March 29, 2003

Gone for Soldiers: Motherhood and Military Duty

"We must therefore return to the state of nature, in which, by reason of the equality of nature, all men of riper years are to be accounted equal. There by right of nature the conqueror is lord of the conquered. By the right therefore of nature, the dominion over the infant first belongs to he who first hath him in his power. But it is manifest that he who is newly born is in the mother's power before any others; insomuch as she may rightly, and at her own will, either breed him up or adventure him to fortune...
...And thus in the state of nature, every woman that bears children, becomes both a mother and a lord...[for] among men no less than other creatures, the birth follows the belly."

-- Thomas Hobbes, De Cive

Ok, I don't think the newborn infant is as conquered to the conqueror. Nor do I endorse a view of parental authority that would define the relationship between parent and child as that of master and servant. And I would take a rather dim view of any parent (whether of the paternal or maternal persuasion) who would decide to "adventure" a child "to fortune."
(And of course I don't believe in "the state of nature" except as an interesting thought experiment, though I am sometimes inclined -- and especially of late -- to accept Hobbes's characterization of this state as a war of all against all, where the life of man is nasty, brutish and short, and etc).

Nevertheless, I really like Hobbe's discussion of maternal dominion. And not only because he argues forcefully that male domination is conventional (ie contractual and artificial) rather than natural but also because in his own strange (strangely disturbing but strangely compelling) way, he takes motherhood seriously. Unlike just about every other early modern natural law theorist that you can name, he doesn't begin by supposing that paternal authority is natural. No, no, he says, there are two parents not one, and one of those parents stands in a much closer relationship to the child than the other, and that parent is not the father but the mother. It is maternal and not paternal authority that is natural, Hobbes insists. The birth follows the belly.

How very different from anything you can read on motherhood from the seventeenth century to the day before yesterday. And even since the day before yesterday, you'd be hard-pressed to find much on motherhood that isn't bogged down in dense thickets of sentimentality. Believe me, I've read more than enough on mothering and motherhood, and I am oppressed by the dead weight of desire, and blame, and wishful thinking, and sentimental claptrack and just plain ickiness. The worst is when they attempt to dress it all up in the garb of science. Hello! Can we say "ideology"? The term has fallen out of fashion, perhaps you find it clunky and theoretically naive: in which case, let me refer you to the mothering manuals, where clunkiness and theoretical naivete are the order of the day -- 'go big or go home' is my motto, so why not use an analytic tool that can capture the very essence of the genre? (for starters, I would recommend The Baby Bookby Bill and Martha Sears, but please also read this by Cynthia Eller). Enough! At some point during my son's infancy, I had to stop reading the parenting books. Exit stage left: I didn't audition for this part, and I'm not going to play it. Find yourself another actor, I've got a new role as understudy to Mr. Hobbes.

No, not really. I mean, of course not. I'm no lordly ruler (though I'm not going to make some cutesy "his majesty the baby" joke about how my son is really the boss in this household, because that's just wrong and a little bit icky, too). And yet. There is something refreshingly bracing about Hobbes's utter lack of sentimentality. There is something invigorating in his recognition that the mother has "her own will." It comes as a breath of fresh air after all that stuff written just the day before yesterday, which is all about carefully, indeed obsessively, instructing you in the maternal sentiments that you should already possess by nature, and by the way, if you still have a will of your own, then you are unnatural and probably a bad mother. So I read Hobbes with something like relief, even as I historicize and contextualize and of course reject the notion of parental dominion, with all that this term would imply.

All of this by way of an elaborate prefatory apology for what I want to say, which is, namely, that I don't much like the idea of mothers of infants and small children being sent off on military missions. Not women, mind you, and not mothers of older children. But mothers of infants and small children. Well, so what? Who am I and why should my likes and dislikes have anything to do with policy in this area? They shouldn't. Hell, I'm not even an American (I'm a Canadian living in the US with an American husband and American child). And I'm quite sure that I would not intervene in any way to change the current policy (sign a petition, lobby Congress, vote on a proposition [actually, I can't vote because I'm a Canadian, but if I could, well, I wouldn't]).

But I don't like it, and I'm trying to figure out why. Feel free to call me a gender reactionary. Because maybe that's about right. Maybe I am a gender reactionary in this area. Though I hope not quite as reactionary as the antifeminist Maggie Gallagher, whose "How does one define honor for women in combat?" is the subject of some interesting comments over at Pandagon. "Yet if manly honor has always depended on a willingness to die for one's country," writes Gallagher, "a woman's honor has consisted in living for her children. Where in the logic of war is there room for that reality, the deepest truth I know?" Well, I don't accept this version of "reality," which is very far indeed from "the deepest truth" I know. My "honour" consists in living for my child? Ick-o-rama.

And yet, if I don't, like Gallagher, "inwardly recoil," I am unsettled. The New York Times has an online "Slide Show" called "New Role for Women" with pictures of women in the military. You can get to it from their front page. One of the pictures shows "Private First Class Diana Goodwin [holding] her three-month-old son, Adan, at a departure ceremony for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Tex." I don't know how to link to it, it's a popup without an obvious URL, and so I briefly considered posting the picture here but then decided against it. No, that's too manipulative, I thought, that is bogging the issue down in those thickets of sentimentality of which I so often complain. But the picture disturbs me. It strikes me as wrong for a mother to have to leave a 3-month old child. Not that it is right for a father to have to leave a 3-month old child. But it seems more wrong when it's the mother and especially when the child is only 3 months old.

Am I myself bogged down in those dense thickets? Undoubtedly. So I'm trying to disentangle myself, and I'm struggling to articulate a feminist defense of my position. There is the gender equity line of feminism which says, Women can and should do whatever men do, mothers can and should do whatever is done by fathers. And then there's the antifeminist position which says, a man is more manly as a soldier, a woman more womanly as a mother. But are there no other positions? I also reject the maternal feminist position, by the way, women as peaceful nurturers, mothers as incarnations of the Goddess and so and so forth. For me, that's just more sentiment and ickiness. No, I want to be a little more hardnosed (if not Hobbesian) about this.

But where to start? I suppose I would have to start by pointing to the incredible devaluation of motherwork in this society. Mothers should be valued for the work that we do and we quite patently are not valued. And I don't mean valued in some Hallmark greeting card way. Show me the money: I'm talking cold, hard cash. Actually, what I'm talking about is paid maternity leave, various versions of which we find in just about every other western industrialized nation, including my own home and native land. In Canada, you get 6 to 12 months (which can be taken by either mother or father), it's a form of unemployment insurance. This is huge! this is a huge difference between the US and Canada. One country says, What you are doing is valuable, and valued enough that we will actually devote some resources to helping you do it; the other country says, We will give you cheap Hallmark sentimentality but not a nickel more, and then when you go back to work at 6 weeks postpartum because you bloody well can't afford to stay home, we will blame you for being a selfish and uncaring mother (oh, and don't even get me started on the moralizing over breastfeeding: yes, breastfeeding is a wonderful thing, so let's do something to support it; wondering why they have such high breastfeeding rates in Norway and such low rates in America? I'll give you a hint: one country actually supports mothers and infants, the other does not). Not that maternity leave should be seen as some sort of government "handout," mind you. It's a form of social insurance to which everyone pays in, because everyone will sooner or later reap the benefits (eg, in the form of the work of those future workers who will be funding social security). And it is as nothing to what the unpaid work of mothers and fathers contributes to the official economy. So ok, if there is a universal maternity leave, then the mother doesn't have to leave her 3-month old, whether to work as a cashier, lawyer, teacher, programmer, whatever, or to be shipped out for military service. You have a child under the age of 1? You are excused from the duties which you will later resume, not because you are a delicate hothouse flower or an angel in the house but because you are already performing a very valuable service.

And then I would want to think about the class angle. "More than 630,000 members of the armed services are parents," I read in an article at the Dr. Spock web site entitled "When Mom and Dad Go Off to War," and "among them are more than 80,000 single parents--mostly mothers--and nearly 35,000 whose spouses are also in the armed forces." Close to 80,000 single mothers? I had no idea. Well, probably a lot of them want to be there, I really hope so, at any rate. And why not? It's an honourable career, and they should be free to choose it. But I can't help wondering about the menu of options from which they have to choose. And I can't help thinking about the logic of welfare "reform," and the throwing of mothers into the workforce, children be damned, because those mothers should be working instead of staying home watching tv. But wait? don't the very same conservatives who argue for an end to welfare also endorse -- and more than endorse, urge, exhort, sermonize and moralize about -- the stay-at-home motherhood ideal? Why yes, they do. For nice white middle-class mothers with husbands to support them. Their children need them at home, we hear. But what about the children of those other mothers? Tough break. But it's time to break the cycle of dependency: Get them all out to work. Maybe the kids are next? Victorian values: why not Victorian realities? child labour, children in factories, the whole nine yards. Anyway, I don't know about those 80,000 single mothers in the military, but I'm wondering what were their other options? And I'm thinking that whatever choice they might want to make, they should at least have the option (which they could take or leave as they pleased) of a paid maternity leave so they wouldn't have to leave infants while they go off to serve.

And then too, I have to think about my own class position and the highly privileged infancy/toddlerhood of my own child. Sure, I complain about being an adjunct, but in the grand scheme of things I'm doing ok. More than ok. Maybe I don't have a future in the academy, but a future somewhere I probably do have. My husband is a lawyer, we are affluent and overeducated, we read the New Yorker and chatter about the issues of the day, and there is no freakin' way we would have countenanced my leaving our 3-month old to go off on a dangerous mission from which I might not return, not if we could help it, which as a matter of fact we could. And if I adopted a position which said, Well why not send mothers of infants, motherhood is not sacred, and etc, I think I would be less than honest in doing so. Not because I think do think motherhood is sacred (ick) but because I do think it's important, and I wouldn't want my own infant to be deprived of his mother, and I know very well that I myself would not leave my infant if I had a choice.

I don't know. It's all a bit of a muddle. I am trying to think this through, and to think in terms of taking motherhood seriously as something valued and valuable and important, and am just throwing out some ideas without doing enough to connect the dots. But what I'm thinking for the moment is that, though Maggie Gallagher's position is clearly that of a reactionary, it's not entirely clear to me that the position which says "off to serve regardless of infants and small children" is the only feminist and progressive one.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 29, 2003 04:22 AM

a very good post.
Tis opening up the eclipse of difference around being a mother and a citizen.

In the light of the previous post it shows that the humanities can say something about public issues: defining them as a problem and then opening it up for discussion.

Rousseau spoke from the other side. A Greek women meet a messenger coming back from the war to inform the city what had happened. He informed her that she had lost a son in the battle.
Did we win? she asked. The messenger said yes.
Thanks be to heaven (or something like that) she said.
Rousseau comments: there speaks a citizen.

My comment: you downplay the citizen side expressed by the women going off to the war. At some point the mother needs to go to fight to defend her country---- otherwise you end up in the conservative camp.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at March 31, 2003 12:13 AM

You're quite right: I'm still in the conservative camp because I haven't arrived at a satisfactory solution to the mother vs. citizen problem.
Problem is: I think the infant (who is not yet a citizen) suffers real deprivation from the absence of the mother. But to say this is to risk falling into the "republican motherhood" trap (mother's role as citizen is to raise up next generation of citizens).

This would all look very different if we were talking about an invasion of our country, at which point the defense of our lives and liberties would override other needs (eg, the needs of the infant).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 1, 2003 12:38 AM

there is always the ALIENS trap too I suppose, as a recent father soon to be twice, the mothering thing looks harder, especially as ulrike calls mumumumum until she realises that mum aint here and its me only then does she go dadadadadad,
see i am in a muddle too, cause Ulrike is

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 1, 2003 10:48 AM

Yes. The experience of motherhood explodes the myth of the autonomous individual and reveals it for what it is: a sometimes useful and sometimes not so useful fiction.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 1, 2003 06:34 PM

And infants don't give a sh*t about feminism.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 1, 2003 06:36 PM

it blowed

Posted by: at September 25, 2003 01:35 PM