Zen and the Art of Motherhood
March 7, 2014
Last night, I was honored by the Museum of Motherhood and inducted into their Hall of Fame, as were Drs. Andrea O'Reilly and Barbara Katz Rothman.
All three of us have done research and activism on behalf of mothers and motherhood. The room was crowded with extraordinary women who had traveled from all over the country to attend a three day conference. They research maternal mortality rates, study mothering, practice mothering, are professors, filmmakers, artists, theorists, musicians and the energy in the room was exuberant and powerful.
I was surprised and very pleased that my son, Ariel, presented me with this award.
These are the words I offered when accepting this award:
I am thrilled to be honored for my work by the very visionary Museum of Motherhood and by its pioneering founder, Joy Rose.
In 1977, when I became pregnant—by choice, always by choice--a dear friend and leading feminist urged me to have an abortion. She said that I was "too important to the movement to spend my time being a mother." I laughed—but I hugged her too.
I thought that becoming a mother is a major human rite of passage. I decided to write a book about it. Editors rejected the idea. One man said that the subject had already been "done." "By who," I mildly asked, "Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare? Sir, I think not." Another man said "But you would not be a normal mother, other mothers would not be able to relate to you." A third editor, alas, a woman, said to me:" But you can write a real book. Why waste your time on a bullshit subject?" The editor with whom I eventually worked was a man, by the way.
At the time, I was a professor at a university where I had already been teaching for eight years. I asked for a temporary change in schedule so that I could nap in the afternoons. Mind you: I had already published two books and many influential articles. The Dean twisted his face into a sneer and said:
"Why don't you make up your mind. Do you want to be a teacher or a mother?"
The late great Margaret Mead had a very different response. We debated each other and "bonded." She came to visit me when I was pregnant as an Elder of Our Tribe. "What are you doing about your nipples?" she asked. "You have to rub them hard with a washcloth to toughen them up."
In 1979, a year and a half after my beloved son was born, I published With Child. A Diary of Motherhood. Mothers, starved for literature that took this experience seriously, even poetically, loved the book.
Oh yes. I had a boy, not a girl, and in those days, some feminists thought themselves entitled to critique it. And critique it they did, sometimes rather savagely.
In the mid-1970s, The Mothers began to find me. First, lesbian mothers who were fighting for custody wanted me to testify for them; then, very straight, stay-at-home mothers who were losing custody to violent or absent fathers. My new theme had found me.
Please understand: When I began this work, there was little else like it to draw upon. There were some excellent law review articles and only a handful of motherhood Memoirs.
I labored on Mothers on Trial. The Battle for Children and Custody for eight years and published the first edition in 1986. It was both panned and praised and I was interviewed quite a lot. I launched the first-ever Speak-outs about good-enough mothers losing custody unjustly, 2/3rds of the time to very violent husbands and to sexually and psychologically abusive fathers. (No, I did not say that all fathers are like this—only those who follow a scorched earth policy in an effort to redact a mother from the life of her children).
Mothers on Trial was not a bestseller, Fathers Rights threatened to sue my publisher, Fathers Rights groups dogged my every step, demonstrated outside the Speak-Outs we organized in New York and Toronto, a small feminist press sabotaged and crushed the book, it took time to get it back up and running. I know it became the Bible for so many mothers. It received little academic recognition and was excoriated in some of the mainstream media often by feminist reviewers.
Mothers began to run away from wife-batterers and child abusers to protect their children. Some turned up at my doorstep and how could I refuse to help? I am proud to say that I was only one station among many stations along the Underground Railway route to which such mothers could turn. Most mothers got arrested and served time in jail.
And it got me into Big Trouble with the FBI and I was summoned to appear before a Grand Jury in Buffalo in 1986. However, at the last minute, federal agents informed me that "they had captured the felon." My lawyers warned me never to contact her. I began writing to her at once. When she was released, she came to visit. She apologized for giving up my name. Said I: "My dear, you have nothing to apologize for. You put me in the history books."
In 1987, I launched demonstrations outside the courthouse in the Baby M surrogacy case which I viewed as a custody battle between a birthmother and a genetically narcissistic sperm donor. Mary Beth Whitehead's lawyer, Harold Cassidy, had surrogacy declared illegal and against public policy in New Jersey. Of course, I published a book--Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M -- which foresaw the vivisection of motherhood into an egg donor, a gestational mother, and an adoptive mother. Barbara Katz Rothman and Gena Corea shared my understanding.
I understood that prostituted women would be doing this in India; instead of providing sex, they would be forced to rent out their wombs and pimps would sell their babies to the sperm donor or to the highest bidder. I also researched the difficulties of adoption and the failure to adopt. Why plan, pre-conception, to adopt a child away from his or her birthmother? Why not adopt all the children who already exist and who have no families?
In 2011, I updated Mothers on Trial, and brought it smack back into the 21st century with eight new chapters. Alas, alas, matters have mainly gotten worse, not better. There are some improvements: Gay parents will not automatically lose custody for this reason, nor will career mothers.
What I made of motherhood—what it made of me—influenced my work. Before I became a mother, my ego knew no bounds. I thought I could overcome all obstacles through a 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. I had no responsibilities other than my ideas. I was a nun, a warrior. For me, having a child was a passage from detachment to attachment. After giving birth I began to learn the treacherous, graceful art of balancing work and motherhood. Self and Others. Like everything important, this is a process. I began to understand that life does not stand still, that it is always changing, growing, dying, renewing, and that we are all constantly changing. For years when I looked in the mirror, I looked the same to myself. Time only 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.
As I lifted up the unbearable burden of one small life, I felt like Atlas holding the world on her shoulders.
A photographer, Susan Fiol, once visited us. She wanted to take a portrait of us together. She asked my son, "How do you see yourself with your mother, what image would you want to project?"
Blessed boy, without hesitation, he said, "I would like my mother to knight me." Amazingly, but instinctively, he understood that all mothers are Queens, Queens of Heaven too, each with rite-of-passage powers.
And so I knighted him. The photographer got a sword, a throne, a costumer, but we were both barefoot—the way we first met. I dubbed him "Sir Ariel, first knight of the realm." The air became luminous, regal, the women wept; afterwards, he treated me with reverence for a full seven days.
Thank you Joy Rose, thank you distinguished colleagues, thank you all who are gathered here tonight.
[Dr. Andrea O'Reilly. In audience: Dr. Barbara Katz Rothman and her mother, who presented an award to her daughter.]
[Ariel Chesler, presenting Phyllis Chesler with the Motherhood Hall of Fame Award--March 6, 2014]
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
The 2009 Edition of