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.
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.
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.”