As Mother’s Day nears, Sarah Jackson remembers all the women who deeply influenced her, who mothered her in their own ways, and made her the woman she is today.
I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day. It’s hard not to think about motherhood these days as both a woman who might make the choice to be one someday, and as a concerned observer of the increasing (and invasive) political grandstanding about motherhood in U.S. politics.
My mother and I are close. I am her youngest child and the product of a life of transformation. A white woman born in 1946 to a conservative Mormon family in Utah, the choice she made to have a mixed-race baby as a single working mother well past her (socially dictated) prime in 1982 was damn near a personal revolution given the environment and culture she lived in. The commitment she made to protect her daughter from being a victim of both racial bigotry and sexism, to teach her to love herself, to speak up and talk back, to raise her with love, support, and lots and lots of music and books is something that deserves far more than a short blog entry.
But in addition to my own mother, the more I think about Mother’s Day—the more I consider the idea of celebrating the work and love of mothers—the more I realize that we each have many mothers. After all, being a mother is not defined or limited by carrying and giving birth to a child. Women act as mothers to children everyday who they adopt, foster, or take as mentees. Teachers mother their students. Strangers do the work of mothering other people’s children on trains and in grocery stores. When I think about celebrating mothers, I think about celebrating unconditional love, a commitment to protect and teach, and the fact that so many women, those with and without biological children, do these things everyday.
My sister, Karin, was a mother to me in many ways. Born nearly 12 years before me, her world became caring for a tiny brown child that came into her life just as she began puberty. Our mother gone at work, it was frequently my sister who changed my diapers and put me down for naps. As a 16-year-old she, without protest, shared a room with a 4-year-old and introduced me to the sounds of Prince and the feel of lace. When she went to college, she brought me with her as often as she could to museums and concerts, to those basement pizza joints where young minds write on the walls, and the occasional party. She introduced an 8-year-old to educational and social spaces I might not have had access to otherwise, always keeping me safe, and including me in fascinating adult conversations about politics, art, music, and love as if I was wholly capable of keeping up. She is a mother.
There was Sharon—the only woman who ever knew what to do with my hair, how to manage it, and touch it. She was Navajo and the first person I remember thinking looked liked me. As I sat in her home for hours upon hours while she pulled and twisted teeny tiny braids, she taught me patience. She taught me to manage boredom and discomfort. She taught me that waiting is rewarded. Her touch, while firm, was kind, and her speech was calming. She hummed while occasionally reminding me to “Sit still. Sit still.” She made me feel beautiful. She is a mother.
When I started college there was Karen, a high-ranking administrator in title, a world changer in action. She was the most powerful black woman I had ever met and I instantly wanted her approval. By then I thought I was invincible. All my other mothers had taught me confidence and ferocity, but Karen taught me something that my 18-year-old mind had yet to embrace: humility. I remember very vividly the day I came to her office as a first-semester freshman to complain that a class I was in was too easy and that while others might need it I certainly did not. She sat quietly listening to me with something between an amused and annoyed look on her face. When I finished, she proceeded to question me intensely: What made me think I knew better than the experienced educators who had designed the course and made it a requirement? Why was I so different from the other students required to take the course? Why did I deserve an exception? Was I aware that education is about learning from and through other people, not just from class content? She reminded me that ultimately I was privileged to be there at all. She said it all with a firmness that, for perhaps the first time ever, left me speechless, a bit ashamed, and certainly terrified. And I have never doubted that she said it all with love. She became someone I could count on for honesty and wisdom even when it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. She is a mother.
Teresa, Helene, Karen, and Nicole, the professors who taught me history and feminism. Who taught me about colonialism and the nature of capital. Who taught me the power of autobiography and the influence of media. These women introduced me to ideas that would spark in me the fire to become like them. What they taught helped me to better understand the world, my experience in it, and most importantly what I could and wanted to be. They showed me women who were unbelievably smart, accomplished, beautiful, healthy, and happy. They are mothers.
Liz, Jo, and Lesa, women who mentored and encouraged me. Who gave me tools for success. Liz always reminding me that my voice mattered. Jo always reminding me, with her example, that compassion is key to leadership and that serving others and what you believe in is as fulfilling as anything you can accomplish alone. Lesa, the first educator who ever truly made me feel I was good at mathematics, who made things like statistics and research methods accessible. They are mothers.
Catherine, the woman who taught me to be a scholar. The significance of that in my life cannot be described in words. Her mentorship, critique, feedback, example, editing (and there was a lot of editing), encouragement, and the family meals she welcomed me to were priceless. Her support, her faith in me, her having my back, and smoothing my path cannot be thanked enough. She is a mother.
I recently had the great fortune to chat with another mother, Norma, co-author of the classic feminist health text Our Bodies Ourselves and tireless worker for reproductive justice and sexual health education. I was humbled and awed to find myself sharing a stage with her at the Unite Against the War on Women Rally in Boston. The love, work, and lessons of all of my mothers had gotten me to that space, and my mothers, along with countless other women, young and old, have been mothered by Norma’s tireless work. I told Norma about how, from the earliest I can remember, my mother had kept a copy of the original Our Bodies Ourselves on the bookshelf in our living room. About how the book played a formidable role in the sexual education of both my mother and myself. About how my mother’s personal experiences with shame, abuse, and gendered demands were things foreign to me because, by the time I came along, she was a woman determined to educate her daughter on being a woman whose body and destiny were no one’s but her own. Norma listened intently, occasionally reaching over and gently pushing my hair out of my face as the wind blew. She told me my mother and I should write a book together about our experiences as women, about the transformations that can happen in a generation. As we said our goodbyes, Norma hugged me and said, “My daughter’s name is Sarah too.” I immediately called my mother to tell her all about it.
Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd.