The mothers: collecting their children at school; sitting in rows at the parent-teacher meeting; placating weary infants in supermarket carriages; straggling home to make dinner, do laundry, and tend to children after a day at work; fighting to get decent care and livable schoolrooms for their children; waiting for child-support checks while the landlord threatens eviction; getting pregnant yet again because their one escape into pleasure and abandon is sex; forcing long needles into their delicate interior parts; wakened by a child’s cry from their externally unfinished dreams–the mothers, if we could look into their fantasies–their daydreams and imaginary experiences–we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 280
That quote says it all. It contains all the complexities and ambivalences of motherhood–the anger, the frustration, the fragility, and the joy as well. Rich’s is a mammoth of a book, a sort of encyclopedia of academic motherhood. Although it was written in 1976, reading it today still makes the reader feel like a major breakthrough is happening, a new light is being cast on a field which had been kept in the dark for ever. Many books have been written about motherhood since Rich’s Of Woman Born, yet the sense of urgency which pervades it still makes it today a compelling read.
Marie Darrieussecq (b. 1969) is a familiar figure in the French literary world, where she is mostly known as a novelist with titles such as Truismes (1996), Naissance des fantômes (1998). Her only foray in the field of autobiography is Le bébé (2002), in which she recounts her son’s first few months, and her coming to terms with motherhood. Despite her hints at a difficult pregnancy followed by a difficult, preterm birth, the tone of the book remains one of slightly amused detachment – the exhaustion of the first few weeks as well as the distress of being physically separated from a baby too small to be held are glossed over and delicately brushed aside. Darrieussecq’s account is not one of conflict or desperation, like Cusk’s A Life’s Work for example; she is exploring motherhood the way a writer experiments with a new object or a new form. Unlike other female writers whose voices were suddenly extinguished by the birth of their first child and who struggled first with the fatigue and then the guilt to recreate their own mental space, Darrieussecq’s voice flinches slightly, but is soon reestablished. She does not perceive writing and mothering as antagonistic activities, but as two streams of her own self harmoniously blending into one. She even experiments with a new form – the interrupted form of mother writing – and the very existence of the book, Le bébé is testimony to the persistence of her uninterrupted artistic abilities.
Kate Zambreno (1977) is the author of several novels and essays, including Green Girl (2014), a novel inspired by Jean Rhys and her female characters adrift in urban darkness, weighed down by their dependence on men and alcohol. In her essay called “Garish, Glorious Spectacles”, Roxane Gay praised Zambreno’s novel as a “searing” look at “the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women”. Jean Rhys was already a central figure in Zambreno’s previously published essay Heroines (2012), an essay-cum-memoir in which she tries to make sense of her own relation to writing as an artist and a wife by looking at the fates of several Modernist female writers, whose artistic voices were too often suppressed by a patriarchal society, but also by their own artist husbands. In Zambreno’s collection of women’s voices, Jean Rhys, with Anais Nin maybe, is the only writer who really ever manages to rise above the silencing of women’s experience; she is “the patron saint of girls, then women like me, who have always been so mute, cast aside, their subjectivity surrendered in the big novels, world.”