through a lens of a feminist spiritual standpoint I have critically analyzed the texts in the bibliography and incorporated many ideas into my world view and approach to mothering. I am a middle-class, middle aged married white American woman. I have four children, three girls and one boy ranging from 43 to twelve years old, and one of my children is adopted. I am deeply committed to raising feminist daughters and now a feminist son.

I  became a mother at the age of 21. My pregnancy was a surprise and I chose not to abort. In hindsight this seems like a very ill advised decision, as I was single, underemployed and, what many would have called, out of control. While I do not advocate the decision I made for others, my decision to have my child saved my life. I was reeling from a childhood filled with the results of patriarchal oppressive structure. I had stepfather who was a child molester, a mother who was powerless in her relationship with her husband, but all powerful and violent with her children. A father who saw his children as the mother’s emotional and physical responsibility and a stepmother who was powerless in her relationship with my father and was submissive due to her Christian religious beliefs. My way of coping with these family dynamics was to move across the country as soon as I graduated high school and experiment extensively. My daughter was perfect in my eyes. She had red hair and blue eyes and I loved her fiercely. At the moment of her birth I decided that my child would never have to suffer the things that I suffered. I knew that the only way to make sure of that was to change the course of my life. So I did, although not without difficulty. I went to, and graduated from, nursing school so that I would always be able to provide a home and food for her without depending on anyone else.

Many changes in our lives have occurred since her birth – many of them good, some of them not so good. Recently I asked my now adult daughter if she thought I was a feminist mother. She said, “No, you were just mom. You always took care of us, and you always worked.” I then asked her, through my disappointment, if any of my feminist teachings had sunk in. She replied, “You were always a strong woman. You took care of stuff. Because of you I am a strong woman. I feel like I can see things differently than other people, that I have a larger perspective because of talking about how different things on T.V. or books that affected you or might affect me.” I heaved a heavy sigh of relief. She simply laughed and said, “You worry too much.” Perhaps she is right.

I spent so much of my time trying to be the ‘perfect mother’ when my girls were small that I thought I would lose my mind. I was working full time nights (I lived with the girls’ father at that time), volunteered two days a week at school, made some of their clothes, sewed Halloween costumes, made cookies, dinners, always had a vegetable garden, and tried to have a social life so that they could see that you don’t stop being a person simply because you become a mother. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I was going to school part-time. Their father did “help” me in this, but it was understood that it was my job and he helped. My biggest demand was that I didn’t do dishes. After ten years of this unrelenting schedule I had a nervous breakdown. There was, and is, no such thing as a perfect mother, so there is no way to achieve this goal–no matter how hard I (and many, many others) tried.

In their book, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels explore the portrayal of mothers in the media during the exact time period I was raising my children in the early 1980’s. In The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women: The Mommy Myth, Douglas and Michaels analyzed thirty years of media, print, television and radio. They looked at how women and mothers were portrayed, as well as the political climate surrounding women and mothers. Since the Reagan years, there has been a war against women, specifically in their role as mothers. Childcare, healthcare and education have all been deemed by the media, and consequently, the government, to be the responsibility of mothers; not the community, not the government, not fathers. “Experts” on child rearing, nearly all male, placed the emotional, psychological, physical and educational well-being of children directly on the shoulders of mothers and provided nearly no resources with which to do so. I was trying to be the perfect mother, and the society around me, through various sources of media, expected me to be the perfect mother. The pressure was internal, due to a traumatic childhood and the external forces that drive institutionalized misogyny and promote unrealistic expectations of mothers.

According to Douglas and Michaels’ extensive documentation, there has been a concerted effort to undermine the safety and well-being of children through the destruction of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) programs, preschool programs, and childcare in general – in an attempt to get all mothers back in the home and out of the workforce. Support for this decimation of public programs has been elicited through blatant racism; by inventing “welfare queens” who are, of course, always African American even though most women and children on welfare are white. The impression is given that welfare mothers are black, lazy and don’t deserve to have shelter, food and healthcare for their children. Meanwhile, women’s magazines started profiling “celebrity mothers” who were white, well groomed, thin, smiling and talking about how “motherhood fulfills them.” Never mind that they worked long hours away from home for months at a time earning a salary that most of us will not see in a life time of work, fulfilled or not. (Douglas/Michaels 173-202). The conservative right counted on the racism in the U.S. to do the rest, and they were rewarded for their confidence.

During the same time as “the war on welfare” in the 1980’s, there was an increase in the reporting of often untrue stories of child molestation rings in daycare centers, alien abductions, and human abductions of children into the sex trade (Douglas, Michaels 85-110). There are enough true stories of sexual molestation, child abductions and physical abuse to send any caring human into night terrors, but this was a time of hyper-reporting and fear mongering. Women were warned about “having it all” at the cost of their child’s innocence. Isn’t it odd how fathers were never included in the “having it all” nightmare? It was all mom’s fault for wanting a job, for wanting to be autonomous, for wanting to show her daughters and sons that women are people and deserve more than to be a servant to the needs of others. This was the reality of the social/political climate when my girls were small.

Despite all of the negative reporting trying to scare women into giving up their dreams and their jobs, I found great childcare for my children during the day so I could sleep after work. Our local public school was a “California Distinguished School” with a bilingual program from first to fifth grades. Not one alien took my children (although I did worry about it quite a bit) and they were not molested to the best of my knowledge, although I did worry about that even more.

Childcare remains an issue in the United States. In 2006, my son was three and was enrolled in an excellent day care at our local community college while I attended school full time as a PhD student. The fee was $545 a month for full time child care. This was a great price and the center provided excellent care. However, even at this reduced cost (the average cost for full time childcare in this county is anywhere from $800 per month to $2000+ per month) our family had to do without some luxuries. We were lucky that it is only luxuries that we had to give up. Many families (including mine twenty years ago), struggled to make ends meet and make sure the necessities were covered.

The pressure of trying to be a perfect mother with significantly less sleep than is recommended caught up with me. Through therapy, it occurred to me that life wasn’t fair, life wasn’t logical, life wasn’t reasonable – so why do I have to be? So I stopped trying to be perfect according to others’ expectations and started trying to be good enough. The internal relief was palpable for me. I quit my job at the hospital and started sleeping at least seven hours a night. Sometimes I even took naps. I continued in school full-time and worked part time. I also decided to leave my kids father because his “help” wasn’t helpful.

The idea of ‘the perfect mother’ was created and extensively promoted during the 1980’s and 1990’s and continues into the present as a trap – an endless loop to keep women from resisting the oppression placed on them by the institution of motherhood. This loop starts by manipulating the love we have for our children and warps into a control mechanism to keep mothers “in line.” The manipulation always starts with, “We know you love your children, you want the best for them. If you really loved them, you wouldn’t want a job. You would want to stay home and wait on your child hand and foot, intuiting what they may or may not want.” This manipulation continues into the “right” products to buy, the “right” exhibits, videos, shoes, clothes, toys, games etc. – so your child will be the smartest, best, and most loved. If you were a good mother, you would find a way to make it happen. Oh, you’re poor? So sorry, the poor need not apply. For you to be a good mother you must sacrifice your time with your child and work at a crappy job while placing them in good childcare that simply doesn’t exist. We are so busy chasing the unobtainable, whether we are poor or not, that we don’t have time to say wait a minute! What about fathers? What about childcare? What about healthcare? What about community? Where are the alternatives?

In her book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich explores this very concept. Originally published in 1976, the ideas of the oppressive nature of intensive and solitary motherhood are still relevant today, nearly 30 years later. Rich explores the nature of the institution of motherhood; and how mothers somehow stopped being women when they became mothers. Their love for their children is supposed to be, “…continuous, unconditional. Love and anger cannot coexist. Female anger threatens the institution of motherhood” (Rich, 46). So if you love your children you can never show anger. How is one supposed to stage any kind of revolutionary act if one is not allowed to show anger?! Where is that anger supposed to go? Away? To where? The very idea that a woman is not happy in her role as mother as assigned by the institution of motherhood implies that she does not love her children and, again, is inferior.

Rich examines the nature of mother anger and where it goes in her chapter entitled, “Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness.” In this chapter, she explores the powerlessness and desperation of the isolation and dependency of traditional motherhood:

“…the invisible violence of the institution of motherhood, the guilt, the guilt, the guilt. So much of the heart of darkness is an undramatic, undramatized suffering: the woman who serves her family their food but cannot sit down with them, the woman who cannot get out of bed in the morning, the woman polishing the same place on the table over and over, reading labels in the supermarket as if they were in a foreign language, looking into a drawer where there is a butcher knife. The scapegoat is also the escape valve: through her the passions and the blind raging waters of a suppressed knowledge are permitted to churn their way so that they need not emerge in less extreme situations as lucid rebellion” (Rich 277-278).

She continues a few pages later:

“…we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation; we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood “ (Rich 280).

While I find these descriptions to be moving and heartbreaking, they presuppose a woman who is required, and financially able, to stay home with her children. Both the stay at home mothers and mothers with paid positions experience the “institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.” Their guilt for their anger, for their absence, for their continual presence, for their ambivalence toward mothering is fostered – not only through organized Abrahamic religions, but through theories of pre-history that see the ancient past as a less mechanized and a more violent male as dominant version of the present.

Anywhere a woman might look for spiritual or intellectual help in seeing depictions of herself in traditional religious or educational systems there was none to be found. No heroes, no women resisting, no women anywhere except in submission. There seemed to be no way out. Women were, apparently, not relevant in the past, they did nothing but marry and have babies if they were good women – or if they were bad women, they were prostitutes, but mostly they were simply non-existent. In the Old Testament, man is created from the dust by God. There are two versions of this creation story – one has Eve created at the same time as Adam (Genesis 1:27) and one does not (Genesis 2:21-22). For my purposes it does not matter which version you prefer. What is apparent is that God did not need a female counterpart to create life. No women need apply… God did it all by Himself. This is directly counter to everything we know about procreation on this earth.

In Lesbian Nonbiological Mothering: Negotiating an (Un)Familiar Existence by Dawn Comeau and in Mother Outlaws edited by Andrea O’Reilly, I found what seems like a plausible explanation for the gradual expansion of man’s ownership over the pro-creative abilities of women and the expansion of patriarchal structure as a result. In this article, the role and feelings of the non-biological lesbian mother are explored. When reading the feelings of the role of the non-biological mother, I wondered, “Is this how men feel? Is this how men have always felt?” Granted, fathers have a recognized role within society that is honored and in many cases, revered; but the non-biological mother has no recognized role, even though she is co-parent in every way. The experiences of being outsider-ed in the birth of their own child was very alienating. One woman described it, “…[I] don’t’ think you realize how much attention is focused on the pregnant woman (Comeau 161).” Another described it, “…I kinda felt like behind the scenes I was working my butt off to do this and do that and the stuff you don’t see. You don’t see my stomach growing [but I’m working just as hard at being a parent]” (Comeau 160).

Perhaps it is this feeling of alienation that originally led men to want more of a place in the birth process. Clearly, that desire for involvement got completely out of control and turned into a successful attempt to own – not only the process, but the child and the woman who mothered the child. It is this feeling of ownership that we are still trying to free ourselves from.

The God of the Old Testament is punitive. As a “tween” I saw so many good people, honest and loving people, chastising themselves for not being good enough Christians. I wondered what could they possibly do to improve? If these good people were not good enough, then what about me? How could I ever measure up? I often wished death upon my molester. I couldn’t stop myself from talking back to my mother when she was clearly not telling the truth about my life. I wasn’t excelling in school. It seemed I was breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments before I even got out of bed. So I decided if God wasn’t going to protect me, or to believe in me, I wasn’t going to believe in God. So I stopped. I stopped going to church. I stopped trying to be good according to those rules. I couldn’t believe in a God that was just so mean.

I remained atheist/agnostic from the age of eleven until I was well into my 20’s. While a dedicated feminist since nearly the same age, the idea of spirituality or religion just wasn’t a part of my life. The introduction of the possibility of a divine female, Goddess, was life altering for me. The very concept, was at first, shocking. It just had simply never occurred to me; the idea that God could be female. In my primary education I was taught ancient myths and I was also taught that they were not truths. I was certainly not taught that these myths were ancient religions that were practiced with as much devotion as the ones practiced by Christians and Jews in my own community. Christianity was by far, the dominant religion; little consideration was given to the few Jewish kids among us. Certainly no one ever mentioned the possibility that God could be female. I decided I must find out who, exactly, this female deity was.

What I found was both exhilarating and heart-breaking. I found immense amounts of information about Goddess in many different forms in many different cultures: Evidence that our first deity was female through the works of Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, even Joseph Campbell speaks of Goddess; translations of a priestess in the Middle East, named Enheduanna, who wrote poems for and worshiped Inanna; and beautiful and heart breaking creation stories from Africa, India, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, both north and south.

These Goddesses were powerful and autonomous and everywhere. I felt so lied to by the educational system of this country! Why was I not told of these Goddesses, these priestesses?! Why was the evidence demeaned, denigrated, negated and hidden? What were clearly religious icons used to keep the divine close were turned into fertility fetishes, or worse, pre-historical porn. Not only blaspheming other, older religions, but mocking and denigrating ancient practitioners of those religions by turning them into self-pleasuring maniacs. The very idea of a female creator mocked at every turn.

These Goddesses were mothers! Our mothers. Instead of the judgmental and punitive father God, we had a mother Goddess who showered Her children with abundance. Goddess, loved all Her children, not just the ones who looked like her. Her daughters and sons and all of the plants on the earth – which was/is Her body. I believe that there must be a reintroduction or resurrection if you will, of the Divine Mother, of Goddess.

This resurrection of a Divine Mother would be in cooperation and partnership with a Divine Father. A heavenly couple, equal in power and authority, who model loving all of their children. When I say all I mean all, not just able-bodied white males, but all colors, races and ethnicities – all women, all children, all abilities, all genders (not just the two recognized in the west), all sexual orientations and any and all combinations of the above. It is difficult to imagine a world where we are all equally valued as humans and how that would change mothering and fathering, but I believe this world is possible.

Martha C. Nussbaum, a classically trained philosopher and lawyer has developed, along with Amartya Sen, in her book, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, what I believe to be a very useful model in advancing an equalitarian form of parenting. Nussbaum does not posit this approach as a parenting solution but as a social justice solution to gross inequalities between sexes. I believe that this approach, when applied to one’s own life and applied toward mothering and fathering, would be helpful in creating the space for the acceptance of a Divine Mother and change, or perhaps eliminate, the institution of motherhood. This will allow mothering and fathering to be more fluid and equitably shared. The basics of Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach are as follows:

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; having one’s bodily boundaries treated as sovereign, i.e. being able to be secure against assault, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thoughts. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason- and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing self-expressive works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literacy, musical and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one’s own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain.

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by overwhelming fear and anxiety, or by traumatic events of abuse or neglect. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)

6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience.)

7. Affiliation. A. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)

B. Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails, at a minimum, protections against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, caste, ethnicity, or national origin. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control over One’s Environment. A. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association. B. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and moveable goods), not just formally but in terms of real opportunity; and having property rights on equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure (Nussbaum 78 – 80).

This approach is not exhaustive, but the changes would be forever life altering for all if we were allowed to pursue our capabilities instead of being forced to fit some unobtainable, and I believe, damaging, role of feminine or masculine behavior. Even before I knew this approach existed, I have lived my life and sought to create a family that is a site of resistance using many, but not all, of the strategies proposed in Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach. At the same time, I have pulled from the knowledge that powerful women in history have always existed. I have discussed these powerful women from the past with my daughters. The only deity they have known is female.

I asked my youngest daughter if she thought I was a feminist mother and if that changed or affected her in any way. She said:

“Yes I do think you are a feminist mother. I think if it did change me, it would be for the better. Perhaps in the way that thinking that women are not only supposed to do one thing or have one job or stay at home and cook, that they have a choice whether they want to do those things or not. I try to see things more equally and not so one sided. And to stand up for myself, if I don't like how I’m being treated or what is going on in a certain situation to stand up for myself and say what I’m thinking. I don't know if I would have acquired these aspects of me if you weren't a feminist. I wouldn't say it changed me in a bad way because feminism doesn't mean man hating, if anything it taught me that I deserve to be respected and heard too, but not to hate. I just like to be able to do what I do and say what I like to say and if something gets in the way of that I'm going to have something to say about it.”

As a mother, I am proud of all my daughters and my son. I am also proud of myself for being able to instill feminist values in my children while still struggling with issues of equality and emancipation myself. 

By Liona Rowan, a selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak.

Celeste Gurevich, Whatever Works Contributor

Whatever Works is a unique collection of writing by feminists of diverse faiths from around the world. This anthology combines personal essays, poems and academic musings with the goal of sparking conversations among women of all faith backgrounds. Religion plays a key role in defining and maintaining value systems, and yet it is often disregarded within feminism itself. This book shares the stories of highly diverse women with the hope that we can find collective solutions to the global problems that plague women and girls living under patriarchy.
Available late March - pre-order here.

Liona Rowan is Founder and Priestess in Residence of 10K Sanctuary Goddess Temple and Retirement Community. Liona Rowan completed a traditional year and a day apprenticeship in Ecclectic Wicca in 1995 and was initiated as a priestess in July of that same year. Ms. Rowan has a master’s degree in Humanities with a Women’s Studies emphasis from Dominican University in San Rafael, California and a terminal master’s degree in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis in Women’s Spirituality from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California. She is a co-founder of OCHRE Journal of Women’s Spirituality . Ms. Rowan has participated in planning and priestessing both public and private rituals for over 18 years. Ms. Rowan is also a beekeeper.



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