“We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood” -Adrienne Rich
“As women our relationship to the past has been problematical. We have been every culture’s core obsession (and repression); we have always constituted at least one-half, and are now a majority, of the species; yet in the written records we can barely find ourselves,” Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born. This she calls, “The Great Silence.”
Rachel Cusk, in A Life’s Work, describes how problematical writing about motherhood was for her,
“It took me a while to figure out why the memoir was malfunctioning. I realised if you use yourself as an example, people turn you into the exception.’ She believes women will go to great lengths to disguise their own ambivalent about motherhood, and that by exposing their suffering with her own story she gave readers someone to admonish. “That made me angry, their response sent the message to any woman struggling with motherhood that she would be attacked.”
And Sarah Menkedick, author of Homing Instincts, talks about what it was like to advocate for her own book on mothering.
“I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologising for what I’m going to read. ‘It’s about motherhood,’ I say, then qualify, ‘but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.’ I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of ‘about motherhood but not really,’ until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. hat male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: ‘But really they’re about human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”
In the last week we saw, in the spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearings, that many things stand between a woman speaking and a woman being heard. Blasey Ford’s testimony echoed what Deborah Levy calls ‘walking a woman into a forest’ — the moment you make her the subject, a powerful string of narratives emerge around her and, at times, entrap her. Documenting motherhood, or any other female experience, is a quiet protest against a two-dimensional portrait of women’s lives, a fallacy that leads to the circumscription of her power.
Adrienne Rich’s book Of Woman Born is a deep dive into the nefarious world of patriarchy. It’s not traditionally academic in that she is navigating across this territory using her own curiosity as an oar but it is almost more illuminating for the personal slant she brings to her vigorous investigation. Take for example this passage about how she experienced the many parenting books that were thrust on her as a new mum,
“The new historians of ‘family and childhood,’ like the majority of theorists on child-rearing, paediatricians, psychiatrists, are male. In their work, the question of motherhood as institution or as an idea in the heads of grown-up male children is raised only where “styles” of mothering are discussed and criticised. Female sources are rarely cited (yet these sources exist, as the feminist historians are showing) there are virtually no primary sources from women-as-mothers; and all this is presented as objective scholarship.”
She courageously and meticulously describes her now ambivalence during her children’s early years,
“I could not begin to think of writing a book on motherhood until I began to feel strong enough, and unambivalent enough in my love for my children, so that I could dare to return to a ground which seemed to me the most painful, incomprehensible, and ambiguous I had ever traveled, a group dredged by taboos, mined with false-namings.
I did not understand this when I started to write the book. I only knew that I had lived through something which was considered central to the lives of women, fulfilling even in its sorrows, a key to the meaning of life; and that I could remember little except anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself: a division made more acute by the moments of passionate love, delight in my children’s spirited bodies and minds, amazement at how they went on loving me in site of my failures to love them wholly and selflessly.”
She tells us plainly about how she could not see herself in the images of motherhood that were painted for her in books and advertisements,
“Nothing could have prepared me for the realisation that I was a mother one of those givens, when I knew I was still in a state of uncreation myself. That calm, sure, unambivalent women who moved through the page of the manuals I read seemed a sunlike me as an astronaut.”
Rich recognises the paradox of a life lived on this threshold between one’s previous self and a new, as yet barely understood maternal self. In painting a true picture of raising children, lyricism is the brush she uses to evoke both the tenderness and rage that can live side by side in families,
“Nothing, to be sure, had prepared me for the intensity of relationship already existing between me and a creature I had carried in my body and now held in my arms and fed from my breasts. Throughout pregnancy and nursing, women are urged to relax, to mime the serenity of madonnas. No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting. No one mentions the strangeness of attraction — which can be as single-minded and overwhelming as the early days of a love affair — to a being so tiny, so dependent, so folded-in to itself — who is, and yet is not, part of oneself.”
Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born is a thorough and charged exploration of what the institution of motherhood — importantly different to motherhood itself — looks like, and what some of the root causes look like. Many writers have followed on from where she began, notably Rachel Cusk and Sarah Menkedick, each of whom sound their own note in what is becoming a symphony of writing on motherhood.