What matters in representing childbirth in literature is making it visible. In a literary tradition in which the male experience has long been the main reference for any sort of human experience, childbirth as a life event has often been kept silent, relegated to the margins of discourse, like many typically female experiences such as puberty, pregnancy or menopause. In self-life writing written by men the main foundational event is often the first sexual experience, and if we go back earlier in time, participation in the war. Childbirth has only recently become an object of literary representation in its own right.
Rachel Bower is a young poet and academic based in Sheffield. She has published two volumes of poetry and has received several prizes for her poems, the list of which can be found on her website. Her main interest in her poetry is one that I happen to share with her, that is the representation of motherhood, in literature, and specifically in poetry. Her two collections, Moon Milk and These Mothers of God are both concerned with the poet’s autobiographical experience as a mother of young children, in the same vein as Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood, but also with the figure of the mother in the culture in general.
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 Mother Knot is a memoir written by US author and academic Jane Lazarre and published in 1976, that is the same year as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (read my review here). The two books would go on to have a tremendous influence on writing about motherhood for the decades to come. Both were written by academics who also happened to be « academic wives », and both were concerned with the personal as well as the political implications of motherhood. They both portray, each in their own style, their ambivalent feelings about becoming a mother, which are often the result of the discrepancy between the cultural representation and the reality of the experience. Yet, unlike Adrienne Rich’s book, which aims for a broad understanding of the historical and cultural dimensions of motherhood, Jane Lazarre’s memoir belongs to the categories of individual testimonies with a universal dimension, which liken it to works like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Which does not mean her discourse is not racially and socially situated: she presents herself as a progressive, Jewish-born white middle-class woman, who happens to be married to a black man, also an academic. In her introduction she explains that part of the challenges she faced in writing her memoir was to testify to her experience as the white mother of black child in a predominantly white setting. Another fact which complicated her experience of motherhood was that she had lost her own mother at a very young age and had been raised by her father alone, who also died while her son was in his early years. As Alison Stone remarks in her book Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Maternal Subjectivity, becoming a mother means re-immersing oneself in the maternal relationship one had developed with one’s mother in infancy.1 For Jane Lazarre, this experience is impossible to retrieve as she is left with very few memories of her own mother. The other consequence of this traumatic loss is that Lazarre was deprived of a mother-figure who could pass on her own knowledge and help take care of her and the baby in the early, fragile moments of his life.
As the pandemic rages on and mothers across the world are forced back home and renounce their creative projects en masse (yours truly included), reading seems like the best possible alternative to writing for mothers in lockdown with small children. 2 recent novels explore the tension between women’s creative endeavours and their roles as mothers: Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) and The Group by Lara Feigel (2020). What the two novels have in common is that they both give the relationships mothers have with their children the same weight and intensity that are usually reserved for women’s relationships with men. When children are portrayed in fiction, they are very often the symbol of the female character’s choices (of family over career, for example) – an encumbrance or a source of untarnished joy, they are the reminder of women’s relationship to heterosexuality. But very rarely are mothers’ relationship with their children described for themselves as worthy objects of narrative depiction, and more particularly the fraught and ambivalent bond which unites a mother and her small children. Both novels also explore how the women’s creative endeavour are constantly threatened by the demands of children and how mothers need to clear their own path in order to balance their duties to their children with their duties to their own artistic vocation.
This project, speaheaded by Charlotte Danino, from the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, aims at bringing together the expertise of academics (linguists, literature specialists, etc.) and medical staff in order to analyse the birth narratives told by women on social media, in interviews, novels, poems, etc. The main idea is to make sense of the particular words they use, their intonations, hesitations, which words and ideas they still find difficult to articulate in order to better understand what women are really saying when they are narrating this peculiar moment in their lives. I would like to look at the images female authors use when they write about their experience of childbirth, and interrogate how genre matters in how it is delievered.
The first aim is to establish a corpus of birthing narratives from the mothers themselves, and to complete it with a literary corpus composed of autobiographical narrative, memoirs, poems. The aim is then to work hand in hand with medical specialists, midwives, gynaecologists, and see what can be made of this insight into women’s interior perception of the event.
Watch this space as I will be posting the calendar for our new seminar, as well as news for the first of two conferences, which we hope to hold some time in the Spring or Fall of 2021. In the meantime, go and check out our website to find out more about what the project is about.
This is one of the first questions Marie Darrieussecq asks in the memoir she wrote to recount the birth of her first child and her transition to motherhood. (Read the review of this book here)
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.
- This translation and the following are mine
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.”