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Motherhood: when literature mirrors experience

Published 15th June, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger
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Part 3: At the end of the world

My friend is a teacher and is up late most nights preparing, assessing, completing paperwork. She is exhausted. Not enough time, too much work, so much to do. She wants to do more but she also needs to sleep, have a life, see her own child. Her child is taken care of at childcare whilst she takes care of other people’s children all day.

At the time of writing this, the world is in a flurry: destruction from recent bushfires, icesheets melting, Covid-19 comes near us. Close the schools, don’t close the schools. No one can decide in a way that makes sense. There are no clear answers.

When I look back at when I had my first child, I remember my mothers group with mixed feelings. It was a time unmarred by the disasters we are living through today. I only had space in my life to focus on my child and on my own recovery from childbirth. My mothers group provided a quiet space for us to be with our children. But it felt separate from the outside world. I both valued and resented the isolation. Maybe that was necessary at the time? 

After some time meeting at cafés, my mothers group begins meeting at each other’s homes, then at the park, and the local pool. Seems we are endlessly moving through our days. Our bodies like puppets, following the constant movement of our children. Eventually, the group stops meeting. In the local pool one day, I wait for two of the other mums to meet us for a swim. But they do not show up, so I swim with my son, splashing around and enjoying the time we have together. Some of us go on to have more children. Others move away. We watch each other’s children grow on social media. We see small pudgy limbs lengthen, bike riding without training wheels, first place ribbons, smiles of children entering the world, whose worlds are expanding each day.

Poet Maggie Smith reminds us of the duality of raising children in today’s world. She brings tenderness together with terror.

Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is at least one who would break you, though I keep this from my children.
—Maggie Smith, Good Bones

Writers Rachel Cusk, Sarah Knott and Nicola Redhouse each speak about Winnicott and psychoanalytic theory in relation to motherhood. They draw connections between themselves and their children and the theories. An appreciation that there is another way to view what is happening in this new relationship with themselves, their child and the world. If we look for these theories in action, we only have to look at our mothers groups, the playgroup, the kindergarten, in our own lounge rooms. The attachment (holding), the mirroring of the baby’s emotions (copycat games), learning to hold the image of the parent within oneself (peek a boo), the separation of self and mother through transitional object (the favourite toy), the development of autonomy (a child exploring the world away from the mother, turning back to reaffirm the mother’s existence). Watching a child do all of this is a lovely thing. 

We see the mirroring, the non-verbal connection between mother and child in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. A mother meeting needs so that the child can eventually know how to meet them herself. It is the pulsing beat beneath the story:

Her whole face expressed a permanent request to her mother that they stay together: it was an entreaty without tears or tantrums, which the mother did not evade. 

One of the mums from the group contacts me years later. She wants to return a book I had loaned her about pre-conception. I had forgotten about the book, but am reminded of the unrealistic suggestions in its pages, the author dubbed by some as the baby Nazi. Even before our babies are born, the judgement begins. I don’t need the book anymore. The pressure I had put on myself to prepare for motherhood began with that book.

When my son is born, I watch him breathe as he sleeps, foregoing sleep myself, like a sentinel, the responsibility of motherhood immense, crushing, serious. Eventually, I reason, I must sleep, I must let him rest without me. I must lead my life and attempt to meet my own needs which are separate from his needs. It begins early, this parental fear that Maria Tumarkin describes of being a mother. Although she is talking not about a baby, but her own adolescent daughter in Axiomatic, the feelings of duality are similar.

I don’t know how not to be scared and if it’s important that I try—children and parents always lead double lives, this separateness, a mutual elusiveness, being something like a structural necessity… 
—Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

The letting go is ongoing, the recognition that your child lives a separate life from you, will travel through the world without you. Even in being responsible for another person, we cannot anticipate or control or keep safe indefinitely. Just as we cannot guarantee that our own sense of identity will not shift as we enter motherhood. We learn as we go. Sylvia Plath captures the intangible nature of motherhood, the changeable form that we inhabit.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hands
Sylvia Plath, Morning Song

What are we when we give over our bodies to nurture the life of another? In the spirit of Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood, I try to satisfy my own ambivalence, to answer my own unanswerable questions. Am I an animal? Yes. Will I survive this? Yes. Will this time end? Yes.


Read Jenni’s first blog posts with us in her series on motherhood, ‘Part 1: Being good’ and ‘Part 2: On display’.


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.


References

Cusk, R. (2001). A Life’s Work. Harper Collins: London.
Ferrante, E. Translated by Goldstein, A. (2006). The Lost Daughter. Europa Editions: New York.
Heti, S. (2018). Motherhood. Vintage Publishing: UK.
Knott, S. (2019). Mother is a Verb. Sarah Crichton Books: US.
Plath, S. (1965). Morning Song. In Ariel. (pp 11). Faber and Faber: London.
Redhouse, Nicola. (2019). Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind. University of Queensland Press: Brisbane.
Smith, M. (2017). Good Bones. Tupelo Press: Massachusetts.
Tumarkin, M. (2018). Axiomatic. Brow Books: Australia.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. Reprint, 2005, Routledge: New York.

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