My sister in law said to me emphatically, almost desperately, when I was about 8.5 month’s pregnant ‘go to the cinema!’ I recall brushing it off politely, so it was not until my daughter was born, and I could no longer do much without interruption, that I understood what she was urging me to do. She hoped I would make use of those remaining weeks to revel in my time alone, enthralled, and with only myself to care about. I have found myself urging other soon-to-be mothers to enjoy that remaining time alone, and they have no doubt brushed my comments off too. ‘The edge of my balcony is my limit’, writes Amy Brown in Neon Days, and it is exactly like that at first (and again, now that we are living through a pandemic).
Deborah Levy writes in Things I Don’t Want to Know, ‘Mother was The Woman the whole world imagined to death’ and I think that is right, except what I take this to mean is that the archetype or symbol of the mother is what is imagined to death. Not the flesh and blood mother. Not the mother living her sometimes radically transformed life and trying as best she can to muddle her way through. ‘Mother’ is also the woman whose lived life is underrepresented if not ignored and denied. While we have made some gains against the dogmatic expectations of the mother since I was born in the late 1970s, we could still do better at representing what a lived life of parenthood – in all its terrors and joys – is like. Instead we seem to say (especially to those about to have children for the first time): ‘we better not tell them what they’re in for’, ‘we wouldn’t want to scare them.’ So, the pregnant woman goes into labour knowing it will hurt, but utterly unequipped to advocate for her own physical wellbeing during her labour. Most likely not even knowing that such a thing might be necessary. And the cultural fantasy of the perfect family persists in the collective imagination – no matter how much feminist and queer writers, artists, and activists, have worked to challenge the hegemony of the family as a perfect ideal that of course we all know it is not (family, is another of those monolithic terms).
The aim here is not to pit the representation of ‘real’ motherhood against another kind of account. Unfortunately, the rhetorical device of flipping the narrative such that for, example, the under-valued ‘low’ is elevated above the over-valued ‘high’ (this applies to outsider over insider; nature over culture too) does not solve any of the problems that such binary thinking imposes in the first place. I was reminded of this recently when in a meeting with a colleague I mentioned how challenging it has been to have my usually distinct personal life bump right up against my professional life. How teaching online had been a good reminder of the second wave feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. That having my daughter bust into my online classes and various meetings was uncomfortable to say the least, but that it had given me an opportunity – particularly given I was teaching literary theory – to use it as a pedagogical opportunity to argue that theory is not separate to life. My colleague said that it had been precisely the other way around for her. That she had increasingly felt her professional life intruding on her personal life as her online classes and meetings busted into her home space. I was so pleased that she pointed this out to me, the way in which the opposite of my observation was also true, and just as politically charged.
To return now to where I began this essay, with my search for accounts of motherhoods I could parent with or alongside, the other place I have yearned for representations of motherhood is in the corridors and meeting rooms of my workplace. I wanted to know how my colleagues with children did it. How was I going to juggle the demands of my working, creative, and parenting life? I still wonder this, though it is somewhat less fraught than it was in those early days of parenting, before the all-consuming day-to-day of mothering became less and less pronounced as she sat up, crawled, talked, walked, climbed, learned to feed herself, and before I knew it was going to the toilet without help, dressing herself, and telling me about her invisible stick insect, and how the sun is really a big star. But in those very challenging first 8-months-or-so of motherhood when it could be difficult even just to go to the toilet or to shower – let alone to write – my life was characterised by an onslaught of questions: Was my daughter eating enough? Sleeping enough? Playing enough? Weeing enough? On her tummy enough? Was I loving, attentive, thoughtful enough? What about when I got frustrated with her when she would not sleep or threw her food on the floor? Did that make me a bad mother? Was I destined to become like my mother? What then? While the specific set of questions (which might be at various times haunting, inspiring, motivating) for each mother will differ, and will change as their children grow, they will no doubt be present. Since to parent, like to live, and to write, is to learn how to do the thing we are doing as we do it. When something is ordinary – particularly if in its ordinariness it is taken for granted – rather than avoiding the subject altogether we might seek out specific and complex vocabularies to speak with and from. That to do so means to find ways of writing that satisfy the discontent, that light the way.
I don’t know about you, but I want to read all the questions. I want to hear about the experience of mothers, mothering and motherhood in all its complexity – whether it be about the joys and challenges of mothering, the inability to become a mother, the desire not to be a mother, the relationship with one’s mother, the loss of one’s mother, and so on. I want to read about the adopted mother, the grieving mother, the proud, anxious, furious mother. I want it all. Like balm.