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MAMA – Privatizing Motherhood and the Pussy Bow

Featured Artist is Christen Clifford and her Pussy Bow (from imprints of her actual pussy on silk) – See more at ProCreate for images [LINK}.

Christen Clifford is a writer, feminist performance artist, curator, professor, actor, and mother who lives in Queens.

Christen Clifford, Pussy Bow at the Museum of Motherhood Art Annex Residency in St Petersburg

Christen Clifford, Pussy Bow at the Museum of Motherhood Art Annex Residency in St Petersburg

Privatizing Motherhood
By Karen Malpede

My daughter, born the year Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide, has given birth to her first child in the year Donald Trump squeaked into the presidency. She was raised on the outskirts of what was then un-gentrified Park Slope and she lived in a theater, the loft-space held our living rooms and our stage. She was raised collectively—at the Park Slope Food Coop and the Park Slope Child Care Collective, where she and I met friends we have to this day. I mothered her collectively as well. She came with me everywhere: meetings, rehearsals, my monthly food coop work slot and I worked one day a week in her child care. She came with me to women’s conferences on war and peace, and ecofeminism. She camped with me at the Women’s Peace Encampment. I have a photo of her, at four years old, dressed in a striped red and white bathing suit, weaving yarn across the exit to the military base, to keep the nuclear missiles inside. They were supposed to be sent to allied nations in Europe, where they would be driven around on trucks for quick launch into the Soviet Union.

We were successful, by the way, not just “we” of course, but the anti-nuclear movement kick-started by women on the antiwar left in England, at Greenham Common, in Germany and in the US. I was arrested as one of the White House Lawn Eleven in 1979, the year before my child was born. I was arrested, again, at a Wall St. anti-militarism demonstration when I was six months pregnant. These protests gained enough popular resonance and force to result in the nonproliferation treaty between Reagan and Gorbechov (which might well be over-turned by Trump and Putin).

My daughter knew my friends, who were artists, activists and mothers: Grace Paley, Barbara Deming, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Judith Malina, Sybille Claiborne, Eve Merriam, and the only two still alive, ecofeminist organizer and writer, Ynestra King, whose birth I assisted and whose son my daughter met the day after he was born, and Martha Bragin, an international child-of-war trauma specialist with a program for Afghan social workers in Kabul, whose child was in the same collective day care. My daughter was breast fed on demand until she was four years old because she was mainly always with me and because it was always all right, or it felt all right to me, to breast feed where ever I was when she was hungry or needed comfort (although I lost a theater grant for breast feeding at a meeting with a local Brooklyn utility). Only once did I pump milk for her to leave in reserve so her father could do the feed—when I went to the second Women’s Pentagon Action, in 1982; and, then, too, to relieve myself, I expressed my breast milk into one of the public toilets in the shopping mall underneath the Pentagon, which felt like a ritual-offering of sorts. I finished a play the day before I went into labor. I remember sitting on the floor bending over my huge belly collating pages. That night I went to the Women’s Salon which I had co-founded, a monthly forum that hosted major writers the minute their books or plays came out. The play I finished before labor was produced in Brooklyn at the Arts at St. Ann’s, then still in the downtown church, when my child was one year old. The first time I took her in my arms into the church for a rehearsal, she, excited but too young to speak, pointed at the domed cathedral ceiling alive with light flooding through the stained glass. “Mama, see!” The words burst out in awe. It would be months before she actually began to talk, but during rehearsal breaks she would crawl onto center stage, sit and mime the gestures of the actors.

Does all this sound antiquated and odd? Or does it sound like a golden age long gone?

Nothing could be less like the motherhoods of my daughter, or of Martha’s daughter, a housing lawyer, or the daughter of another friend, a public health specialist at a state health and human services department. These mothers spend hours of their day pumping breast milk for storage in refrigerators and freezers to be given to their children when they are away at work. My daughter pumps in an employee bathroom at Trader Joe’s, where she works, in San Antonio, Texas, where she and her husband moved because on working class salaries they could afford to buy a house. Martha’s daughter refers to herself as a small-time dairy factory, pumping milk for her son born prematurely who has yet to be fed except through a pipette. At the health and human services agency, nursing mothers must make a reservation to use the lactation room because it is too small for more than one breast-feeding woman at a time. It never occurred to anyone in   “human services” that women might pump and talk together, about work or children or whatever, or, perhaps, it did occur to someone and this is why the room is only large enough for one. Another friend with a young child works on the UN Food Program and is based in Egypt. She has to pump in the prayer room reserved for her Muslim co-workers; there is no other space even for those whose job is figuring out how to feed women and children across the African continent.

These first-time mothers have all been told, they’ve told themselves, they must breast-feed their children for the first two years. My daughter comes from her late shift at 12:30 am and pumps for an hour so there will be milk for her next shift the next day. Then she nurses the baby when he wakes in the middle of the night. Before she leaves for work, she pumps again, after nursing and feeding her baby his home-cooked organic, mashed fruits and vegetables. And she does without another woman’s voice, another woman’s helping hand. She’s alone in her suburban house.

At the same time as the fetus has become “a person”; motherhood has been privatized. What once was, in my memory, collective and communal, joyful—with children passed from day-care to play-date to sleep-over among families who knew each other well, or taken with their mothers to work and on adventures where there were other adoring adults—has become a solitary endurance contest. The mother must not falter; she cannot not produce the milk. She cannot not go to work. She is busy virtually 24 hours a day; she rarely sleeps and is always tired.

Breast-feeding in public is forbidden. Pumping rooms are lonely, inhospitable places. And the burden of feeding her child an optimum diet—of breast milk—is solely hers.

Pumping machines are plastic cups held by hand to the breast, with cords running to a receptacle and they have a wheezing motor. Some pumps are more effective than others, of course, but the machines that come with most insurance plans are ineffectual and slow; it takes a long time to pump six ounces of milk.

Women are isolated, relegated to private, sometimes unsanitary spaces, while they pump. Pumping is considered break-time from work. I had never considered any of this until I visited my daughter in San Antonio and watched her days and nights. When her husband comes home from work, she goes to work. They have an hour or two at most of waking time together. The child is passed between them. He’s still young, at 9 months, but there are no playgroups and scant outings with other mothers. Most of her friends leave their children with their grandmothers while they work (thus, social security subsidizes childcare), but I live and work in New York.

The privatization of motherhood is, of course, the conservative goal. Our lives should be privatized. We should all be in it for ourselves. Wealthy women can hire nannies, but this is just the privileged form of privatization. Mothers on a treadmill from work to nurture to the breast pump have no time to get together, much less to organize.

The point of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s important book Mother and Others is that children reared and fed by groups of responsive adults (as all children in “primitive” hunting and gathering societies were and are or “they were unlikely to survive”) “learned to perceive their world as ‘giving place.’” This matters greatly, Hrdy says because “Within the first two years of life, infants fortunate enough to be reared in responsive caretaking relationships develop innate potentials for empathy, mind reading and collaboration, and often do so, with astonishing speed.”

Collective childrearing is not just good for mothers, alleviating some of the astonishing boredom of being with an infant or young child; it is essential for children if we wish, that is, to raise empathic adults, capable of understanding and caring for others as well as themselves. Those who see the world as a “giving place” are much less likely to destroy it and themselves with it. They are much more likely to take care.

Hrdy points out those evolutionary traits that are not used can atrophy and disappear. So, she posits, might be the case with empathy. That which once made us human because we recognized the other in ourselves and responded to the stresses and challenges of society as an I and Thou exchange in which our own best interests are best served by serving the best interests of others (for instance, stopping climate change and nuclear proliferation) is in danger of atrophying for lack of use. By privatizing the social activity that demands and creates empathy, we run the risk of raising human creatures wanting this essential trait. A sort of monstrous version of ourselves, loose and amuck in a universe ever-more endangered by our own actions, a world threatened by our inability to understand our own connections.

My daughter’s childhood was spent around the collective, women-dominated antinuclear and peace movements of the 1980ies; it is bitterly ironic that her child has been born into a moment when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have decided to play “nuclear chicken” with our planet and to drill for its remaining oil. Nothing would be important, now, again, than women’s voices, raised with all the authority of motherhood, to demand an end to nuclear weapons and real public policy actions to retard climate change. At this same moment, motherhood has become such a private, taxing, full-time job that woman lack the energy and strength, and the hours in the day, to secure a future for their children. This is the cost of privatizing our most communal trust: the raising of children to care.

If my, now elder generation, managed, we also failed to leave a legacy that made it possible for our daughters and their daughters to live collectively as we had. All I can say in defense is that my daughter proves my point; she is one of the most empathic people I ever met; kind and compassionate to her core, struggling and aware. But she is alone with her child. Without collective action focused on planetary peace and renewal her child’s future is grim.

Karen Malpede is a playwright and writer, co-founder of Theater Three Collaborative, editor of Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays and Women in Theatre: Compassion & Hope. Plays in Time, a collection of four of her plays, is forthcoming in 2017. Her work appears in The Kenyon Review, Torture Magazine and The Brooklyn Reader, and has been published in The New York Times, The Drama Review, TriQuarterly, Confrontations and elsewhere. She is an adjunct associate professor of theater and environmental justice at John Jay College, City University of New York.

M.A.M.A. is the Museum of Motherhood, the ProCreate Project, the Mom Egg Review, as an International exchange of ideas and art. M.A.M.A. will celebrate the notion of being “pregnant with ideas” in new ways. This scholarly discourse intersects with the artistic to explore the wonder and the challenges of motherhood. Using words and art to connect new pathways between the creative, the academic, the para-academic, the digital, and the real, as well as the everyday: wherever you live, work, and play, the Art of Motherhood is made manifest. Download the Press Release here or read about updated initiatives.

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