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Motherhood: When literature mirrors experience

Published 22nd June, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger
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Part 4: You cannot negotiate with time

When at last we hand our children over to school, we also hand over information about them, to help the school, to offer support, to make the transition easier. For those of us who have children with disabilities, we become advocates, try to open lines of communication with the school. Some of us are labelled helicopter parents. We are criticised in the media. We have tried to do our best, to do better than our own parents, to use our education, tried to foster resilient kids through nurturing their growth, accepting them for who they are instead of treating them as an extension of ourselves.

Those of us in my mothers group who went back to work early, stayed home with their children for a couple of years, had c-sections, gave birth with painkillers, co-slept, put their child in the cot next to their bed, rocked them to sleep in their arms, sought advice, went to mother-baby units, went to baby playgroups, sang nursery rhymes all day long, alone with the baby, were just trying to do our best.

We wave goodbye to our children as the school bell rings, watching them as they stumble into class wearing their school uniform, smiling at the teachers, hoping the teachers will not curse our best efforts.

We tell our children that their feelings are important. We tell them to say no, to say stop, to tell a grown up. We teach them about bodily autonomy, about personal space bubbles, about respecting other people’s needs. Resilience programs spring up in schools. I learn that the word resilience means something different to everyone. 

Words change depending who speaks them; there is no cure. 
—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

We find that motherhood is not a static state. It is moveable and the relationship we have with ourselves and our children is changeable. Those endless days of early babyhood do not last. Our post-birth selves become incorporated into some other place that we carry with us but move ever endlessly away from, until it seems like some awful and wonderful dream. As we prepare our children for lives independent of us, we feel the distance from their baby selves, necessary, healthy, painful. Lydia Kiesling captures this experience in The Golden State:

… your child is not your property and motherhood is not a house you live in but a warren of beautiful rooms, … some well-trod but magnificent place you’re only allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every individual jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through to another and another and another until they finally turn out the lights.
Lydia Kiesling, The Golden State

When I’m in the whorl, those early, foggy, busy days, I cannot read anything more than bits and pieces. I am in a suburban island where everyone wants to talk about babies and I want to talk about something else. Anything else. But I am writing. No one sees my stories except for me and my laptop. 

My friend and I talk about when we were art therapists, she is grateful for the training, we agree that Winnicott was useful as we hold our children close, attend to their needs, a bump, a scratch, a reassurance, an encouragement. Watching them as they play, we talk about psychoanalytic theories, about attachment, about the need to allow our children to develop autonomy and independence. I occasionally hear her words echo years later as I parent my children. We are preparing them for the world beyond us.

But what kind of world will it be? Do we have the necessary tools?

In Timmah Ball’s essay, The Only Thing You See is a Story to Tell, she describes the effect of the stories that her mother has shared with her, stories not for others. It is this inheritance we pass to our children either implicitly or explicitly. Our past brings us our future.

These stories give us strength, a renewed understanding of the challenges our mothers faced and a reminder of our own fortune when we are born in sharply different worlds
 —Timmah Ball, The Only Thing You See is a Story to Tell

Years after I needed it, I find connection in the pages of Redhouse, Cusk, Knott, Nelson and others. But it is not too late. I read and read, one book leading me to the next. We are of a like mind, these women who write. There is something in the zeitgeist and I am glad for it.

Each of us speak about motherhood in ways that are meaningful to our lives. There is so much to read about motherhood; essays, fiction, poetry. Our experiences are reflected in the pages we read. If we feel secure in our place in the world, validated in our experiences, then perhaps we are more able to be the type of mothers we want to be. There is more potential to be ourselves. We are more than our pregnant or mothering bodies. Even if others may at times insist on the way they see us as the only way to be seen.

Before we are mothers we are a person who is pregnant. Before we are pregnant, we are a person. Individual, with autonomy, adult, human person. Recognised.

The pregnancy changes us. Changes the way we are seen or not seen. In early pregnancy, Natalie Kon-yu cannot stop shaking, it is sudden and inexplicable and despite seeking answers, being transparent and proactive in her search, she discovers that there are barriers to her well-being that did not exist before. There is a resistance to her needs being addressed because there is a baby growing within her own body. Others question her intentions, placing the needs of her baby before her own and in doing so neither Natalie or her unborn child’s needs are met at all. In her essay, The Disappearing Woman, Natalie Kon-yu writes:

The worst moment wasn’t falling in the ward in early pregnancy or being wheeled into the theatre past my anxiously waiting husband, stock-still and terrified in his blue scrubs; it was there in the consultation room, my legs shaking, my core trembling in front of doctors who could not, would not look at me.

Ultimately, it was a friend by her side who saw her, made sure others saw her too. For myself, literature about motherhood, not unlike mothers group, provided a space to become my child’s mother. Similar to being parented, necessary for only as long as I needed it. Thankful for the bonds forged in the fog and haze of becoming my new self.


Read Jenni’s first blog posts with us in her series on motherhood, ‘Part 1: Being good’‘Part 2: On display’, and ‘Part 3: At the end of the world’.


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

Ball, T. (2018). The Only Thing You See is a Story to Tell. In Nelson, C. and Robertson, R. (Ed.), Dangerous Ideas About Mothers. (pp 127-135). UWA Publishing: Western Australia.
Cusk, R. (2001). A Life’s Work. Harper Collins: London.
Kiesling, L. (2018). The Golden State. MCD, Farrer, Straus and Giroux: New York.
Knott, S. (2019). Mother is a Verb. Sarah Crichton Books: US.
Kon-yu, N. (2015). The Disappearing Woman. In Nieman, C., Linden, M., Scott, M. and Kon-yu, N. (Ed.), Mothers and Others. (pp. 289-304).Pan Macmillan: Sydney.
Nelson, M. (2016). The Argonauts. Text Publishing: Melbourne.
Redhouse, Nicola. (2019). Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind. University of Queensland Press: Brisbane.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. Reprint, 2005, Routledge: New York. 

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