Book review: Philosophy from real mothers

Posted on April 3, 2011 
Filed Under Anita, Book Review, The Star

By Anita Matthews, published in ParenThots, The Star, April 3, 2011

The birth of wisdom
Edited by Sheila Lintott
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

MotherhoodThe word “philosophy” drew me to Sheila Lintott’s compilation of essays written by academics (women mainly) on motherhood. Marrying motherhood and philosophy is akin to mixing oil with water. You can moralise the joys and pains of motherhood to the ends of the Earth and still end up at the crossroads where the journey first started.

But this book was an awesome read. I loved it! Even though I had cast a wary eye on first sight, these philosophical ponderings were engaging, honest and warm. The writers challenged their belief systems both hypothetically and theoretically. They unpicked, scrutinised and discussed their deepest convictions and fears openly. They squared the ideas of famed philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Descartes and even Job of the Old Testament against their personal experiences to deconstruct what makes a mother. And, that is refreshing.

Many a time, philosophical discussions tend to be indulgent and are self-fulfilling prophesies of what is sought or challenged in the hypothesis. This set of essays did more.

Clearly within the pages of Motherhood – Philosophy for Everyone, the presence of a child in the mix had had a humbling effect on a majority of the writers. I think all mothers – upon hindsight – do realise that they have lost some control over their lives (and offspring) during the early years following childbirth. I don’t see that to be a setback but simply a reality of choices made.

Lintott divides the book into four parts. The first part challenges accepted norms and how the presence of a baby disrupts it. Henry’s essay on “How many experts does it take to raise a child” offers valuable insight into challenges faced by new mothers in bringing up kids. Henry discovered some mothering methods proposed by experts (largely male) were myths that only distanced the bond between mother and child. She reckoned that mothers are better off trusting their gut instinct in raising children. However given her background, Henry sought out different methods, perspectives and ideas and chose to focus on what worked. So a combination of old wives’ tales and modern scientific methods is acceptable.

Many mothers, myself included, can relate to Kind’s pained musing titled “Creative mothering: Lies and the lying mothers who tell them.” I have told a fair share of white lies including how there are a set of eyes on the back of my head to keep my then toddler kids in line whenever I took my eyes off them. Yet Kind found it difficult to defend the maternal intuition to lie and argued that honesty is the best policy in the long term. What could previously lying mums like me do? Change tactics to be honest as the child grows older. Rationale and reason works.

The first part concludes with Manninen’s and Anno’s respective thoughts on pro-choice and lesbian mothers. Both essays were painfully honest yet illuminating. Manninen’s decision to have a child after steadfastly avoiding for three years changed her perception on abortions. That a fetal form is actually a being with a heartbeat was a paradigm shift to Manninen. She now advocates pro-choice with a heart.

Anno’s sharing as a mixed race lesbian couple raising a black boy was compelling and truly entertaining. Anno and her partner spoke freely about exposing their son to various cultures and situations, yet at the same time, allowed him to relate to his inner self. All in all, they discovered a true blue macho boy with a violent temper. Their solution to his flawed nature was to nurture and teach him how to manage and control his temper. Their goal: To raise a level-headed man.

The second and third part of the book is focused on issues related to natural childbirth or aided deliveries, the bottle or the breast, leaving baby to cry to sleep or share the bed, breastfeeding in public and the defining beauty of ugly infants. While most parts of this section resonated with my previous experiences of childbirth, breastfeeding and crying babes, such debates have come to pass. But then again, this is about philosophy and so it is valid to analyse infant feeding or labour pains.

The most fun essay was Newhart’s journey to adopt her Guatemalan son, Kevin. How she ironically discovered that her perception of her son based on the photos and news sent by the foster mother during Kevin’s first six months were starkly different from the boy who finally arrived at her doorstep. By starting afresh with Kevin’s diet and sleeping habits, she made huge inroads to connect with her son.

Liberated yet feminine?

After reading the first three parts, the writers bring us back to the age-old argument of where the female race sits in the greater scheme of life. Did motherhood empower women? Or did it firmly entrench women in the traditional role of childbearers and housewives? Or did the twain meet in the middle? I’d like to think it did. No doubt, mothers will continue their angst on bringing up children but I believe many have the benefit of education, media exposure and family networks today that have aided their role.

Indeed, many mothers, especially those in developing countries, struggle but as with any mum, I believe they put their children ahead of themselves and do their best in whatever circumstances.

Kirkham’s essay on “The Virtues of Motherhood” summed it up best. Motherhood propels women into “selflessness, commitment and endurance” even if at the end of it all, they have to let the child go. And no, the above virtues do not define mothers as Amazonian nor tortured souls; mothers on the whole grow wisdom from experiences.

The wisdom gained is a source of great satisfaction.

Motherhood – Philosophy for Everyone, is a worthy read with its collection of experiences that confirms a mother’s deepest suspicions, affirms her beliefs and challenges her perceptions. Two thumbs up!


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