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Mothering like Woolf

Jarica Watts tells the story of motherhood.

On the final day of Education Week, August 19, 2022, Assistant Professor Jarica Watts (Early 20th-Century British Literature) delivered a presentation called “Textual Mothers: Virginia Woolf and the Maternal Muse” as part of the Humanities Center’s Lifelong Learning: “5 Best” series. She lectured on the representation of mothers in Virginia Woolf’s fictional works and what it means to be a mother even when it might be challenging.

Watts began by providing the inspiration for why she chose this area of study—the experience she had with giving birth on the same day as earning her doctorate degree (which you can find in a previous article here). Watts then explained that although Woolf was a mother figure to many, and wanted to be a mother, she was never a biological mother herself. But one of Woolf’s friends, a mother of seven, inspired Woolf to write about mothers in a time when the role of women was transforming—shifting out of the “Victorian parlor” and into the working world.

Watts invited the audience to do several things: think back on their first memories with their mothers, reflect on the role of motherhood with both younger and older children, and ponder on the idea of a mother’s legacy. Watts then read several passages from Virginia Woolf’s various novels. The excerpts from To the Lighthouse highlighted the author’s “most compelling mother”: Mrs. Ramsay, mother of eight.

Mrs. Ramsay captures the playful, self-sacrificing, and nurturing details of being a mother as she interacts with her children. Readers linger with her in small moments of wishing her young children would never grow up and in long scenes of cleverly settling late-night disputes. While she is careful and logical about running her home, Mrs. Ramsay also plays with her children and tells them tales of fairyland. Woolf provides insight to even the unspoken realities of motherhood in Mrs. Ramsay’s character.

Regarding the challenges of motherhood, Watts debated Woolf’s ideas in the extended essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Here, Woolf argues that women are not able to produce creations because they are given domain over the whole house but no single space for their very own such as a study or den. In her presentation, Watts countered that even with a space of their own, even if there is a lock on the door, mothers do not always have a mind of their own. They carry the mental load that comes with the mantle of motherhood.

Watts was not complaining about carrying that mantle, however. In fact, she called it a blessing and shared an empowered testimony of the divinity of motherhood. She wrapped up the lecture with words of encouragement for mothers torn about how to live their lives and raise their families. She said if you are torn between whether to take that qualifying exam or have a baby, “choose both. Do both.”

Professor Jerica Watts presenting with her slides
Photo by Hanna J. Muhlestein