I don’t know why I thought I could get away without reading Of Woman Born. Its canonical status felt off-putting; its age (it was first published in 1976) surely meant it would be dated, unnecessary. But still, it was always there. It was reading, and loving, Rachel Zucker’s Mothers, itself interspersed with quotes from Rich’s classic, that finally pushed me to read it.
And, of course, I was wrong. Reading Of Woman Born, during long February evenings on the sofa as B played acoustic guitar beside me, I felt it cracking open the very ground I find myself standing on. As Rich writes in her 1986 introduction,
“Some ideas are not really new but keep having to be affirmed from the ground up, over and over. One of these is the apparently simple idea that women are as intrinsically human as men, that neither women nor men are merely the enlargement of a contact sheet of genetic encoding, biological givens. Experience shapes us, randomness shapes us, the stars and weather, our own accommodations and rebellions, above all, the social order around us.”Ten Years Later: A New Introduction, Of Woman Born, Rich (1986)
Rich works to separate mothering as experience (open in theory to both women and men, whether biological parents or not) from motherhood as patriarchial institution. In a beautiful short essay on Of Woman Born, Miranda Field writes,
Of Woman Born intends to liberate. To make us see how much of what goes unquestioned outside of feminist thinking—considered “part of our nature,” “our natural position”—is actually engineered. Rich wants us to know that there’s a long, continuous umbilical connection between the societies we live in, our personal lives and our art. It might strangle or anchor. It’s wise to be aware of its phenomenal tensile strength, or at the very least, of the slippery fact of its existence.Going for Motherlode: On Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Miranda Field
It’s the way in which Rich approaches this work — her “odd-fangled” approach (her term in the 1986 introduction) — mixing personal history with research, and developing a theory from both, that I loved. I had expected something drier, a more academic approach (a masculine approach?), but instead I found a real life, messy and personal, riddled with contradiction; unique and yet transcendent. Rich writes,
I believe increasingly 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. Of Woman Born (1986), p15
Yes. The conversations in the playground, or here on the internet. The spaces on social media where I watch people affirm one another’s experience of mothering. Where I see, and felt seen. And this integration of the personal brings, what for me, were some of the book’s most vivid, beautiful and lyrical moments, suggesting other ways, different paths, a life being lived. Remembering a summer when her husband was abroad and she and her three boys, then nine, seven and five years old, were living alone in a friend’s house in Vermont, Rich writes,
I watched their slender little-boys’ bodies grow brown, we washed in water warm from the garden hose lying in the sun, we lived like castaways on some island of mothers and children. At night they fell asleep without murmur and I stayed up reading and writing as I had when a student, till the early morning hours. I remember thinking: This is what living with children could be — without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself. Driving home once, after midnight, from a late drive-in movie, through the foxfire and stillness of a winding Vermont road, with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a “bad mother.” We were conspirators, outlaws from the institution of motherhood; I felt enormously in charge of my life. Of Woman Born (1986), p194
(Rachael Nevins, taking her cue from this passage, writes wonderfully about what it might mean to self-identify as an ‘outlaw’ mother, rather than a ‘bad’ one.)
There is something else of the 1986 edition that appealed to me beyond measure: where Rich disagrees with her decade-younger-self, she doesn’t amend her original text, but instead, in a footnote, disagrees with or questions her earlier thinking. The grace of changing one’s mind, knowing that knowledge is evolving not fixed, and having the courage to leave one’s tracks as a path for others.
Rich’s chapter on mothers and daughters takes up the idea of matriphobia — “the fear not of one’s mother or of motherhood but of becoming one’s mother” — which took me back to thinking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (truthfully, I’m never that far from thinking of Ferrante) and Lenù’s troubled relationship with her mother. Rich writes,
Matrophobia can be seen as a womanly splitting of the self, in the desire to become purged once and for all of our mothers’ bondage, to become individuated and free. The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr. Our personalities seem dangerously to blur and overlap with our mothers; and, in a desperate attempt to know where mother ends and daughter begins we perform radical surgery. Of Woman Born (1986), p236
I’m still thinking about this, but following this thread is yet another reason I want to return to the Neapolitan quartet.
Reading Of Woman Born — reading the actual text, rather than reading about it — felt such an important rite of passage, and one that I should have tackled far sooner. (Though it seems almost no coincidence that I got to it as I emerged from a decade of mothering small people — my oldest child nearly ten and my youngest, at four, finally leaving those years of sleeplessness and constant demand. Which is to say that, for me at least, mothering very small people has been incompatible with reading the classics of feminist mothering.) I felt enormous despair that a forty year old book should be so relevant; but I also felt the distance that has been travelled, and a deep, deep gratitude that it was written.
Mostly my thoughts were urgent, personal. Rich seemed to be speaking directly to me. I’ll leave you with the passage that broke me, standing here at the cross-roads of oh, this is what I’ve ‘chosen’ and now what? The underlining is mine.
The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities. For a mother […] [i]t means that the mother herself is trying to expand the limits of her life. To refuse to be a victim: and then to go on from there.
Only when we can wish imaginatively and courageously for ourselves can we wish unfetteredly for our daughters. […]
As daughters we need mothers who want their own freedom and ours. We need not to be the vessels of another woman’s self-denial and frustration. The quality of the mother’s life — however embattled and unprotected — is her primary bequest to her daughter, because a woman who can believe in herself, who is a fighter, and who continues to struggle to create livable space around her, is demonstrating to her daughter that these possibilities exist.Of Woman Born (1986), p246-247