Part 2: On display
After the birth, there is noise. Medical checks, maternal health nurse visits, emergency trips to hospital. Most of the women in my mothers group have taken their husband’s names except for one or two of us. I hadn’t seen the need until I arrive at the hospital one evening with my baby listless and vomiting in my arms.
And who are you to the child?
I look at the triage nurse and then to my child.
I am his mother.
Soon afterwards, I change my name, no longer using the surname I was born with and go by my husband’s name. I tell people that I was tired of spelling two difficult sounding surnames, but it will always be because of the fear that people will mistake me for not being my own child’s mother. It was only a moment, a brief look from a stranger, a look of mistrust. But it was enough. But my new surname feels like a stage name, a name for a performance I have just started. The act of motherhood.
I am reminded of Sheila Heti’s description of motherhood, more than an experience, but rather, a physical place to enter as a rite of passage, a difficult test.
Then I named this wrestling place motherhood, for here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet, my life was spared.
—Sheila Heti, Motherhood
As time goes on, it becomes a regular dance. This insistent matching of myself and my child by others.
Oh, but, is this your child?
Yes, yes, he is.
Strangers at the shops remark on how fair he is, how blue his eyes are. They look from me to my child and back again and say, wow. I hold myself back from asking them if they understand how genetics work. I know they are just being friendly.
My friend offers to help with my son in the early days so I can have a break. She takes him for walks in the baby carrier. I watch them tucked up together as they leave the house before I go and lie down. But I cannot sleep. I worry something will happen if he is not with me. I tell my friend that I feel uncomfortable when he is away from me but she thinks I am judging her. That I don’t trust her. She was being a good friend; I was trying to be a good mother.
Two women meet at a children’s playcentre in Melanie’s Cheng’s short story, Toy Town. I feel seen as I read the story, having spent hours in places I would never had chosen to go to before I had children. The women in Toy Town are isolated in their experience of motherhood, meeting by chance in a windowless space, filled with the scent of soiled nappies. The women perform their roles in bite sized snippets of conversation, between caretaking, watching over their children. The days weighted down, punctuated by constant chores, necessary, important, tedious.
Having a child was isolating. Days were lost in a haze of housework and playdough and preparation of snacks.
—Melanie Cheng, Toy Town
In my mothers group, some of us have children who need ongoing medical intervention, some of our children are diagnosed with illnesses, disabilities. We seek help and the help comes in the form that it is offered and we accept it because we feel we must. Reading books and blogs about childrearing, we try to offer alternatives to what we grew up with. We try not to say no, instead we guide behaviours with positive reinforcement. We focus on our children’s strengths. We expand our knowledge around gender and allow our children to explore the world for themselves. Wanting our children to be safe, we keep an eye out. We ask questions. As we care for them, neglect ourselves. Our hair tied back in sensible ponytails, showering in the middle of the day when the baby (eventually?) sleeps, relinquishing our usual routines.
We ourselves enter the world with our babies, newly born as a dyad. It is as if we are experiencing the world for the first time, just as our babies are. In A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s outing with her baby mirrors my own.
She shrieks uncontrollably in quiet spaces, grows hungry where it is impossible for me to feed her, excretes where it is pristine: it is as if I myself have been returned to some primitive, shameful condition, being sick in expensive shops, crying on buses, while other people remain aloof and unpitying.
We are being watched as we are watching over our children.
I know what’s wrong with your baby.
As my three-month old pulls his head away from my breast, screaming, a woman in my mothers group tells me she has been watching me. She decides that my son has reflux. (He does not have reflux). I feel slapped, judged, I don’t want her advice, hadn’t asked for it. But I know she is just trying to help.
No amount of soothing stems my son’s cries. Another one of my friends tells me that I am the one who knows my son best, I’ll know what he needs. It strikes terror into my heart hearing this, because it feels like I have tried everything. But I keep trying.
After childbirth I noticed with fresh eyes, women who are mothers, those pram pushers, those shattered looking souls at the supermarket with screaming babies, and could hardly believe that we all went about our daily routines after childbirth like it had been no more interesting or disruptive to our lives or bodies than making a loaf of bread. Nicola Redhouse describes her own post-partum experience in Unlike the Heart: A memoir of brain and mind.
In between the crying, I’d felt an overwhelming affinity with other mothers; a disbelief that I had not realised they had all survived this. I’d wanted to message even my enemies who were mothers, to say: ‘I forgive you. Tell me how to survive.’
In Imminence, Mariana Dimópulos describes the discomfort of sitting with the unknowable, a newborn’s cries, a torment beyond reprieve. The responsibility of the mother is to soothe, however ineffectual.
The baby is still screaming; its screams are a question, the longest question I’ve ever heard. Our job is to emend, to console, to convince.
—Mariana Dimópulos, Imminence
But who is there to soothe the mother in her newfound role? Is this the role of literature? Is it possible? Does seeing ourselves in the words of others make the transition to motherhood easier? Questions I ask myself on reflection, looking back at those early days of motherhood and knowing that others hadn’t judged me as harshly as I had judged myself.
Read Jenni’s first blog post with us in her series on motherhood, ‘Part 1: being good’.
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.
Cheng, M. (2017). Toy Town. In Australia Day. (pp. 123-132). Text Publishing: Melbourne.
Cusk, R. (2001). A Life’s Work. Harper Collins: London.
Dimopulos, M. Translated by Whitmore, A. (2019). Imminence. Giramondo Publishing: NSW.
Heti, S. (2018). Motherhood. Henry Holt and Co.: NewYork.
Redhouse, Nicola. (2019). Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind. University of Queensland Press: Brisbane.