The last forty years have witnessed a vast reclamation project in ancient history, as scholars have worked to recover the lives of historically muted groups, particularly those of women and children. The result is an impressive body of work collecting the traces ancient women and children have left behind, as well as a sophisticated epistemology of the biases, gaps, and silences in the historical record. From this perspective, the absence of ancient mothers has represented an ineluctable reality and a methodological hurdle, but rarely a subject of study in its own right. Yet the evidence suggests that mother absence was not merely a secondary artifact of bias or artistic and historiographical conventions; it was also a primary condition of antiquity, one whose root causes, social articulations, and psychological effects have never been fully described or explored, even as it had a profound effect on ancient family life and the experience of childhood.
In approaching the causes, forms, and effects of ancient mother absence we now stand to benefit not only from the last four decades of research into the ancient and pre-modern family (including a growing bibliography on ancient mothers, e.g., the recent collection of Petersen and Salzman-Mitchell (eds.), Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome [Univ. Texas Press, 2012]), but also from recent research into contemporary mother absence. The root cause of ancient mother absence, of course, was death, with the result that a significant proportion of ancient children grew up without their biological mothers. In the contemporary West, by contrast, mother absence is increasingly the product of the number of working and career mothers (now two-thirds to three-quarters of all mothers in Germany, Switzerland, France, and the U.S.), a social revolution that is rapidly transforming the practices, economics, ideals, and politics of mothering. Cameron Macdonald’s Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering (Berkeley 2011), for example, investigates the ways in which mother-work has been commoditized, outsourced, and negotiated between mothers and “shadow mothers” over the last two decades. Macdonald’s account of the economics, class tensions, and strategic postures shaping the relationships between contemporary mothers and a quasi-professionalized class of surrogates is a thought-provoking read for anyone acquainted with the various “shadow mothers” of antiquity. This and similar research suggests that ancient historians should attempt to see the phenomenon of ancient mother absence as a continuum, ranging from its obvious manifestation in the total absence caused by maternal death, to the partial absences of various forms of maternal separation brought about by economic necessity, divorce, slavery, social conventions, and perhaps even choice on occasion. It also provides us with a potential framework to understand the ways in which different parties or groups cognized and responded to maternal absence, from the children who grew up without their mothers to varying degrees, to those who stepped in, were employed, or commanded to mother them, a patchwork cast of stepmothers, family members, wet nurses, and domestic slaves—and perhaps we may even extend this analysis to the absent mothers themselves, to the extent that we can recover or reconstruct their experiences.
We invite scholars to reconsider the absence of ancient mothers in terms of ancient mother absence (cf. Huebner & Ratzan (eds.), Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity [Cambridge, 2009]) and seek papers on any aspect of ancient mother absence in the ancient Mediterranean, from any period, subfield, or methodological approach, including (but not limited to) the following themes:
- The demography and sociology of ancient mother absence, including forms of mother absence not occasioned by death
- The relationship of the cultural ideals of “good” and “bad” mothers to the realities of mother absence, and the cultural construction and deconstruction of mothers, including reflections and refractions of mother absence in various rejections of motherhood (e.g., cults of virginity or chastity, medical theories minimizing maternal contribution to conception, myths of male pregnancy and birth, etc.)
- The anthropology, economics, ideology, status, and micropolitics of ancient mother-work and those who performed it (mothers, shadow mothers, stepmothers, etc.) and the effects or outcomes on children
- The psychology, emotional life, identities, and strategies of absent mothers, the children who lived apart from or survived them, and those who filled the persistent familial gap (mothers, shadow mothers, stepmothers, etc.)
- Visual or poetic representations of or engagements with mother absence and the discourse of mother absence in epitaphs, eulogies, personal correspondence, religion, cult, forensic rhetoric, politics, law, or medicine