May’s backpack holds what appears to be a veritable collection of the haphazard: pictures, memories, snacks, successes, first-aid kits, heartbreaks, concerts, humilities, ballgames, celebrations, graduations and profound, overwhelming, comings and goings.
Both concrete and abstract clues comprising the backpack’s contents certainly reveal a great deal about May’s philosophy. However, to find the cohesion within this perceived chaos, we cannot focus exclusively on what is inside the rucksack. We must also look upon the vista to where it was trekked, the trail that it took to get there and oh, so importantly, the little hands the one carrying the pack held along the way.
Yes, May celebrates vulnerability incarnate: maternity. In its honoring of mothers, May illuminates the sanctity of caring for the philosophical “other.”
As Simone DeBeauvoir famously states in “The Second Sex,” “The category of the other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality — that of the Self and the Other.”
In philosophical terms, the “self’ is the power-holder in a relationship, while the “other” is the objectified individual. Few relationships are able to transcend and complicate this notion of self/other like that of motherhood.
Julia Kristeva, the postmodern French feminist philosopher, psychoanalyst and linguist, addresses the idea of self/other in the context of maternity when she says in her piece, “Women’s Time,” that a mother experiences “love for an other. Not for herself, nor for an identical being. ... But the slow, difficult and delightful apprenticeship in attentiveness, gentleness, forgetting oneself.”
Maternity offers us an alternative interpretation to the standard notion of power relationships. It validates our appreciation of that which isn’t linear, and it respects that which isn’t “identical.” It fissures the ideal, revealing billions of offshoots of the real.
Or, as Anna Quindlen so poignantly reminds us, motherhood can often give us an insight into how much knowledge is held in the little hands we think we are guiding. She says, “Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. ... And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.”
In its paradox, motherhood complicates to clarify, it humbles to strengthen. It is in her state of vulnerability that the mother fortifies herself with connection.
Kristeva also offers a glimpse of what this contradictory reconciliation to the ancient dilemma of self/other might look like when she confides in “The Feminine and the Sacred,” “The sacred is what, beginning from the experience of the incompatible, makes a connection. Between souls, if you like. I almost want to get back on my hobbyhorse concerning the sacredness of maternal love, but I’m afraid I’ll be brushed off. I owe you a confession, however: I truly believe in it, and that sacred seems to me both essential to women and very threatened in a world that knows how to do everything except ‘unite souls.’”
Motherhood acknowledges the sanctity of connectivity, the need to unite the incompatible and to find the similarities where there appeared to be only examples of difference — or worse, indifference. Concepts like mediocrity and stagnancy are unacceptable to motherhood because it is her other that is being affected by those terms — her child that is suffering through minimum requirements, her other that must accept detrimental status quo. If it is not her other, it is someone else’s other who is affected; and motherhood, willingly or unwillingly, breeds empathy and insists upon the growth of the self. It sees connections.
Within the sanctity of caring for an other, and because she embraces the vulnerability of love, motherhood knows she can alter the world. She recognizes the wisdom of the once-little hands she held and knows that within the jumbled backpack, there is continuity and connectivity that permeates the barriers of traditional power relationships. Within that sanctified, vulnerable love lies possibility, redemption and the promise that we can all excavate our “essential humanity” if we, too, remember who the experts really are.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.