The Common Good
June 2004

The Past Interrupted

by Ivy George | June 2004

I contemplated motherhood well aware that at many points the line between private matters and public affairs was faint and broken.

My passage to motherhood was a circuitous one. As a single woman I felt pressure to get married; as a married woman I felt pressure to have a child. The reasons given were fairly explicit: continuity, productivity, success, vocation, and fulfillment. And, as some of my thoughtful associates told me, children are channels of hope in a world scant of it.

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But knowing well that historical and contemporary forces and fates larger than the self influenced choice and sensibilities, I could not contemplate motherhood lightly. It was a lonely and isolating time as I moved among perplexed friends and against an impatient body clock. Ultimately, my mind encircled a lifelong condition of being and knowing: Grief.

I was born into an egregiously unequal society, in southern India. A world where even as a child I could easily connect the dots between those who had the advantage and those who did not. The house pets, servants, masters, and madams; vegetarians and non-vegetarians; Hindus, Muslims, and Christians; boys and girls; men and women; tenants and owners; rural and urban; fair-skinned and dark-skinned—all bore the marks of the social pox of "birth, rank, and hereditary influence." This intricate, sometimes subtle, frequently graphic apartheid was the mantle of my social inheritance. Later, my emigration to the United States and a loss of place through colonialism and globalization have further contributed to this state of grief.

So I contemplated motherhood well aware that the line between private matters and public affairs was faint and broken at many points. I could not take responsibility for bearing a child. It would be reckless to do so, and I was without confidence.

My exposure to the world’s unrelenting social fissures, to the circumstances of women and children caught in conflict and want, made me aware of many children who needed a home and family. Amidst all this, could I provide a home for one child? I was haunted by that possibility.

Despite the pervasive corruption, the values of care and nurture still have a place in the world; acts of love still bring joy, meaning, and purpose to human living. I was persuaded that to welcome a child in this world was a tribute to life at large, a fragile response to the brokenness. After all, that most elemental relationship between a caregiver and child is perhaps the first and sometimes last space for many of us to do life over—to do the world over in a sense. In that spirit my husband and I moved to adopt a baby girl from India.

Our decision was prompted by our social memory and experiences. I longed for some expiation of the grief and shame I had witnessed. The past had to be interrupted. It had to be resisted, and doing so personally was a challenge I wanted to rise to. In a real sense, our move to adopt fell into the realm of an imperative in our otherwise severely compromised lives.

THE IDEA OF "mother love," several studies show, is built on an artifice of social construction. Far from an a priori relationship to be automatically assumed between woman and child, a variety of social factors have to be present to develop this relationship. Moving the term "motherhood" from a fixed, nominal category to a descriptor of specific social relations between a woman and a child provides some elasticity to include not only adoptive mothers, but also "social maternity" where aunts, grandmothers, extended family relations, and older siblings provide prolonged care for children. Conversely, women who for physical, psychological, social, political, and economic reasons are not able to care for their offspring should be free from being weighted down by the term. Biological events should not have to define the entirety of these women’s lives.

This versatility in the concept of "mother" has been enormously illuminating and liberating for me as I try to be a mother to our daughter. I now occupy a vast, uncharted, and unimagined territory of grief and human connection. Not a day passes when I do not think of or pray for the woman who gave birth to our child. At the visceral level I experience deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual bonds with her. I am moved by the heroic quality of her life: bearing, caring, giving in, and finally giving up. I long to know her, to tell her that I am her shadow sister who walks with her, and that I will keep her trust to my death. In this almost surreal relationship we have been knit together by a trust without any guarantees. Not faith or hope exactly, because no promise has been given. Merely the amazement of two distant and unlikely fates inextricably intertwined through one little life.

By association I try to imagine the lives of women all over the world who have been wrenched from their children by external forces, ranging from the personal and familial to political and cultural arrangements. I think of the children who live with loss and speculation around their origins. I am grateful to have entered this circle of grief and to define my life in light of this tragic knowledge.

While there have been critical points in my life when I felt the weight of my gender, my status as a woman crested and crystallized as a mother. Enough has been said and written about the enormity of the task of motherhood; still one is ill-prepared for the extraordinary experience of isolation and inequity. What do I mean? When women’s work of caring is rendered invisible by societal arrangements and structures, a kind of social femicide is in process.

By "invisible" I am not only implying the relegation of women’s work to the category of nonproductive labor. More fundamental is the sense that mothering is a high life art and skill that has held up humanity from time immemorial—and that cataloguing and quantifying its genius and challenges is a Herculean exercise. To rest in a space that is so expansive is what makes it so isolating. All mothers are drawn into this drama to varying degrees. Mothering is a potentially revolutionary activity, and many women who mother have a fugitive knowledge of this.

I am overwhelmed knowing that the environment we provide for this child will be crucial for her preparation to live in the world, and in turn for her preparation of this world. We make innumerable choices for our children and impose our will on them in the process; this self-knowledge calls for humility and gentleness. Adoption magnifies this. I then stand in need of my child’s forgiveness and grace.

I am troubled by the contradiction of living in one world while hoping to create another. All the choices I make for my child—the clothes I purchase, the food she eats, the books read to her, and the school she attends—are made on a host of competitive privileges I have either inherited or purchased. Somewhere alongside the early lessons on sharing and interdependence, I start socializing her into the virtues of independence, superiority, and competition. The noncompetitive, non-gendered world I would like does not exist, and I am too anxious not to prepare her for the world that she will inevitably enter. I live this paradox every day.

But mothering women have some unique and special contributions they can make in a society’s quest for cultures of peace. Mothers create with their children the earliest human social reality and thus lay down the rudiments of what it means to be human in the primal formation of a new life; it is here that motherhood becomes a potentially revolutionary activity.

As a student of economics and social policy, I learned that human societies operate around rational, exchange, and contract-bound relations. The virtues of market relations in the present climate of globalization have been naturalized and are hailed as if sacrosanct. Any moral scrutiny is deemed threatening. But my experiences as a mother have been revelatory in undercutting these prevailing worldviews on human behavior. The firsthand information that mothers and mothering persons have is that while the buyer-seller relational model may be functional in the market, it is hardly descriptive of daily relations in other social spheres, especially mother-child relations.

I don’t want to privilege mother-child relations as being somehow paradigmatic for all others. Even this relationship can be fraught with violence and oppression. Mothers know well their own tendencies to violence—an absence of ambivalence to the subject would be dishonest and puerile. Nevertheless, mothers have had palpable glimpses of peace through the exercise of self-restraint and self-knowledge.

Under healthy circumstances, children and their caregivers echo God’s presence and love to one another. In a constructive maternal relationship, a child can facilitate an understanding of divine love as the mother contemplates her attentiveness and care for her child day by day. Mothers know the value of presence for their children. They have some sense of the infinite worth of their attention to those in their care.

Motherhood is also chastening, as one is called to silence and suffering, to withhold or postpone one’s egotism and negate one’s self. This has been crucial for me as I find myself caught painfully in the crosscurrents of two worlds—one, of my higher noble self (often ideal and hoped for) and the other, of my quotidian self, shouting, impatient, mean-spirited, and without charity.

Mothers often have the sense that God is looking over and back at them. In her attempts to grant grace, peace, mercy, and love to the child, the mother often has the sense of standing in for God or acting as God would unto her. In the laser-like accuracy of children’s perceptions, in the spirit of their forgiveness and forgetfulness, in the trust they mutually enjoy in each other, elements of the divine reflect back. The infinite, spiraling dynamic between forgiveness and love is both a humbling and exhilarating experience that mothers know in their own growth, and children potentially know by example: the earthly signs of spiritual graces.

Again, adoption has heightened these sensibilities for me. I have a keen sense of what it means to be a recipient of trust. My daughter has been entrusted to me by one woman in particular, and by God at large. This awareness serves as a constant corrective in my intentions; for this I am deeply grateful. There are concentric effects to this consciousness of being a guardian of trust in terms of the wider world. An understanding of the self as a trustee is an essential ingredient for the pursuit of peace.

For all the grief I know, the world is worth coming into and life is a great gift. This conviction was the primary impetus to adopt our daughter. As a mother it is a special privilege to be able to introduce life and the world to a child and thus stand as a minuscule link in the gigantic cosmic chain. As long as there are those who care for others, they will have the last word on human possibility, even if it is only spoken and known indoors.

Ivy George chairs the department of sociology and social work at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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