Whitman, Motherhood, and the Ideal Nation

My final project examines Whitman’s ideal of motherhood in relationship to his desire to create the ideal nation.

I propose that women to Whitman were necessary tools in his creation of the ideal nation.   Influenced by early eugenic thinkers, Whitman needed women to fulfill his dream of creating a perfect nation of physically fit and intelligent beings capable of understanding the unifying purpose of his poetry.

I analyze 3 poems based on their chronological composition to reveal eugenic influences in his writing:

A Woman Waits for Me

Democratic Vistas

With All Thy Gifts America

I conclude stating that: The woman reader could rejoice in the admiration Whitman had for her reproductive ability.  However, women should take caution, for behind the praise is an over-zealous American who prefers what the womb can offer rather than the person attached to it.

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Bibliographic Essay 2

Bibliographic Essay

The following essay examines Walt Whitman’s criticism from 1973-2004 in relation to motherhood, feminism, and the woman reader.  Four articles discuss Whitman’s relationship to his mother.  Six articles debate if Whitman’s poetry reveal feminist support.  Two articles discuss Whitman’s relationship with the woman reader.  Through this, one can view the ambivalence surrounding Walt Whitman’s relationship with his mother and women.


Barbara Schapiro’s, “Shelley’s Alastor and Whitman’s Out of the Cradle: The Ambivalent Mother” introduces the reader to a psychological approach to understanding Whitman’s relationship with his mother.  Schapiro counters Gustav Bychowski and Edwin Miller who see the bird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” as a representation of an oedipal triangle (254).  To her, “the bird song portrays an essentially loving mother, but a mother who is specifically withdrawing her love to the bird/boy” (Schapiro 255).  Schapiro provides insight on the complex relationship between Whitman and his mother.  Perhaps the withdrawing of love is Whitman’s conflict over his mother’s disinterest in his poetry.  Unfortunately, Schapiro fails to provide necessary biographical information in understanding her hypothesis.  Further research into Whitman’s relationship with his mother could provide a greater understanding of his poetry regarding the maternal and its position in the Women’s Rights Movement.

“Whitman’s Impossible Mother” by Steven A. Wartofsky describes Whitman as a man grappling with the voice of the Other.  The Other is described as society’s patriarchal voice.  Wartofsky analyzes “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” to determine that Whitman is trying to empower the voice of his mother.  This voice represents both himself (possibly his homosexual identity) and his mother’s voice repressed by patriarchy.  Wartofksy notes that Whitman’s mother’s voice is finally freed from the oppressive Other however Wartofsky writes, “But that’s the catch: the fierce old mother never really says anything in ‘As I Edd’d with the Ocean of Life” (206).  This article benefits the reader in showing Whitman’s revolutionary behavior.  He is a man trying to speak out against male dominated society.  However, the reader is left perplexed with the knowledge that the mother did not speak.  Once again, an ambiguous Whitman is revealed.  Is he a revolutionary or not?  Future work should analyze the ambivalence presented in Whitman’s work to determine if there are certain points which he stresses more often than others.  Perhaps a researcher could determine his true thoughts regarding women and a patriarchal society by tallying remarks in opposition of and in support of certain beliefs.

Arthur Wrobel in “Nobel American Motherhood” presents Walt Whitman not as a revolutionary feminist but as a poet influenced by the middle class ideals of motherhood.  Wrobel details various thoughts regarding nineteenth century women.  Inspired by eugencics and phrenologists Wrobel writes that, “The ideal woman according to Whitman, is a willing agent of republican America’s racial destiny” (19).  This article suggests that Whitman’s esteem for motherhood originated not from securing women’s rights but from a desire to attain a strong nation.  Although Wrobel initially contests D.H. Lawrence’s criticism that Whitman’s portrayal of women reveals, “muscles and wombs: functional creatures-no more,” (7) the article suggests Whitman’s women were used only as tools in creating his ideal nation.  This criticism follows others in that in conveys Whitman as influenced by the ideals of his time.  On the other hand,  it presents a new image of the poet desperate to create a utopia.  Future analysis of Whitman’s work could focus not on his relationship with his mother but on his identity as a mother seeking an ideal mate to create an ideal nation.

“Whitman and Motherhood: A Historical View” by Myrth Jimmie Killingsworth provides an understanding of Whitman’s portrayal of motherhood.  Killingsworth questions whether Whiman’s women support the feminist cause or abide by nineteenth century ideals of motherhood. He analyzes “Democratic Vistas, A Woman Waits for Me”, “On the Beach At Night Alone,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “As At Thy Portals Also Death,” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” to determine that “The theme of motherhood as it is treated in Whitman’s poems, whether good or bad, is decidedly Victorian” (42).  Killingsworth also connects Whitman’s feelings toward motherhood to eugenicists and phrenologists.  Again the reader sees Whitman greatly admiring motherhood for reproductive purposes as “She holds the key to sex, life, love, and death” (35).  Killingsworth’s comprehensive analysis of Whitman’s poems and description of nineteenth century sentimentalism fosters a greater understanding of Whitman’s ideal of motherhood.  Future avenues of research could examine Whitman’s social and phrenological influences on his image of the ideal woman and mother.


Kay Reinartz asserts that Walt Whitman is indeed a feminist in “Walt Whitman and Feminism.”  Although Whitman was not a political activist, she claims that he “was a feminist in the sense that he endorsed the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” (127).  This article benefits the reader in that it aids in understanding of Whitman’s relationship to his mother and the Quaker religion which influenced his belief in the equality of women.  Reinartz explains that Whitman’s mother may have “influenced Whitman’s attitudes toward women by her failure to demonstrate an intelligent sympathy for, or interest in, Whitman’s poetry” (131).  Reinartz unfortunately only analyzed “Democratic Vistas” to evidence Whitman’s belief in feminism.  Though supportive of her claim, she could have included more poems.  In the future, one could analyze Whitman’s desperate need for his mother’s approval and its relationship to eagerly seeking a women readers (see below).

In “The American Woman in ‘Song of Myself’” Judy Womack describes each instance in the poem in which Whitman represensts women as “equals, as laborers, as lovers” (67).  Womack demonstrates Whitman’s understanding of “the force which women have on society and he lauds them for the compassion which makes them so necessary to all” (72).  This acknowledgement of Whitman reinforces his feminist beliefs.  On the other hand, Womack neglects to analyze what each line would mean for Whitman, nineteenth century society, or feminists.  Future work could compare each section of “Song of Myself” in relation to the Women’s Rights Movement.

Muriel Kolinsky  in ‘”Me Tarzan, You Jane?’: Whitman’s Attitudes Toward Women from a Women’s Liberation Point of View” counters critics who doubt that Walt Whitman’s feminism. She examines numerous poems from Leaves of Grass to conclude that, “even when Whitman extolled motherhood, he was probably more of a feminist, a believer in free choice for women” (158).  This article was useful in that Kolinsky analyzes several poems which direct the reader to Whitman’s admiration for women.  Of particular interest, Kolinsky notes Whitman’s “attack” on the word lady in “Democratic Vistas” and praises Whitman for making the woman’s body acceptable in “I Sing the Body Electric” (162).  Kolinsky however fails to address the question “does Whitman restrict women to stereotype occupations” (160-161).  Kolinsky writing in 1977 accepts Whitman as a feminist, future research could compare twenty first century feminists to Kolinsky’s analysis of Whitman.

In “Writing the Male Body: Naked Patriarchy and Whitmanian Democracy” Robyn Wegman adamantly opposes any notion of Whitman as a defender of women.  She believes he is “phallocentric” and that his ideal image of motherhood “confines the female to a use-value contingent on her relation to the male and, significantly, the phallus” (18).  Wegman presents an opposing view to those who see Whitman as the equalizer of men and women.  It is useful to read Whitman’s poems with this background  of phallocentrism.  It is unclear though in which context Wegman is writing.  Could she be examining Whitman’s poetry by feminist standards set forth at the time of her 1987 writing?  In the future, one could examine this hypothesis of Whitman as an egotistical man concerned with the power of the phallus and using woman only as a means to achieve his ideal America.

Harold Aspiz describes Eliza W. Farnham’s book Woman and Her Era in “An Early Feminist Tribute to Whitman.”  Aspiz states that in Farnham’s book Whitman “is hailed as the precursor of a new feminist conscience” (404).  However this statement is contradicted in the article when Aspiz comments that Whitman’s name appears only three times in Farnham’s work and “none of them in the body of the text” (407).  This article proved useful in presenting insight on a feminist contemporary of Whitman.  Aspiz writes that Farnham’s book “is predicated on the hypothesis that woman is nature’s most highly evolved organism, physically, and spiritually, because she is charged with the highest function” (405).  Although Whitman and Farnham share similar thoughts regarding women Aspiz’s contention that Woman and Her Era is a tribute to Whitman fails to be proven in this article.  Future research should include a comparative study of Farnham’s beliefs, Whitman’s poetry, and the beliefs of other nineteenth century feminists.

Diane Middlebrook’s “Making Visible the Common World: Walt Whitman and Feminist Poetry” compares Walt Whitman to two feminist writers: Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich.  Middlebrook writes that Whitman, Griffin, and Adrienne Rich share a common task of finding a space of their own and a woman audience.  Middlebrook explains that feminist writers use “Whitman as a model and precursor, feminist writers have identified an analogous need to free women from the literary culture long dominated by men as writers, critics, and publishers” (15).  This article proved useful in gaining a foundational knowledge of the task of feminist writers and it was inspiring to view Whitman as a model for which feminists could learn.  Middlebrook does not however indicate that Whitman was a feminist.  This foundational knowledge could be used in future work to inspire other feminist writers.  One could analyze Whitman’s pleas for unity in comparison to other feminist writers ultimately linking the two.

The Woman Reader

Lottie L. Gutty’s “Walt Whitman and the Woman Reader” describes the important role a woman audience played to Walt Whitman.  Like the feminist authors mentioned above, Whitman sought a female audience.  Whitman spoke to women encouraging self-esteem, equality with men, and treated them as adults (108).  Guttry explains, “The metamorphoses and expressions of sympathy reinforce the poet’s statements of love with evidences of real concern and understanding of women” (107).  Guttry portrays Whitman as an advocate for women.  According to Guttry, Whitman’s approach to women was counter-Victorian.  He wanted to release them from the middle class ideal of a weak woman in need of protection.  Guttry fails to incorporate Whitman’s feelings toward motherhood and his belief in strong mothers.  These maternal feelings had a great impact on one woman reader as evidenced below in Anne Gilchrist.  Future studies could examine a contemporary young woman’s reading of Whitman to determine if they are as empowered as Whitman would have wanted them to be.

In “Lover, Mother, Reader: The Epistolary Courtship of Walt Whitman” Suzanne Ashworth analyzes the correspondences between Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman to reveal Whitman’s influence on a woman reader.  From this critique, one views Whitman as a deeply in awe of the domestic woman.  Gilchrist uses this fascination to present herself more favorably to Whitman.  Ashworth writes, “Anne courts Whitman with domestic idylls-with visions of homebound happiness and normative gender roles” (186).  Ashworth points out the influence of nineteenth century society’s Whitman’s poetry.  She describes, “Anne’s conception of herself as a mother draws heavily on the strains of mother-worship that pervaded both her culture and Whitman’s poetry” (188).  Whitman desperately sought women readers and Gilchrist represented the intellectual, domestic, and sensual woman who understood Whitman.  Future research should analyze contemporary women’s feelings towards Whitman’s poetry.  Will the Whitman as read by a twenty first century evoke the same emotions as that of nineteenth century Anne Gilchrist?

Works Cited

Ashworth, Suzanne. “Lover, Mother, Reader: The Epistolary Courtship of Walt Whitman.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 26.2 (2004): 173-97. Print.

Aspiz, Harold. “An Early Feminist Tribute to Whitman.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 51.3 (1979): 404-9. Print.

Guttry, Lottie L. “Walt Whitman and the Woman Reader.” Walt Whitman Review 22 (1976): 102-10. Print.

Killingsworth, Myrth Jimmie. “Whitman and Motherhood: A Historical View.” American Literature 54.1 (1982): 28. Print.

Kolinsky, Muriel. “Me Tarzan, You Jane: ‘”Me Tarzan, You Jane?’: Whitman’s Attitudes Toward Women from a Women’s Liberation Point of View.” Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 155-165. Print.

Middlebrook, Diane. “Making Visible the Common World: Walt Whitman and Feminist Poetry.” Kenyon Review 2.4 (1980): 14-27. Print.

Reinartz, Kay F. “Walt Whitman and Feminism.” Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 127-37. Print.

Schapiro, Barbara. “Shelley’s Alastor and Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle’: The Ambivalent Mother.” American Imago: A Psychoanalytic Journal for Culture, Science, and the Arts 36 (1979): 245-59. Print.

Wartofsky, Steven. “Whitman’s Impossible Mother.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9.4 (1992): 196-207. Print.

Wiegman, Robyn. “Writing the Male Body: Naked Patriarchy and Whitmanian Democracy.” Literature and Psychology 33.3-4 (1987): 16-26. Print.

Womack, Judy. “The American Woman in ‘Song of Myself’.” Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 67-72. Print.

Wrobel, Arthur. “‘Noble American Motherhood’: Whitman, Women, and the Ideal Democracy.” American Studies 21.2 (1980): 7-25. Print.

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Bibliographic Essay

I don’t think that Iever submitted this …

The attached represents the beginning of my search for evidence supporting/disproving Whitman’s support of the women’s rights movement.

My conclusion…I need more information!bib essay

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Reproductive Rights

My journey through the nineteenth century has led me to reflect on Whitman’s view of motherhood and a woman’s right to parenthood.  The nineteenth century woman’s movement  advocated for “voluntary motherhood” which would allow a woman the decision to become a mother.  Although morally opposed to contraception, feminists in the nineteenth century believed in a woman’s choice to have children through abstinence.  Linda Gordon writes, “voluntary motherhood in this period remained almost exclusively a tool for women to strengthen their positions within conventional marriages and families, not to reject them” (113).  As women are trying to strengthen their positions within society, Whitman continues to call them back into the domestic sphere.  Not only does his poetry idealize motherhood but it precludes women from having a choice in motherhood.  In “A Woman Waits for Me” he advocates the use of sexual force: “I do not hurt you anymore than is necessary for you” (l. 27) and he asserts that children must be borne from this relation.  He writes, “I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love spendings” (l. 36).

It is difficult to call a man who is forcing sexual relations and demanding perfect children from it a feminist.  Whitman apparently is not a supporter of “voluntary motherhood”.

Works Cited

Gordon, Linda. Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right : Birth Control in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York, N.Y: Literary Classics of the United States ; Distributed by Viking Press, 1982. Print.

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Whitman, Motherhood, and Tight-Lacing


Whitman’s admiration for mothers was inspired by the love that he had for his own mother.  This loves manifests itself in Whitman’s poetry especially in “As at thy Portals Also Death” in which Whitman seeks to immortalize himself and his mother through poetry.

“As at Thy Portals Also Death”

As at thy portals also death,

Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds,

To memories of my mother, to the divine blending, maternity

To her, buried and gone, yet buried not, gone not from me,

(I see again the calm benignant face fresh and beautiful still,

I sit by the form in the coffin,

I kiss and kiss convulsively again the sweet old lips, the cheeks, the closed eyes in the


To her, the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to  me the best,

I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,

And set a tombstone here.

Whitman, consistent with the culture of his time, revealed an immense admiration for his mother.  Myrth Jimmie Killingsworth writes that nineteenth century culture “encouraged a mystified and glorified mother-son bond” (39).  One can see the intense love he has for his mother in his 1881 poem, “As at Thy Portals Also Death”.  Lines 5-7 indicate the passionate love for mothers popular in the nineteenth century.  Killingsworth describes, “The mother-son relationship took on an intensity bordering on the sexual in the novels of the day and in the bereavement literature” as exemplified by “an 1852 memorial narrative, a young boy about to die piteously tells his mother that he wishes ‘we could die with our arms around each other’s neck’” (Killingsworth 39-40).

doll like mom

This nineteenth century portrait of a mother exemplifies the middle class image of motherhood that Whitman so fiercely opposed.  Myrth Jimmie Killingsworth writes that Whitman “rejects the middle-class ideal of the doll-like, fragile, yet morally superior female” (29).  Whitman instead called mothers to be strong physically and mentally.

This view of motherhood was also espoused by reformers of the time seeking to empower the nation through physically fit mothers.  Arthur Wrobel writes, “writers vigorously promoted the cause of women’s health by advocating calisthenics, proper diets, and of course clothing that fit the body rather than compelled the body to fit it” (12).   Wrobel cites various authors and publications that advocated exercise and good health to prepare for motherhood and being a wife.  Examples are: C. Morril, Physio-Medical Recorder, Peterson’s Ladies Magazine (1852), Marriage: Its History and Ceremonies by Lorenzo Niles Fowler, J.G. Spurzheim’s Education, and Treatise on the Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy by Andrew Combe.  According to these reformers, the ideal woman for conceiving a child, was, “plump, full busted, and having a broad pelvis” (Wrobel 12).

The figure of the nineteenth century woman was under scrutiny.  Reformers, seeking a strong nation also spoke out against tight lacing.  Tight lacing they argued, “wreaked havoc on the internal organs of women, thereby endangering the environment of unborn babies” (Wrobel 11).  Whitman decried the use of tight lacing in the Eagle.  He writes the affects of tight lacing could affect, “mental temperament or nervous system, causing a continual fever of excitement, sleepless nights, and in many cases, confirmed mental derangement” (Wrobel 12-13).  Whitman seeks the natural, physically fit woman in his poetry.  Wrobel details Whitman’s feelings toward women and fashion quite harshly.  He writes, “His [Whitman’s] diatribes against fashion were to continue to the end of his life, as he blamed women’s slavish devotion to fashion for the failure of America to evolve more perfect citizenry worthy of America’s future” (13).

The following pictures from Wiki Commons show an example of a corset and an anti-tight lacing picture which shows the “effects” on the internal organs after tight lacing.  Historical evidence places tight lacing to have begun in 14th century Europe and ending in the early 20th century (Kunzle 6).  David Kunzle’s Fashion and Fetishism A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture in the West explains that, “tight-lacers were abused out of fear of women, and of female sexuality.  The abuse was part of Victorian repression of sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, which was regarded as subversive of the social order.  Tight-lacers were, like witches and prostitutes of old, social and sexual scapegoats” (Kunzle xviii).  With this knowledge, it appears that Whitman’s admiration of motherhood prevailed over his desire to promote female sexuality…?

Invigorator_corsets1893 anti tight lacing

Works Cited

Killingsworth, Myrth Jimmie. “Whitman and Motherhood: A Historical View.” American Literature 54.1 (1982): 28. Print.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism : Corsets, Tight-Lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Stroud: Sutton, 2004. Print.

LeMaster, J. R., and Donald D. Kummings. Walt Whitman : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1998. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York, N.Y: Literary Classics of the United States ; Distributed by Viking Press, 1982. Print.

Wrobel, Arthur. “‘Noble American Motherhood’: Whitman, Women, and the Ideal Democracy.” American Studies 21.2 (1980): 7-25. Print.

Pictures Used from Wiki Commons


File:Moeder&Kind.jpgen kind 1 Mother and child | half of the 19th century | Permission Category:Cornelis Kruseman Category:Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century

File:1835 Boston byJaneStuart.jpgDescription 1″Interior Scene” of mother and son at lesson, Boston, MA edu/ic/collection/halttunen/Nineteenth_Century/Domesticity/8533

c1888.gif | Corset c1888 Image:Us000433095.gif | U. S. patent no. 433

File:ANatural – BTight lacing.pngB,Category:1884 Category:1885 Category:1888 Category:Anti-corset movement

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Women in Whitman

From Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, Sherry Ceniza questions Whitman’s representation of women in his poetry.  Overall she presents a favorable opinion of his treatment of women.  Aside from his focus on women as domestic rather than working outside the home and their portrayal as “dutiful wives” in “A Woman Waits for Me” and “I Sing the Body Electric” (Kummings & LeMaster 798), Whitman speaks to women as strong mothers, strong beings and invites them into public life.

It is his analogy of birthing to creating Leaves of Grass and the “Mother to All” on which I choose to focus.  Ceniza explains, “Birthing always held top value for Whitman, who, in many ways, saw literal birthing and the creation of Leaves as analogous” (Kummings & LeMaster 798).  This  use of a women’s physical experience in describing his own beautiful creation allows one to see the great importance Whitman places on women and the birthing experience.  Donald E. Hall in “Literary and Cultural Theory” describes the work of Elizabeth Grosz in “Volatile Bodies” to explain the work of post-structuralist feminists.  He writes, “She suggests that by examining women’s corporeal experiences-including childbirth and menstruation-male-centered norms can be challenged without resorting to an essentialism that erases the ways in which our bodies are given meaning through social customs and our language system”(209-210).

Therefore in using women’s bodily experience in comparison to his own work and detailing their strength, Whitman breaks free from the “phallocentric” norm and gives great import to female imagery.

Though not fully feminist, his work appears to contribute more toward gender equality than it would take away.

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politics in art

In response to Erkkila’s article, “Whitman in Politics” I must admit that I questioned my own beliefs regarding the mixing of politics and art.  I came to the conclusion that indeed art has a duty to discuss and question the politics of a nation.  If the educated, thoughtful, and creative artists are not challenging and praising our societies- who will?

From Reynold’s, Walt Whitman’s America, Whitman is portrayed as a political poet whose work is greatly influenced by politics and who in turn wants to influence politics.  It is this Whitman that inspires me.  A man beyond his years in advocating for the rights of women,slaves, and the working class.

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Walt’s Gang

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,

Disorderly fleshy and sensual….eating drinking and


No sentimentalist….no stander above men and women or

apart from them….no more modest than immodest.

I chose to focus on Walt Whitman as a “rough”/ a “rowdy”. Reynolds defines them as, “a distinct class of gang members and street loungers who roved through Manhattan’s poorer districts and often instigated riots”.

I, like Whitman, am “intrigued yet disturbed” by the contemporary street gangs. I want desperately to understand their culture yet fear the social problems that cause gang membership to exist and flourish. Reynolds writes, “In a time of rapid urbanization and economic dislocation, gangs provided certain of the urban poor with a sense of identity and an outlet for violent impulses” (105).

In searching for gang related material, I found this Snoop Dogg video. What would Whitman think when considering his commentary on the African American language saying that it, “has the hints of a future theory of the modification of all words of the English language, for musical purposes, for a native grand opera in America” (Reynolds 320)?? Bet he would love it!

Snoop Dogg: Drop It Like It\’s Hot

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Song of Leigh-Ann

I am he that walks with the tender and

growing night;

I call to the earth and sea half held by the


Press close barebosomed night! Press close

magnetic nourishing night!

Night of south winds!Night of the large few


Still nodding night~ Mad naked summer


Although I was torn between these lines and those on the preceding page, “I exist as I am, that is enough” my maternal instincts guided me to choose the above. I chose not to concern myself with the gender difference for I read of Walt’s interchanging of gender in a poem .

To me, these lines represent the many wakeful nights I spent over the past 8 months caring for my newborn son, Jonah.  In the beginning, the night frightened me.  As the months progressed, however, I learned to embrace its soft beauty and cherish the invaluable time I had to nourish, love, and care for my son. Now, as I embark on my doctoral adventure, I call my thanks to the sea and earth for the opportunity to bond with Jonah and ask that I be granted strength as I commence my studies this, “mad naked summer night”!

Jonah and mommy

Jonah and mommy

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