Carol Folt’s swift departure from the chancellorship of UNC-Chapel Hill a few weeks ago and her just as swift hiring as the president of the University of Southern California got me thinking. Apparently, her courage in finally facing up to a tough challenge in UNC-CH’s Silent Sam-Confederate monument situation impressed the search committee at USC.
Some local voices, however, were critical of her alleged prior indecisiveness in that matter.
The challenges Folt and other women have running large institutions of higher education, I realized, are not unlike those that other women face as mothers. Both jobs are impossible to do perfectly. The children and young people under supervision will regularly challenge authority and sometimes do it with unreasonableness and anger.
In both cases, the ultimate payoffs can be remarkably positive.
Children and students can turn out to be productive and talented contributors to their families and communities.
Often, usually, but not always.
And it is never perfect.
The complex and varied results of the mother-child relationships are the subjects of 28 essays edited by North Carolina writers Lee Smith and Samia Serageldin. Their book, “Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South,” comes out on April 1.
The contributors, all respected authors, include, in addition to the editors, Belle Boggs, Marshall Chapman, Hal Crowther, Clyde Edgerton, Marianne Gingher, Jaki Shelton Green, Sally Greene, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Eldridge “Redge” Hanes, Lynden Harris, Randall Kenan, Phillip Lopate, Michael Malone, Frances Mayes, Jill McCorkle, Melody Moezzi, Elaine Neil Orr, Steven Petrow, Margaret Rich, Omid Safi, James Seay, Alan Shapiro, Bland Simpson, Sharon K. Swanson, and Daniel Wallace.
Smith emphasizes that the relationships and experiences between mothers and children are varied. Each is unique. She explains, “America’s traditional Hallmark conception of Motherhood (note the caps) takes a real beating in these essays. The whole idea of motherhood is hampered by the stereotypes and preconceptions associated with it–mothers are selfless, right? Automatically loving and giving and happy with their biological and limited role, making biscuits from scratch and sewing all our clothes, yadayada. Almost nobody had a mother like that.”
Then she confesses, “Except me, I guess. Actually, my own sweet mother really did all these things, though she suffered terribly from depression when she quit teaching, which she had loved, to ‘stay home and take care of you.’”
On the other hand, Jill McCorkle’s mother had a full-time job as a secretary while other mothers “were staying home and doing the June Cleaver thing.” McCorkle never felt slighted. Today, her mom is a victim of dementia who does not recognize her daughter. McCorkle writes, “If there is a sliver of grace to be pulled from the gnarled up tangle of dementia, it is that little bit of time given to loved ones to fully appreciate the scope of a whole life while the individual is still there and breathing and every now and then, for the briefest second, visible.”
Other writers describe different experiences with their mothers. Serageldin grew up in a prominent Egyptian family that was put into a stressful situation after the 1952 revolution. Threatened confiscation and arrests were part of the picture, but “she colluded with her mother’s pretense of normality, sensing that the illusion was more for the adult’s sake.”
Clyde Edgerton remembers being raised by three women, his mother and two aunts. His mother had quit school when she was 12 years old to work in a hosiery mill.
These essays and all of the others are readers’ treasures. Short, written crisply by some of the region’s best authors, each one gives an inside look at the writer’s private life and how the mother faced challenges just as daunting as those women university presidents face.