When I was about 36 weeks pregnant, my workmates threw me a little goodbye party on the last Friday afternoon before I began maternity leave. There was cheesecake and Twisties and everyone else downed brimming glasses of sparkling wine. I remember being so relieved that I’d made it through eight months of pregnancy while working. The vomiting, the constant need to wee, the pain of being regularly kicked in the ribs and bladder from the inside. And I was proud, because even though any little error I made was instantly attributed to baby brain by my colleagues, I didn’t think I’d actually been any less on-the-ball than usual, just a bit out of breath at times, and very, very tired.
I saw the day I finished work as a triumph, an oasis, and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. And then all of a sudden, in the midst of a conversation at my going away party, it hit me: tomorrow my job will be stay-at-home mum.
It’s not like you’re not aware of being in an intense transition when you’re pregnant. The only other thing I’ve experienced that was anything like it was puberty. Not only because my body was growing in new places and smelled weird, I was having trouble sleeping and I was moody as fuck; it was also the only other time in my life that I’ve sort of shifted kinship roles in a societal sense. From girl-child to adult-ish woman, from adult-ish woman to mother. There are infinite subtle changes that go on in each of these transitions that render us more and less visible, more and less sexual, and more and less taken seriously. And sometimes the motherhood transition was a boiling the frog situation, but sometimes a moment of clarity emerged. Generally this clarity subsided quite quickly; it’s a hell of a lot to try to process while dealing with the intense physical and emotional demands of being pregnant, giving birth and then actually caring for the baby you’ve made.
For this reason I didn’t really become properly aware of the fact that I was trying to work out who I was as a mother and also as not-a-mother-while-also-being-a-mother, until I had in fact been a mother for the good part of a year. My sister gave me Motherhood by Shiela Heti for Christmas, and I read it, still not fully realising.
What the hell are mothers, anyway? Or actually, maybe that’s too easy: mothers are people who have biological or other children and probably aren’t straight cis men. So a better question to ask is, what is motherhood?
The best and briefest, but by no means comprehensive, answer I have found is in the inside cover of Mothers: An essay on love and cruelty by Jacqueline Rose: ‘motherhood is the place in our culture where we lodge—or rather bury—the reality of our own conflicts, of psychic life, and what it means to be fully human. Mothers are the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which becomes their task (unrealistically, of course) to repair’.
I’ve been working on this piece of writing, the first in the 18 months since I fell pregnant, for the last three Monday afternoons while my mother has looked after my baby for 2-3-hour blocks. Sitting in a communal work room at the local library, I’ve scribbled, typed and thought hard and frenetically about a way into the column, about how to talk about what I’m reading, how to think about what I’m thinking. I’ve begun to put down a number of images and experiences, but each time I get part way through a passage, I ask myself: is any of this actually interesting?
Of course this is an important thing to ask yourself any time you are writing, but it’s never been quite like this before. The question I’m asking isn’t just whether I’m writing about the subject matter in an interesting way, it’s whether the subject matter is capable of inspiring interest at all. The question is: is there anything interesting I can say about my experience of life while an important part of that experience is being a mother? The question is: do I have a right to be anything but a mother, while being a mother?
So: what is motherhood, and who cares?
The title of Sheila Heti’s 2010 book was How Should a Person Be?, and for all intents and purposes, I feel like her latest book could be called, What Should a Person Do? In the former, Heti was working out how to be a grown up artist, whereas with the latter, the question is whether she wants to have children or not, or perhaps more accurately, whether she is OK with the fact that she does not think she wants to have children—she wants to be a writer instead. This book is called Motherhood. And maybe that’s why I wanted the book to be so much, and why it disappointed me. Maybe I wanted it to give me something unequivocal and essential—an answer. To make complete what is half-formed, to make known something unknowable. Isn’t this, after all, what we ask of mothers?
The pressure women feel to have children—or to do anything in particular with their bodies or their lives—is of course completely unacceptable but completely real. Heti writes meticulously and thoughtfully about her psychic struggle to unpick the foundations of her own thinking to find out whether or not she wants children or whether she just thinks she wants them because she has internalised this pressure. And I don’t know if she ever really lands on an answer, or just writes about it for so many years that she passes through what she sees as her childbearing window (the age of 40) without bearing children.
But somehow as I read I didn’t think Heti was really talking about motherhood very much at all—I think she was talking about artisthood. And the version of artisthood she talked about does not include motherhood. There is one path, and it is motherhood, and there is another path, and it is being an artist, and although at the end of the book it’s acknowledged that neither path is any more important or significant than the other, Heti doesn’t seem to think that both art and motherhood can coexist for her.
Jacqueline Rose is a feminist literary and cultural critic, and I was leant her book, Mothers, by my psychoanalyst after I began to try to work out some things about Heti’s book in a session. Rose’s book is dedicated to examining the narratives of the culture we’re all swimming around in, and uncovering the inherent expectations, assumptions and erasure of mothers. And I would so love to hear what she’d say about Heti’s book, but among the cultural material she does include are British newspaper reports, classic Greek mythology, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and Elena Ferrante, whose writing about mothers warrants an entire chapter.
Rose writes that ‘much public discourse on motherhood […] tends to be so glib, falsely knowing, cruel or anodyne’, and a line from Heti’s book flashed in my mind, where her partner compares having and raising a child to digging a big hole and then self-importantly filling it up again.
One evening last week my partner and I came across an Australian TV show called The Let Down as we scrolled Netflix once our baby was asleep. It’s centred around the experience of a professional 30-something woman in Sydney with a new baby, and her mother’s group. We easily related to the storylines and jokes, and I slapped my partner on the arm with the back of my hand whenever a moment felt as though it was lifted directly from our life. All the little instances of guilt and joy and exhaustion and love and feeling like an idiot and feeling judged and navigating new relationships with the father of your child and your family and your workplace and yourself. After the second or so episode, my partner turned to me and said, ‘It’s quite surprising that this series got made though, because there just aren’t that many people going through this experience, hey.’ Around three-quarters of Australian women will have children at some point in their lives, and I suppose a similar proportion of men. How could the experience of childrearing somehow still seem marginal, even to my partner, who is raising a baby with me?
Rose asks, ‘Why in modern times is the participation of mothers in political and public life seen as the exception […] Why are mothers not seen as having everything to contribute, by dint of being mothers, to our understanding and ordering of public, political space?’
Last week I left my baby to be put to sleep by my partner for the first time. Every night of my child’s nine-month life up until that day, either on my own or in a relay with my partner, I’d held him, breast and bottle fed him, rocked him and sung to him until he’d drifted into deep, heavy-body sleep. I had been asked to read a piece of writing at a thing with a few other writers. I said goodbye to my pureed vegetable-smeared baby in his highchair, and the feeling of popping out the door and across the street briskly and unladen was like being in a music video or something.
When I arrived at the event I felt way less nervous than I thought I would after being out of the game for so long. I was actually sort of surprised and pumped that the people I recognised as I looked around the room—people whose work I had published or who had published me—still remembered who I was. But then, despite deciding on my way into the city on the tram that I was going to try to be cool, I was surprised to find myself compulsively telling every person I spoke to about how it was the first time I had left my baby at his bed time, and then when they didn’t react with quite as much acknowledgement of this being a really big deal as I thought it warranted, trying to explain how big a deal it was. I even asked one writer idol if she wanted to see a picture of my baby, after explaining to her all the details about the changes I’ve recently made to his sleep routine. Cringe! It’s not exactly that anyone I spoke to made me feel like these weren’t OK things to talk about, it’s just that I felt like I was being incredibly boring. I felt like these things didn’t belong in chit chat at a literary reading. And it’s always the things that you are trying not to say that you can’t help but say. What is wrong with me? I thought to myself.
I read my work third, and I was the third who had written about their mother. After me, more readings were about mothers, and where the subject matter deviated, it almost invariably landed on sex. Mothers and sex, the event organiser semi-seriously joked at the end of the night, were the unofficial themes of the event. With the exception of one young trans writer, we were all talking about mothers from the perspective of being children. Oliver Reeson’s incredibly beautiful piece of writing detailed their experience of having cancer in their early twenties, and the role it had in their journey towards transitioning. And, when they began to take testosterone, they were surprised to feel a strong urge to have a baby, to become a mother. At the time of writing, they still didn’t know how or why exactly or in what form, but motherhood was something they wanted to experience one day. As far as I was concerned, their piece included the most insightful, least romanticised, least stereotypical thoughts about motherhood. Rose writes: ‘…in an ideal world, everyone, whatever the impulses driving them hard and fast in the opposite direction, would be capable thinking of themselves as mothers.’
I caught the tram home buzzing, so excited and nourished by my evening out, and by the passion of those other writers. Set alight. I even forgave myself for all the baby-themed chit chat. Fuck it, I thought! That’s my life right now. I was probably the only person there with a kid. That’s cool! The only feeling I could relate it to was being a young woman and for the first time meeting people who shared my interests, feeling like I’d found myself in the sort of life I’d hoped for. The feeling of maybe having finally found a place in the world.
Sophie Allan is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective, and the Assistant Prize Manager of the Stella Prize. She has had writing published in The Lifted Brow, Global Weather Stations and By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia.