Jewish Mother and Son: The Feminist Version
by Phyllis Chesler
I am a Jewish mother because I am the daughter of a Jewish mother. My mother, Lillian Chesler, (of blessed memory), died on February 24th, 1998. Only now that she is gone, do I really begin to know her. I think about her more now than when she was alive. She is more present, closer. I hear her more clearly, I know just what she would say in any given circumstance. I have learned her lines. I know them well. Although I fled from the family madness, violence, secrecy, denial, I have also come to understand that my mother is the one person I have most tried to please, the one person whom I could never please—and she might say the very same thing about me.
My mother was—is?— very smart, energetic, ambitious. I used to say (even to her) that she could run a small country, but that's exactly what she thought she was doing as she presided over our family of five. My mother was the youngest of five sisters, of whom three survived. She was born 17 years after her next eldest sister, the only one to be born in America. My mother functioned as an interpreter for her Yiddish speaking parents in an English-speaking world. She was the baby, the family's last hope for a son. My mother was the domestic servant, first to her eldest sister, then to her parents. She quit school to support ailing, aging, parents. This never bothered her; it was her greatest "mitzvah," good deed. My mother spoke of her parents in a hushed, obedient, slightly frightened, or rather awe- struck tone. "Ma," I would ask. "How could you stand it that they didn't let you go to college and they wouldn't let you study ballet either?" "What do you know," she'd say, "There was no choice, they needed me, you don't ask questions, you just help out."
And, while she berated me, bitterly for my "wild" ways, she actually never forced me to help her with the ever-returning housework; she allowed me to do my non-stop reading and writing and drawing and thinking...
From time to time, my mother visits me wearing either her pink or her aqua pastel chiffon dress, beaming. She is, finally, becoming my faerybook Guardian Angel.
Before I became a mother, my ego knew no bounds. I thought I could overcome all obstacles through force of will, not by bending to circumstance, or trusting in forces larger than myself. For me, motherhood was something of a reverse Zen experience. In the beginning, I had no responsibilities other than to my ideas. Having a child was a passage from detachment to attachment.
I learned that life does not stand still, that it is always changing, growing, dying, being renewed. For years, when I had looked in the mirror, I always looked the "same" to myself. Time became real for me when I began to measure it by my son's obvious, visible growth. Time became more finite.
I comprehended, in my body, that I would die.
Upon becoming a new-born mother—oh how the earth pulled me down, grounded me, deepened my imaginative reach. Becoming a mother changed my life. It humbled and empowered me, slowed me down, made me kinder, and infinitely more vulnerable to cruelty. Having a son, not a daughter, was a challenge to my passionate, woman-centered feminism. I used to joke that if I'd had a daughter, she would probably have rebelled against my Warrior Program For Girls by marrying young and embracing a traditional life. I was unprepared for a son; thus, I accepted him as he was, I had no program to impose upon him.
I lie. How I lived my life, the ideas I held most dear, were, for my son Ariel, his earliest knowledge of Eden, the site of origin, memory, safety, familiarity, the place from which he was "sent forth." In Bereshit 3:23, God does not "banish" or "exile" us from Paradise. Like a mother, God "vayishalchahoo," sent us forth, released us, into History, to confront mortality, pain, danger, destiny, and covenental glory.
In my 37th year, I quietly and deliberately chose to become a biological mother. At the time, I had been a feminist activist for a decade, and a university professor and therapist for eight years. I had already published two books and was working on a third. My husband was an Israeli, born after the Jews had a sovereign state of our own; through his mother, he was also among the ninth generation of descendants of the Bal Shem Tov. Obviously, this all mattered to me, as did his promise to co-mother our child.
More than 22 years have passed since I was first pregnant with Ariel. In the beginning, we were raw, strangers to each other, mere possibilities; as he aged, we grew, miraculously, closer. We continue to defy the so-called normal course of "development," in which young boys, girls too, are supposed to reject the world of their mothers, in order to receive their fathers' or the world's blessing.
Now, in his 21st year, Ariel towers over me—not fair, I jest: I should be taller since I've read more books than he has. I am, of course, proud of his height, in every sense. He's not merely pro-mother but pro his own mother! He is a writer and a poet. He is also an ardent feminist. Quietly, he's changed his name to mine.
How have I managed to wrest a feminist son from this world? Was this destined, was it something I did, or something my son brought with him—his gift to me? Is he "mine," because his father abandoned him—and I was all Ariel had? I doubt it; too often, this scenario leads other, similarly father-wounded sons and daughters, into overly prizing the absent father, taking the omnipresent mother for granted.
Mothering a child can be an incomparable rite of passage. However, I certainly do not romanticize mothers or motherhood. The working conditions are inhumane, the choice to mother more forced than free. The Forced Motherhood Experience does not transform every woman into a saint. Some blossom, others, martyred, shrivel.
Perhaps I was more conscious than most women that I did, indeed, have a choice about whether "to be or not to be..." a mother. Perhaps, like most women, I, too, yearned for my mother's love and approval—and in its perceived absence, gravitated towards having a child—as if only a child could meet a grown woman's longings for union and intimacy, and satisfy a Jewish daughter's obligation to become a Jewish mother.
However, I did not "sign on" to be a single mother.
Even with household and child-care assistance, being the sole female breadwinner and primary caretaker of a young child is the hardest job on earth. For me, it meant working 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, enduring escalating expenses, a decline in both income and "prospects," little time to squander on adult-only social or sexual diversions. On the other hand, the children of single mothers often tend to develop a more balanced, human Self; they often embody both "masculine" and "feminine" traits. Sons cook, do the family laundry, daughters repair toilets. Sons (but daughters too) sometimes go into their mother's business.
In a beautiful Introduction to a 1998 edition of With Child. A Diary of Motherhood, Ariel writes: "This is (my mother's) warrior's tale and she is an ancient bard. She sings a prayer that is her Sh'ma—her motherly prayer, the most important prayer in Judaism. She writes, 'Hear, O Israel, I am one. Mother and Child. Male and Female. Past and Future.' I can also hear a fairytale-like sound to her story. 'In colors of blood and air I spin without stopping: colon, foot, eye. By day, by night, for nine months, I weave you: precisely. Faithfully.' This is so witch-like, her spinning me into gold, into body."
And: "I love my name, what it means, and how it sounds. I am glad to be a Shakespearean spirit, a lion of God, a secret nickname for the city of Jerusalem, a small city in Israel, and even a little mermaid if people must insist on it."
I am blessed by my son. I was very lucky in other ways too.
"Mother-writers," (the phrase is Tillie Olsen's), have, in the past, often been condemned to long periods of "silence." Instead of writing, they did the washing, darned socks, mended dresses, vegetable gardened, cooked, preserved, baby-tended, child-tended, husband-tended, entertained, attended church. Harriet Beecher Stowe had no room of her own, she lived for others: six children and a family. Thus, Stowe could only write sporadically, in between her endless other tasks. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Rebecca Harding Davis, Stowe, too, finally had a "breakdown." I would too—wouldn't you—if you wanted to write a book that would "make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is," but your domestic duties would not allow you to get to Uncle Tom's Cabin for nearly fifteen years?
As others (Sappho, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Mary Gordon) have said: a child is a woman's greatest love. On its behalf, she must sleep less, accept no social engagements, write quickly, and for only a few, precious, hours at a time: while her child is sleeping, or in school. Above all, she must be able and willing to put her work aside when her young child needs her.
I was not this kind of "mother-writer." I wrote at home, but my door was absolutely shut when I was writing. True, I always paid someone to be "on duty" in my place. Often, that woman judged me harshly for turning my back on my own child. Sometimes, my son did too.
Ariel writes: "My mother's office door is shut, but that means nothing to me...I knock calmly on her door and enter before she can reply. Her books surround her as usual and she sits with a pen in hand. "I'm off-duty!" she informs me. I do not comprehend that phrase and reply "You are not a taxi Mom, I need to talk to you."
In my time, few divorced mothers and children were invited to be part of coupled married social life. Single mothers each drowned alone; we didn't live collectively. There was, as yet, no lesbian baby boom or single parent adoption movement, nor did pro-child, feminist utopian communities exist in New York City.
Ariel's Israeli grandparents, aunts, and cousins all lived in Tel-Aviv and rarely saw him. My mother definitely "helped"—but her help was always accompanied by blaming-and-shaming, not only me, but Ariel too. As Ariel grew older, he did not want to visit my mother without his mother there to protect him from the non-stop barrage of criticism. Ariel's two uncles, my brothers, are fiercely misogynist. Both have hair-trigger tempers. One was a wife-beater and child-abuser, the other routinely cursed and threatened each of his girlfriends (I know, the wives and girlfriends usually turned to me for help—and then, predictably, turned on me for actually daring to offer any). I did not want to expose Ariel to them, but even on those rare ocassions that found us all together, my brothers rarely paid any attention to Ariel. Once, one of my brothers terrified Ariel by holding him down and maintaining him in a "choke-hold" long after a then five year old Ariel began sobbing.
"Think," said I, "of what you have been spared by not being forced to grow up with cruel or rivalrous older men." But in my heart, I felt guilty that I had not been able to provide Ariel with good male role models who also loved him.
In my time, (single) mothers who did not wish to mother in utter isolation had to work hard to create and maintain the extended family they did not already have. Most of the women I knew had either rejected marriage and motherhood or had already "sacrificed" themselves for their children and husbands long ago; they had no time to waste. When I became a mother, I was surrounded by women who lived for careers, art, revolutionary activism. I often had to keep my motherhood "in the closet" in order to be accepted among them. (But then, I had to keep my revolutionary feminism in the closet to be accepted among more traditional women.)
To my surprise, the men at my university (The College of Staten Island, City University of New York), were more—not less—angry at me when I became pregnant. I understood that my feminism, pro-student positions, and public visibility had offended and threatened them. I was not prepared for the viciousness that my pregnancy unleashed. For example, once I knew I was pregnant, I tried to have my next-semester teaching schedule changed so that I would not be have to continue teaching a late afternoon to late evening schedule. The male administrators refused to allow me to make this change. One male dean accosted me in the cafeteria and snarled at me: "Why don't you just quit and become a 'real' mother? Decide what you want: To be a mother, or to remain on staff. You can't do both."
This kind of thing: far worse things, had happened to many other female professors at every branch of City University. I know, I interviewed them.
I had begged the publisher of my third book to bring it out while I was pregnant, not after I gave birth. The publisher refused—then insisted that I go 'round the country to hawk the merchandise. I had no choice. I was the sole support of my family. I weaned Ariel, against my will, and did so. When I decided I had to write With Child. A Diary of Motherhood, a female editor at this same house said: "What is this bullshit? You can write a 'real' book, why waste your time on this non-subject?" A male editor at another publishing house, whom I'd never met, told my agent: "What could she possibly write about pregnancy or motherhood? She's not a 'normal' woman and she won't be a 'normal' mother."
My own mother (may she rest in peace), did not approve of me any more now that I was finally a mother. She would still greet me this way: "What, another book against the men?" Only after she died, did one of her friends happen to tell me that, on a bus-ride across America they took together, that my mother would literally run to the library in each city to see if they had any of my books. My mother never stopped criticizing me, because I was not a full-time stay-at-home mother. It hurt more, not less, each time she did so.
But surely I found support among the "sisterhood" you say? Not exactly. Both heterosexual and lesbian feminists were, at least in my experience, without mercy on the subject and reality of motherhood. Some feminists were so angry at what motherhood had done to their own mothers (or the pain their mothers had passed along to them), that they remained hostile to biological motherhood in general, and to the mothers of boys in particular. Actually, I also believe that many accomplished women were so mother- wounded that they kept looking for that maternal resource everywhere, and behaved rivalrously, or at best, indifferently, towards another woman in the act of "mothering" someone, not them.
Once, I did a benefit for a group of academic feminists. I took a mainly sleeping Ariel (and a babysitter) along. Some women kept their distance. One woman looked at me with deep distaste; another woman remarked that I was "parading my biological narcissism all over the place."
Understand: I was being treated like a "star." I had heard horror stories about some radical lesbian feminist groups who had physically and psychologically attacked the mothers of young sons when they tried to bring them along to an all-female conference/music festival/academic meeting. Each year, I asked to bring Ariel along to the Famous Feminist all-female Passover Seder in New York which I co-founded and co-led. The leaders of this group included two heterosexual married mothers, two formerly married, later-in-life lesbian mothers, and two divorced women, one heterosexual, one a later-in-life lesbian, neither of whom were biological or adoptive mothers. All wanted their third seder night to be "male-free." "But how," I asked, "will the men of tomorrow ever be different if we do not expose them to feminist Judaism, if they have no memories of women as both spiritually authoritative and tender?"
On the other hand, the anti-feminists were even worse. Most felt, (and feel still), that a "good" mother must marry, both husbands and houses, bury themselves alive, full-time, "for the sake of the children." Being told that God wants (married) women to procreate and that all who refuse His commandment are evil or crazy elicits naught but a fine fury in me.
In the beginning, I was supported, totally, and only, by Ariel's father, my co-mother. At the time, I would have told you that men could do the work of mothering/parenting too, that like women, men, too, could, go far beyond the obligations of economic support. (Some do. More don't).
For a year and a half, Ariel's father refused to return to school or to find any gainful employment. Instead, he took excellent, maternal care of our son. Actually, he kept the serial live-in housekeepers (whom I found and paid), excellent company, took Ariel to his doctors' appointments, and to the park, daily, changed Ariel's diapers far more expertly than I ever could, was always calm in an emergency. The stay-at-home neighborhood mothers confused him with Dustin Hoffman in Kramer v Kramer, and they thought I was Mrs. Kramer, the "career-monster." And then, my husband began to fall apart. Friends told him I was "using him," that being a co- mother was not a "man's" job. Friends encouraged him to threaten to kidnap Ariel to Israel (he did make this threat), in order to get me to give him money (which I did do.) I had already embarked on the research and interviews for what would become Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody; I knew enough to take his threat seriously.
My husband told me he was having an affair—and then he walked out. I was certain that he would not divorce our son, too.
I was wrong.
He walked out and never looked back. I, the Amazon warrior, found I could not walk away. I could not drop the baby. Whether gender differences are innate or conditioned, I began to note, and rue, some of the differences. However, I learned that even a pro-mother, pro-collective child- rearing Israeli kibbutz can have fairly rigid, punitive views of what a "good" mother can and cannot do.
Once, in 1980, after working at the United Nations and attending an international, profoundly anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic conference in Copenhagen, I flew to Israel with Ariel and a babysitter. My mission: To convince the Israeli government to hold a radical feminist conference. I also wanted to live on a kibbutz for awhile. For years, many kibbutzim were reluctant to allow single women, including Yom-Kippur war-widows to join- -lest they "steal" the married men. I, too, was perceived as such a dangerous single woman. I had been a member of the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz movement from the ages of 8-11. I now turned to my old movement. Eventually, with the assistance of Israeli writer, Yoram Kiniuk, I found a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz which housed all its childen in a Children's House. I had to stay over in Jerusalem for some back-to-back meetings for one night. When I called the kibbutz, the woman on the phone insisted that I come back, that my babysitter (with whom I was sharing a small cottage), had fallen ill working in the orchard and a two year old needed his mother. "I can't come back," said I. "Why not put Ariel in the children's house for one night?" "Oh no, we can't do that." "Alright then. Put him out in the road for the night if you must." Of course, they did no such thing. Ariel spent an uneventful night with all the other children. And I got nought but glares and stares upon my return.
Who helped me bring Ariel up? Women, sweet women. My mother, in her way. Paid housekeepers and nannies and, in 1983, my first live-in female lover. In 1992, my second female lover, a lawyer, fought very hard (and successfully) for more than six years to obtain child support. She had to put Ariel's father in jail for this to happen, but that's a tale for another day. The court battle rages on.
Ariel's feminist education continues. Last year, a neighborhood magazine, Brooklyn Bridge, asked Ariel to "Brooklynize" his Introduction to With Child. Ariel worked hard on draft #1, and sent it in. Time passed. Finally, his editor, a woman, apologized and explained that her boss kept changing her mind about what she wanted from a piece, that it wasn't just Ariel's piece. Ariel worked on draft #2 and sent it over. Again, a long time passed. I finally called on his behalf, then encouraged Ariel to call one more time. There was a new editor, maybe things would now work out. Finally, Ariel went over, and sat down with a male editor who, in no uncertain terms, said the following: "Your piece is very good but frankly, it is not at all what we had in mind. None of us believe that any son could have such a positive relationship to a feminist mother. We know you have a Mommie Dearest to write. We also understand that if you are still living at home or financially dependent upon your mother, that you are probably afraid to tell the truth. So, look us up in the future when you are ready to tell that truth."
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I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
The 2011 Edition of Mothers on Trial
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