Mothering, through author Toni Morrison’s eyes

Mothering, naturally, is an all-important skill, and certainly a subject viewed as a central issue for feminist theory. It is also a “persistent presence” in the work of highly acclaimed author Toni Morrison, according to Atkinson women’s studies Professor Andrea O’Reilly, and, as such, the main focus of O’Reilly’s new book, Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart (available in early April from SUNY Press).

Left & below, right: Andrea O’Reilly

In examining Morrison’s novels, essays, speeches and interviews, O’Reilly illustrates how the author builds upon black women’s experiences of and perspectives on motherhood to develop a view of black motherhood in terms of both maternal identity and role – radically different from motherhood as practised and prescribed in the dominant culture.

“Motherhood, in Morrison’s view, is fundamentally and profoundly an act of resistance, essential and integral to black women’s fight against racism and sexism and their ability to achieve well-being for themselves and their culture,” said O’Reilly. The power of motherhood and the empowerment of mothering are what make possible the better world we seek for ourselves and for our children. “This,” she argues, “is Morrison’s maternal theory – a politics of the heart.”

O’Reilly said, as a mother of small children in the 1980s, she began to long for stories about motherhood. “Twenty five years old with two children born in under three years and the only mother in my PhD program, I hungered for stories by and about mothers and wondered, as did [York Professor] Diane Brandt, [in her book Wild Woman Dancing (1993)] ‘Where…were the mothers, symbolic or otherwise, whom I might have turned to in that moment of loneliness and desperation?’”

Her hunger was unexpectedly assuaged “one cold and snowy night in February 1988. That fall I had signed up for a course on the African American novel and with the second term we had moved to black women’s fiction. I had tucked my one- and three-year-old into bed with plans to begin the novel due for next week’s class, the novel was Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987),” said O’Reilly.

“I do not remember much from that night except that I finished the book at four in the morning when I should have been sleeping, given that my children would be up in two hours, and realized that I had found the maternal narrative for which I had been searching. In the three weeks that followed, I read all of Morrison’s novels and met with my professor of African American literature and asked if she would be my supervisor for a dissertation on “‘Ship and Harbour; Inn and Trail’: Mothering and Toni Morrison”.

“Morrison portrays motherhood, in all of its dimensions – motherwork, motherlove and the motherline – as a political enterprise with social consequences. This made sense to me,” explained O’Reilly. “And when she remarked in an interview [with Bill Moyers in 1989], ‘There was something so valuable about what happened when one became a mother. For me it was the most liberating thing that ever happened’ I could not have agreed more.”

More about Andrea O’Reilly

O’Reilly is a professor in Atkinson’s School of Women’s Studies and teaches the third-year course, Mothering-Motherhood. It was the first course on motherhood in Canada and now frequently taught to more than 200 students a year through distance education. She also teaches Introduction to Women’s Studies.

In addition, O’Reilly is the co-editor/editor of several books on motherhood, including Redefining Motherhood: Changing Identities and Patterns (Second Story Press, 1998), Mothers and Daughters: Connection, Empowerment and Transformation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), Mothers and Sons: Feminism, Masculinity and the Struggle to Raise our Sons (Routledge Press, 2001), From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (SUNY, 2004), Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering (Women’s Press, 2004) and Mother Matters: Mothering as Discourse and Practice (ARM Press, 2004).

Currently, O’Reilly is working on three edited books: “Feminist Mothering”, “Motherhood: Power and Oppression” and, with her daughter, “Women’s Voices Across the Third Wave: Feminist Anti-Oppression Perspectives”; and is writing “Reconceiving Maternity: From Sacrificial Motherhood to Empowered Mothering”.

A mother of three, and long-time partner to Terry Conlin (academic advisor at McLaughlin College and contract faculty in York’s Division of Social Science in the Faculty of Arts), O’Reilly is founding president of the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), the first feminist association on the topic of mothering-motherhood with more than 500 members worldwide; and is founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering.

In 1998 O’Reilly was the recipient of York’s University-wide Teaching Award. She has given many talks, conducted numerous workshops and been interviewed widely by the media on motherhood and mothering.