This week, a throw-back to my post on Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. Cusk’s memoir was the book that started a long journey for me. Her intelligent analysis that was at the same time so deeply personal gave me a new script to take with me into motherhood. At a time when my voice suddenly felt so quiet and distant, Cusk gave me a language that was loud and clear: I could bring my pre-maternal self with me to this new and foreign land called motherhood.
This week I’ve been listening to Giovanna Fletcher’s podcast Happy Mum Happy Baby each episode is about an hour and it’s just a very down-to-earth conversation with public people who are also parents. I really liked the recent episode with Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain. You can watch the YouTube video of it here
I LOVE Amy Schumer’s real postpartum picture on Instagram
Last week I mentioned the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG. This Atlantic article by a stay-at-home Dad who worked for RBG gives well-researched and hard-earned insight into how far we have yet to go for gender parity in the postpartum years.
A little more from RBG in this Atlantic animation
“I felt like I had one identity — and it was mom, and that was it. And I had never been a mom before, and I just felt really empty. I felt like a shell of myself. I just I felt like my only reason for existing was keeping this other little person alive. And I loved her — I wanted her I wanted her to thrive — but I just felt like everything else had disappeared.” - Hilary frank
All parents struggle to find a way to make everything work together. There’s so much going on in family life, especially in the early days, and everyone’s path forward is personal to their needs. Artists and writers face unique challenges when it comes to finding the right life and work balance.
I came across “A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood” during the first few months after my daughter, my first baby, was born. I needed to hear how other parents had solved this problem of getting on with their work and being there for their children. Yet it seemed like there was a strange code that forbid women in particular to discuss their childcare arrangements, any help they may have from family, and how many hours they worked. That’s why it was so refreshing to hear these honest conversations about all these practical issues.
Sarah Charlesworth, an artist with a seven and three year old writes,
“The strongest effect of having children is in terms of the practicality of managing my life. On that level, it’s absolutely affected everything about the way I work and the way I think and the way I organise my time.”
Mary Gordon, a novelist writes,
“When they [her children] were both about four months, I sent them to a baby-sitter in the mornings. And I was very vain in saying, ‘Well, four hours [writing] is fine, and that’s more than most people really do people waste time going to lunch and sharpening pencils and having coffee, and I don’t do that.”
Still others talked about how they faced issues and criticism that their husbands or partners did not.
Perri Klass, a writer and physician whose work brings her medical knowledge into her storytelling writes,
“While Klass finished medical school and her internship, her companion, Larry Wolff, took over the domestic front and the care of their first child. She has pointed out in print that o one has ever asked Wolff — who is a college professor, published author, and father — how he manages to do it all. She says, “What I think is funny is that even when we were in the situation where it was perfectly obvious that I was not around, that Larry was primarily raising the child for a couple of years, nobody ever thought it was evidence of unusual dedication or talent or skill.”
I know for me the idea of being an outlier was hard. I wanted to know that there were other women struggling to find the right proportion of time spent mothering to time spent pursuing their goals and dreams. As a writer I felt I faced a mixture of factors that made “A Question of Balance” a comforting and practical book.
You can buy A Question of Balance on Amazon
Hi there reader
I’m introducing a new feature to my blog. Now, in addition to a weekly book review I’m curating a weekly roundup of parent culture. I love to dive deep into topics and I want to share with you what I’m learning about what’s relevant for parents today. SO here it is…
The whole conversation around childcare in the run-up to the US elections was kicked-off when Warren introduced the idea of universal childcare. I’ve been wanting to get a deeper understanding of the issues and this article in The Cut helped me do that.
Have you heard of matrescence? Like adolescence, it triggers a massive structural shift to the brain. Only this one happens when a woman first becomes a mother. Knowing about this change in our brains should be as fundamental as learning about our bodies. This article in The Boston Globe explains it brilliantly, or watch Dr. Alexandra Sacks on TED
Singer-songwriter and mother-of-two Ani DiFranco, has published her memoir No Walls and The Recurring Dream. It was released on May 7, 2019 and I can’t wait to read it! Listen to her NPR interview or watch her on PBS News Hour
I took a flight home to Minneapolis recently and watched RBG, the documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it. She is a powerhouse advocate of women’s rights, a lyrical writer, and a mega inspiring human being. Watch the trailer on YouTube
US Soccer player Abby Wambach wants women to lead by their own rules. I’m excited to read her new just-released book Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game. Read a short interview in NYT By the Book or a longer one in NYT here
The biggest feeling to me about being a new parent is that you just sort of fall apart. It’s beautiful and it’s awful and it’s happening all the time, all the time. Take that in. Before your baby nothing happened all the time. Now there’s kind of this emergency that never goes away and things are unravelling. You really become more yourself in the end but when you’re in the middle of it you pretty much want to punch anyone who tells you it gets better.
That’s why Ann Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year” is so soothing. It’s just this very open hearted account of how utterly messy the whole thing is. I don’t know how it happens but we all seem to get this memo that says the postpartum days are supposed to be so lyrical, and special, and that you should treasure every second. And that is just SO much pressure when you have really never felt so totally out of control in your entire life, and honestly, how many of us deal well with being out of control?
So while being a mom is absolutely about doing right by our children there’s also this personal transformation that you go through and the rub is you’ve got to do it whilst spinning so many plates. Lamott writes,
“Being a mother is like having to navigate across a field covered with old tires.”
And when there’s so much going on the first thing to go is the thing we want to hold onto so desperately: appearances. We just can’t pretend to be perfect anymore. Friends show up and we haven’t showered in days. The house looks like someone picked it up, turned it upside down, and shook it. The baby has banana smeared across it and is crawling towards an electrical socket. This is where Lamott excels. She just does falling apart brilliantly. Here she is writing about the postpartum fall from grace:
“When I feel like I’m coming apart like a two-dollar watch, it helps me beyond words to look at myself through the eyes of Mary, totally adoring and gentle, instead of through the critical eyes of the men at the Belvedere Tennis Club, which is how I’ve looked at myself nearly all my life.
I don’t think the men at the Belvedere Tennis Club would look at this big exhausted weepy baggy mentally ill cellulite unit we call Annie Lamott and see a beautiful precious heroic child. But Mary does.”
Letting go of our high standards is hard. We’re so conditioned to keep it all together. But what are kids do best of all is to help us connect with what’s real. The struggle is real but so is the love that shines through all that turmoil. And we discover something else pretty amazing, those exceptionally high standards, that rule book we all keep for ourselves, we totally don’t need it. We are so much bigger than those petty rules. Too bad there has to be so much falling apart for us to discover that. We all need friends who make us feel OK with our messy selves. Ann Lamott is a great companion in the unravelling.
If there’s something I wanted most as a new mother it was to belong. I felt severed from all the fine threads that had connected me to a once familiar life. The further I fell into motherhood, the farther away the world of ideas and independence seemed.
Alone in a room with my baby, sleep deprived and bored, I reached for my ever-reliable tonic: books. I needed to know there were mothers like me whose creative self still bit at their heels. Books like Mamaphonic helped build that tribe.
In the introduction co-authors Bee Lavender ad Maia Rossini write,
“This book starts with the premise that people require practical models. We acknowledge that women’s work often happens outside of accepted history. We do not accept the lie that having children kills creativity. In fact, we assert that people who are raising kids have to be more creative to find enough time to do their work, to figure out ways to integrate their children into their art, to strike that balance between the needs of their families and the requirements of their work.”
Mamaphonic is a wide-ranging collection of essays about mothers balancing care and creativity. The first one is called “Noodles and Sauce”. It is a response to a young poet and mother, Nora, who writes to say, now she has an eighteen-month old and three year old to look after, she cannot remember what it felt like to write poetry. She despairs that she will never find her way back to her work. The author of the essay, Ingrid Wendt, is a mother of grown children. Wendt begins by looking back at a poem she wrote thirty years ago when she was under the same pressures as Nora. She writes,
“Looking back, reading these words, the feelings all come back: how I felt so alone in this new motherhood, unprepared and without the resources to cope. All I could do, at the time, was try to name what was going on: to put the experience into words, to find metaphors for it — which is, after all, what we poets do, right?”
All new mothers need a tribe and each tribe is unique. If you’re a mother with a creative practice you may need to look beyond your local playgroup. Mamaphonic and its diverse range of voices is a good place to find yours.
Before our children time is marked by hours, by events, by the general busyness of our lives. After our children, time is elastic. Then too they tether us to our physicality. We are the air they breathe, the body they cleave to, and our smiles the warmth they lean into. Author Sarah Manguso evokes this special but disorienting time of parenthood in her lyrical book Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.
I used to coexist against the continuity of time. The I became the abc’s continuity, a background of ongoing. Time for him to live against. Was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.”
Our babies allow us to cut back and touch base with our lost pre-verbal selves. They take us back to a time when, if we were lucky, our needs were wordlessly met, when we explored the world with only our bodies and hearts. When we are in the thick of this throw-back it can be overwhelming. Manguso senses that she was whole before her writerly self emerged, but her baby brings this knowledge forth in a powerful way.
“I believed I was trying to remind myself of how it had felt to be wordless, completely of the physical world — that even before my body was an instrument for language it had been an instrument for memory.”
Ongoingness is for all you moms out there holding your babies in the night, sitting on living room floors on long afternoons, and brewing coffee to keep going. These mundane moments are the beating heart of the oldest story.
Or as Manguso writes,
“Let me put it another way: when I am with my son I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience.”
For those of us who have a program running about how much we should achieve and when, our children can pose a challenge. They interrupt our timeline and for many of us they also call into question the value of the work we do. Success is often an abstract idea. True success happens in small, ordinary moments. How do we become friendly with small, ordinary moments? By being present. And our greatest teachers in that are our children. That’s why kids have so much joy. They don’t miss the small stuff.
That small stuff, it’s discovered in moments of wonder, and wonder is discovered in moments of timelessness. I hear you reader, you say, “I am an exhausted parent, how can I have that kind of luxury?”
Writer Kyo Maclear may not have an answer but in “Birds Art Life Death: A field guide to the small and significant”, she gives an elegant response to the exhausted parent.
“There is something subversive about the sight of a woman who is always on call, always in a heightened state of watchfulness and awareness, momentarily checking out — zoning into her own internal infinity.
There is so much finitude in the lives of the mother (and father) artists I know. We are so often counting (time, money, errands, cups of coffee, hours until bedtime). We are too often irritable and impatient with our children, and this makes us uneasy and sometimes ashamed.
I want for every overextended person in my life stretches of unclaimed time and solitude away from the tyranny of the clock, vast space to get bored and lost, waking dreams that take us beyond the calculative surface of things.”
Maclear’s dream won’t always be possible. But we can touch something of the spirit of it in a single breath, the kiss of a breeze, or a glimpse of a fading rainbow. I highly recommend “Birds Art Life Death”. It’s a portal into welcome stillness when a toddler has turned our house upside down or a teenage drama is clouding our domestic atmosphere. But most of all it reminds the reader that the daily life that drives us crazy is not something we need to escape from, but something to which we have been called. When we stand in our ordinary, messy lives, we see the deepest mysteries in the humblest corners.
Buy Birds Art Life Death at Amazon
Yesterday I watched my daughter open her arms wide, turn her face to the sun, and laugh with abandon. The reason for her joy? The wind. Every day we all experience these ordinary things. Our children, who are less conditioned than we are, can teach us the joy of living. The problem comes when our children push our buttons. So many things seem to go wrong in the day and they complain, whine, and cry. All families have conflicts and the very fact that our children are ours already makes it more challenging to feel joy with them, however much we would like to. That’s why it can sometimes be helpful to look to ordinary things to sense the aliveness we wish to share with our children. By waking up our senses to the ordinary things we encounter in our homes — the crease of a t-shirt we are folding, the shine on a counter we are wiping, the steam swirling off a cup of tea — we can touch the joy of living.
Author Louise Erdrich, in her book The Blue Jay’s Dance, gives the reader an opportunity to sense the aliveness in our homes and families. The book is a meditation on the beauty of daily life with a new baby. Erdrich’s observations create inner space in the reader by using simple, sensual prose that allow us to inhabit the beauty of our own domestic lives. The book is particularly powerful because it sheds light on a time that for many — especially those suffering from postpartum depression — can be a time of confusion, anxiety, and debilitating exhaustion.
No object is too trivial, and no experience too banal, to go unnoticed by Erdrich. She writes,
“My winter summer includes a child lying on a blanket, entranced at the spectacle of light, the arching clouds, the blaze of Arctic flame, a hardy subzero rose I have ordered, and will plant, and which is guaranteed to bloom in this baby’s first summer of life.”
This attention to the ordinary doesn’t mean that Erdrich bypasses the more muscular aspects of life. On the contrary, her prose share a quality with nature; Like nature, The Blue Jay’s Dance is paradoxically both gentle and fierce.
“Whatever else I do, when it comes to pregnancy I am my physical self first, as are all of us women. We can pump gas, lift weights, head a corporation, lead nations, and tune pianos. Still, our bodies are rounded vases of skin and bones and blood that seem impossibly engineered for birth. I look down into my smooth, huge lap, feel my baby twist, and I can’t figure out how I’ll ever stretch wide enough. I fear I’ve made a ship inside a bottle. I’ll have to break. I’m not me. I feel myself becoming less a person than a place, inhabited, a foreign land.”
We all fall on our parenting journeys. There’s no avoiding it. But a good writer can point us toward our common humanity, our strength as mothers, and enliven the ordinary objects that surround each and every one of us.
“The heart, the guardian of intuition with its secret, often fearful intentions, is the boss. Its commands are what a writer obeys — often without knowing it.”
Writing is a way of getting to know our deepest intentions. Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory tells us that and so much more. When we write to set down a memory — a child’s laughter, a mother’s lap, a father’s wishes — we believe we are driving the narrative. But the real writer is not the person who drives the car and cooks the dinner. The heart writes. We are, each of us, a symphony of circumstances, personae, spirit, and stories. As we watch our families grow, dust the snow off our children on a cold winter’s day, scrape eggs from a pan, and sing a well-worn lullaby, we are making memories. When we write, we make stories. Stories seem to be a patchwork of experience, but they are really woven from a timeless fabric. Because when we write we get quiet and hear the threadbare whisper of intuition, when we write we get intimate with this rock-bottom reality.
“Intimacy with a piece of writing, as with a person, comes from paying attention to the revelations it is capable of giving, not by imposing my own notions and agenda, no matter how well intentioned they might be.”
Our children allow us to become generous. We look for their best intentions. We make an effort to look beyond our prejudices and delve into the world of a new being. We get to know our babies’ cries. We sit uncomfortably with a child’s uncertainties. We dance in our living rooms despite our fear of being seen. Children surface our intimacy. Adult life can snuff out our tenderness. It can propel us toward personae. In family life we get a second chance to be in closer proximity to life. Children re-make us with their hot spark.
With this proximity comes discomfort. We no longer know with any certainty who we are. We stretch. We ache. It’s this same uncertainty that we sit with when we write our stories. To tell the story of our families is to wonder at the enigma of the ordinary.
“It still comes as a shock to realise that I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know. Is it possible to convey the enormous degree of blankness, confusion, hunch, and uncertainty lurking in the act of writing?”
I’d like to take a moment to introduce Niaz Maleknia. Niaz is a photographer based in London. You can see her incredible work here www.niazmalekniaphotography.com.
I first heard the story you’re about to read whilst on a panel at Conway Hall for an exhibition called When Women Gather, a fabulous exhibition by a mutual friend and colleague Grace Gelder. That day on the train ride home Niaz’s story just wouldn’t leave me alone. When I walked through the door I texted Niaz and asked her if she’d share it on the blog. The story tells the journey of her escape from the Iranian Revolution and a particular pair of beloved shoes.
The Red Shoes
by Niaz Maleknia
I left Iran in 1979 as the Revolution broke out.
I had been sleeping in my parents’ room with my brother as the political climate in Iran was becoming aggressive. At first this was a novelty and quite exciting. The excitement stopped when one night my father woke us up and told us to get into the car and not to say a word in Farsi. I wanted to take my favourite doll, her suitcase and my favourite red shoes, which I had bought at Harrords a few months earlier.
I left with only my doll.
Arriving in Tehran was a frightening experience. We had to crawl on the floors of our apartment so that it did not appear occupied. The lights had to be turned off so that we did not expose my uncle who we were hiding from the Islamic army.
After a few weeks we managed to secure flights to London. London was the place we would visit in the summer time when Iran would begin to sizzle. We had a flat here. My parents hid money in the lining of their cases and we boarded the flight to London.
I thought we were only going to be in London for a few weeks or at the most a few months. The Shah left Iran and then it began to seem unlikely that we would ever go back.
London in the early 80s was a cold bland place. It was not home. My mother at this point was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was already trying to deal with being in a new country with no family or friends and adjusting to a new life, she now had to deal with the illness. She suffered from three forms of cancer all her life.
Eleven years later I went back to Iran and visited the sight of my old house. The house had been bombed down in the Iran Iraq war. Under the rubble I found my red shoes and my old drawing book. I have both with me in London now.
The Revolution took me away from my home and most certainly had a negative impact on my relationship with my mother. My mother also never saw her father when he died. It was a loss at all levels.
In 2013 I had just given birth to my second child. My husband and I were living in a cramped 4th-floor walk up in Brooklyn with two children under two. Where once our lives were grafted together, now our paths diverged. When he went to work the children and I were alone together. This new situation propelled me to look for a narrative to help orient myself. That’s when I found Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.
In May 2018, Doctor Alexandra Sacks gave a TED talk on what she calls “matrescence”. Matrescence sounds like adolescence because, similarly, it’s a developmental arc that follows a pattern and propels the person from one state to another. Although Sacks’ talk was given in 2018 and Cusk’s memoir was published in 2001, it reads like an allegory of matrescence.
The first issue Cusk addresses is the movement from a public life to a private one.
“In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify. If one listened with a different part of oneself, one would perhaps hear them.”
Connected to the issue of being thrust into domestic life is the issue of a mother’s life reorienting around a womanhood which was once a bit player in the background.
“This experience forcefully revealed to me something to which I had never given much thought: the fact that after a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other.”
Writing of her daughter’s birth Cusk describes how it felt to discover that in her new line of work as Mother her needs were eclipsed by the baby’s and that the primary instrument for this new labor was her own body.
“Do you want to try putting her to the breast? the midwife enquires as I am wheeled from the operating theatre. I look at her as if she has just asked me to make her a cup of tea, or tidy up the room a bit. I still inhabit that other world in which, after operations, people are pitied and looked after and left to recuperate.”
The changing constellation of her selfhood is another theme in Cusk’s memoir about early motherhood. The disruption which she feels is like a hall of mirrors. She can no longer find one single true image. There is no place in which she is unequivocally herself. Instead all her new selves are contingent upon a Sisyphean task of care.
“Birth is not merely that which divides women from me: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some myths snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.”
Seventeen years have passed since A Life’s Work was published. There’s now an incredible array of books on motherhood. For a list of some of the latest read the Paris Review article Why All The Books About Motherhood. Also read Sarah Menkedick, author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, on art and motherhood at Vela, a woman’s literary magazine.
“We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood” -Adrienne Rich
“As women our relationship to the past has been problematical. We have been every culture’s core obsession (and repression); we have always constituted at least one-half, and are now a majority, of the species; yet in the written records we can barely find ourselves,” Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born. This she calls, “The Great Silence.”
Rachel Cusk, in A Life’s Work, describes how problematical writing about motherhood was for her,
“It took me a while to figure out why the memoir was malfunctioning. I realised if you use yourself as an example, people turn you into the exception.’ She believes women will go to great lengths to disguise their own ambivalent about motherhood, and that by exposing their suffering with her own story she gave readers someone to admonish. “That made me angry, their response sent the message to any woman struggling with motherhood that she would be attacked.”
And Sarah Menkedick, author of Homing Instincts, talks about what it was like to advocate for her own book on mothering.
“I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologising for what I’m going to read. ‘It’s about motherhood,’ I say, then qualify, ‘but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.’ I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of ‘about motherhood but not really,’ until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. hat male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: ‘But really they’re about human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”
In the last week we saw, in the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, that many things stand between a woman speaking and a woman being heard. Blasey Ford’s testimony echoed what Deborah Levy calls ‘walking a woman into a forest’ — the moment you make her the subject, a powerful string of narratives emerge around her and, at times, entrap her. Documenting motherhood, or any other female experience, is a quiet protest against a two-dimensional portrait of women’s lives, a fallacy that leads to the circumscription of her power.
Adrienne Rich’s book Of Woman Born is a deep dive into the nefarious world of patriarchy. It’s not traditionally academic in that she is navigating across this territory using her own curiosity as an oar but it is almost more illuminating for the personal slant she brings to her vigorous investigation. Take for example this passage about how she experienced the many parenting books that were thrust on her as a new mum,
“The new historians of ‘family and childhood,’ like the majority of theorists on child-rearing, paediatricians, psychiatrists, are male. In their work, the question of motherhood as institution or as an idea in the heads of grown-up male children is raised only where “styles” of mothering are discussed and criticised. Female sources are rarely cited (yet these sources exist, as the feminist historians are showing) there are virtually no primary sources from women-as-mothers; and all this is presented as objective scholarship.”
She courageously and meticulously describes her now ambivalence during her children’s early years,
“I could not begin to think of writing a book on motherhood until I began to feel strong enough, and unambivalent enough in my love for my children, so that I could dare to return to a ground which seemed to me the most painful, incomprehensible, and ambiguous I had ever traveled, a group dredged by taboos, mined with false-namings.
I did not understand this when I started to write the book. I only knew that I had lived through something which was considered central to the lives of women, fulfilling even in its sorrows, a key to the meaning of life; and that I could remember little except anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself: a division made more acute by the moments of passionate love, delight in my children’s spirited bodies and minds, amazement at how they went on loving me in site of my failures to love them wholly and selflessly.”
She tells us plainly about how she could not see herself in the images of motherhood that were painted for her in books and advertisements,
“Nothing could have prepared me for the realisation that I was a mother one of those givens, when I knew I was still in a state of uncreation myself. That calm, sure, unambivalent women who moved through the page of the manuals I read seemed a sunlike me as an astronaut.”
Rich recognises the paradox of a life lived on this threshold between one’s previous self and a new, as yet barely understood maternal self. In painting a true picture of raising children, lyricism is the brush she uses to evoke both the tenderness and rage that can live side by side in families,
“Nothing, to be sure, had prepared me for the intensity of relationship already existing between me and a creature I had carried in my body and now held in my arms and fed from my breasts. Throughout pregnancy and nursing, women are urged to relax, to mime the serenity of madonnas. No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting. No one mentions the strangeness of attraction — which can be as single-minded and overwhelming as the early days of a love affair — to a being so tiny, so dependent, so folded-in to itself — who is, and yet is not, part of oneself.”
Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born is a thorough and charged exploration of what the institution of motherhood — importantly different to motherhood itself — looks like, and what some of the root causes look like. Many writers have followed on from where she began, notably Rachel Cusk and Sarah Menkedick, each of whom sound their own note in what is becoming a symphony of writing on motherhood.
We have a need to know how to locate ourselves in the world, how to orient when new chapters are thrust upon us, and how to navigate in dark times. Deborah Levy’s 2013 essay Things I Don’t Want to Know explores how her life has been coloured by motherhood, power, and exile. But long before Levy’s moving meditation on the subject, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique (1963) documenting the stories that hold women captive and sparking Second Wave feminism. Friedan writes,
“In the 1950s they printed virtually no articles except those that serviced women as housewives, or described women as housewives, or permitted a purely feminine identification like the Duchess of Windsor or Princess Margaret. ‘If we get an article about a woman who does anything adventurous, out of the way, something by herself, you know, we figure she must be terribly aggressive, neurotic,’ a Ladies’ Home Journal editor told me.”
However antiquated the perspective of the LHJ’s editor may now seem women today are still caught-up in a web of expectations that trap us. These expectations are not always explicit, and require de-coding. The iconic feminist and poet Adrienne Rich put it succinctly in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979) when she writes,
“Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”
The social structure mothers and non-mothers alike walk into as they mature is lyrically described in Deborah Levy’s “living autobiography” Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013). In a sentiment that precisely identifies the locus between a woman’s personal self and her writer self Levy writes
“When a female writer walks a female character in to the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place. She will have to be canny how she sets about doing this because she will have many delusions of her own. In fact it would be best if she was uncanny when she set about doing this. It’s exhausting to learn how to become a subject, it’s hard enough learning how to become a writer.”
Levy locates the source of this “subjecthood” in the use of language itself — in the ways in which language shifts and evolves, in the social fissures that open up in early motherhood, and in the slippery transformation of the self as it moves from a singular self into motherhood.
“I found myself thinking about some of the women, the mothers who had waited with me in the school playground while we collected our children. Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain. We tried to answer her back but we did not have the language to explain that we were not women who had merely ‘acquired’ some children — we had metamorphosed (new heavy bodies, milk in our breasts, hormonally-programmed to run to our babies when they cried) into someone we did not entirely understand.”
How to expand the writer self, and thereby mitigate the threat that motherhood poses to both her ego and linguistic skill, is what Levy explores in Things I Don’t Want to Know, in part a response to George Orwell’s essay (1946) Why I Write,
“Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egos of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
Expanding on this idea of growing her confidence against a considerable tide of animosity toward her female self in the world she writes,
“…to become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.”
But she also cautions against looking too closely at the limitations of a woman’s life. While Levy is learning to speak louder she is also learning to examine not the injustices of her own life but to look ever-outward toward the world and the myriad ways in which it might surprise her. She cites Virginia Woolf’s admonition in A Room of One’s Own (1929)
“She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.”
and then puts it her own way,
“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.”
Echoing Rich’s idea of silence and Levy’s suggestion that we grow toward our own narratives rather than quietly live out the prescribed path built for us upon somebody else’s words, Rebeca Solnit writes in The Faraway Nearby (2013), a narrative inspired by her mother’s battle with dementia,
“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”
There is a sad connective thread between the experience of threat, exclusion, and distortion that Levy paints as the woman’s social place and the expansion, courage, and vision that seems to come forth from that broken, pallid place. Levy’s essay is a worthy counterbalance to Orwell’s Why I Write and beautifully articulates the condition of silence and voice in the institution of motherhood and beyond.
The love I feel for my press is, like all loves, hard to describe. I hardly know its origins, but I have a felt sense that my longing to be part of a New York City moment which no longer exists – an era of sign painting, lettering, printing, deli counters with functional but somehow tender menus – all of this, this era, cannot belong to me, but I hunger for it. So when we lived in Brooklyn, back when I was changing diapers and my greatest escape was the Park Slope Community Bookstore, I took in, unfiltered, the delicious gravity of words block-lettered on places like street food vans – grilled cheese, waffles, green smoothies – each word became less abstract and more sculptural.
When we’ve got kids at our feet it seems as though the world is passing us by – as though we can see it, and move through it, but our sphere of contribution has inexplicably shrunk to the size of a living room, a kitchen, a washer-dryer, and a nursery. Now though I look back on this time (my kids are 6 and 4 now) and see it is as a fallow period. It is, to our creative lives, as winter is to Nature. Everything may seem dead, but this sleepy season is Earth’s greatest rejuvenator. We may not believe spring will come but it does.
In this spirit, despite having no idea what I was doing, I had my first go on our Adana letterpress yesterday. What’s on your growing edge today?
The spring puts me in mind of eggs. I watch an episode of David Attenborough’s “Natural Curiosities” series about eggs called “Incredible Shells”. There’s such a huge range, from Ostrich to Quail, and everything in between. I like the metaphor of them – strong enough to carry life, vulnerable enough to break open when pecked from within. I read Jackie Morris’ “Tell Me a Dragon” that includes an artistic work of archivism in its appendix: an itemisation of dragons from around the world, and the eggs from which they hatch. Perhaps more than any other natural object eggs symbolise life and rebirth. We instinctively know they offer a physical approximation of both our own fragility and our capacity for creation. Within them is mystery, but their shells offer clear, knowable contours that affirm our desire to apprehend the riddle of life.
What does spring bring to mind for you?
It's a new year and many of you will have made some writing goals for 2018 so I thought, in this post, a bit of inspiration might be in order. This one is from Pulitzer Prize winner Jacqui Banaszynski
“The success of stories is often measured in impact — how many clicks they receive, how many laws they change, how many injustices they reveal. But stories have another purpose and power: the power to reach people, to reveal our shared humanity, and to create ripples that become waves that land on unseen shores. The emotional impact of stories can’t easily be counted. But it should never be discounted.”
To find more story-themed inspiration check-out the Harvard-based website Nieman
Last night I was lucky enough to see Rebecca Solnit at the Southbank Centre. Part of the London Literature Festival, Solnit's talk focused on hope, women, and politics.
I'm a big fan of Solnit's book The Faraway Nearby. It's a quirky book, one that roves across territories knit together with Solnit's signature style. As a modern essayist she has given readers a chance to take unexpected journeys and make new connections. She takes us deep into fairy tales, allows us to look over northern landscapes, dives deep into language itself, and examines the ebb and flow of her own life and connections. She writes,
"A few decades ago, there was a lot of postmodern anxiety about the idea that every experience was mediated. The anxious believed that some pristine direct experience had fled, as though the mediation had not begun ten thousand years ago and ores though it were not part of the world worth looking at and the companionship all around even when you are alone, as though there could be a world without thought, without culture, without language, as though you could be outside, and outside was a desirable place."
I had the privilege of presenting at the Visualising the Home conference at University of Cumbria Institute of the Arts this July (2017). I co-presented the collaborative photo project, Doing Nothing (see the Projects page on this website), a project that takes a documentary approach to care and early-motherhood.
Mainly a conference for photographers, it was exciting to hear about different approaches to creativity. I left with so much to think about that some de-compression seemed in order and myself and my collaborator Grace Gelder went to the Barbican to see the incredible new film about John Berger: Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.
Image Credit: Ana Alvarez-Errecalde
I recently attended Oxytocin Birthing The World, a conference at the Royal College of Art in London put on by Procreate Project (June 2017). It was a great chance to hear so many artists, mothers, performers, academics, midwives, activists and curators who are making visible the hidden life of care. I was inspired by how thoughtful, imaginative, and insightful all the presenters were. There was a real sense that mothering itself was beginning to be studied in the same way that gender studies has become an important thread of academic enquiry. It's an exciting time to work on issues of representation in the world of home and care.