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Kate Chopin, the “mother-woman”

Kate Chopin married at 20 years old and birthed six children within nine years. The Awakening, which she published in 1899, is arguably written to reject that an artist’s offspring would presume to occupy the first line to any discussion of her work. Her novella’s main character, Edna Pontellier, shocked Chopin’s readers by declaring her “self” separate from her maternal role:

“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” (p 53)

And so forgive me, Kate. But it is her lived experience, as a mother-writer who so profoundly expressed the conflicts of occupying that duality, which drew me as the editor of a magazine committed to sharing the diverse experiences of motherhood, to re-read this classic text. The incredible truth is that our contemporary society remains astonished that women dare to express disinterest in bearing children, to say nothing of the extreme taboo around motherhood regret. Writers and artists who choose to openly discuss or engage their experiences as parents in their work also find themselves marginalized. Yet for many, as Shanthi Sekaran writes, “the relationship between motherhood and writing feels both essential and impossible…what do we desire most as writers, but to say something true and memorable about being human? Having children has wired me to the pulse of creation.”

Chopin was not what we would consider an activist in her own time. “She was not a social reformer. Her goal was not to change the world but to describe it accurately, to show people the truth about the lives of women and men in the nineteenth-century America she knew,” explains the Kate Chopin international Society.  Yet, The Awakening was later embraced by the modern women’s movement in the 60s and 70s as a nascent feminist text, an inspiration to hold sacred our identity and minds, liberated from the constraints of the wife/mother. “I have gotten into a habit of expressing myself. It doesn’t matter to me, and you may think me unwomanly if you like,” Edna tells her lover.

That lover (not her only), Robert, ultimately fails Edna as much as the other men who dominate in her life, not simply by leaving her but seeming to no longer see her, when she isn’t simply a reflection of his making. It’s “romance” that sparks her spiritual awakening, but I was as affected by the lines where Edna expresses the ambiguity of her ties to her children, the tumultuousness of that affair – how truly Chopin writes about the rapture of scooping up a child in affection, of missing them when they are not there but not enough to invite them readily back to interrupt you… It is not, in my mind, a book that argues against the passion of love or motherhood, but against the duty of these roles rather than their independent choice. But, that might be because I want to reconcile the choices I’ve made with the ways I identified with Edna, with the wish that we could hold all these creative, sensual urges in one surviving self.

Chopin began her professional career as a published writer, though long developing her practice in journals, after her husband’s death (and managing to pay off his many debts he’d left). She went on to publish over 100 stories. At the age of 38, she remade herself and made her name. It is some comfort to those who didn’t yet appear on that “under 35” successful writers list, right?

Pamela Knights, in the introduction of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, describes Chopin’s practiced skill at marketing, the “modestly humorous persona Chopin often adopted in public: an amateur, who spontaneously penned her tales between struggling with a dress-pattern and trying ‘a new furniture polish on an old table leg.’… She could express her divided obligations as a mother and writer, but also conceal serious professional and artistic ambitions behind a mask of womanly self-deprecation.”

Well, that sounds familiar. It’s almost too on the nose for a “mommy blogger,” a term I wholly reject for the literary magazine that MUTHA is, but also appreciate is itself strategic in the way Chopin was in using her dual status, “non-threatening” wrapping to get down the guards.

In fact as I was reading this book, and then on and off carrying it with me through the summer collecting notes, I kept losing it (not my usual losing it, but the physical copy). I found myself posting to friends, “I lost my copy of The Awakening and found it three days later under a pile of dirty laundry” and “My copy of The Awakening is soaking wet because my daughter tucked her open sippie-cup into my purse.” I brought it with me on a camping trip to a yurt and there, it got sand in it. I felt lucky the child didn’t eat it. I literally finished my notes for introducing the book at the Bryant Park summer book club while sitting in the darkened bleachers before her daycamp weekly performance, because (of course) even when you pay to put children in care during school vacation, you are expected to show up early to hear them sing. Which, I want–to hear her sing–but I also want to write about The Awakening. For the record, she called out from the audience – “MAMA, MAMA, put down your phone!”

I felt I was trying to play this part of a public intellectual and the “mother-woman” kept comically popping up, except I also have chosen this role, am privileged in it in so many ways it’s an essay all its own. I want to swim out and swim back.

Let us not overlook the problems of this text. Chopin was also a Southern writer “of her time” even as she challenged it by reflecting the diversity in the Restoration period in her scene-setting. Her earlier stories were popular as “local color” pieces; many of which to my reading are acutely racist (I refer you to more discussion in Knight’s introduction). I was struck by how The Awakening exemplifies the critique “white feminist,” in the terminology of current intersectional movement. When Edna removes herself from her husband’s house to pursue what, it must be said, is “a room of her own,” (Virginia Woolf), she may be refusing to perform domestic duties like “receiving callers,” but she conveniently brings along, and installs in a back room, Black servants to keep up her own level of comfort. The interior “struggle” of the independence of an upper-class white woman relies on the subjugation of Black women. In her summer scenes at Grand Isle, Edna’s children run rather “free range,” as we’d say in my Brooklyn parenting circles, watched over by a multiracial nanny (never given a name, “the quadroon” per Chopin). A Black child labors at the sewing machine tread, working at the feet of the Madame presiding over the resort. When Edna sacrifices herself in the ocean, she drowns off the grounds of a former plantation.

While we unpack how Edna is admonished by friends to think of her children, a memory that haunts her when she swims “where no woman had swum before,” let us also not overlook the voices in the book silenced, the children represented without the privilege of childhoods.

Featured image credit: “Working business woman” by helpsg CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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