A friend of mine recently advised me that I should refrain from doing TV shows like 20/20 because “they don’t serve me” and they won’t sell my memoir. But I don’t do them to serve myself, nor do I do them to sell my book. If someone bought my book expecting it to be an inside look into the life of a noncustodial mother, they would be reselling it on ebay in short order.
Hiroshima in the Morning is about motherhood, yes. How I didn’t want to be a mother, how I had to reconfigure motherhood in order to remain in the lives of the children I loved, about losing my own mother to Alzheimer’s. But it’s also the story of finding oneself in a new place, about Japan, war, history, storytelling and memory.
As for serving myself, my motherhood is one aspect of me, and as my boys grow up and start looking at college and find summer jobs halfway across the world, my role in their lives is changing. In two short years, public response to my family is radically different; it has moved from outrage to gratitude. There are many women out there who are tired of equating female and sacrifice. As one friend pointed out, we readily agree that we should put on the oxygen mask first so we can help others in the case of an airplane emergency. Why is it so hard to accept that a woman might be more than a mother, and that that ‘more’ might enrich her family as well?
I speak out because no one else is asking: What if nurture wasn’t considered feminine? How much better would our society be? How many women, families and men would be allowed to bloom and create their lives as best serves them?
Nurture and love should be the priorities for our society. And as our social contracts break down and we decide we are too poor and threatened to fund education, or make sure our citizens have a place to live and food to eat, or to stop poisoning our environment because that costs more; as the gap between rich and poor becomes dangerously large; it is too easy to point to women and put the burden for nurture on their backs in the name of the “mothering instinct.” That is very clearly not serving us.
We need a new paradigm. And watching the old one kick and fuss on its way to extinction is a very good sign.
Should a mother love her children more than herself? Shouldn’t mothers sacrifice for their children? Put care for her children ahead of care for herself? What is society telling us a mother should be, and what does that say about how we value women? Moms Moving Out, 20/20 ABC-TV asks Talyaa Leira and me these questions and more. Watch here:
When Brenda Heist, the latest “runaway mom” reappeared, I was drawn back to the response I got to my own story of “leaving my children.” Yes, there were the threats, but there were also many women who showed me that I was not alone. From the article:
“I have heard from women who were escaping bad relationships, women who had to move for work, women who had been swallowed up in caregiving and enabling. I heard from women who were unfulfilled, unhappy and confused, and others who were paralyzed, frozen, and convinced they were failing their children. They were terrified and guilty about their situation and choices. One woman, who spoke for so many, wrote:
“‘There is such a horrible stigma to not being a full-time mother, and I tend to shy away from letting the mommies in my online parenting community (which I’ve been with since they were infants) know that I’m choosing not to have the kids live with me. It’s looked at as such a selfish decision, but I chose it because it was truly best for them, even though it does cause me intense pain.
“‘So again, thank you for speaking up, and giving me reassurance that my kids will not be permanently damaged by not living with me, but that doing the best I can for them and myself will make them more successful in the long run.'”
Thank you for writing, each and every one. I have not forgotten your words.
Appearing in Sixers Review today, a brief conversation with Goddard MFA graduate, Shokry Eldaly, who will someday be a literary marvel himself when he gets that half-finished novel done. Here is a sneak peek:
“Are you asking what you do when you are asked to conform? You don’t. It’s very simple. Why would you? Why would any person ever think that another person, or a structure (like publishing, or banking!), or a cultural assumption, knows what you need and who you are better than you do? You are the expert on you, and you have an urgency in your own preoccupations that is important for the rest of us to hear about. Otherwise, you become a bad copy of a character that someone else has made up.”
Read the entire interview and take a look at the journal here.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
― Muriel Rukeyser
Twenty years ago, Anita Hill sat in front of a Senate hearing and told her truth at the intersection of race and gender. She was publically pilloried by a panel of white men. This weekend, at Hunter College, Anita Hill was celebrated by a sold-out, star-studded conference, whose participants had a chance to thank her for enduring what she has so that women today could stand on her shoulders.
After a full conference day, the evening was filled with stories, in a hot ticket night of performances curated by Eve Ensler. But throughout the day, there was a clear refrain that will resonate with all women writers. What Anita did, and what we all must continue to do for each other, is to tell our stories. Gloria Steinem quoted an Indian saying: “The loss of memory is a source of oppression.” When we forget, or hide in silence and allow others to forget, we literally lose our ability to speak up for who we are. “We are restoring, supplementing, and extending each others’ memories,” Steinem declared about the conference. For me, a writer who has dedicated herself to unearthing other people’s stories, this was the most powerful reminder in an electrifying day.
At lunch, Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington state, hosted a conversation about storytelling. “When one woman tells her truth,” Executive Director Amy Wheeler said, “sometimes everyone beside her takes a step back to get out of the way.” When my memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, came out last year and I tried to tell the truth about my motherhood and open a discussion about different forms of happy families and the importance of love, I got my own small taste of the white male panel, which was only interested in shutting me down. Everything I had to say was misrepresented, and at times it seemed like my only options were to accept an invitation from a hostile television show and shout over their slurs (which I decided not to do), or to retreat and be silent.
Hedgebrook was there for me, with their radical hospitality for women writers. The Feminist Press, my publisher, also stood with me. Someone recently asked me, “Was it worth it? What did you gain?” and I have to say that it was worth it to me to get so many emails from women who shared their own stories. From them, I was reminded that we all have similar struggles, though we make different decisions. And if more of us begin to speak up, none of us will have to go it alone.
Twenty years after Anita Hill’s testimony, the immigrant service worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in New York had her case dismissed as her imperfect past was tried in the court of public opinion. It seems that we have not come as far as we want. But as Steinem also pointed out, her courage to tell her story inspired others to tell theirs, and charges of inappropriate sexual behavior and predation continue to haunt the man who now will not be President of France because one story unlocks the next, and the next. Storytelling is a radical act – I know it, and you know it because you are a writer – but I did not expect to hear that truth reflected back to me so often by so many of the conference panelists, whether they were domestic worker organizers, academics, lawyers or performers.
We women writers need to tell the truth about our lives. It’s not a hobby or an indulgent luxury that we sit down to our desks and write. It is a service, a path-showing, a community we create for others. We also need to support each others’ truth by short circuiting the media and structures that would keep us silent and by sharing each other’s work. As Amy Wheeler said, “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my voice, and your voice, and your voice. We are in it together.”
That’s when the world will truly split open. Keep writing!
I will be talking with Cecilia Skidmore on The Open Mind on WGVU Radio today and next Sunday. Her program complements a national PBS series called Women, War and Peace. Listen in to the streaming broadcast online, or download the segment at your convenience.
The show airs in Grand Rapids, MI at 7:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Sundays.on WGVU-FM 88.5 and 95.3.
“As a writer, I have always been attracted to what is hidden. I write to understand what is not understandable, what is not even acceptable, and to find a deeper truth in what has not been spoken.
“I write war, trauma, history.
“I also write family, without planning to do so. And motherhood. This is the natural consequence of writing who I am. In our culture and our stories, gender is everything. I have learned – not always in the nicest ways – that even when I am sure that my own preoccupations have nothing to do with gender, my readers will still bring their own, gender-based expectations to my work.”
This morning, I discovered – surprise, surprise! – that there is very little traffic on the roads at 2:30 in the morning. That’s when I was picked up for a live interview on the Lorraine show, on ITV in the UK. More traffic than expected at 4:00 am, when I was finished. In between, a conversation with a smiley face on a yellow post it (that’s where I was supposed to look at the camera – I could hear Lorraine’s Scottish brogue in my ear, but her image was too time-lagged to look at). If you have an international video viewer, you can see it here. If not, you can wait along with me for the DVD to arrive in the mail.
A not terribly groundbreaking debate on noncustodial motherhood begins at about 16:20 minutes into the episode, but it ends with the acknowledgment that different models of family and childcare can work!