By Rachel O’Neill
MaMSIE readers may be interested in a new collection of essays on the theme of mothering and feminist subjectivities. Edited by Vanessa Reimer and Sarah Sahagian, Mother of Invention combines feminist theory and life writing to explore the many ways in which mothers – whether or not they identify as feminists – can inspire feminist consciousness in their children. Below is an extract from the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘Impressions of my mother: On wilfulness and passionate scholarship’, in which I consider some of the difficulties of writing feminist auto/biography.
On beginning to draft this chapter, I realise that I don’t know how to name my mother in writing. Should I employ the formal ‘mother’, the generic ‘mom’, or do I address her as I do in person, favouring the Irish pronouncement, ‘Ma’? What of her own name? Do I need to be consistent anyway, or is this a literary affectation? Further difficulties present themselves as I start to write and find myself vacillating between past and present tense, confounding temporal distinctions as I try to capture the change and constancy of my mother’s character. How can I convey the complex and multifaceted nature of her person? She has been so many different people, has had so many different lives: a subdued little girl, well-versed in her own mother’s stoicism; a brilliant but troubled young woman who wore her dark hair long, as though to hide behind it; a sad and resentful bride, her sister so recently laid to rest; a young wife who followed her husband to Canada in earnest, only to find herself left alone to look after her two babies; a daughter who cared patiently, tenderly, for her ailing mother in the final years of her life; a woman married thirty years, with all the tribulations this entails, now steadily adored by a man who fixes her coffee, picks her flowers and comes home early; a skilled photographer, immortalising fishermen on Achill Island, consecrating discarded remnants in a place time forgot; a mother of four who, loving us each intensely, suffers all of our hurts and disappointments as if they were her own (and seems to believe they are); a woman who dances with her arms raised and her eyes closed.
These fragments can do only some of the necessary descriptive work. I know that to give some account of our relationship I will need to refer to specific episodes and anecdotes. I quickly find, however, that it is not easy to quarry one’s memory banks. I worry too about the distortions of memory, feeling that some of those familiar familial stories will have become exaggerated in the repetition of their telling. Conferring with family members, my misgivings are confirmed as we turn up different versions of events. Is there any one account that most closely approximates the actuality of the occurrence? Is the veracity of any story even important, or is there something more compelling in how it is remembered and re-told? I wonder what is at stake in remembering (and re-membering) family stories. Perhaps the best thing is to adopt a more “methodical” approach. I decide to interview Ma. She agrees to this and one Saturday evening we settle in to talk over the internet, she at home in Ireland, myself in London, seeing each other via computer cameras. She is nervous at first, unsure of what she is supposed to say, not knowing what the exercise will consist of. I ask her simply to tell me about her life, describing any relation to feminism she might have. She begins, hesitantly, but soon relaxes and begins to talk with ease. Enjoying herself now, she tells me stories I have never heard before. I am engrossed. When I review my notes the next day, it is clear that I was too absorbed in my mother’s talk to give it any direction; I have come away with far more questions than answers. Transcribing my notes, fixing the spoken word by converting it to the more lasting form of the written, I am struck by the immutable character of words on a page. I wonder if my mother has given too much of her self, has spoken too freely. Did she forget that the interview – which had so much the character of a tête-à-tête – was supposed to provide some basis to this paper, that I would write about what she told me? I worry about exploiting this expansiveness, so uncharacteristic of her.
These attempts towards authentication are borne of a desire for my mother to recognise herself in this composite portrait. In writing, I become resigned to the idea that there will be discordances – because she does not, cannot, see herself as I see her. I worry especially that my attempts to read my mother through feminism will be rebuked, my efforts towards better understanding met with charges of intellectual posturing and pretension. I cannot but be conscious of the dangers my presumptions might hold, wary of the ambivalence of our relationship: the easy hurt, our mutual fear of saying the wrong thing and becoming at odds. And what of the others? My father – very much the public face of our family – will he be embarrassed, offended or disappointed by what I write? Probably he knows that he does not come off well in any account of my mother’s early married life, having neglected (the word is bitter) his wife to forge his career, the real fear of poverty and the absolute need to succeed always spurning him on. How changed he is now, so generous and considerate – it seems unfair to bring up these early failings. And yet, this is part of the story, and an important part of my own story. I consider as well my two older sisters and my younger brother. What will they think? Will they read what I write and balk at the conceit of the iteration ‘my mother’? Because she is not my mother alone: each of us, her children, have different conceptions of who she was and is, our relationships to her mediated by divergent upbringings, the shifting life circumstances and family dynamics we bore witness to and participated in.
Rachel O’Neill is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where her research centres on men and masculinities, sexual cultures and social change. The above extract is taken from her essay on wilfulness and passionate scholarship, one of seventeen contributions to Mother of Invention. Further information about the book is available via the publisher’s website: http://brunswickbooks.ca/Mother-of-Invention/.