Revolutionary Mothering

In fifty plus years, this is a first for me. Mothering, considered as a revolutionary thing. Thank you to the women who brought their gifts to bear on Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, including Cynthia Dewi Oka who, speaking about the book, drew my attention to the power of mundane repetition. For my lack of knowledge of revolutionary mothering I have plenty of experience in mundane repetition, and this insight helped me to feel included. Wiping faces, changing nappies, holding hands, explaining for the umpteenth time some irksome fact of life such as the need to pick up after oneself – these iterations of mothering are the ones that I know well, so well that they barely register as action, much less as revolutionary acts. Cynthia helps us to claim mundane repetition, not only as action, but as a tool of transformation. She pulled my attention away from the seismic shifts and explosions that I think of as revolution and back to the daily practices on which we pivot in the direction of transformation. And, as she says, nowhere is transformative daily practice better embedded than in mothering.

I’m intensely relieved, if I’m honest, that back when I was a younger mother, I could be repetitive in relative privacy – that I didn’t have the choice of being an Insta mum, and so could do the wiping, cleaning, hand-holding stuff without having to frame it as art. I see my daughters’ generation literally framing their mothering – putting their best feet, faces, and smiles forward and posting it under the world’s eye. I wonder though, what it is that the world actually sees?

What worries me is that, as far as seeing mothering is concerned, we mostly come to it with dead eyes and consequently, as I did, easily miss its revolutionary nature. Mostly, what people really see of mothering is what they already think, and it is unfortunate that this thinking is done largely in terms of right and wrong. So, sometimes I am wrong for having five children (don’t I know the world is overpopulated?), but then sometimes I am right for having my children with a man who is my husband (all five of them? – applause!). Sometimes I am wrong because I let other people care for them (sleepovers? You can’t trust people these days and anyway GOOD parents look after their own kids). Then sometimes I am right because my children are polite and know how to greet their elders. Then I’m wrong when they play video games and right when they play the guitar. I’m also right when they’ve been to university but wrong when they drop out and don’t get a job, and wrong when they get drunk and throw up on the stairs. Still, even if I’m wrong because they answer back (rude!), I am sometimes right because they can express themselves and right when they’re happy and wrong when they’re queer, and right when they’re good at sport, but wrong when their skirts are short. When they enjoy reading Chinua Achebe I feel right, so it is perplexing when, in the very same day, as they lie around snacking on crisps and watching trash TV (Love Island – sigh*), I can feel so very, very wrong.

What have I learned from all of this? That revolutionary mothering can make me dizzy; also that there is an insistent part of me that exists solely to nag me about knowing what I’m doing, and doing it right. Too bad that I spend so much time not knowing and not being right. What sweet relief then, to consider, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs suggests, that by refusing to dominate my children, I am unlearning domination, and also to hear the other editors/contributors acknowledge the things that they have learned from their own children. One says that she learned from her son, that it is okay to want things and this strikes me as a fairly revolutionary thought in itself. Wanting things? Resisting the evacuation of needs (physical and psychological) that has become almost synonymous with mothering? Revolutionary acts indeed.

It would be easy for me to criticise the Insta Mum generation, but if I’m honest, I know what it is to want to be seen. I want to be seen too. It is okay to want to be seen – and recognised. I want the recognition that is recognition of revolutionary mothering as not a type, a style, a body, an age, a sexuality, or even a gender. I want the recognition that revolutionary mothering is not a status, neither a hashtag and definitely not a filter. I want to recognise the fact that mothering doesn’t always look good and that the practice and art of mothering that I know will never fit between the goalposts of right and wrong. The choices open to us – the most helpful ones – are not anyway between right and wrong, but between criticism and care. It is along this axis that we pivot towards and answer the call for transformation. I wonder then, from within this hot mess of opinions that we seem to be, how might we transform our criticism into care? Let’s see;

Insta Mums, I salute your industry, generosity and courage. Instead of criticising you for inviting the world into your homes, I send hope and good wishes, including the hope that you maintain a practice of checking in with your own eyes – your own seeing of you – so that you might recognise when you are being invited to abandon your mothering self in favour of some idealised or scandalised version of what mothers should or should not be. My wish for you, in your beautiful presentations, would be that you allow yourselves to be seen, not only by the world that is tempted to mis-recognise and judge you, but also by those who, as well as eyes, have the hands that are available to cook soup when you’re hungry, and the arms that will hold your baby when you’re weary, and the mouths that are ready to sing the songs that you have forgotten. Let us see you too, unedited, so that we might join. Revolutionary mothering is a practice supported by strong community. 

For today, this is how my criticism becomes care. Tomorrow, when I ask the question again, I will likely find a different answer, and that’s okay too. We would do well I believe, to ask ourselves the criticism-care question on a daily basis. Another mundane repetition maybe, and one on which revolutionary mothering might continue to thrive.

Props to my God daughter (and favourite Insta Mum) Remi (booksbabyandback), currently travelling, and showing her own daughter how big the world is.

 Respect and thanks to Barby Asante and Chandra Frank for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on revolutionary mothering at Tricksters Brewing Futures at the Tate on Saturday

 Love across the ocean to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, Mai’a Williams (editors) and Cynthia Dewi Oka for walking the road and offering the inspiration

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