An academic with an interest in self-life writing by women (first Janet Frame, and later Jeanette Winterson and Rachel Cusk), the changes in my own life made me change directions and start looking for the ways female authors who wrote about themselves had dealt with the immense shock of becoming a mother. This issue resonated with me as, the mother of two children, I found myself struggling to clear the mental space necessary to think my own thoughts, let alone put them in writing. A fellow academic once told me she had never been able to write so much as a postcard in the presence of her children, while I also heard tales of that one academic who had written much of her PhD with her baby in a playpen next to her (although I suspect she is a mythical creature). I began exchanging tales of mental exhaustion, frustration and even writers’ block with other female colleagues who, I realised to my dismay, overwhelmingly felt the same.
As I usually do, I turned to the works of female artists to get a sense of how they had navigated that difficult time in their lives as writers and found that they had been just as confused as I have been, mostly by the lack of significant writing on the experience of motherhood. I realised that, like Marie Darrieussecq, I had been wondering: “why so few babies in literature?”1 Like Rachel Cusk, I had been ambivalent about the great joy that I had been promised by the cultural discourse about motherhood, all the while realising that the kind of love one feels for a baby or a small child is not the stuff of cultural production, whether novels or films or even pop songs. As I carried on with my explorations and my realisation of how little had been written on the subject, I began to sense that this had something to do with the pervasive influence of patriarchy – an inkling later confirmed when I read Adrienne Rich’s Motherhood as an Experience and Institution a groundbreaking study at the time, now a classic on the matter. I jokingly remarked one day to my colleagues that had men ever had to give birth and mother a young child, whole anthologies would have been collected and published. To this day, there are still very few canonical texts that actually feature childbirth and motherhood other than mere plot twists, as subjects in themselves. The main love which has been written about represented in culture is still romantic, sexual love, but what about the love one feels for a child?
Yet as I started looking at these questions, I realised that I was not alone in questioning the absence of those life-changing events in literature, and that somehow new voices started being heard on the subject. The zeitgeist had changed and female writers, in the wake of Rich and Cusk, had started to write their experiences as mothers, and specifically about how they had found it hard to reconcile their “life’s work” as mothers, to quote Rachel Cusk, with their career as writers. As Lauren Elkin showed in one article, a whole field was emerging right in front of my eyes, with more and more memoirs and essays being published on the subject each year.
I have always approached literature not just as an aesthetic object, but as a guide on how to live – I guess I am one of those literary academic who read books “for the meaning”. With this blog I hope to achieve two purposes, the first which is to archive and make sense of all the material I have come across on the subject of motherhood and writing (with a reflection to other connex topics relevant to female writers’s lives, such as sex, marriage and the desire not to be a mother) in order to take stock of it all. The other is to share what I have found with other academics and readers who like me, may find comfort in knowing that other women have thought and written about the life-changing experience of motherhood, while maybe making this a space where other academics can engage and reflect collectively. This is my own attempt to beat writer’s block and regain some sort of mental space while hopefully contributing, at least a little, to charting this new field of study.
- See the jacket blurb to her memoir Le Bébé