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Motherhood: When literature mirrors experience

Published 2nd June, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

When I looked up from her hospital crib
To see the wider world, could I help it,
If I saw a war?
—Katie Ford, From the Nursery

Part 1: Being good

We meet in the local café.

Most of us in my new mothers group are still breastfeeding so we order decaf. Because we are trying to be good. Some of us hold our babies on our laps, other babies are asleep or quietly wriggling in prams. In the beginning, all of us turn up.

We want to appear to be doing well so some of us lie to the others. 

Yes, my baby sleeps through the night now. I give him a dream feed at ten pm and he sleeps through.

Some of us joke about pelvic floors bouncing when we move around, others joke about wetting themselves when they sneeze. Ha ha. Ha ha ha hahahahaha.

For the moment, we give up our jobs, our habits, our old selves.

In The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante’s narrator re-experiences the highs and lows of motherhood. As she watches a young mother and child play at the beach, we are drawn in to the minutiae of interaction with suffocating intensity as the narrator remembers early motherhood.

I was so desolate in those years. I could no longer study, I played without joy, my body felt inanimate, without desires. 
—Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter

My own baby does not sleep easily. In my mothers group, everyone asks questions. We want advice but as soon as it comes, we don’t want it. 

Some of us want our mothers and mothers-in-law there until they arrive and start moving things around in the kitchen, until they say, no, don’t hold the baby like that, then we can’t wait for them to leave. Others want their mothers to be there to help but they are busy, working or estranged. Our mothers belong to a generation of women frantically trying to top up their own superannuation so they don’t end up destitute. They read the news, hear phrases like over fifty and homeless. They have barely recovered from their own divorces and financial disasters and the 90s recession. Trying to take care of themselves, exhausted by their lives of responsibility. They cannot be unshackled from it. Once it begins, are we ever really unshackled from motherhood? Sarah Knott’s experience of childbirth brings with it an awareness that she and her child are intertwined.

From the outside, birth appears as one body leaving another, extreme unity followed by extreme separation… But in close-up, it is starting to appear otherwise… He is content only next to my skin. 
—Sarah Knott, Mother is a Verb

My baby needs constant movement so I hold him and stand, trying to join in the conversation with others whilst moving around, but it is impossible. His screams are louder than the conversations so I stand further and further away from the group until finally, I am outside. 

In reading about motherhood, in fiction, poetry and memoir, I am reassured, bolstered. I learn what I am capable of through inhabiting the words of others. I am reminded of my former self, an art therapist trained in psychoanalytic theory and wonder if any of it will be useful to my life now.

Psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Donald Winnicott is perhaps the kindest amongst researchers on the mother/child relationship. He told us that the good enough mother does not need to be the child’s own mother, but any kind of significant caregiver. We don’t need to be everything at all times to our child, we can be good enough.

The good enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaption to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to her infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.
D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes the dualities in raising a child, the push/pull of expectations, a tornado of contradictions. In the early days of motherhood I am in it, this whirl, it is not only my baby who is growing through this maelstrom.

Babies grow in a helix of hope and fear. 
—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

We do our best before conceiving our children. Reading books about pre-conception health, we abstain from alcohol and take folic acid for months prior to even attempting to conceive. We avoid chemicals, give up smoking, exercise, get our weight down, take herbs to help nurture the lining of our wombs. We meditate, avoid stress, keep working as many hours as we can to build up our savings because we want to take some time off when the baby arrives. We want to nurture, to support, guide, to be there.

We are both special and not special when pregnant. Our bodies monitored and measured, medicalised. The attention of others may shift if there is ambivalence or a desire to end the pregnancy. As Sinéad Gleeson describes in Constellations: Reflections from life:

The lines between body and womb have become blurred, a vessel inside a vessel. The physical body—the visible collection of bones and skin we present to the world—does not fully belong to its owner if the womb within it contains an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. There are all kinds of people ready to queue up and remind a woman of that.

During our pregnancies people tell us their own stories. A floodgate opens and as our babies grow within us, a terror creeps in. Stories of haemorrhage and stillbirth and emergency c-sections. Stories of third degree, fourth degree tears, episiotomies, reparative surgery, pelvic mesh. We quietly absorb it all, unsure what to do with the information. We wait until we get there. We wait for the birth. Hoping we have done enough.

Jenni Mazaraki is a writer from Melbourne. Her short story collection I’ll hold you was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.


Ferrante, E. Translated by Goldstein, A. (2006). The Lost Daughter. Europa Editions: New York.
Ford, K. (2014). From the Nursery. In Blood Lyrics. Graywolf Press: Minneapolis.
Knott, S. (2019). Mother is a Verb. Sarah Crichton Books: US.
Nelson, M. (2016). The Argonauts. Text Publishing: Melbourne.
Gleeson, S. (2019). Constellations: Reflections from Life. Picador: UK.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. Reprint, 2005, Routledge: New York.

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