Playing with Time: Mothers and the Meaning of Literacy

Playing with Time: Mothers and the Meaning of Literacy

Playing with Time: Mothers and the Meaning of Literacy

Playing with Time: Mothers and the Meaning of Literacy

Synopsis

Examining the idea that the responsibility for literacy lies as much within the family as in the school, this book explores the lives of mothers born after 1870, revealing the way women feel responsible for the literacy of their children.

Excerpt

In this chapter are some broad brush strokes across the canvas I have chosen. There are some thoughts, first, about literacy and about time, and how the two seem to be mixed up with each other in contradictory ways. (Since I have chosen to suggest in this book that literacy has something to do with “playing” with time, a few of these contradictions needed to be near its beginning.) From these we move on to look at how these contradictions might be connected with the experience of being a mother at home. For her, the present is dominated by other timetables—those of school (the regulator of literacy), of paid and unpaid work, and of everyday life. We consider how reading provides a means of transport out of the present time: excursions not only out of the home, but outside its timetables.

The second connection is between family time and literacy time—focusing particularly on working-class mothers in the period 1890s to 1930s, and on the tension between ideas of work and “leisure”. When certain kinds of literacy behaviour simply looked like “play” in conflict with the work of mothering, literacy for the mother is characterized by many women as a “luxury” and an “indulgence”. Like many other “leisure” activities, literacy for mothers is something saved for the time before or after the years of childbearing and rearing. Thirdly, under the heading literacy and life time I consider with you how moments in the life of a girl and an old woman allow for literacy pleasures not available to the same person in the years when motherhood is her dominant preoccupation. In this section, too, there are examples of a daughter turning to literacy to find answers that her mother refuses her; and of how literacy itself has been silent on the experience of women’s sexuality.

In the second part of the chapter we glimpse one mother who came to literacy in old age. The story of Eliza is told by her daughter, now herself a mother and grandmother, and her son: the story of a mother who lived through the first six decades of her life without literacy of her own (she was “illiterate”), and who, at the age of 78, for reasons unknown to anyone, chose to learn to read. Since Eliza herself is no longer alive the story depends on the “memories of memories” carried by (now elderly) children. The portrait they have of Eliza the mother is of a woman “always on the go” with no time to spare from the many roles she fulfils in her home and community. The portrait changes to another picture entirely . . .

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