From Our Archives, Adrienne Rich and Annie Gottlieb on Motherhood

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In 1976, Annie Gottlieb reviewed a trio of books asking how “feminists look at motherhood.” In response to her sister’s deep physical attachment to her newborn (“I can feel my stomach knot when he cries”), Gottlieb sends along a quotation from Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.
Rich writes:
No one ever mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child…the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting. No one mentions the strangeness of attraction—which can be as single-minded and overwhelming as the early days of a love affair—to a being so tiny, so dependent, so folded-in to itself—who is, and yet is not, part of oneself.
The passage has stuck with me. The sense of “being taken over” is double-edged. Love can isolate. In an even more patriarchal society, Gottlieb writes, motherhood would “have divided us irrevocably from each other—and from ourselves.” How to reckon with this? What do some of the women Gottlieb writes about do in a society or pandemic in which love for another—in maternal relationships, yes, but also in relationships to partners—can drive them away from community and from other women; can drive them away from the support of their (literal) sisters?
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has particularly hurt women, brings up even more complex questions here in reconsidering Gottlieb’s work. And it is why I’ve found the Rich quotation so vexingly topical. Patriarchy and sexism mean love is sometimes used against women. A mother does not have a patent on love for child, yet it is a mother’s love that must be more—versatile, adaptive—and chillingly all-encompassing.
Even the usually casual or happy Valentine’s Day, this Sunday, brings a bit of dread on this front—more hurrahing of the loved ones we can’t escape. Haven’t we all done a good amount of sacrificing and loving for those close to us (those always in the room next to us)? Rich, and other writers, argue for a larger conception of love. One that admits a mother’s needs beyond motherhood. The mass communal love that stretches beyond family is hard to come by at any time, and it seems almost impossible right now. Feminists in 1976, as many have now, called for more, both from institutions and from men. It’s worth collectively remembering that on this Hallmark-propped holiday. The cliche is an intimate love, the outside world shut out. But feminists ask for—insist on—more: love that doesn’t isolate, but expands.

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