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.
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.