Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Mothering, the Academy and MIRCI - a Professor's Journey

The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) celebrated 20 years of success by hosting a gala conference in Canada. Below is the paper that was presented by Nicole Willey. I am delighted to be able to publish it. Nicole is an Associate Professor of English at Kent State University, Tuscarawas,  where she teaches early American and modern/postmodern British literatures, along with English Grammar and a variety of writing courses.




Foreword by Nicole Wiley: This paper is a love letter—to MIRCI (formerly ARM, the name when I started), Demeter Press, Andrea, Angie, Luciana, Tracey, and the many others who keep this fantastic operation going for all of us who care about mothers and children and who believe work about them belongs in the academy.  It is also a thank you to sustaining members like Liz, and the amazing editors and contributors I have worked with over the years—Kathy, Lorinda, Besi, Wanda, Justine, and now Dan, who is co-editing my next book with Demeter.  I also wish to publicly acknowledge and thank Anissa and Deborah for their role in the external review of my work.  Thank you all, named and unnamed. 

  I have recently learned that my full professor bid is being supported unanimously by my regional campus as well as my department, the English department at Kent State University.  While the promotion will not be finalized until April, I am here to tell you that I would not be about to reach this institutional summit in my career if it were not for all of the names I just mentioned, if it weren’t for MIRCI and Demeter.  This is not an overstatement.  I may not have even earned tenure, or landed my job in the first place, without this body.  Further, the work I have done, work which feeds me and which I hope has opened an audience’s eyes to the importance of mother’s voices, marginalized mother’s voices, and the voices of academics coming out as mothers as a force for change.  And so this paper is a love letter.  It is also a testament to the way my career as a scholar and eventually as an academic mother has been shaped in every way by the work done by people like us, here at this conference.

 My work in mothering studies started when I was a senior in college.  I wrote my senior thesis on mothers in the novels of Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison.  I had no critical tools to bring to the table, just close-reading of what I later learned to think of as the maternal narrative or motherline present in the works.  I was 21 and I had no intention at the time of ever being a mother.  Still, I was drawn to stories specifically about mothers and their struggles.  I was particularly interested in first-person narrative, focusing on fiction.  Graduation was my goal and I had no real intention of moving forward with this academic work on motherhood.

I taught high school after college, but soon found myself back in graduate school.  Not done yet with the motherline, I completed a Master’s Thesis on mothers in the fiction of Buchi Emecheta and Jamaica Kincaid.  Around the age of 24, I discovered African Feminism.  I also discovered Andrea O’Reilly, but at this point only through her work.  She and Marianne Hirsch gave voice to the struggle I was having—to focus not on the daughter’s vision of the mother, but the mother herself.

 I turned part of that thesis into an article early in my PhD program, and though I felt scared and scarcely ready to share my work with anyone, I sent an abstract to the ARM conference that was taking place in 2000.  I was accepted, my department gave me $500 and I was on my way to having my work heard.  I remember feeling both excited and overwhelmed, recognizing that there was so much work that needed to be done in this field, and I was nervous about the fact that I knew I wanted to be a part of it.  I knew my department wasn’t very keen on interdisciplinary work, but I still sent a full article to ARM’s journal, “Ibuza vs. Lagos: The Feminist and Traditional Buchi Emecheta,” and it was published in issue 2.2.  Between the conference and the publication, I was given permission to be a scholar—I felt that maybe I could do it.  (And that work is still being cited!)

Due to my department’s insistence on a more traditional approach to training their PhDs, I moved away from mothering somewhat, becoming a formally trained 19th c. Americanist.  Though ostensibly my dissertation was about masculinity, the mothering context for Fanny Fern, Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Wilson were important factors in that book.   I was able to pursue and finish that dissertation, largely because ARM had made me believe I could join the conversation. 

I went on the market and accepted the position I still have at Kent State University Tuscarawas. Compared to today, the market in 2003 doesn’t look too bad, but at the time, it felt to all of us like we might never get positions.  It was a tenure-track line with a 4/4 load, and therefore “better” than what many of my cohort were managing.  Like many academic women, I was starting my first job around the same time I was seriously and finally considering becoming a mother.  Two years into my probationary period, I had my first son, and I was fed up with most of the motherhood literature given to pregnant and new mothers.  I wanted to meet moms and read a different kind of literature, so I submitted a panel for NEMLA in 2007 on “Mommy Lit,” and there I met Justine Dymond.  Her daughter was two, my baby was not yet one, and my breasts were aching through that whole conference—he didn’t come with me and pumping didn’t relieve the strain of being away from him.  Our book, published by Demeter in 2013 called Motherhood Memoirs; MothersCreating/Writing Lives, was born in the hallway at that conference.

 I had flouted the unwritten rules for women on the tenure track at Kent State by having not one but two children in my probationary period.  Tolling didn’t exist for me then.  I fantasized about converting my line to a non-tenure track one, where I wouldn’t have to complete research.  The need to publish felt like a very heavy coat I constantly wore.  At that point, I was mostly still trying to get my 19th c. Americanist work published, and I was having lousy luck.  The work felt dead to me too, so it wasn’t ever a complete surprise when it got rejected.  I was exhausted and milk-engorged and barely surviving in my teaching, let alone having time to write and think.  My job was in danger.  I remember telling a friend—this will all be worth it if I get tenure, but if I’ve spent my children’s baby years stressing out and still don’t keep the job, I don’t know. . . . It was in this state of mind that I saw a CFP for ARM that spoke to me.  I sent in my work “Mothering in Slavery: A Revision of African Feminist Principles,” and it was accepted and came out in issue 9.2.  Previous to this, my only publication since hire had been an article about teaching—my life at the regional campus—but pedagogical scholarship was frowned upon by colleagues.  This one article gave me hope and courage.  I re-worked my dissertation in the way it needed with a new energy, and it became a book.  Tenure was secure.

 NEMLA again played a role in my motherhood studies career when I presented the paper “Body and Mind: Pregnancy and Motherhood, Twice, Before Tenure” at the Buffalo conference in 2008.   This paper was the first time I publicly admitted to some of the tenure-terror I experienced.  Justine had created that panel, and we were meeting women that would ultimately contribute to our book.  I fondly remember a group of us finding dinner one night in Buffalo, and Andrea convincing us all to share our birth stories at the table.  Isaac, my second son, was one month old and in the hotel room with his brother and father, and I was relieved to get back and nurse him.  I knew that I had found my scholar sisters that night.  

 My husband and I got tenure and our first promotions.  We raised our babies.  We spent a lot of time being tired, but the stress over job security had passed and I, for the first time, found myself devoted to research that was for me.  I wanted to work on it, because I wanted to help usher into the world the kind of writing about mothering that I wanted to read.  
Over the next couple of years there were more conferences, one in which I met Liz for the first time, and one in which Andrea interviewed me for a project she was doing on academic mothers.  Andrea, I don’t know if you remember this interview, but I thought about it long afterward.  I immediately regretted so many of my answers, realizing I hadn’t really gotten to know myself as a mother and an academic yet, and certainly not as a scholar, and so I worked and I thought and I grew.  

The Motherhood Memoir collection grew along with me.  I know now from being a contributor for Liz in her book Pops in Pop Culture that in my first foray into editorship I did a lot of it backwards, but we learned as we went, and I’m proud of our book, which received a contract from Demeter P in 2012 and came out in 2013.  Meanwhile, MIRCI had given me permission to be interdisciplinary and personal in my writing, and so I wrote a personal essay called “Anger in the House: Writing, Reading and Mothering.”  This was the first piece I published post-tenure, and it was the beginning of talking about my family in print.  (I almost said “embarrassing my family in print,” but that’s a big topic.  My boys weren’t old enough to know what I was writing about them early on.  Now they have more of a stake in how they are represented. This is a tricky topic and too big for this love letter.


Soon after my first published personal essay, Andrea and Liz accepted a paper I wrote about Jamaica Kincaid for their collection Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts.  For that collection, they were having trouble getting representations of mothering stories by/about women of color, and my essay fit a small piece of what they needed.  This problem of representation also plagued the Motherhood Memoir collection, and it’s a problem now with my new collection on Feminist Fathering, and so I see it as a particular part of my scholarly mission to ensure representation of as many voices as possible within our already marginalized field of motherhood studies.  Certainly MIRCI has grown—and this conference amazingly shows what Andrea and the rest have been able to accomplish over the past 20 years.

 With two publications post-tenure and, finally, Motherhood Memoirs coming to fruition, I started to realize I might in fact build a record for promotion to full.  After all, with the book I now had a keynote speaker credit, and two other invited talks related to our book.   As a side note, I want to say that the celebrations of books and the book launches really add an important touch to scholarly activities that all too often feel anti-climactic—it can take years for a book to come to print, and by the time it happens, we’ve moved on and barely mark the event.  The book launch I was part of helped me feel like a legitimate creator of scholarship.  At the Gala for the Demeter book launch during the summer of 2013, Liz gave me the CFP for her Pops in Pop Culture collection.  At the Gala we also realized one of our contributors had a book of her own coming out from Demeter.  My scholarly world was both expanding and becoming more intimate.   I ended up moving into the topic of fathering with my chapter in Pops called “Non-Traditional Fathering in Botswana: Alexander McCall Smith’s Vision for Nurturing Paternity in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series.”  

Through working with Liz, I saw how to be an editor, and I hope that with my next book FeministFathering/Fathering Feminists, I’m able to pull off just a bit of her excellence.  Due to her wonderful work through three sets of serious revision on my essay, for the first time in my career I didn’t have to make any changes for the peer reviewers prior to publication.  That success cemented my desire to work toward being a full professor. 

Regional campus faculty at Kent State University hold tenure in the regional system, but our promotions are held in the department.  Therefore, though our teaching loads are roughly twice the load of Kent faculty, and we have little access to grad students, our promotion criteria are exactly the same as if our campus missions were the same.  There is no time pressure for the full professor bid, but I began to be hungry for the recognition (and pay—no small thing) my scholarship was incrementally making me eligible for.  I was in a position where I could choose my projects fairly carefully and according to my own passions.  I also knew that my fields post-tenure—memoir, maternal narrative, motherhood studies—along with my particular scholarly voice, one that is personal and subjective and enacts, frequently, autotheory as opposed to more traditional scholarship—were not widely understood in my discipline.  

So, I continued writing, next finding the Mothers and Sons collection and contributing a paper both at last year’s conference and in that collection about raising my boys and toxic masculinity.  My partner, a prolific and respected scholar of medieval material culture and queer theory, said it might be the best thing I’ve written yet.   We both attributed this to the fact that it was my first truly integrated autotheoretical work.  His statement meant a lot to me, as he is always my first editor and critic (as I am his).   Also an important step in my ability to see myself as a scholar, was the fact that at last year’s conference, Motherhood Memoirs and our contributors were referenced positively several times.  Knowing our work has made an impact was invaluable as I decided to quell my fears and move forward with my promotion dossier.

I knew that part of my challenge would be to find full professors conversant with my overlapping fields.  I combed our conference program, and am so pleased to say that Deborah and Anissa both consented to be on my external review list, along with a few others.  These scholar sisters are proving that “motherhood studies” is a discipline, interdisciplinary and cutting-edge, in its own right, and that this work has political power and urgency.

MIRCI and Demeter have given me the space to create a voice that shapes my lived experiences into vignettes that help me think through larger societal restrictions and individual possibilities for expanding given definitions and normative categories for parents and children.  I am ready to continue this work and to help others achieve it as well.  MIRCI and Demeter quite literally gave me space to share my voice, a voice that was not typically recognized or accepted in most other academic spaces.  My voice is personal, interdisciplinary, and I hope, empowering, not only to myself, but to mothers and academics who are trying also to find and raise their voices.  

Additional information:
 Dr Andrea O'Reilly, PhD, is Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at York University. She is founder and director of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI); founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative; and founder of Demeter Press.


Nicole Willey's research interests include mothering, fathering, memoir, and African American literature.  She wrote 'Creating a New Idea' of Masculinity for American Men: The Achievement of Sentimental Women Writers in the Mid-Nineteenth Century', and co-edited 'Motherhood Memoir: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives'. Her current book project is about Feminist Fathering.  She lives in New Philadelphia, Ohio, USA with her husband, two sons, and one dog.

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