Where do I begin?

On motherhood and meaning

Clare Hayes-Brady

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Parents loom large in literature and culture, and always have. From curses that cross generations and feuds that divide nations to inspirational peacemakers and shining examples of success, be they ghosts, icons or guardians, our writing and art is full of parents shaping the paths of their children, for better or worse. Most of Shakespeare’s plays involve a parent/child relationship, usually one that complicates things. The Bible is absolutely bursting with fathers and sons in particular, but mothers get their look in as well. I have limited familiarity with the foundational texts of other major religions, but a cursory look shows the Qur’an and the Torah to be similarly replete with mums and dads and the duties both thereof and thereto. The bonds between parents and children are so germane to society that they go without saying, a paragon of unconditional love and sacrifice that needs no explanation. You can’t throw a dart in a library without hitting a story about families, functional and dysfunctional (although you shouldn’t throw darts in libraries). As the founding relationship of our species, it is natural that parenthood provides much of the drama of our culture.

Narratives of the relationships between parents and children, of the costs and consequences of both good and bad “parenting” abound; a complex or poor relationship with one’s parents or children is enough to account for any kind of behaviour in any kind of character. Cultural presentations of how to be (or not to be) a parent are legion, fictional, cinematic and aspirational. Indeed the very term “parenting” is a curious one: as Alison Gopnik has recently noted, it is more or less the only relationship to have become its own verb. We do not, she points out, girlfriend, or child, or cousin, but we parent. The terms “grandfather” and more recently “friend” are of course both verbs now, and would merit some attention in this context, but Gopnik’s point that “parenting” is somehow value-laden is an important one. She argues that the use of the term “parenting”, which she dates to 1958, reflects a society in which the nuclear family has replaced the extended family, increasing the pressure on parents to fulfil the caregiving roles historically occupied by aunts, uncles, grandparents and many more siblings. Gopnik is quite right to point out this phenomenon, and her work on ways of caring for children in contemporary culture is fascinating, but her focus on etymology is perhaps misplaced. While “parenting” is indeed a relatively new term, the word “mothering” has been around since the 1640s at least. Indeed,“mother” and “father” appear as verbs in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1425, and “to mother” has had meaning in a relational rather than a biological capacity – as a reflection of the manner or efficacy of caregiving, as Gopnik argues “parenting” does now – since the mid 1800s. Both motherhood and fatherhood have been made into cultural fetishes in different ways in the twenty first century, with fatherhood becoming a state of idealised masculinity in the late twentieth century, as Hannah Hamid and others have argued, marrying the traditionally masculine roles of protector and provider with the postfeminist ideals of an open and emotionally aware masculinity. Motherhood remains a complicated cultural ground, with mothers of the postfeminist generation encouraged to “have it all”, which seems to have resulted not in greater freedom but in greater pressure to juggle family, career, self and relationships. Social media have been particularly significant in this development, especially the female-dominated Pinterest and Instagram. In recent years the “mompreneur” has rather nauseatingly become a term for women who create businesses in the home, usually related to childcare. The “mommy blogger”, too, has suddenly metastasized, with recipes for healthy toddler meals and stimulating crafts. We are bombarded with idealised images of family, parenthood and childhood, with fit, self-actualised adults in healthy sexual relationships and fulfilling careers, shepherding golden children through the minor tempests of childhood by way of healthful food, constant stimulation and heaped-on praise, along with astounding quantities of mason jars, for some reason. These children are not real, these adults are not honest, but these images are extraordinarily powerful. Inevitably, there is a backlash, mostly a combination of angry and comic, like the snarky Hurrah For Gin and Sanctimommy Facebook accounts, which celebrate the messy day to day experience of parenthood. It is, in short, hard to argue that there is a dearth of cultural touchstones for those wishing to read about any facet of parenthood in any medium.

That’s what I thought, anyway, when I fell pregnant for the first time a year ago (I’m writing this while simultaneously singing Pop Goes the Weasel for approximately the 87th time today to a crotchety four-month-old). Interestingly, though, as Lily Gurton-Wachter pointed out in a recent essay for the LA Review of Books, narratives describing the process or conditions of procreation are less easy to come by than narratives of how to do it or what happens when we do it wrong. Gurton-Wachter notes that there has been a spate of books recently describing the experience of pregnancy – “the birth” she quips, “we might say, of a new literature of new motherhood”. She highlights Elisa Albert’s After Birth (2015), Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014), Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (2016), Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015). Gurton-Wachter identifies this “emerging canon” as one that is “united by the authors’ decision to treat motherhood not as an interruption of intellectual work but as its impetus”, arguing that these books represent the continuation of a tradition that hearkens back to Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s 1892 masterpiece, the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, the extraordinary narrative of a woman whose diary of her post-partum confinement traces her emotional and mental decline. Nelson, indeed, has just won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship; it will be interesting to see whether she continues this intellectual work in her future writing. To Gurton-Wachter’s list I would add a couple of earlier works, Rachel Cusk’s 2001 A Life’s Work and Anne Enright’s 2004 Making Babies, a collection of visceral (literally) and hilarious essays, which I discovered during my pregnancy and clung to as a lifeline. But Gurton-Wachter’s argument struck a chord with me, and I have been thinking about cultural representations of maternity (as distinct from motherhood), which is to say the subjective experience of pregnancy, delivery and the post-partum self.

I found pregnncy unexpectedly destabilising, an existential challenge I had not foreseen. Reading the literature of pregnancy and childbirth, full of advice on the physical realities and demands of the process, was unhelpful. Physically, I experienced a textbook pregnancy, and while my delivery was protracted, complex and ultimately surgical, I was not traumatised by that either. My daughter has been a joy, feeding and sleeping well, thriving and bonny. I have, thankfully, not suffered from post-natal depression, but neither was I immediately overwhelmed by joy; none of the narratives of childbearing seemed to fit, and yet I desperately wanted to find a way of articulating my experience and relating it to another. Gurton-Wachter notes that much of the language of the literature of new motherhood tends “to describe motherhood in violent terms, in language that recalls war or trauma”. This language seemed foreign to me. I do not feel ripped open or “run over by a small car – from the inside”, as Enright evocatively puts it. But I do feel different. Not finding precisely what I was seeking in the non-fiction that deals directly with birth, I looked for flashes of recognition in the fiction in which I have always sought and found true representation. Writing about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel I find frustrating and inspiring to broadly similar degrees, I noticed something I had not seen before in its complex representation of family, particlarly father-son relationships (the novel is loosely based on Hamlet). The novel is full of Wallace’s characteristically zany naming practices, and on previous readings I had taken the nicknames of the Incandenza parents, James and Avril, as simple family convention, but on post-pregnancy reflection they seem to suggest a way of seeing parenthood that resonated with me. During a deeply weird scene in the novel in which the protagonist Hal meets with a “conversationalist”, Hal says “Himself is my dad. We call him Himself. As in quote ‘the man Himself’’. As it were. We call my mother the Moms” (29). I am struck now by the quantity difference between the two nicknames; Himself is a resoundingly singular name, its own and only needed referent. The Moms, by contrast, is plural, totalising, somehow universal and diffuse. James is himself, self-reflexively coherent. Avril’s identity as a mother is specifically and multiply relational. The Moms looms large in the lives of all the boys and to each of them she is a different figure. This seems simple enough from the boys’ perspectives, and is in itself not an odd or novel idea; a mother is a different mother to each of her children. However, it is also worth considering what this means for the subjective identity of the mother. To be “the Moms” is to be plural, to exist only as an object in some way. Hal’s phrasing in this scene in Infinite Jest is important, too: “Himself is my dad” vs. “We call my mother the Moms”. James’s identity is self-reliant: he is himself. Avril’s on the other hand, is other-reliant: she is the Moms because that is what she is called. To be a mother, then, is to displace one’s own subjectivity in a fundamental way; the change in name when one becomes a parent (or grandparent) reflects a fundamental change in the way we relate to the world.

My daughter, though of course extraordinary in my eyes, is not a prodigy, and is therefore non-verbal, so I thought I might escape the nominative determinism for a while, but I am regularly struck by the fact that I am referred to as “mummy” by people speaking to my daughter, and even as “May’s mummy” by people who knew me before May arrived. Naming someone as mother, or father, then, is a social act. The ways in which we name our parents, and our selves and each other as parents, then, speak to a profound identity shift that comes with procreation, a shift made social by language. Having kept my name when I married, this was the first major nominative shift I had experienced, and I felt somehow both expanded and diminished by it. Deeper than this, I found, was the ways in which I felt both expanded and diminished by pregnancy and birth. It is a curious and destabilising sensation, not to be the only – or even the most important – occupant of one’s own body, biologically and in this country at the moment also legally. I was troubled by the way that, once visibly pregnant, I became public proterty in a new way. (I say in a new way because women’s bodies are public property of a kind from puberty, but the attitude to pregnant bodies is paternalistic rather than proprietary.) Even family and friends were more concerned about my safety on my bike, though I am a careful cyclist and work hard to avoid head injuries even while not in a family way. With the best will in the world, a pregnant woman is treated differently, as both less and more. Discussing this strange sensation with a friend during my pregnancy, she pointed out that there is arguably an unconscious bias when it comes to discussing human rights; we base our idea of human rights on the idea of the indivisible individual. But women are not indivisible. While pregnant, and indeed after pregnancy, I am, and acutely felt myself to be, both self and other. I am a divided self. Perhaps because of this, the cultural resonances I have found for pregnancy are ones of division, displacement, even paranoia, rather than traditional narratives of joy, love and wholeness. Rather, I felt un-whole, in a variety of ways, not necessarily unpleasant, but certainly unsettling. The sensation of being radically – even violently – decentred from my own subjectivity resonates with much of the rhetoric of postmodernism, although it is of course not a postmodern experience, but a primitive one. During pregnancy, and during and immediately after birth, it is impossible (or was for me, at least) not to be reminded of the animal element of my humanity. Perhaps this is one of the reasons there is a relative paucity of writing about the process of pregnancy and childbirth; not that it is mysterious, exactly, but that it is somehow prelinguistic in its animality. After delivering my daughter, a friend asked had I realised that I had given birth to an animal. It is an unbeautiful idea, but it seemed a profound truth to me. May is now, at four months, very definitely a  person as well as a human, but in those early days, looking into my daughter’s eyes I saw not a person, yet, but a human animal, communicating in a rich and oddly pure way to ensure survival and no more. This is the part where language fails; as Wittgenstein says, whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. The rest of it – the days of panic, inertia and elation like the early days of falling in love but less hygienic; the inexplicable passage of time between rising from and falling into bed, time that disappears without time for food, or showers, drifting by in hours of nappies, feeds and watching a face become human, different each day; the haze of fatigue and confusion: these are human, these we can talk about as social beings because these are days of creating a relationship. But pregnancy and partus seem somehow beyond or beneath words. Parenthood, it seems, or maternity, at least, is a journey into language, both personal and social.

I was very lucky to have a wholly uneventful pregnancy. I felt no pain, and was untroubled by insomnia. I suffered no more than normal nausea and fatigue. My discomfort was therefore entirely, nakedly existential. I was troubled simply by the fact of being pregnant, of being subject to the hormonal whims of a body both my own and not my own. Nowhere was this more concentrated than in the question of taste. While I did not have dramatic or particularly unusual cravings, I was suddenly extremely intolerant of spice and alcohol and very attached to berries and raw vegetables. At some level, this seemed an affront to my very identity, like being taken over by an entirely separate entity. It is hard, at times, not to believe in magic. I have heard people say that to become a parent is to allow part of your heart to walk outside your body, but for me the closest analogues to my experience have been unreal ones. To my great surprise, the existential condition of maternity has been best articulated for me in a series of children’s books about magic. In the world of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, magic is both a joy and a threat. A person can be bewitched in various ways, behaving uncharacteristically under duress. During parts of my pregnancy, I felt as if I were acting under an Imperius charm, forced into sleeping and eating on a schedule not of my own making. There are even closer parallels. In the Potterverse, a Horcrux is an object in which a piece of its maker’s soul resides, thus theoretically offering immortality. Children, I think, are a bit like Horcruxes. While I have not killed anyone, which is the sine qua non of Horcrux creation, the cataclysm of birth seems comparable in terms of rending the soul. For a mother – or this mother, at least – conceiving of my daughter as an independent entity in which an element of my soul resides is as close as I can come to articulating my relationship with her. Of course a Horcrux, for Rowling, is dark and destructive magic, but the love of a parent for a child can be destructive too. The Horcrux’s function as a legacy object is particularly interesting, I think, in this regard. Interestingly though, the love of a mother for her child is one of the series’ most powerful examples of light magic, in ways that mirror the Horcrux, though they do not precisely duplicate it. Harry is marked for protection by his mother’s love and for persecution by her death. Her death, a sacrifice to save him, imbues him with a powerful legacy of her love, but also makes him the object of a murder, and so he is a Horcrux, so to speak, of both light and dark.

I do not mean to suggest that Rowling created Horcruxes as a fictional analogue to parental relationships, or that Wallace intended the family nicknames in Infinite Jest as a commentary on the relational nature of motherhood, but it is true that I have found these narratives more useful to me in describing my feelings as a mother than most books about parenthood. Reflecting on this peculiarity, I return to “The Stranger Guest”, the essay in which Lily Gurton-Wachter identifies this gap in the literature and its emerging canon. The effort to describe the intellectual, existential aspects of maternity that seems to unite these works is overdue, fraught and perhaps impossible, but like the process itself, it is (probably) worth the pain. To look for language for the state of both self and not-self may be a journey into non-sense; so be it. In the meantime, while we search for words for this most primitive experience, perhaps it is not the stories that change at all. Maternity and motherhood have changed me as a subject, but also, profoundly, as a reader, and my cultural engagement, of course, reflects my personal circumstances. Reading now, I find both fragments of my own newly fractured subjectivity and a rich seam of hope for my daughter’s future as a reader herself. One thing – the only thing, perhaps – unchanged by my new role is the reassuring constancy of narrative; we will always find ourselves reflected in the books we love, even while we lack the words to name what we seek.