Motherhood galvanized me. I felt connected to Indian village women embracing trees to prevent deforestation, inner city U.S. mothers demonstrating against police brutality, South American women protesting to know the fate of their “disappeared” children and grandchildren. My son’s first peace rally was at age three months. How could I stand by while other mothers lost their children to war?
Even as my physician colleagues struggled to integrate motherhood into their upwardly mobile careers, I slowed mine to a snail’s pace. There is no quality time, my own activist mother had told me, without quantity time. As she had brought me along to graduate school and women’s group alike, I nursed my daughter during meetings at the hospital – no separation between “mother” and “doctor” selves.
The power of motherhood is in the freedom to make these choices. And protect the ability of other women to make choices that are right for them – when, how and with whom to bear children, but also the freedom to take paid family leave, to breastfeed anywhere without censure, to access to good schools and safe environments for their families.
My parents’ motherland, Bengal, is a region of India where goddess worship is central to cultural life, and mothers, the manifestation of divine feminine energy, command great power. This is not to say there is no sexism, but that there is a space for a maternal power gentle and fearsome, poetic and just.
This I believe
That poetry and justice emerge from the same source
This I believe
That my son, whose name means “poet,” will help create a more just world.
This I believe
That my daughter, whose name means “just,” will find poetry in the legacy of powerful mothers who came before
* * *
Everyone from 60 Minutes to The New York Times seems to be discussing the brain drain of highly successful women in their reproductive years from the workforce. I too fall into the category of women who are choosing not to approach their professional careers in the traditional way. Rather, like many other women of my generation, I decided to approach motherhood thoughtfully, purposefully, and deliberately. I am a mother of a three year old son and one year old daughter, and while my children are still young, my choice has been to work very part time – constructing my career in such a way that I can be with my children the majority of the time. It seemed inconsistent for me, as a pediatrician, to care so much about children’s welfare in general, but not be central to my own children’s most vulnerable and formative years. Or, in the words of my mother, I realized that there could be no quality time without quantity time. Of course, the argument is not that simple – I do recognize that the role of fathers, the expectations of employers for both men and women, and broader social importance placed upon parenting are all central to this discussion. In addition, I firmly believe in supporting women to make whatever choices that are appropriate for them and their family situations. However, I arrived at my discussion about motherhood because that is my personal experience and identity.
I wrote this essay after hearing an NPR segment called “This I believe” which challenges Americans to write about their diverse beliefs. This segment inspired me to articulate my vision of motherhood as a political, cultural and spiritual entity. For me, my decisions about motherhood and work are very related to my background as a daughter of Bengali immigrants, but also as a daughter of a feminist activist mother, and granddaughter of an activist from the Indian revolution. Although prevalent American notions may be that motherhood is potentially disempowering for women – there exist other models, including the one I was given by my own foremothers. Motherhood and activism for social justice were seen as integrated experiences – since those in charge of raising future citizens of this world must of course be responsible for the creation of a just future for those children. I was taught from a young age to both care about my individual family and the larger world in which that family was to live.
Beyond the demands of fixing meals, changing diapers, and nursing while writing this first blog, it was an easy experience. The words seemed to flow out of me of their own accord, and the process was both cathartic and inspirational. And I did have the experience of reading it aloud to all my family members. I’m not sure my children were too impressed (they are only 3 and 1) – but my mother’s reaction? Of course, she cried. My mother may have taught me to strive for a more just world, but she also taught me find poetry in it.