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Billets Reviews

An Interview with Amanda Montei on Touched Out

Motherhood radicalized me

A. Montei, Touched Out, 89

Amanda Montei is the author of Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control, which came out in 2023. In this memoir which blends personal recollections with cultural analysis, Montei documents how motherhood triggered a radical personal reckoning. After she gave birth to her first daughter, Montei explains that she began to completely question the assumptions which had guided her life, with regards to her role as a woman within a patriarchal culture. Like Adrienne Rich before her, she realised that she was struggling to meet the impossible expectations heaped upon women by the institution of motherhood: expectations to be constantly available to her children as well as her husband, to put her desires after those of her family, etc. Like Eliane Glaser and Lucy Jones, Montei had fallen prey to the ideology of perfect motherhood which sets women up for failure by holding them to unrealistic standards. Beset by guilt and an overwhelming desire to fight back for her autonomy, she finds herself recoiling from her children’s, as well as her husband’s need for her touch. She is “touched out”, desperate to set up some sort of boundary between her body and those of her loved ones.

I began to wonder about the connection between how women were feeling in motherhood and the larger culture of assault in which we had all grown up.

A. Montei, Touched Out, 6

Montei’s take on contemporary motherhood is infused with the debates which have taken hold of our culture over misogyny, consent, and the commodification of women’s bodies. Looking back to her past, and particularly to her history of substance abuse and nonconsensual sexual encounters, Montei explores the idea that the ideology of perfect motherhood is connected with rape culture, as both suppose that the female body should be available at all times. As she struggles to make some time for herself and for her professional activities while resisting her family’s claims for her presence and her attention, she is reminded of how, as a young adult, she used to cave to the pressure of men’s desire of her body. We struck up a conversation after I read the book, and I was eager to know more about her ideas on what it means to mother in a patriarchal culture.

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Billets Reviews

Two books on the need to keep dismantling the institution of motherhood

45 years after Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born, two authors are tackling the issue of motherhood and the new orthodoxies that surround it

The publication in 2022 of Eliane Glaser’s Motherhood: Feminism’s Unfinished Business and Lucy Jones’s Matrescence in 2023 demonstrate that writing about motherhood remains urgent and topical. Although for the last two decades a steady stream of books on the topic have been published, those two recent works have caught my attention as they bring a fresh outlook on the issue of motherhood and prove that many questions remain unaddressed. In 1976, when Adrienne Rich wrote what remains today the seminal work on motherhood, the priority was to expose the way women had been robbed of the experience of mothering by the patriarchal institution of motherhood. 45 years later, as more and more women are coming out to share their experience of becoming a mother, the impact it has had over their lives, we seem to have come a long way indeed. Childbirth is no longer the preserve of a male-only scientific elite who treat mothers like so many pieces of machinery needing to be fixed. Similarly, it is no longer unheard of for a woman to claim to become a mother after 40, to juggle her career and her family, and mothers are not expected to remain at home to focus solely on the care of their children. Yet, Jones and Glaser remind us, much work still needs to be done. Not only have we not completely defeated the patriarchal forces which constrain the experience of motherhood, but, they claim, we have replaced the old discourses with new, more seemingly empowering ones, which focus on giving women the possibility to make the right choices for themselves and their babies. Yet the rhetoric of choice, the two authors say, is often a scam which gives women the illusion they can make their own decisions while setting them up for failure.

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Billets Work in progress

Mapping the field of maternal studies: psychoanalytic approaches

More conflict and guilt

Mothers are conflicted, we have seen plenty of evidence of that. They are conflicted because they have been told they could “have it all” and then realised that, sometimes, they couldn’t; because they feel that they should be mothers first, but that their love is stifling; or that they should prioritise their own wellbeing, but that they are abandoning their children in the process and probably turning them into sociopaths. No one, it seems, can win this game, and the constant tensions between conflicting cultural prescriptions is fueling the fire of mother guilt, which burns in all our hearts.

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Billets Work in progress

Mapping the field of maternal studies : part 1

Problems, paradoxes and contradictions

Today is Wednesday and I’m sitting at my computer working on my overview of the field of maternal studies. I’m on a sabbatical and I have been reading and writing in silence for the best part of the day. Yet there is no school on Wednesday. In order to be able to go on focusing on my presentation, I took my children to the centre de loisirs, which is a community-run daycare centre for school-age children, like I do every Wednesday. They’re probably having a lot of fun playing ball with the other children, drawing, building Lego constructions. I’m certainly enjoying my time alone working without being interrupted. Yet I can’t help feeling racked with guilt. “Other mothers are keeping their children at home on Wednesdays”, I keep thinking, all the while reading book after book on the contradictions of motherhood. I don’t think my children’s father feels remotely the same.

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Billets Work in progress

Representing childbirth in literature: from third to first person

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.

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Billets Reviews

Rachel Bower: the poet as mother

Where were the poems (or short stories or novels) about shame and loss, about unbearable love and unimaginable boredom, about the intersection between birth and death?

Rachel Bower, “On the Poetry of Motherhood”

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.

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Billets Reviews

Liz Berry: The Republic of Motherhood

I wanted to write the poems I’d needed to read

Liz Berry

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.

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Billets Reviews

A review of Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot

As long as we have children and raise them—both badly and well, as we must—the story of the mother in her own voice will have to be told and retold. We will have to break the silence and break it again as we try to become real for our children and, at the same time, come more fully to understand our society and ourselves.

Jane Lazarre, The Mother Knot

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.

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Billets Reviews

A review of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

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.

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Billets Reviews

A review of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves. I urge you to write your own selves, your true and complicated selves. My scribbling sisters. We are amateurs. We are dilettantes. We are all those terms they use to dismiss the girl writing. We need, perhaps, to reclaim those terms, as well as these categories of “minor” or “outsider” or “illegitimate”

Kate Zambreno, Heroines
Watch Kate Zambreno read from her essay

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.” 

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