The Durability of Motherhood

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.)

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12 responses to “The Durability of Motherhood

  1. I agree; culture, ecology, and psychology are intertwined in creating the parent, child relationship.
    but humans do not live in a vaccuum; they are not free to invent definitions and meaning to commonly understood cultural constructs with no side effects, and even if they personally succeed, they can not impose it on everyone else.

    Certainly culture does change, over extended period of time, abrupt changes are infrequent and often unhealthy

    • I’m a little uneasy with some of the generalizations here (that abrupt changes are often unhealthy? I’m just not sure about that) but in general I think we agree here. People live within cultures–often multiple cultures. Cultures change slowly. (Though in fairness, I must say not as slowly as I once thought. The shift on access to marriage for same-sex couples has been faster that I ever could have imagined.) If you are out of sync with your culture or cultures, there are consequences–perhaps you get stigmatized or maybe everyone things your odd or whatever. One person cannot make the culture change, but the actions of many people over time are the stuff of cultural change.

  2. They did not agree to raise this child because they wanted to be parents they agreed to raise this child to help preserve a family in crisis. They did not need to lay claim to parental title just because they were doing the work that the parent should be doing. Their relationship with the child will be deeper much deeper than the average grandparent/grandchild relationship, much more like a parent child relationship of course, but they respected the child enough to acknowledge that she has a mother – but her mother cannot raise her. That relationship is independent of theirs and they don’t covet its title or accolades.

    Sadly had this child’s grandparents been financially unable to take care of their grandchild the kid would have gone to foster care and would have been adopted by people who were doing it to become parents. They would not be interested in helping the child salvage a relationship with her mother and would in fact probably have resisted contact and definately would have trained the child that they are mommy and daddy and given some other cold and distant moniker to the child’s own mom.
    Whenever possible I believe its best to leave the title of mother and father to the mother and father regardless of whether or not they are doing any of the heavy lifting of parenthood. Alow the child their role as those people’s daughter respect their family for what it is broken and troubled and develop a relationship with the child that stands on its own in its own right and allow the child to see that they can be more bonded to a person that shares no dna than to their own mother for instance. Its clear its respectful and does not pave the way for any guilt on the part of the child for ever referring to their mother as their mother or any guilt for speaking to them etc. The relationship with the adopting couple will not have any of those yucky loyalty issues if they don’t covet those damn kinship titles

    The girl was able to develop a close relationship with her mom i think in part do to this phenomenon that creates perfect relationships with people in prison. They write letters by hand a lost and very personal art. They fill them with hand drawings and poetry and very delicate personal time intensive expressions of love and adoration – the kind that people just do not do when they have modern conveniences at hand and the duties of daily life to attend to. Prisoners have no control over what is going on on the outside so they are able to keep their women interested or in this case their children captivated by telling them all the things we all long to hear things we cannot be bothered to say out here in the real world. The letters are filled with promises of reform and a brighter tomorrow etc. Inspirational grounded forward thinking sobor thoughts and what not. Prisoners have nothing but time to focus the person they are courting or mentoring or whatever. And then there is the freedom the person has on the outside to see whomever they want and do whatever they want because the person on the inside knows nothing about it. So this mother could bond to her daughter in ways that she could not had she been the nag telling her to clean up her room and do her homework. That may not have even happened given the kind of life the woman was leading but I”ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

    She is the child’s mother and she has developed the best possible relationship with her given the circumstances because her family did its best to help preserve the structure of a family in crisis. They did not selfishly take a child in because they wanted to be parents they helped a mother take care of her child when she was unable to do it herself. This is what adoption should look like. This is the most respectful model. When the parent has any interest at all in remaining in the picture, the situation should follow these general guidelines of helping save a family rather than build a new one by severing ties with the old one.

  3. I think may be a more traditional usage of the word surrogate, actually. He wasn’t actually her father but he acted as a father to her, hence he was a surrogate/substitute father.

    I’m not 100% sure of the linguistic history. I do think that there have been some objections to using the term surrogate for women carrying children for other women, because of the connotation of substitution.

    As for the rest, I think your theory about social feedback is very compelling. Sometimes I say (only half jokingly) that the hardest thing about growing up with gay parents was finding a common vocabulary to talk about them. But behind that is the cognitive dissonance when people just don’t get or respect your relationships – which I imagine is connected to the emotional importance of calling gay marriage marriage. I do think/hope that things are better now.

    • I suppose if what the author meant is a substitute father, then you are right about the usage being somewhat traditional. I was actually thinking he was the source of the sperm, in which case the usage wouldn’t make sense.

      Of course from my point of view, as you suggest using the term a surrogate father becomes a father at some point. What I mean is, to me, someone who plays the role (for long enough and in a deep enough way) does become the father.

      • I think the term was used because Ms. Clark is a lesbian and it was somehow the author’s way of drawing a parallel between gay men who use surrogates and Ms. Clark’s intention to be a single parent but with someone who was essentially a known sperm donor?? That’s my best guess. It’s really an odd usage of the word.

        • Perhaps what is most clear is that it’s unclear what was meant. I read it as Kenny did, but if that’s what it was used for it was a peculiar usage because a known donor isn’t typically meant to be a surrogate father. There’s no mention of the guy playing any actual role in the child’s life, so I don’t really understand what I’m supposed to take from it.

  4. I really tried to read the article with an open mind and I understand the point of the article. However, the discussion about the limited communication between mother and daughter is simply lost on me when I remember that six (possibly more – I’m not sure about the Brinks guard’s status as a parent) children were left fatherless as a direct result of the actions taken by Ms. Clark and her conspirators.

    Whether one thinks DNA or an emotional/psychological connection is the critical component in defining parentage, it can not be forgotten that six children were denied the ability to fully explore these connections with their father.

    I admire those who can look past the details of the robbery (what’s done is done) and focus on other, relevant and important issues. My shortcomings simply prevent me from doing so.

    • That shortcoming is call compassion or morals or ethics whathaveyoyu
      Its a good character trait and its ballanced by those that have compassion for the children of the men and women who acted without concern for the lives of those people. To try and salvage what they can of their family in a way that is truthful and real. They have not released this woman. Her daughter has limited contact with her. Its better than what it could have been given this woman’s actions.

  5. So Julie where does this put you since the woman is the biological mother and these other people did the work she should have been doing as a parent together with the father (albeit separately). So it is possible for people to do the work of a parent without claiming the title and therefore not become a parent in the child’s eyes? Be something else like a grandparent or an uncle who does more than typical. And someone who does less than typical (like way less – virtually nothing) can become a mother or father based on – seems like what the child is trained to call the person now if I erase my preconceived notions of the fact that they are parents medically/scientifically then this woman became a parent by virtue of the fact that its what her parents trained their grandchild to believe or were they grandparents or parents? Who’s opinion defines the relationship – can action trump opinion. This was a good one.

    • I take it you are asking about the grandparents? I don’t think the grandparents ever thought of themselves or intended to be parents to the child–they were caretaking for their daughter. It seems that they did what they could to sustain and strenghthen the mother/child relationship under the constrained circumstances they (the grandparents) faced. Thus, I don’t think they became the child’s parents, although I do think they played a very critical role in the child’s life and I’d surely want to distinguish them from strangers or babysitters.

      Perhaps this highlights something important that hasn’t been clear enough in the past. It isn’t simply what you do–whether you get up in the night when the child cries, etc. It’s that plus something else that is about the relationship that is built between child and adult. Acting like a parent means more (to me) than performing physical tasks–though they are a part of the picture. It’s about the emotional and psychological commitment you make. You give yourself over to parenthood, in a way. I mean no criticism of the grandparents here, who I think performed admirably, but I don’t think they thought of themselves as parents and thus, they wouldn’t have made the sort of commitment I’m thinking of.

      I suspect this isn’t well enough or fully enough articulated, but it’s a start.

      • A long time ago we talked about a young man who had to raise his little brother and sister I think. It was a father’s day article maybe. He did not refer to himself as his siblings parent but you said that if he took care of them long enough he at some point ceases to be a sibling in your eyes and becomes the children’s parent.

        That is different than what you say here. I like what you say here because its quite clear that people can raise a child and be fully dedicated to that task without claiming parental title – in order to respect the parent child relationship even if the parent has ceased to function in his or her parental roll. People don’t become parents when they are raising other people’s offspring unless they desire to claim the title. I guess. Its about how the person doing the raising wants to feel not so much about the kid.

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