I’ve been thinking about this article, which originally appeared in the NYT on Sunday. It’s about Judith Clark, who is serving a very long prison term resulting from her involvement in the Brinks Robbery. (You can read about the crime in the first few paragraphs of the story.) Clark was arrested on the day of the robbery–October 20, 1981–and has been in custody ever since. At the time of her arrest she had an 11-month-old daughter, Harriet. This story is largely a portrait of the mother/daughter relationship between the two women.
Clark was and remains a single mother. Her relationship with her daughter is shaped by the fact that she has been in custody for virtually her daughter’s entire life. Harriet daughter has no memory of a time before her mother was in prison.
Mother and daughter meet in prison visiting rooms and for many years there was either no physical contact or extremely limited physical contact between them. Since Clark has been in prison they’ve never been able to see each other as they choose and for much of the time visited only weekly. Other forms of communication have been limited. (Of course, in the very early years of a child’s life, other forms of communications (letters and phone calls) aren’t worth that much anyway.)
And yet despite all these constraints it’s quite clear that Clark is Harriet’s mother. Harriet says:
[O]ver the years, she has realized that her relationship to her mother is closer than that of many people she knows. “The advice my mother has given me in life is the advice I live by,” she said. “The values she has instilled in me is how I move through this world.”
As I read this article, I cannot help but think about the essence of parenthood. How has Clark managed to maintain her role as mother through all the difficulties described here?
I realize that for those who think the essence of parenthood is DNA, there’s no question here, really. Judith and Harriet are and always will be genetically related. But this answer is hardly satisfactory to me. I’m generally attached to a function definition of parenthood–a parent is someone who acts like one. And so this story is more of a challenge for me. It’s clear that Judith Clark was and is Harriet’s mother, but it cannot be because she performed the traditional tasks of bathing and feeding and putting to bed, say. (I assume she did do these things for the first 11 months of Harriet’s life, but not afterwards.)
A couple of things strike me. As a child grows–and you can see this is true with Harriet–the role of “parent” changes. My invocation of things like bathing/feeding/putting to bed is applicable to the infant, but not to the ten-year-old or the fifteen-year-old or the twenty-year-old. As a child ages, the role of parent is less physical and more emotional/psychological.
Actually, I think the role of parent is always emotional/psychological, but the most direct way of relating to a very young child is through immediate physical reality. Harriet described extensive correspondence with her mother and that would be increasingly important (and increasingly satisfying) as Harriet aged.
So in the larger scheme of things, this story makes me realize that I need a more complicated functional definition of parenthood. One that takes into account the way the relationship of parent and child changes over time.
It’s also striking to me that many people around Clark–most notably her own parents–affirmed her parenthood and in doing so, made it possible for her to continue in the role. They ensured her continuing contact with Harriet. They clearly related to her as Harriet’s mother and so helped Harriet relate to her that way as well.
This brings me to a second point. I suppose one is not a parent in isolation (in my view). Affirmation of parenthood by a community around the child is a critical component. Without that affirmation I am not sure what the relationship here becomes.
I think Clark is lucky to have had the genetic connection, because I think that is what made it easy to affirm her status as parent. I cannot help but wonder if the story would have unfolded differently had she adopted Harriet instead of having given birth to her.
As a final aside, there’s a reference in the article to a fellow militant serving as “surrogate father.” (It’s around the middle of page 2.) This is a rather odd phrase. I assume this means he provided the sperm, but there’s no indication he ever played any role in Harriet’s life apart from this. I suppose what makes the terms seem odd to me is the use of the word “surrogate.” I’m not at all sure what that is supposed to mean in this context.)