Turning to poetry and being left empty-handed
The Republic of Motherhood is a short collection of poems published by Liz Berry in 2018. In it she explores the conflicting emotions she felt around the birth of her first son and the experience of early motherhood. Here is an extract from an interview she gave to the British Libray, in which she explains why she wrote this collection, and to which purpose.
The Republic of Motherhood is a pamphlet of fifteen poems about the transformative experience of becoming a mother. I’ve got two young sons, and after my first one was born, I felt profoundly shocked, as if my life had been pulled from under my feet and flown to the wind. I was kept afloat through that lonely difficult time by the support of other women: in clinics, playgrounds, church halls and messy living rooms. We shared our lives. The stories were beautiful, raw, heartbroken, joyous, deep beyond reckoning. But when I looked at poems, the place that had always comforted me, that experience was hard to find. It made me feel very lost. So I wanted to create a little book that would contain those stories, those longings and fears. I wanted to write the poems I’d needed to read when I was pushing my pram through the sleet that long winter. There were joyful, tender, ecstatic poems in the pamphlet, and also poems of deep sorrow and uncertainty. I felt the pamphlet was the perfect form for these poems.Liz Berry – An interview to the British Library
What is interesting is the reason she says she wrote those poems: they were not only intended as a memento of a seemingly harrowing yet transformative experience (she says she was “profoundly shocked,” as if her life had been “swept from under her feet and flown to the wind”); they were also intended as a gift to those other women who were part of a community of young mothers and who helped her navigate through this difficult period in her life.
The other point raised in this interview has to do with her claim that she wrote the poems specifically because she had not been able to find poems that spoke of her experience and because she felt she needed to fill a gap in the poetic tradition. So the collection is both a gift to the other mothers who shared her experience but also to the all the other mothers who have experienced the emotional upheavals of childbirth and early motherhood.
This is a common enough claim among writers who have written about their experience of motherhood. Rachel Cusk, whose memoir entitled A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother is probably closest to Liz Berry’s poems in terms of content and experience, said she often turned to literature to make sense of her experience of pregnancy and motherhood but often felt like she was left empty-handed. Yet it is not a claim that can be taken for granted; in fact, in the last few decades, quite a few poetry anthologies have been published, which attests to a vibrant tradition in poetry written by men and women. One can also mention several collections of poetry written by female poets both in the US with authors such as Sylvia Plath, Alicia Suskind Ostriker or Toi Derricotte, and in the UK with Kathleen Jamie, Kate Clanchy and very recently Rachel Bower, among several others.
So why do Liz Berry and other writers feel like nothing has been written about childbirth and early motherhood, when they have clearly become poetic topics in their own right? The question has been investigated by several academics: even if the experience of childbirth and early motherhood, which is central to the lives of so many women, is being brought into the open through poetic representation, it still feels like an age-old taboo is being broken. The first reason for this has to do with the control that the male imaginary has had over literary representation for so long: first love and first sexual relationships are some of the most common topics for literary representation, but childbirth specifically is often relegated to the obscurity of the bedroom. As Carol Poston has explained, childbirth is associated with bodily functions, animality, sometimes even savagery, and resists sublimation (Poston 1978, 23). The other reason, she explains, is that the language used to describe childbirth has often been the language of men, who would describe the events as outsiders, and this, she believes, has conditioned the way female writers have written about their own childbirth for so long: not from the point of view of participants, but from the point of view of outside observers (Poston 1978, 20).
Tess Cosslett, who has also been looking at the representation of childbirth in literature blames the medicalisation of birth, which has deprived women of their own say in matters relating to their own experience of birth, increasingly superseded by the scientific discourse of obstetrics. In the 20th century, women were discouraged from exchanging about their experience of birth as this flow of oral information was perceived as a threat by the medical institution who was trying to establish a form of control over the discourse around childbirth. This participated to relegating first-person accounts of childbirth even further to the margins of acceptable discourse.
As a central, life-changing event for many women, childbirth needs to be made visible, written about, from a woman’s perspective. Too often, the story has been taken away from women by the ‘audience perspective’ accounts of fathers, or more influentially, doctors. A ‘medicalised’ version of childbirth, in which women are objectified as machines for producing babies, has become increasingly dominant in the twentieth century. This medical discourse has taken institutional shape in the routines of hospitalised birth. Medical versions of childbirth reduce the woman to an object: to restore her subjectivity is the aim of the women writers in this study. (Cosslett 1994, 2)Tess Cosslett – Women Writing Childbirth
Childbirth, and early motherhood, with all its other attending bodily processes such as breastfeeding and cleaning have been made invisible by the literary tradition, including by women themselves, who have often represented these events as a dispossession of their autonomy and a shattering of their creative abilities. For a woman to write about her own experience of childbirth means to venture in the realm of the uspeakable.
Building a collective voice
Adrienne Rich is another female poet who has been instrumental in giving visibility to the experience of motherhood. In her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution(Rich 1995), which I have written about here, she makes the case for the emergence of a new collective voice that can accurately represent the experience of women and specifically mothers, after having been silenced for so long.
“I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours. On the other hand, I am keenly aware that any writer has a certain false and arbitrary power. It is her version, after all, that the reader is reading at the moment, while the accounts of others—including the dead—may go untold.” p. 15-16Adrienne Rich – Of Woman Born
It bears mentioning that Rich herself was rather ambiguous about the role she was willing to give to her experience as a mother in her poetry – even though she wrote what is probably the seminal book on motherhood in contemporary culture, she does admit that she kept her poems and her life as a mother strictly separate: poetry was the place where she could be someone else than just her children’s mother. Yet it is this belief in the power of a collective voice is what allows me to tie back in with Liz Berry’s interview. In it she claims that it was the women she met in the support networks of “clinics, playgrounds, church halls and messy living rooms” who gave her the desire to write those poems, as if she was willing to open her voice to their own experience on top of her own. What took place in those communal spaces is a revival of the support structure that mothers used to find in their surroundings before they were isolated each in their family unit (in her history of mothering Sarah Knott reminds us that in the past, mothering was very much a communal experience (Knott 2019)). In those spaces, mothers are able to share their worries, their pains and their joys, as well as seek advice and guidance on the more technical aspects of mothering.
Later on in her interview, Liz Berry explains that she was delighted to find that some mothers had been gifting her book to other women. Her pamphlet was featured in posts on various social networks among the usual mothering paraphernalia, such as toys and nappies. And it is no wonder that social media and the Internet in general is the appropriate locus for the book to be shared and circulated. Websites and online forums have been essential tools in giving greater visibility to the experience of mothers, who could find a space on which to share their experience of childbirth and early motherhood, exchange tips and encouragements. In the video Liz Berry recorded reading the first poem in the collection, also called “The Republic of Motherhood,” the poet is featured in her kitchen, drinking tea, probably in the morning while her child is down for her nap, speaking to the camera as if she was confiding to another mother, sharing tea and advice.
But what exactly needs to be confided? What gets said in the “clinics, playgrounds, church halls and messy living rooms?” What is so unspeakable that it hardly ever makes it out of women’s spaces and into poetry? Let us read a few poems from the collection.
A stripping of the self
The Republic of Motherhood
“The Republic of Motherhood” is the opening poem of the collection. It paints the bleak picture of a woman’s arrival in a foreign, dystopian land, the “republic of motherhood,” which is also, paradoxically a “queendom.” The arrival of a new child is therefore likened to a form of exile, albeit a chosen exile, into a mysterious country reminiscent of 1984’s Oceania, or more adequately, of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead. The narrator is an empty shell, pushing her pram through the streets of Motherhood, bathing in Motherhood’s municipal baths, carrying Motherhood’s coins in her pocket, broken down by an invisible authoritarian power. When she becomes sick and is cured by the doctors of Motherhood, an unknown yet controlling “they” give her back her pram to continue walking around the streets, as if she had been, not cured, but lobotomised.
The imagery of totalitarianism is also present in Cusk’s account of early motherhood: as she tries to go on living her own life, she realises that she is now separated from the world around her by an invisible border:
In the street outside the traffic honks and roars. People mill around me, passing out into the London night. They are not only ignorant of the strife-torn region in which now I live; they are as remote from it as if it lay on the other side of the world. (Cusk 2001, 88)Rachel Cusk – A Life’s Work
Later on she concludes, in words very similar to Liz Berry’s: “We meet at the uncrossable border between the free world and the closed regime of motherhood” (Cusk 2001, 90). This goes beyond the common complaint that women lose a part of their freedom when they become mothers, Cusk and Berry feel like they are stripped naked and abandoned in a foreign land whose authority they must subject to by force. In “The Republic of Motherhood,” the baby is a ghost-like figure, who remains out of sight – there is no love or tenderness, or even joy, just the soul-crushing feeling of being fundamentally alienated.
At the end of the poem, the narrator tries to kneel and pray to the saints of Motherhood, “Our Lady of Birth Trauma,” and “Our Lady of Psychosis” only to find that her voice has become extinct, a mere “nightcry” that trails off as the sunlight “pixellates” her face. This poem is a far cry from some of the more maudlin motherhood poems that were rife, for example in Victorian England. The mother here is not wondering at the joy of welcoming a new soul in the world, but is mourning her sense of self which is being shattered by her new identity as a mother. Liz Berry’s poem is not a celebration of the happiness of becoming a mother, it is a cry of anguish and pain. This is probably what Liz Berry is trying to say to the person she is addressing in her kitchen: motherhood can be an altogether joyous and terrifying experience.
This is probably what the mothers in the “clinics, playgrounds, church halls and messy living rooms” have been whispering to each other: being a mother means having very conflicting emotions. This is best described by the term “maternal ambivalence” which has been explored by Donald Winnicott in the 1950s, but was later theorised by Rozsika Parker, who gives the following definition.
For maternal ambivalence constitutes not an anodyne condition of mixed feelings, but a complex and contradictory state of mind, shared variously by all mothers, in which loving and hating feelings for children exist side by side. (Parker 2002, 17)Rozsika Parker – “The Production and Purposes of Maternal Ambivalence”
This is the unspeakable truth that needs to be said and which Liz Berry is exploring in her poems.
So Tenderly It Wounds Them
The ambivalence is in the very title of the poem, which expresses that blend of joy and pain which is typical of Liz Berry’s representation of early motherhood. The mothers suffer the burning of their love for their children while it is raining outside, their babies are “sweet ghosts,” and they “wear their love as a winter coat,” barely keeping them warm. Everything is wet around them, yet they are dry inside, mere husks of their former selves. Sometimes, she fleetingly encounters other women in “clinics,” and they seem to reach out to each other as if from the bars of their own prison to whisper about their maternal ambivalence: “I never knew it would be like this, but God when he laughs…”
The women are “lonely but never alone,” which I believe is the best description ever made of that state early mothers find themselves in when they are alone with their small children for the first few months, cut away from the rest of civilised society, yet never able to enjoy their own time. Jane Lazarre, who in 1977 wrote one of the first memoirs about motherhood (also discussed here) says almost the same thing about the first months with her new baby:
But the truth was that I was not solitary, not merely alone. Instead I was isolated, lonely, the way I had been many years before, long before I had begun to write. In those days the moment I found myself without company I would rush to turn the radio on, hoping it would drown out the discomforting thoughts, or I would reach desperately for the telephone, calling anyone who might be home. Since I had begun writing, I had sought time alone. That very self I had once sought to flee, who had hovered around me like a claw-sharpened dragon threatening to invade my body and claim it for its own, that dangerous, frightening self was precisely what I had learned to treasure, what I had begun to learn to understand. (Lazarre 1977, 30)Jane Lazarre – The Mother Knot
What is common in Rachel Cusk’s, Jane Lazarre’s and Liz Berry’s accounts is that sudden emptying of the self, pared down to the minimum and reduced to a mechanical, instinctual care for the baby, what Liz Berry describes in “The Republic of Motherhood” as feedinglovingcleaning. The women clutch to their chests memories from “the old country,” the one they inhabited before they were sent to the Republic of Motherhood. That loss of autonomous self is even more cruel, Lazarre explains, for writers who all but lose complete touch with their creative selves. Yet the paradox in all those accounts, and especially in Liz Berry’s poem is that, even though she is “punched out by love” and all that is left of her is a mere shadow, a poem still gets written about that loss. Some creativity is born out of the animal silence she is left with and she manages to capture it by listening to the collective voice of all those lonely mothers:
punched out by love I lie with my child and hear them singing flesh pulp sinew soul I hear them I hear myself our dark soft moans animals walking in a starless country dawn
The individual “I” of the poem disappears in anonymous chorus of voices which she makes it her duty to echo in her poem. A new creativity is born out of that stripping of the individual self and its dissolution in a collective enunciation.
Conclusion: Eavan Boland
To conclude this very brief reflection, I would like to turn to Eaven Boland, another female poet who wrote about her experience of motherhood. She wrote two essays about her conception of writing as both a poet and a wife/mother: Object Lessons (Boland 1995) and A Journey with Two Maps (Boland 2012). In the first essay, she makes the case for a poetry grounded in the everyday and she describes her effort at creating for herself a new poetic space, distinct from the romantic poems of the British tradition and the nationalistic poems of the Irish tradition. She wanted to write for those suburban mothers whose lives revolved around their children playing in their backyard and speak in a distinctly female voice that would elevate women about their usual status as objects of poetic inspiration rather than subjects. When she became a mother, she found herself even more alienated from the world of poetry as she had ever been:
As each morning came around, with its fresh sights and senses, I felt increasingly the distance between my own life, my lived experience and conventional interpretations of both poetry and the poet’s life. It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world—a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine—were absent from the tradition, although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.Eavan Boland – Object Lessons
What I believe Liz Berry is mourning in The Republic of Motherhood is her creative, autonomous self. Yet it seems like the poetic self is eventually reborn in the form of the anonymous chorus of mothers to whom she opens the pages of her poetry collection. Eavan Boland, came to a similar conclusion when, as a young mother, she was trying, like Liz Berry to find poetry that spoke of her own experience: “no longer I, but we.”
Boland, Eavan. 1995. Object lessons: the life of the woman and the poet in our time.
———. 2012. A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet. Manchester: Carcanet.
Cosslett, Tess. 1994. Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood. Manchester University Press.
Cusk, Rachel. 2001. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador.
Knott, Sarah. 2019. Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.
Lazarre, Jane. 1977. The Mother Knot. Duke University Press.
Parker, Rozsika. 2002. “The Production and Purposes of Maternal Ambivalence.” In Mothering and Ambivalence, edited by Brid Featherstone and Wendy Hollway, 27–46. Routledge.
Poston, Carol H. 1978. “Childbirth in Literature.” Feminist Studies 4 (2): 18–31.
Rich, Adrienne C. 1995. Of woman born: motherhood as experience and institution (1976). Reissued ed. Women’s studies. New York: Norton.