Myths for Mothers

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

by Adrienne Rich
Norton, 318 pp., $8.95

I told myself that I wanted to write a book on motherhood because it was a crucial, still relatively unexplored, area for feminist theory. But I did not choose this subject; it had long ago chosen me.

These mixed motives—to enlarge “feminist theory” and to express a personal experience of a fateful kind—account for the title of Adrienne Rich’s book. Motherhood as experience appears in autobiographical episodes interspersed through much longer reflections attempting to analyze motherhood as a social institution. It is impossible to discuss either the autobiography or the analysis without raising the problem of partisan writing.

The autobiography is retold by a convinced feminist, reinterpreting her past in the light of her present convictions. All autobiographies construct a myth of explanation; some are more complex than others; some authors are conscious of the limitations of their myths (as Yeats was in discussing his “masks”). Though Rich is conscious that she has not always interpreted her life as she now does, her present myth is not offered as provisional; instead, the current interpretation of events of the past forty years, from childhood to liberation, is offered as the definitive one. The gist of it runs as follows:

I don’t remember when it was that my mother’s feminine sensuousness, the reality of her body, began to give way for me to the charisma of my father’s assertive mind and temperament; perhaps when my sister was just born, and he began teaching me to read.

This “perfect” daughter [herself], though gratifyingly precocious, had early been given to tics and tantrums, had become permanently lame from arthritis at twenty-two; she had finally resisted her father’s Victorian paternalism, his seductive charm and controlling cruelty, had married a divorced graduate student, had begun to write “modern,” “obscure,” “pessimistic” poetry, lacking the fluent sweetness of Tennyson, had had the final temerity to get pregnant and bring a living baby into the world. She had ceased to be the demure and precocious child or the poetic, seducible adolescent. Something, in my father’s view, had gone terribly wrong.

It is not surprising that a woman who, at this stage in her life, represents her father as seducer, cruel controller, intellectual critic of her first poetic attempts, and angered despot, should find herself protesting the control that a society which she regards as male-dominated, and therefore cruel, exerts over women. It is not suggested in these pages that a woman with a different sort of upbringing—or a woman with the same upbringing who read it differently—might have arrived at different political or cultural feelings.

The autobiography, though sketchy and scanty because of its subordinate (though controlling) position in the book, continues. Rich had three sons, and was anesthetized for all three hospital deliveries; after the third birth she had a tubal ligation. For many years she was a “full-time mother”; she ended the marriage; her husband committed suicide; her children are now grown. Since her undergraduate years she has published poetry; during…

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