On stories of motherhood

Emily Harms and Chris Gordon discuss two new anthologies, Mothers & Others and Mothermorphosis, featuring women writing about their experiences of being – and not being – a mother.

Chris: Reading two books about women’s experiences of motherhood back-to-back was quite engulfing. I found myself reflecting on my kids’ birth stories quite a lot. Essentially the stories and experiences, even the short fiction included among the essays in Mothers & Others, were about the inner thoughts of women on becoming a parent. There is that realisation, isn’t there, that motherhood brings a whole new meaning to the word solitary? In the end, there is only you and the baby and all those emotions.

Em: I agree! Reading Mothermorphosis and Mothers & Others did take me back to my own early experiences of motherhood. There was certainly a common theme of the mundaneness and isolation of motherhood in these stories.

Chris: I was particularly moved by two stories. Firstly, George McEncroe’s birth story (‘I Wore My Red Lips and Pretended I Was Fine’ in Mothermorphosis) was harrowing for a few reasons: she had a terrible time giving birth. (Me too.) And she portrayed the strange expectations around the post-birth celebrations well. It is extraordinary, don’t you think, that there you are, exhausted after probably the most physical endurance test of all time, and then family and friends expect immediate elation and picture opportunities. Monica Dux, in her introduction to Mothermorphosis, talks about this experience too – putting on lipstick, making sure the photos will reflect a moment of control, beauty and joy. I just wanted to sleep and have tea with an enormous amount of sugar.

Em: I know. George McEncroe’s story really bowled me over. It took me straight back to the extreme pain and the blood. Anyone who is looking to get or is currently pregnant – or has recently given birth – perhaps skip that piece for now! Monica Dux’s introduction to Mothermorphosis reminded me of the many photos I’ve seen in texts, facebook posts and tweets of new mothers and their babies. As I was reading this, I actually laughed to myself quite a lot when I reflected that my first shots as ‘proud mum holding baby’ certainly weren’t glamour shots! The last thing I would have thought of soon after the birth was to put make-up and designer clothes on!

Chris: The other story I was very taken with was Brooke Davis’s ‘Future Brooke’ in Mothers & Others. I liked reading her dreams for the future. I liked that she talked about the bells that go off when hormones scream at you that it’s time to breed. And I like that she, in the end, didn’t mourn lost fairytale-princess dreams but rather sought to take action solo. I believe that her story is more common than we might realise. I remember feeling exactly the same way as her as a young woman. Did you?

Em: Yes, I did identify with Brooke Davis’s piece. Her story is brave and brutally honest, yet as you say, Chris, her decision to pursue the opportunity for motherhood solo is not so uncommon.

Chris: Was there a story that seemed close to your own experience?

Em: Liane Moriarty’s ‘The Childless Side of the Room’ in Mothers & Others really struck a chord with me. I too never even imagined being a mother in my late 20s and early 30s (when my siblings and friends were beginning their families). I suppose deep down I secretly hoped that I would one day have the opportunity to have a child – when I was ready, and despite this seeming like a distant hope. I was similar to Moriarty though in that I didn’t think you needed to dream of something so ordinary, perhaps because I grew up in a house where babies came with being a woman. Since having two kids – and, again, very similar to what Moriarty describes – I will never forget that feeling of being ‘childless’ and I hope not to take having my kids for granted. If I catch myself in a whinge about my kids or not having enough time to myself, I check myself and think about how appreciative I am to have the incredible opportunity to have children.

I also related to Christine Lieman’s ‘As a Mum’ and how the minute she turned 32 the pressure to have kids was on. Thirty-two seems to be the age at which women are ‘hassled, judged, encouraged, and trussed up and out in the pressure cooker!’ This was definitely my own experience… What about you Chris? Did you always imagine that you would have kids?

Chris: Mine was very similar to Davis’s story. I always knew I was going to have kids. I knew what their names would be, and I knew that I would have a girl and boy. It’s only recently that I realised how fortunate I am that those dreams have come true. I did, for a long time, simply take it for granted.

Em: I also related to the way Kate Holden remembered her child self through having her own child. It’ll often be moments like brushing my kid’s teeth or putting bandaids on bleeding knees when a vivid memory of a moment from my own childhood and how I felt at that age will come to me. Did particular revelations about your own childhood come to light through having your own children, Chris, and if so, when and what were they?

Chris: I can hear my mother’s voice even now! We are always a daughter first, aren’t we? I find history repeating itself when I make certain comfort foods for my kids: rice pudding, chocolate self-saucing pudding and ice-cream. The tastes of my childhood have not left me at all, but rather seem to support me through nights with ill children and tired winter days. I was surprised there weren’t more reflections in the stories about being a daughter.

Em: Alice Pung’s beautiful piece on being a daughter preparing for motherhood, ‘The New Grandparents’, was a wonderful opening to Mothers & Others to shake us out of the comfortable suburban context of ‘motherhood’. Some of my other favourites in Mothers & Others were: Melinda Marchetta’s ‘Adopting a Child: Letter to My Daughter (or of a Lesser God)’; Celeste Liddle’s ‘Why I Choose Not to Have to Make a Choice’; and Rosie Waterlands’ gut-wrenchingly harrowing ‘Thirty Seconds’ about her troubled relationship with her mother.

While also a highlight, Debra Adelaide’s piece ‘Grief’ really hit me hard. Since having kids, I too have an extreme aversion to hearing about, reading or watching any violence against children. In the piece, Adelaide opens with two parents’ extraordinary loss of their three children and one of their own parents in last year’s disastrous flight MH17. When they are interviewed on TV about the loss of their three children, Adelaide wonders how the parents remain so calm through such pain. She also refers to Helen Garner’s recent book This House of Grief. Despite so many brilliant reviews, I too haven’t been able to read the account of the Farquharson family case as I can’t bear to enter into the grief of the mother of the three children.

Adelaide also brings up what I think is one of the most poignant common themes of both collections on motherhood – the conflict between the feminist self and the mother self: ‘… as a feminist, one is not defined by one’s children. For me this is the single most difficult aspect of contemporary mothering: reconciling my feminism and all its profound rationality, egalitarianism, and sheer good sense with the more visceral, emotional and perhaps even biological claims of raising children. Being responsible for people whom you have created and nurtured from sweet infant dependency through to the alien teens and beyond often defies all logic and good sense.’ As a mum of teenage kids, Chris, do you sometimes feel conflicted between your emotional mothering self and your feminist self?

Chris: No, not at all. Being a feminist helps me parent; it has helped me when I have felt alienated or confused. After all, feminism is entirely based within a social justice framework, and motherhood is where it all starts. I want my kids to be treated equally emotionally and physically. It seems to have worked. I love to hear my daughter and son talking about feminism and choices in general. Having said that, I do believe this is made easier for me with a partner who also supports feminism and all that it means: sharing the workload, having choices and financial freedom. In the end, I enjoyed both books very much. I liked that so many of the authors are from Melbourne. I liked that here are two collections featuring creative women making sense of their stories and generously sharing them.

Em: I also loved reading both collections. I liked the surprise element of the fiction peppered between the largely non-fiction pieces in Mothers & Others. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s ‘Paint’ was definitely a highlight amongst the fiction pieces for me – her writing just leaps off the pages and shakes me out of my comfort zone. However, I too valued both collections for shining a light on the truth of those early days of parenting.

Chris: It all helps make sense of our lot, doesn’t it?

Em: It sure does!

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