When I became a creative writing student I was struck by how often, when asked by people I didn’t know ‘what do you do?’, they would respond to my answer that I was studying creative writing that they wanted to be a writer too, or even that they had a book they were currently working on. Almost everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a writer. In all the years of my undergraduate studies in fine art, I did not recall many people outside of the art circles I moved in saying they wanted to be an artist or were working on an exhibition. It was different. I wonder if this is because we use language and writing in so much of what we do, from the essential to the casual. In this respect writing is one of the most ordinary of activities. And yet, is not its very ordinariness what makes it so notoriously difficult to do?
In one of my creative writing classes recently a student commented that perhaps the motivation for their writing was fun. I replied that of course fun is a perfectly valid reason to write, but I wondered if they could describe what they meant more specifically. Fun – like love, fear, and reality – I said, is a word that is often used as if its meaning will be immediately and precisely understood by the reader, and yet, the more obvious the meaning of the word the more it calls on us to unpack or unfurl what we mean when we say it. We might say that all words are like this, but it seems to me that some words occupy a more monolithic symbolism than others. Motherhood is certainly such a word.
As you will perhaps have observed, or read, accounts of motherhood – particularly first-person accounts – have become increasingly popular, attracting plenty of criticism too. Maria Tumarkin’s essay Against Motherhood Memoirs, for example, argues that ‘writing about mothering has become constrained, made predictable, by certain memoiristic tropes, vocabularies, intensities and scales.’ I agree, except while she attributes this constraint and predictability to memoiristic (or, first person) writing about motherhood, I want to attribute it to writing full stop. I want to argue that all writing needs to resist its own tropes and clichés.
Tumarkin’s critique deftly describes and untangles many of the challenges and indeed stigmas of the writer writing about motherhood. Perhaps she is arguing along the same lines that I am, which is that it might be through an attention to language, or to form, that the question of how to write about something ordinary can be made unexpected or meaningful. Except that she directs the problem of language and form to the genre of memoir. In the closing paragraph she writes: ‘The coupling of motherhood and memoiristic writing feels at the moment too tight, overly melded, too much like a foregone conclusion.’ For me, the very fact of its too tightness (which is such a wonderful way of putting it) is the reason to write such memoiristic accounts in the first place – or indeed any kind of accounts, be they memoiristic or otherwise. To loosen up what has more or less always been a limiting representation of motherhood (if you’re in any doubt about this, consider how few books there are on the market by, for example, Indigenous mothers). Rather than suggest fewer accounts of motherhood be written, we might argue for more and more writers to think into and out of the grip of the topic, as a solution to the problem of the ‘foregone conclusion’ which reads as a synonym for the obvious, the oversaid, the common.
Astrid Lorange opens the titular poem of Labour and other poems:
People asked ‘Will you write a birth poem?’ Or else said / ‘Please tell me you will not write a birth poem!’ They asked the former while assuming that, as a poet, the birth of my baby would / be prime material; they said the latter while assuming that, as a poet, / I would agree that birth poems are always indulgent, or boring, / or abject, or sentimental. At first, I answered both the question and / the appeal in an odd half-apology: ‘Don’t worry, no!’
This articulates for me precisely what the writer writing about motherhood is up against, particularly if they want to give such an account from the perspective of their own experience. Lorange also indicates in the double meaning of her use of the term labour (to give birth, to work) that to consider birth, or motherhood, is to consider at the very least the body, work, and the broader cultural context of labouring. Writing about motherhood, whatever else it is, is never just about the mother. It is always necessarily about the mother within the world and all that that encompasses, including the relationship to own’s parents, be they present or otherwise.
One of the things the pandemic has had me realise in a way that I knew conceptually but had not fully known is that history happens in our bodies, in our homes and on our streets. As James Baldwin writes, ‘History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.’ Baldwin’s last line draws us to the seriousness of what he is saying here. As if to say: pay attention reader! He uses the word criminal deliberately and purposefully. It not euphemistic. It is as if there is a knowing and yet not knowing about our everyday lives. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s song Everybody Knows.
Everybody knows, and yet the inference here is that although we ‘know’, the culture proceeds as if it does not, indeed going so far as deny knowing what it does. This is relevant to what we ‘know’ about motherhood too. The shock of labour was acute for me and continued into a series of shocks about what life as a mother would entail. For example, how I did not feel like a lioness, which is what I associated with a ‘motherly instinct’. Strong. Courageous. Life bearing. How instead I felt less strong, less courageous. Not to mention how, for example, it would transform my marriage, some of my friendships, and my body. Nor did I realise just how much autonomy would be lost for just how long. I ‘knew’ these were a common enough list of changes after motherhood. I ‘knew’ labour would be painful, that couples often fight more after a baby is born, and that my body would change, but with the hubris of inexperience I did not really think any of those changes would be a big deal.