Writing Motherhood

By Magdalena McGuire
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Mothermorphosis: Australian Storytellers Write about Becoming a Mother | Melbourne University Press

Do we really need another book about motherhood? This was the resounding question asked of Monica Dux, editor of Mothermorphosis, when interviewed about the new collection of essays from Australian writers. It seems that, while there is always a place for more books on “masculine” topics such as war and politics, any book that traverses the so-called “feminine” realm of procreation must defend itself against the charge of particularity and, even, a whiff of frivolity. This is odd given that, as Dux points out, it would be hard pressed to find a topic more universal than the perpetuation of the human race.

In light of this, it is befitting that Mothermorphosis is underscored by a deeply serious and inquisitive vein of thinking. Unlike some books that propose to reveal “the truth” about or provide the definitive “guide to” motherhood, this collection of essays resists easy platitudes. Its willingness to grapple with nuance and complexity is its chief strength – one which is reflected in the diversity of voices and perspectives canvassed in the collection. Taken as a whole, these essays reflect the fact that the term motherhood encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences – both joyful and difficult.

Indeed, while “motherhood” is a term that can evoke connotations of all things soft and fuzzy, many of the essays reveal the sheer strength that mothering requires. In ‘Mother Courage’, Susan Carland offers some sobering reflections on raising Muslim children in Australia. Carland recounts the lengths she has gone to in order to shield her daughter from the “hateful words of strangers”. For Carland, mothering in a post-9/11 landscape can be like walking through fire. However, she refuses to give in to despair. Carland says that “the pressure of this heat has made [her] channel [her] empathy into ensuring [her] children are more empathetic towards others”. This is, she concludes, “the only empowering position we can take”.

The ambivalence that many women can feel towards motherhood is explored in Lee Koffman’s essay, ‘Wearing the Mother Outfit’. Before giving birth, Koffman feared that motherhood would destroy her core values and sense of self – her desire for independence, intellectual curiosity and creative living. This turned out not to be the case. Koffman found that “the happiness of having [her] son didn’t take over [her] desire to write. Quite the opposite: it reignited it”.

Nonetheless, she admits to landing in the “contemporary motherscape” and feeling like a perplexed foreigner. For Koffman, one of the key challenges of motherhood stemmed from the social expectations pertaining to this new role: the pressure to join mothers groups, to stare starry-eyed at children in the playground, and to carry around essential supplies in a bag the size of a tent. Her essay negotiates the terrain of these stereotypes, and lands in a very personal place – a place in which, because of her baby, the mundane becomes strange and exciting. In this sense, Koffman’s essay reveals that motherhood can be a deeply creative and regenerative act.

In ‘I Wore My Red Lips and Pretended I Was Fine’, George McEncroe gives an account of almost dying in childbirth – an account that is all the more terrifying because her experience was trivialised and even dismissed by hospital staff and friends. After giving birth, all focus was on the baby and little regard was had for McEncroe’s own trauma. McEncroe writes that “it was [her] first taste of being a half-person”. It wasn’t until 16 years after the event that she was encouraged to seek professional counselling for post-traumatic stress.

McEncroe’s horrifying account of childbirth is counterbalanced by Lorelei Vashti’s ‘Look Who’s Talking, a Birth Story’. In this piece, Vashti highlights the social pressure that discourages mothers (such as herself) from admitting to having had a positive birth experience. Vashti’s article highlights that there are as many different birth stories as there are mothers, and “that’s why they’re important: they teach us we are not the same”. Vashti maintains that women should be encouraged to speak of their birth experiences – whether these were good or bad – the way they would of any other major event in their lives.

‘This is the way my birth experience went,’ we should be able to say to other people if we want to, and then confidently throw ourselves into our stories with our eyes closed, with the knowledge that the story – the child – is ours and no one else’s.

While this collection explores some weighty issues relating to motherhood, there are moments of lightness too. With typical wit, Kathy Lette declares that “kids are like Ikea appliances. You have no idea how much assembly is required until it’s too late”. Lette’s essay offers tongue-in-cheek but pragmatic advice for other mothers, such as “A ‘balanced meal’ is whatever stays on the spoon en route to a baby’s mouth”. After reading Lette’s account of post-birth cracked nipples, constipation, mastitis and “haemorrhoids the size of Mount Everest”, I was left wondering why anyone would want to sign up to this motherhood gig. But then Lette, in a moment of well-earned sentimentality, addresses this point: “It’s the greatest love affair you’ll ever have. For life. Unconditionally.”

So, in response to the perennial question of whether we need another book about motherhood, the answer is a resounding yes. This is a well thought out, well-crafted book that ought to be read by both women and men. Indeed, in the spirit of equal parenting, there is scope for a sequel. Fathermorphosis, anyone?

Mothermorphosis is now available from Melbourne University Press.

Magdalena McGuire is a Melbourne-based researcher and writer. 

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