The Personal is Political, But Is It IR? On Writing as a Mother and Feminist

Annick WibbenThe penultimate post in our methodology and narrative mini-forum, written by Annick T.R. Wibben. Annick is Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. She’s been thinking about narrative for a long time, but rarely writes autoethnography. The piece featured here was originally written in 2006, but it’s taken her this long to find a suitable home for it…not to mention the courage to let it go out into the world. When she is not thinking about narrative (or tweeting about feminism, security and violence @ATRWibben), her research at the intersections of feminist theory, security studies, and continental philosophy, aims to radicalize security studies and to challenge the politics of security. In Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach (Routledge, 2011), she examines meanings of security legitimized in existing practices and proposes an opening of the security studies agenda by drawing on narrative approaches. So, really, she’s never not thinking about narrative.


So here I am; it is 9:30am. I am sitting in a room with other women at our weekly Friday writing group. We call ourselves the Writing Warriors, as much to describe what we’re doing as also to encourage ourselves to continue doing it. Most of us are untenured still, which adds an extra dimension to the task of writing – must be productive, must publish! Many of us have small children and when the writing stops, that’s what we talk about: How do we deal with the challenges of combining motherhood and an academic career. We exchange recommendations for childcare and kid-friendly restaurants; we give advice on breastfeeding, potty-training, and where to buy healthy snacks (we certainly don’t have time to make them). Sometimes one or more of us have to miss the writing day (or part of it) when a child is home from school, a babysitter is ill, or we just cannot focus on our own research because we need to catch up on teaching or service commitments (of which we all have plenty, of course).

So here I am; I arrived late today. Only a few minutes late, but late enough to be occupied still with what I left behind in the rush to get here as close as possible to 9am when we meet, greet, talk about our writing plans for the day, and then start writing, promptly at 9:15am. I am wondering should I have left earlier. When? I could have skipped breakfast. I could have ignored my daughter’s requests to read her a story before leaving. Should I not have bothered to throw in the load of laundry? Or, to wipe off the food from the high-chair? I could have gotten here a few minutes earlier…

So here I am; writing IR. I am an international relations scholar, so this is what I do, I write IR. I need to convince myself that this is what I am doing, say it again: I write IR. I write IR. As I repeat these words, something else pops into my mind: Sam I am, I do not like that Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam I am… just like the character in Dr. Seuss’ children’s book needs to be convinced to try green eggs and ham just like I need to convince myself, that I am writing IR.

So here I am; staring at the blank page. It is 10:20am by now. I just deleted several paragraphs about how I’m not working on my ‘book project’ – the title I give that dreaded task of preparing my dissertation for publication. I’m still thinking about home, about what I left behind to now stare at the blank page. It’s a beautiful sunny day; I’m sure they’re having fun on the playground now. My IR self is getting angry, “This has nothing to do with work!” Yes, it does, the feminist self replies: “The personal is political.” This is personal; there is politics here somewhere.

So here I am; today is my research day. I have teaching on my mind now: Enloe says the personal is international. We were reading Bananas… I can hear my daughter, “nyummy, nyummy, nane, meh nane.” It’s hard to write IR as a feminist and mother. I get sidetracked, I burst into laughter (my writing cohort wonders why), I am tempted to leave, to go slide down the blue twisted slide, to let the sand slip through my fingers, to make today a baby day instead.

So here I am; still. I did not leave. I will try to focus on IR. I hear my judo coach: “try more, try more.” Sensei is 93, the highest ranking female in judo history. Her motto is “Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful. In mind, body and spirit.” I will be strong. I wonder about her life. She has taught judo all over the world. She has dedicated her whole life to judo, yet she has not received the 10th Dan, an honor reserved for men it seems. Wow, there might be (feminist) IR in a place I have not previously thought about. Strange things can happen when the personal becomes IR.

So here I am; I am getting excited finally. I should write about my new research project – the one I want to work on, have been working on quietly, unofficially, in the private sphere of my home. The one I am telling myself I cannot pursue yet, because I have that ‘book project’ to worry about, and tenure. It’s about mothering, no parenting, and peace. My IR self raises her eyebrows, “Do you want to finally marginalize yourself? You know that IR thinks little of those who concern themselves with peace!” The feminist self wonders, “Why parenting? Don’t you value mothers’ work?” I am quiet now.

So here I am; it is 11:15am. We entered our third hour of writing and I am determined to leave my mother self behind and embrace my scholar self fully. I ran to my office and grabbed some material I’ve been reading for this paper. There is an essay here, ‘Mother Writes’. Its author, like myself, is writing about how her “two roles are often in conflict when I write an academic paper”. At the outset, she considers her roles to be informed by a Cartesian split of body (mother) and mind (scholar). I am uncomfortable with that idea. I don’t think of myself as split along these lines. I move my body as a teacher, I gesture and point, shout and stride; I feel it as a scholar, it aches when I sit at my computer too long, it requires nourishment (chocolate!) as I think; I use it as a mother, to feed, to hug, to lift, to rock, to run…

So here I am; body AND mind. I’m writing on writing. My panel has the subtitle “Who do we become when we write?” and I want to scream: “It depends!” It might help if I think about who I become when I (try to) write IR. More and more I resist becoming that IR self, you know, the one conversant in security studies and IR theory. Examining the structure of security narratives and how they confine our thinking about and response to particular events used to fascinate me, and on some days it still does. Most of the time, however, it is too removed from my lived-experience as a mother-feminist. When I observe parents on the playground and ponder how their behaviors influence their children’s capacity to engage in empathetic cooperation, I wonder if others have ever wondered. When my husband and I discuss parenting strategies, we base them on the assumption that children behave as well as they are treated. My mind is engaged.

So here I am; thinking about thinking. I’m thinking about maternal thinking, about that thinking that emerges from, resonates with, and feeds into maternal practice. This is Sara Ruddick’s term of course; she writes about Maternal Thinking as one of the many forms of rationality, exceptional in that it incorporates feeling as part of rationality. Taking the feminist commitment to knowledge derived from lived-experience seriously, she argues “all thinking […] arises from and is shaped by the practices in which people engage”. Maternal thinking is shaped by the demands – preservation, growth, and social acceptance – of maternal practice. Meeting these demands requires strategies of preservative love (protection), nurturance, and training which are sometimes conflicting. Mothers, as maternal practitioners, reflect on their strategies, talk about the struggles they face, and share their frustrations and triumphs.[1] They do so, sometimes, while writing their disciplines.

So here I am; talking about my writing. I explain my longing for this new research project on parenting and peace. I tell my writing cohort about the claims made in parenting manuals, written by the ‘experts,’ about how some particular approach will lead to more balanced, more peaceful children and futures. I say, “I am curious about the validity of their statements, how would one devise a research project? What discipline would it be in?” I have a pile of books about mothering with me today and one mother-writer laughs, says something about “this is not research, this is me-search.” I feel hurt.

So here I am; it is 2:25pm. One of my mother-colleagues just entered the room. Her children have found out that mommy doesn’t ‘really’ work on Fridays. That is, she doesn’t teach, she writes. If she doesn’t teach today, why can’t she stay home? For the last few weeks the children have suddenly gotten ill on Thursday nights. How does one respond as a mother-scholar? The writing women do requires a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf pointed out long ago, but for mother-scholars it also requires good childcare arrangements, supportive partners, and a culture that recognizes all of the work we do as work.[2]

So here I am; thinking about tenure now. Most of us here today have yet to jump that hurdle. How does writing change when it is done for the purpose of achieving tenure? If I was not looking toward tenure, would I hesitate to embark on my new project? I have to think about the constraints placed on my time by my m/other-work. Would I be able to publish a book in time? In my unofficial research, I’ve been reading other mother-academics thoughts on the demands of tenure. What resonates, still, are reflections on how the years spent preparing for tenure are also the prime childbearing/childrearing years. Talk about a second shift!

So here I am; the feminist self is alert. The tenure process is gendered, no surprises, really. It’s not the only part of an academic job that is. My university has yet to find a space to build a childcare facility on site. It seems there are always more pressing projects to be completed… We talk about our service commitments, they are racialized too. Faculty of colour, just like female faculty, are in demand for committee work. Students look toward faculty of their own race or gender for direction. Talk about a double burden!

So here I am; I’m tired. It’s 4:36pm. I begin thinking about dinner – take-out anyone? Will someone have hung the laundry today? Will the baby be happy to see me, or upset that I didn’t come home earlier? The weekend is coming, how much of it will I spend in the office getting ready for next week? Should I have spent all of today writing? I could have done things differently, I could have been done with my grading, or class prep, or email… what work should be prioritized?

So here I am; ready to go home. When I sit down to nurse my daughter and I reflect on my writing at the same time, I will be doing IR … and I can applaud myself for having begun writing my first piece of maternal IR.


[1] This amounts to “an identification and a discourse about the strengths required by their ongoing commitments to protect, nurture, and train”, Ruddick says.

[2] Chris Bobel makes the point about childcare in her book on The Paradox of Natural Mothering.

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8 thoughts on “The Personal is Political, But Is It IR? On Writing as a Mother and Feminist

  1. Wow Annick. Such a familiar space. You brought many thoughts into my head – I have to sort them out . . . . But I wanted to say immediately thank you for posting this. It means so much to read and listen about each others realities – what we are experiencing when we are not the author of something apparently “important” (article, book, whatever), which in my case is most of the time (that I am not these important things). It does not change either – these thoughts don’t just go away. My “baby” is 12 and asking right now – mom, what are we going to do today? My thoughts? Well we have to do the groceries (always, on saturday). And yeah, the book project (actually 3 – how could I be so stupid?). So I have another weekend where I have to fit in work without anyone noticing or feeling neglected. Which never works (mom you *always* are working . . . ). I think I am going to have myself cry now . . . . . But I am glad you do what you do Annick. You have a strong presence in our “IR” community, and I would say that presence is what it is because of the tensions you have to balance, and the insights you gain. Very valuable.

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    • Thanks, Gunhild, for those kind, supportive words. The response to the piece has been quite amazing, actually (much of it not public for obvious reasons). It’s good to know we are not alone…

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      • I am glad to hear it. But isn’t it interesting how so many of us do not feel comfortable enough to express ourselves publicly? I hang my proverbial a** out there I guess because I am beyond having anything to lose ;-). But it speaks again to the need that Swati has raised many times – to have safe spaces to talk. As in *really* safe. I am glad you wrote this (even if it was a while ago) and finally published/posted it.

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    • Andrew – thanks for reply. I can imagine that a lot of what I wrote about applies not just to mothers, I was purely speaking from my own experience and, to some extent, drawing on many conversations I’ve had with other mother-academics. I also have to say that most of the (quite strong!) reactions I’ve gotten to the piece have been from other mothers, so it’s great to hear a father’s perspective also. Thanks.

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  2. Annick: we need to talk! So found myself in this, and I am co-editing a special issue of the Journal of International Political Theory with Fiona Robinson on Ruddick. And that Ruddick is so in this blog, but so not (much) in your book. Self-censorship? Is this what we are doing all the time? That’s what I do, I know! I don’t even know how to express it, and I read that ‘not knowing’ in the way you write this blog!

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  3. I love this piece! I didn’t get to respond earlier, but your writing touches a profound place in my heart, one that combines the personal and the theoretical, the poetic and the practical. It validates a mother’s experience in so many situations in which she is juggling (child-raising, career, household, education, politics, economics, soul-searching, etc.). Write more of this! We love it. We need it.

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