Anna Goldsworthy chats with Emily Maguire
Anna Goldsworthy talks to Emily Maguire about life as a first-time mother, the awes and anxieties of early love, and memoir without a capital M.
When pianist and writer Anna Goldsworthy canvassed the idea of writing a book about first-time motherhood, she found most of the people she spoke to ‘weren’t exactly keen … There’s an anxiety that writing about motherhood is going to be boasting about your kid or sentimental or banal.’
‘I do feel annoyed at the way people disparage [writing about motherhood],’ she says over coffee at the Sydney Opera House, where she is rehearsing with her chamber music ensemble, Seraphim Trio. ‘It’s a hugely significant aspect of human experience and it deserves to be transcribed just as much as the male midlife crisis – which I’ve read so many books about – does.’
As the author of one highly acclaimed memoir (2009’s Piano Lessons) and an avid reader of the genre, Goldsworthy is well aware of the dangers writing about the self can present. ‘I love memoir,’ she says. ‘But not when it’s just about capital M me … The memoirs I like are the ones that are more externally directed.’
Fortunately, Welcome to Your New Life, while intensely intimate, is never narcissistic; it seeks to elucidate the condition of first-time mother-love, rather than confess or boast about a personal experience of it. And while it touches on most of the current debates around babyhood (natural vs medically assisted childbirth, breastfeeding, sleep routines, childcare) it is not a ‘how to’ or ‘self-help’ manual. If anything, it’s a (gentle) manifesto for abandoning the idea of one true path.
A self-described perfectionist, Goldsworthy threw herself into trying to do childbearing ‘the right way’ but quickly discovered that there’s no such thing. ‘No one could give me a definitive answer about what I should do, and all the experts seemed in opposition to each other. I thought, “God, it’s not a new thing, childbirth, shouldn’t we have figured it out by now?” But we clearly haven’t, and everyone has to figure it out for themselves.’
Goldsworthy’s account of figuring it all out is frank and unsentimental but shot through with genuine, reverent delight at the everyday magic of human procreation. Each of the early chapters begins with an awe-infused update on the unborn baby’s development. ‘Sometimes you cry silently in the womb,’ she notes at one point, ‘but what do you have to cry about, little bean? Are you lonely in there?’ During her first ultrasound, she wonders ‘Who is laying these bones down bit by bit? Is it me who is making you, or are you making yourself?’
The book is written in the second person, directly addressing the child. This, says Goldsworthy, was less a choice than a surrender. ‘It just started writing itself this way … I suppose it’s a representation of the orientation of my life as a mother. Everything is towards him.’ (‘Him’ is the ‘amazing’ now-four-year-old Reuben, who remains unnamed throughout the book.)
The second person perspective means that even Goldsworthy’s complaints and expressions of pain and doubt are underscored by tenderness. Birth is a ‘pain maze from which there is no exit’, a process of ‘ripping my own body apart’, but after it is over she addresses her sleeping son with admiration: ‘You are clearly a match, more than a match, for all this’.
Despite Reuben’s equilibrium, Goldsworthy struggles with extreme anxiety in the first few months of his life, obsessing over all that might go wrong. ‘There are fissures everywhere,’ she writes. ‘Wormholes through which you could slip if I am not vigilant.’ Much of this anxiety Goldsworthy now puts down to the fact that her brother, Daniel, was in a critical condition in a London hospital when her baby was only four days old. ‘Witnessing my mother’s complete disintegration in the most harrowing circumstances, the utter powerlessness of it, [while] at the same time … wrestling with what it was to be a mother, set me up, possibly, for being even more neurotic than I would have otherwise been,’ she says.
Fortunately, Daniel recovers and Reuben goes from strength to strength until, one morning, ‘the newborn has vanished’. The child who has replaced him, though, is ‘even more wonderful, a technology that forever upgrades itself’. The anxieties of parenting a newborn are thus replaced by those of parenting an older baby and then a toddler: childcare, socialisation, language acquisition and first nightmares. The end of breastfeeding also means ‘the return of sex’, and, in time, the marvellous adventure is starting all over again. (Reuben’s little brother Otto – ‘a real little comedian’ – is now one.)
Goldsworthy admits to a moment of disappointment on discovering that her second (and ‘probably’ last) baby was a boy. She had hoped to do as her ‘incredibly strong’ mother did and help raise another generation of powerful feminist women. But then, ‘Mum pointed out that having sons is a hugely important part of the feminist project. Which is true.’ (‘Anyway’, she adds quickly, ‘I love my boys so much. I mean, I just love them.)
Speaking of ‘the feminist project’, Goldsworthy is the author of an upcoming Quarterly Essay, On Women, Freedom and Misogyny, which promises to ‘lay bare the dilemmas of being a woman today and ask how women can truly become free agents’. Motherhood has strengthened her feminism, she says, sharpening her understanding of the ‘layers of structural disadvantage’ women face in the workforce and making her aware of the ‘competence and strength’ of mothers.
‘I feel bothered by certain male commentators who are quite disparaging of things like “mummy bloggers” and the way just invoking the word “mummy” is enough to make something seem small.’ She smiles at the ridiculousness of the idea. To her, mothers hold ‘a kind of greatness’, and that comes through strongly in her book. Regardless of how much they relate to Goldsworthy’s personal experience, for many mothers, reading Welcome to Your New Life will be like receiving a quiet, very-much-needed fist-bump of maternal solidarity.
Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy is out now.
Emily Maguire is a Sydney-based novelist and journalist. Her most recent book is the novel Fishing for Tigers.