TRANSCRIPT: Reimagining environmentalism through the motherhood w/ Dr Allison Davis

Agrita: Welcome Allison to Mind Full of Everything. I am very excited to be having a conversation with the podcast after such a long time, so thank you so much for accepting to come on the show today!

Allison: I’m excited to be here and I hope that our conversation serves someone who’s listening and can make a difference. 

Agrita: I would like to start off the episode by asking you what does motherhood mean for you? How has the motherhood that you have experienced shaped you as a person? 

Allison: OK well, it’s a big one right off the bat, getting warmed up! I think of motherhood as the state of being a mother, and a mother is any being who engages in care work that centers nurturing and protection within relationships. So that’s kind of something I highlight a lot as a central part of their life. These are ideas of motherhood from scholars like O’Reilly and Lord and Reddick. But the point is that anyone can mother, and I even open that to systems we might call things like Nature, so we can recognize the ways we’re interrelated and care for one another. So that’s kind of my idea of mother. It’s really big. 

Agrita: Definitely, but you summarized it really, really well. I first reached out to you because I was, and still really am, fascinated with the intersection of motherhood and environmentalism. It’s a realm which is often left out of conventional science and Western environmental practices as one can expect. When did you begin to explore this intersection for yourself? Did it start off in your professional life or was it something that you picked up in your personal life? 

Allison: Yeah, well, that might go to your first question too about how motherhood has shifted me and shaped me. It’s, you know, been pretty interesting journey so far and I’m just almost four years in and I’m pregnant right now so I get to start this this developmental period over again. But it’s really tied me more closely to the story of the planet. That’s been one of the biggest changes. And I kind of describe that as longitudinal awareness. But it expanded my experience of deep time, to use Joanna Macy’s term, exploring how we find ourselves in lineages in reference to like geologic time. Human life is pretty short and it expanded my latitudinal awareness, or my experience of being in a really wide context. So, it was kind of this, you know, I’ve shared this in other places, but it was a very difficult shift for me. It’s something I notice in other mothers too but mothering a child can make you really acutely aware of the future, in ways that maybe some of us weren’t before. 

Agrita: Yeah, definitely. 

Allison: As we become less focused on our life spans and we’re starting to look at a child and think “what is the world going to be like when they’re a grandparent?” So, exploring the environmental aspects of mental health that came with a shift or what I’m calling awakening to the ecological self, was really difficult for me and I didn’t find a lot of support. So, it started this whole realm of investigation, finding people in community that spoke of this experience in a way that didn’t pathologise it. When I went to get support, a lot of people were like “I don’t know what’s going on here, maybe I should refer?” But I think that this ability to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole happens in so many phases of our life. I think I’m really interested in the way this happens with mothers and how we can support this.

Agrita: So do you think that mothers have an inherent sense of responsibility in managing their environments that they are living in, and their families are living in?

Allison: I would say no. I mean I think not any more than any other person! I think every human has a responsibility to their selves and their systems, and their selves as systems. We have these systems that are biological, psychological, social, cultural, and I add the ecological onto what is known as that biopsychosocial model of health. And so, I don’t think mothers have anymore responsibility, or that they’re better at it doing it in the ecologically sound way. But what I’m seeing is new mothers have this pattern of this crippling anxiety coming on really suddenly because of eco-fear, grief, and anxiety about climate change. And it could be really overwhelming, so what I’m thinking that rather than this being like a mental health problem, as it’s often discussed, but it can be a framed as an awakening, and opportunity where mothers can become more accountable, I think I like the word accountable, to their systems and their selves as systems. I think that we should all really be thinking about deep time constantly about ourselves that are interdependent, interrelated beings. It’s a big shift, so what seems to come on pretty suddenly. There’s lots of things we could talk about, is it related to the brain shifts? We know that the brain changes through early parenting in general, or the hormones, all these things can make us more protective or more relational almost. So, this increased capacity for relational self-understanding, I see it as the catalyst that sets mothers on. These really varied paths of self-development and growth, as they work to resolve our lives, to this point has diminished our ability to be in relationship to human, and more than human, world but also in individual relationship and collective relationship. So, I see mothers taking that path out of their anxiety and depression about climate change towards ways that benefit their system, but I also see it the other ways that don’t benefit their systems, and that’s kind of how where my passion is coming in. How can we support this process? Because as a counselor I know when people become aware of a problem, often suddenly or feel urgency around it, if they don’t find a path where they can feel successful, they’ll close that gap in another way. It’s not necessarily always skillful or in ways that are healthy for themselves and others, so I can see kind of how that ecological self-awakening can go into some areas that aren’t great for relationality at all. 

Agrita: Building on this whole thing by motherhood brings a lot of emotional, physical, mental and social challenges, especially for new mothers as you mentioned. What about generational trauma? A lot of people, especially in families where mothers are the primary caregivers, they are expected to tend to and also heal generational traumas. Specifically, linking to the environment, generational traumas that are linked to environmental injustices, for example, families not having access to clean green and blue spaces. What is your take on that? Do you think that mothers play a pivotal role in not only shaping the environments, in the biophysical environments they are there in and their families are in, but also trying to heal the sort of generational traumas that are linked to environmental injustices?

Allison: Yeah, well so I think about this as the developmental period of motherhood is known as matresence, and that’s a phrase given to us, or revived for us, by Dr Athan at Columbia. It’s this time when, and it can be like years not necessarily instantaneous, mothers go through profound shifts in all these areas you mentioned, the biopsychosocial political, cultural, spiritual, and then I’m looking at the ecological with Dr Athan, she’s mentoring me in this area of research. I like to frame it as growth.

We’re growing in these areas and we always have growing pains; holding challenge within this larger perspective gives us so much to draw on and build resilience into the framework. It just shifts the conversation right out of this P mad model where we’re focusing on disorder that we need to fix. Within that perspective, I think that healing traumas can be really empowering, and especially when I talk to people. The idea of epigenetics and intergenerational trauma and this in your body and also there’s no better trigger than a child. I know someone’s going to relate to that, but yeah, uniquely triggering to you and an example of that is, I’ve been I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I’ve had issues around touch and body and safety and that became just confronted every second almost with my first child and it led to some really profound healing because I got to see “oh, I need to work on this in a new way now”. So it gives you invitations for seeing where your wound did and where you can go into the wound and help create that scar. As Gloria Anzaldúa says, that can become a bridge to maybe a new self or maybe new connections with others and that’s kind of how I approach this. Which is why I call, kind of what we’re talking about, the foundational Mother Wound. This is what I talk about when I’m looking at this intergenerational trauma, that is a ruptured attachment to our place, our environmental systems, and the natural world. I do think, you know, I think that a lot of mothers are feeling this wounding and I like to label it this way for a number of reasons, but just labeling it and honoring it like this, pain coming from a place, because a lot of times with intergenerational trauma it’s like I’ve worked in therapy and I just can’t shift this, well it may be because it’s not from your lifetime. So, let’s look at it in that larger longitudinal framework, or that deep time, and kind of see where a split might have happened. For me, I have a lot of orphans in my lineages and I’ve been doing ancestral healing for about five years now, just digging into this and doing it in a number of different ways. It’s like a gym, you can always turn it and look at it from a different way, but that’s been really empowering for me to see how the narrative of the orphan has shaped my experience and my family’s experience, and then my larger family’s experience. My great grandmother was one of the last living survivors on the orphan train in the United States, which is where they shipped kids they didn’t want anymore in New York down to other families who might want them for various reasons. Then talking to my great grandmother, there was always a hesitance to talk about her experiences and it kind of reflected on through the course of my life. The difference in her reality, my family’s reshaping of the reality, the unaddressed trauma because of that, toxic positivity that that was approached with. That gave me some ways to dig into a foundational Mother Wound as disconnection from place and then see the ways that she was working with that. She was a huge gardener, most of my memories were her in a rose garden; she was a prolific gardener, I haven’t ever been able to achieve those kind of roses! This gave a lens which I could use personally to look at my mother, my foundational Mother Wound and understand it as something that was empowering me. I was empowered through addressing it, through understanding it through generations and also looking at the shifts that could happen through generations of this relational work. It’s like coming back to life again; to quote Macy and Brown in their book on the work that reconnects but it also carries a ton of grief, so there has to be that motivating, empowering lens to carry that through. And it’s a life process. I think we’re so separated from the environment and our ability to connect with it because of colonialism and the supremacy that came with that, and is still with that. We’re living it everyday, so yeah, that’s a lot of deep work to be done. 

Agrita: Yes, definitely. You touched on the Mother Wound really beautifully, and that was something I wanted to ask you further. How can we actually utilize the foundational Mother Wound to help people to understand our ecological crises further? You mentioned that the Mother Wound can help us understand where the gaps were for our generations and the sort of trauma healing that hadn’t happened before. How can we revisit that now, in terms of on the larger scale, so the ecological and climate crises that we are experiencing? Is there a way that we can use this Mother Wound lens to explore these crises further? 

Allison: Yeah, I, I hope so. I was really hesitant to use the term mother in relationship to Nature because of how mother is understood in this dominant cultural framework. But I decided to, upon discussing it with Dr Athan and doing some research into the critique of ecofeminist thought. But I mean, I think that the reason I think it’s an opportunity is we all know we have powerful relationships with place. As soon as I name that, my specialty is anxiety, I work clinically, I don’t foreground the environment any more than you know the social, cultural, psychological, biological, but it’s present and so as soon as I name it as present, it opens up so much for mothers; we know it’s present even as we might not be aware of it. We know our current separation is causing us this pain, and I think that pain is what really honors this essential connection. I see us as under-mothered. Most of us are living indoor lives; the 93% statistic that I’m seeing, I’m using that a lot, by some estimations we’re in our homes, cars and workplaces [93% of the time}, and so we’re just seeing this “green wall” to use Robin Wall Kimmerer term. We don’t know the species. We don’t know the people, the more than human people outside. So, we’re erasing Nature’s maternal thinking and caregiving labour, to use that idea of mothering that I spoke about earlier, the mother work of Earth and all its nurturing. We’re missing that, and it’s limited our ability to be in that harmonious relationship to ourselves and others because we’re missing this huge part of what it means to be human, and so preparing this attachment means reweaving lineages or that worldview that perceives life as life, perceives all things as animated and alive. So that’s why I use the Mother Wound to recognize the role Nature has in who we are and is playing in who are becoming. Even as we might have this mental veil over that role and to open discussion of how do we get out of the ping pong of our understanding of child development between one single person and one single person, and expand it to our evolutionary environment that is always offered what psychologists use the technical term “ecosystem services” which I found, you know, it’s another reason I like to use the word mothering for what Nature is doing as we’re using all this science to understand it. To really emphasise that relationality and that Nature is alive, it’s not just healing us. There’s a two way interaction here and it has to be reciprocal. 

Agrita: Linking back to your mention of orphans, especially how you said that in your family you have quite a few, whenever we consider the intersection of motherhood to environmentalism, one of the first things we obviously think about is birthing. It’s Earth that gives birth to all life on this planet, that’s the narrative that we hear in ancient and Indigenous cultures [aswell] where they respect Earth as their own mother, and you see this respect replicated for birth mothers in the same cultures as well. But like you said, and like we know, mothering is not just limited to the motherhood that birth moms experience. It extends to adoptive mothers, transgender mothers, stepmothers, and also mother figures who have no familial relationship to us. So, do you think there is a way that we can change the narrative of ancestral environmental wisdom carried forward by birth mothers to one which is more inclusive of all mothers and also mother figures?

Allison: One of the things I see, entering this space a number of years ago and really centering kind of mothering, is that mothering metaphors are so powerful. They could be quite essentialist though; you’re talking about, giving our understanding in our dominant culture, who a mother is and that ties to this “good mother” myth which ties to neoliberalism and pulling out any safety structure in our society and speeding up the pace of work, this insane factory so that we don’t have community and other mothers and people present, we have this inequality in the home and we’re isolated. I’m really happy you pulled in Indigenous science about our relationship with Nature and how mothering is centered there because I’m really influenced by Viola Cordova who shares in her book How It Is, The Native American Philosophy about how we become human as we deepen our relationship to our people in place, and as we understand our responsibilities that grow from these relationships. Becoming human by understanding our unique purposes is this ongoing birth. We are always becoming. I think of birth as a process. We think of it, maybe in our dominant culture, as like a moment, in labor, but I’ve been birthing this baby inside of me for months, maybe much before! We have to think about reproductive identity, which is another term brought to us by Dr Athan last year, which starts way before preconception almost, and then also matrescence, and so this developmental period where a mother is developing with a child, it’s an extended birth process. So, we really transition in slow way. 

And so, I think about birth as this developmental process, so I don’t really talk about birth that much, because within kind of the system that I’m often talking about, it doesn’t bring what I’m talking about, but outside of our current conversation, there’s this larger birth crisis where we’re struggling to birth a new world together, so that’s something I do talk about because I think it’s a process requiring some specialist knowledge about how to bring that care and nurturing and protection to everyone through this transition. So, I’m asking a lot of questions about that awakening experience of mothers and what I hope is an increasingly representative way [to address this]. When I’m asking people about this ecological awakening, I’m hearing about the act of mothering rather than any birth experience, and so that actually reflects in the research on spiritual awakenings with mothers, men, women and non-binary mothers. In that research, which is Biathlon and Miller out of Columbia and their Mind Body Institute, the focus is also on that active mothering. So, it’s the relationality, the actions, the long-extended birth that really has a profound effect in the research. I also know birthing experiences really do shift people, but that’s not what’s showing up in my research when I’m talking about this ecological self. 

So, I think that maybe not narrative but centering Indigenous wisdom is super important. I did some work on pipeline, I was my doing my first birth in first year postpartum, I was an elected official working to resist the pipeline, resisting water privatisation which was fairly unsuccessfully. But I was watching Indigenous women, largely the activists fighting Keystone and the language was always mother. I think that’s something that we all need to be centering; looking to Indigenous people, especially women and mothers, fighting these fossil fuel systems for instance, because they’ve taught for a long time, the science of this interconnection. What we’re seeing when we’re framing Mother Nature with animus personhood, through interdependence, is the responsibility and accountability that comes with a living system. I felt much more at ease for saying Mother Nature because this concept is so outside of colonial white supremacist patriarchal ways of understanding. It doesn’t uphold the male-female binary that is responsible for so much violence. It’s based in mutual, thriving, loving respect, it’s not a racing difference to be a mother. There’s no good mother concept in that kind of system, except for you enacting your responsibility. 

So, I think a lot of feminist critique has sounded a bit like Nature’s oppressed, so if we take that line of argument that says women are really close to Nature, naturally we could hurt women equality, and I just don’t think that makes sense from this framework. 

Agrita: That was the next question I wanted to ask you about the critique around the cultural eco-feminist approach where people feel as if we are going to be reinforcing gender roles that are placed by patriarchal societies if we were to conserve this relationship, the traditional relationship, women have had with conserving Nature. But like you said, it is more powerful than a sort of obstacle in solving gender inequities in terms of environmental injustices. So, you basically answered my question about that. 

Allison: Yeah, well, I mean I think we need some arguments that are really context specific and when we look at lineages or when we look at Earth honoring ways of being. I don’t think we can appropriate other people. So, I think that’s really a problem in the wellness world as people are awakening to these ideas, especially white settlers like me, you know. We have a lot of work to do to try to find lineages, respectful ways of engaging with Earth, honoring practices, and ways of being, so context specific, intersectional, in that way. I’m thinking of Wangari Maathai and the Green Movement, working closely with the elements, and that gives them standpoint knowledge to use. Patricia Hill Collins also has that idea that recognizes that because of that standpoint, they have really valuable things to contribute there. They’re the only ones that will have this knowledge because of their standpoint in the world, who they’re seen to be, but also the work they’re able to do because of their social location, and so in that instance, she was recognizing that women were walking for hours to find wood because of the clear cutting and it was affecting them in all these many ways. And also, that you need knowledge about the importance of planting trees and nurturing them. So, it comes in from a really specific context that I don’t think can be read in that way that you know. 

I think all people traditionally, historically, maybe before colonialism, were close to the Earth and I think that’s kind of how we need to think about it intersectionally. Seeing our relationship now and how we can expand that and deepen it, while also thinking about solving and hopefully working through these interlocking systems that are hurting people on the planet and doing so in ways that don’t reinforce those harmful systems like the gender binary. 

Agrita: Yes, definitely. Do you think that focusing on motherhood and the sort of Indigenous practices that embody traditionally feminine qualities, that we view as feminine but for indigenous cultures it’s not really just limited to femininity, do you think that if we were to focus in on the motherhood aspect

of environmental practices, that it can kind of help us in personifying Nature and the natural world more?

Allison: I don’t think so. I centre motherhood, one of the reasons is because I worked for almost a decade with adolescence. So in my environmental activism, prior to becoming a mother, I was also a Nature Center ecotherapist for adolescents and I used mother work as this concept, as it was developed within my background of women and gender studies, which is my PhD, to talk about activism from that standpoint of relationality. So in some ways, I thought that was a shift, that was important in terms of activism from interdependence and in a relationship, and getting out of a lot of what sometimes is like white saviorism for the environment and really looking at ourselves and the solution. 

But whiteness is the pathology and it really needs to be addressed that way. Also, I think it was a reaction to the activism that felt very competitive and violent, and that was my experience as a politician and a community organizer, a union organizer, but working for state agencies. So, there was a lot of intersection with other issues and I think that’s why I centered mothering as my language around activism. I worked with mothers clinically, always secondary to an adolescent, which is so classic because, in child development, the mother is just an object, and as I became a mother myself, and working with mothers, I really started to critique that in my training and in the work that I was doing. So, I wanted to reframe the way people were addressing me. When I sought support, I was objectified and I found a lot of violence in the psychology of mothers, and so I started to research. I did find a mentor to work with who approached this period developmentally, actually calling it matrescense, I keep saying it, which was so appropriate because I had focused on adolescence, and it’s something I hadn’t heard before, so I just wanted to dedicate my work to centering mothers because mothers deserve to be valued and centered, researched in an inclusive multi-voice way that doesn’t objectify them, and so that’s kind of where I shifted. 

I do work from a multicultural feminist or eco-feminist informed standpoint, so it’s always about creating change, positive change, in individual lives and the collective lives. I talk about personal to planetary wellness, and really thinking about my role as someone who’s a helping professional, to help shift the structures that are creating this harm instead of really individualising the structures you know and almost making us feel bad for it. So that’s kind of why I’ve shifted in this way, and you know, really believe in the transformative nature of matrescence, and that mothers have some wisdom and knowledge to share from their standpoint that can be useful, but I don’t privilege it if that makes sense. 

I think that that’s important because anytime we’re talking about awakening, it can really slide into some discussions that aren’t empowering for anybody, right? It can be some of the old school normative “good mother” nonsense which has really just been oppressing mothers for generations. 

Agrita: In terms of the counseling that you do, how do you help mothers, especially mothers who haven’t been mothers before, in understanding that motherhood is actually a process and the concept of birthing is not just a moment, it is a lifetime journey, because when you mentioned that, it actually hit me. I usually view birthing as just a moment and it’s something that birth mothers would experience. How do you help women understand that motherhood is not just what we have seen traditionally, it’s much more?

Allison: Yeah, and you know, with my specialty in LGBTQI I issues, I also work with non-binary identified mothers, and I think we’re looking at reproductive identity through an intersectional lens. It really just blows that up in a in a good way, like it expands the frame of what I mean in terms of you’re able to think like oh, so this is an identity formation process. I can go back to who I thought a mother was. I can work with it. I can change it. I can shift it. And I think that’s a really important concept right now because around environmentalism, mothering is often talked about as “we need to control that reproductive energy”, that’s another discussion, but you know, and so kind of reframing it this way and having it in this longer life band developmental perspective. It’s a real quick shift for people, which is why I do things like this and come on and try to talk about it in this way because words are worlds, as Doctor Athens says, and she’s the one that revived matrescence, and when you have those words, when you have this idea, you have the metaphor, which is another way Nature is so healing, is through those metaphors, then there’s a lot of freedom there to really dig into who you are, who you are in relationship to your family and the wider world. So, I think just the concepts, bell hooks also talks about theory is liberatory, and I think that this is really an important one. But that idea of adolescents as matrescence is also this kind of idea where there was a time when we treated teenagers like they were going just nuts, right? 

Agrita: Yeah, we still do!

Allison: Well yeah, but I think we’ve really shifted as a culture instead of pathologizing teenagers. We see that they’re going through this intense process of becoming, which is why I was so drawn to teenagers. They take becoming seriously and they’re amazing to work with because they just inspire you, that you’re becoming everyday. So, I found so much joy in working with them. When you approach mothering from that perspective, where it’s not something that you’re supposed to innately know, this idea of the “natural mother” I think really needs to be problematized and possibly reframed and reclaimed. There’s so much guilt and “I don’t know how to do this” and you’re like, oh, that’s because it’s a process, you know, and they’re like, oh okay, and within that process there’s a million ways to do it, so let’s figure out your way. What are some ways that you want to investigate? How do you want to shape or articulate your own way? In theory, I really believe in writing, in conversations like this, to just share ideas and people can take them in so many pathways. So, one of the things I do is I work clinically in my state, where my license is, and I do one-off assessments and referrals so I will meet with someone who is someone who’s thinking about adopting, a new mother, sometimes I had to ask, three years out, am I still a new mom? (laughs) Matrescence can last like 10 years or a lifetime, so it’s just you do the work when you have that capacity. And so, we’ll meet for an hour and a half and kind of really go through the environmental system lens and then decide what are some future streams of support in your actual place in the world, right? Because I think a big problem is taking this all online to this human created mirror echo chamber and missing out on the representative community in our home places. 

I think this has to be, healing needs to be place-based, contextual, and include the more than human world. Otherwise, it kind of replicates those anthropocentric, those human-centered, human-exceptionalism problems in trauma. 

Agrita: If you could speak to all mothers, or mother figures in the world today, who are working towards, or attempting to work towards, conserving our ecosystems for our current generation, but also future generations, what would your message be to them, in terms of reimagining modern environmentalism through the motherhood lens? 

Allison: You know, I might just ask questions because that’s what I want to do, amplify the knowledge that is already within mothers, and have mothers know that it’s in them. It’s around them in an ever-present moment, but I’m just so in awe of mother work, you know, now that I’ve become a mother. I worked with teens that were highly in trouble with the law, who had been abused and were recovering, and the person that always showed up for them was their mother, not always their biological mom, you know, who they thought of their mother. That all touches me so much, how mothers situate their advocacy in this radical relatedness, this unconditionality. so if a mother is struggling and listening to this, I’d encourage you to reach out for the care, the nurturing, and the protection you need from the mini mothers always around you, always in your company, or really, really close by, the sky, the trees, the plants that are all there. It can feel like an isolated form of work and also to know you’re not alone, right? That’s just this mental veil, that’s the mother wound, but you’re connected to the wisdom of all mothers in your line, human and non-human blood, and affinity related, and they’re there to support you. I think just the hope that I find that as we re-weave support for ourselves in this way, by opening to this more expansive, ecological self and community, and also simultaneously mending, intending to this web of mothering support for others. That’s going to create a more sustainable way of being human and raising other humans

Agrita: Thank you so much again Allison for coming on today and imparting your wisdom on reimagining environmentalism through the motherhood lens. For budding ecofeminists like myself, this conversation really acted as an opportunity for me, and I’m really sure the audience as well, to holistically approach frameworks that are already intersectional, but also be learning and relearning environmental knowledge along the way. So, thank you for giving that opportunity to us today. 

Allison: Hey, thank you for holding this space and for having this lens on how we can advocate for ourselves in the environment.