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Against Motherhood Memoirs

‘Mother was The Woman the whole world imagined to death.’

Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know

Page two of Making Babies and Anne Enright is apologising to entire bunches of people. Firstly to those who say we should be getting on with things not writing books on them, especially if the things are ‘Human Life: 101’. Also to all those believers that the motherhood memoir is an overprivileged person’s indulgent pastime. Followed closely by those convinced their fellow citizens who have yet to climb – minimum – a snow-covered mountain missing a limb shouldn’t be seeking to immortalise their experiences. Which is not forgetting those who think writers writing books from their wobbly, hormone-affected heads (no REAL research) should stop wasting readers’ time, pregnant women and new mothers being among this culture’s least interesting thinkers. As everyone knows.

Oh Anne Enright – I so enjoy it when you are having a go, not decrying the long and variegated tradition of denigrating female writers who write outwards from the inside of their lives, not calling it out, but having fun with it. Once she is done doing mock apologies she goes on: ‘When I read women writing about having children, it is not their circumstances that annoy me so much as their tone … both smug and astonished.’ And all of a sudden it is not clear what Enright is doing, if and where she is shifting. Is this still part of the piss-take? Enright manages to stay ideologically unaffiliated, a heretic. Also: nimble, slyly self-aware. She is able to protect her ambivalence about being both a mother and a writer who writes about being a mother – protect it from getting co-opted into some unwanted alliance, or camp. And while her smug-yet-astonished may be a throwaway line it seems to me diagnostically precise. Not because motherhood can’t be astonishing (I see the faces of my friends who didn’t think they’d ever be mothers and I know ‘astonishing’ is the least of it) but because this particular tonal combination somehow works as an impediment to good writing. Not every time but enough times for it to be noticeable. Perhaps it is an impediment to good thinking too.

Probably now is a good moment to mention I am feeling some trepidation. I despise the usual ‘momoir’ takedown of the kind directed at Rachel Cusk for A Life’s Work – adjectives thrown at it/her: narcissistic, exploitative, self-serving, dripping in privilege – plus the broader urge to tell women how to write about their lives. Yet here I am to argue against the over-memoirisation of motherhood. I have decided to hang on to trepidation, not try to quash it. Trepidation might mean an argument with no agenda. Or me refusing to cover up, even a little, my limitations. I think of Enright’s first few pages as a tuning fork. I want to write about motherhood memoirs from a place of love and unconcealed irritation. These are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive.

‘No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood’ – first sentence of a New York Times review of Making Babies, and it comes not from any of the tomato throwers Enright poked in her memoir’s introduction but from a fellow baffled mother/memoirist. The reviewer Judith Newman thinks Enright wrote a great book. It’s just that:

To write well in the mother–child arena, a person must understand that the essential condition of motherhood isn’t pleasure or wonderment or even terror – although there’s plenty of that. The essential condition is absurdity. Samuel Beckett could have come up with a great book on babies. Anne Enright has.

For Newman too much motherhood writing is wide-eyed with profundity or sublime feelings (awe, terror), and light on out-and-out absurdity. My first response after reading her first sentence? Rattling off, in my head, names: Levy, Cusk, Angela Carter, Adrienne Rich, Maggie Nelson, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Quinn Eades etc. Underneath though: a nagging unease. Since becoming a mother I had read a lot of terrible nonfiction writing about motherhood. This could have been nothing (most writing is terrible writing, most pronouncements about how there is no good writing about X are a waste of time) or it could have been something. I wanted – want – to be able to think about it.

In 2010 I wrote a book that got classified as a motherhood memoir. It covered: three generations of women, one family, becoming a mother, being a daughter. It also had history, politics, war, time, cities, post-totalitarian hunger for glamour, friendships on the verge of cataclysm, poets I regarded as heroes. My (then) publishing house said the book needed to be in shops by Mother’s Day or else. Rush, rush. Print numbers, stock, distribution channels, mummy-flavoured publicity crumbs … I was deflated by my book about everything being so categorically and swiftly reframed as a motherhood memoir but voicing this feeling to anyone besides family and friends seemed graceless. What did it matter how I was sold? It was either that or the ethnic thing.

Enough time has passed that I can now tell you: I was hurt by the implied suggestion that all the other stuff in the book was a bit of colour. I was also, at the time, irritated by a certain kind of middle-class motherhood memoir (by middle class I don’t mean property-owning and do include perpetual renters such as myself). Not only books but personal essays, blogs, anthologies, all stamped with familiar traits: a vomit-on-the-blouse candour, the smell-of-my-baby’s-foot lyricism, an author’s self transformed by a new life’s arrival, obligatory self-deprecation. Part confession, part analysis. Plenty of smug-yet-astonished bubbling just under too. The unmistakable formula bothered me but so did what the formula was at the service of – the formal and intellectual domestication of motherhood. This style of memoir seemed to have achieved cultural and marketplace dominance in the anglophone world (while simultaneously, predictably, making culture and marketplace feel indistinguishable).

No, I won’t name names. No ripping into specific books or using them as examples of larger problems or trends. I am mindful of what Lisa Ruddick describes as ‘scholars using theory – or simply attitude – to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation’. I think a lot of the books I could be talking about here, including books I privately dislike or find annoying, are ‘small and tender’ (this is not an aesthetic or intellectual judgment, rather a personal one about how much is at stake in autobiographical writing) even if collectively they may occupy a culturally powerful place at this moment. The authors of these specific texts, as well as their writing lives, are, I believe, ‘worthy of protection and cultivation’.

I am arguing against something that is both culturally ubiquitous and continuously de-legitimated. Against something that may appear at certain moments like a new orthodoxy – first-person nonfiction motherhood narratives are written and read voraciously today – yet its ontological status remains unstable.

Many times in my life women writing personally about motherhood has made me – leaking, chaotic, questioning, angry, flooded with love and guilt, often just flooded – feel less alone. My friend Jo Case’s memoir Boomer & Me kept me company while I stood there solo in yet another schoolground. Deborah Levy (who I admire, who’s not my friend) was with me in spirit too, telling me to remember this about the language of the other waiting, clustering mothers: ‘They said words that were childlike but not as interesting as the words children made up. Words like groany moany smiley fabby cheery vegie sniffy…’ Levy would first cheer me up, then take away my non-joiner smugness. ‘I listened to all those mothers in a daze because I knew we were all exhausted and making the best of our new niche in the Societal System.’ Anne Enright was beside me as well pricking holes in my self-dramatisation as the always already-failed mother. ‘Children are actually a form of brainwashing.’ Companionable presence, a feeling of fellowship, jokes – I value these things above many others.

I am also certain that online writing about mothering, with its accessibility and the sheer variety of experiences it holds up to the light, has saved lives probably. Or at least made many lives liveable. Autobiographical writing and autoethnography are antidotes to the parenting ‘industry’-produced books, the kind that capitalise on maternal (paternal, parental) guilt, shame, doubt, anxiety by throwing parents some choice lifeboats.

How to describe the current motherhood-memoir nexus? Owing to commercial pressures, nonfiction books by women writers dealing in any way with motherhood are unlikely to be sold as books of thinking, exploration, reportage, cultural critique or all the above. Instead they are dubbed motherhood memoirs. At the same time writing about mothering has become constrained, made predictable, by certain memoiristic tropes, vocabularies, intensities and scales. I don’t want to make any big declarations about how when you spit in a bookshop you hit a memoir, except to note it’s not only women, it’s brain surgeons, the children of spies, young writers with hybrid identities, survivors of trauma, each getting pushed down the memoir route by their publishers or agents or maybe by their own sense of what kind of books are possible and wanted. Other books – not readily classifiable as anything – are marketed as memoirs, ensuring they reach few of their intended readers while a whole new crop of brain surgeons and young writers with hybrid identities grow up thinking writing a memoir is the best option available to them.

Suki Kim, born in South Korea, wrote a book about North Korea, memoir is how her publisher billed it. ‘As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea,’ Suki Kim wrote afterwards, ‘I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional – by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment – I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best.’

So let us talk marketplace. If an explosive undercover investigation of everyday life in the world’s most closed-off country is less commercially appealing than another memoir by another woman on another internal quest, it’s worth heeding. If saying Suki Kim is a woman just like you and me is a better commercial proposition than saying Suki Kim is, in many thrilling ways, not a woman like you or me, it’s an insight into our cultural moment that should be taken seriously.

A parallel development is the popularity of what journalist Elle Hardy calls ‘memoir-as-journalism’. Hardy believes ‘the world of letters is using memoir to examine what journalism ought to’ and I agree with Hardy. The point here isn’t to set up opposition between solipsistic memoir and world-facing reportage or analysis, nor between memoir and any other literary form, it’s to pay close attention to the sort of models on offer for writers looking for a way to think about the world. In the case of memoir-as-journalism if addiction, relationships, poverty or faith are your terrain, you do it through your and your family’s own story. Your story is your trunk, as for research or references to a world beyond the personal they’re a couple of twigs.

The foregrounding of the personal simplifies and it distorts. It makes it difficult to talk about how what I experience as mine (body, history, labour, pockets of affect, webs of relations) is, in the words of Paul B. Preciado, ‘traversed by what isn’t mine’. It makes it equally difficult to de-naturalise the I at a book’s centre since the pressure is on that I to be doing the work of opening doors and guiding readers through passageways connecting the personal and more-than-personal. Little space in this paradigm for Yiyun Li and her

A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word.

I don’t find the standard critique of memoiristic writing about motherhood helpful here. The critique goes something like: many writers of motherhood memoirs are so bound up in their class (usually middle), race (usually white), privilege (usually unmistakable) and whatever else (cisgender, English language) that they end up writing accounts blind (wilfully, or unconsciously) to their place in the world. And because of their relative comfort they depoliticise and privatise motherhood/mothering in ways detrimental to others less safely housed, dry, clothed.

I don’t disagree with the critique in principle; and Kara Van Cleaf is persuasive when she argues that digital capitalism gives ‘the opportunity for mothers to capitalise on their experiences instead of politicise them’. And perhaps more distressingly still:

Mommy blogs do not represent a sudden increase in maternal consciousness. Instead, relief from the devalued work of motherhood can be found online. The architecture of the web has evolved to extract value out of such gendered alienation.

Structural critiques like this one are illuminating. To my mind, however, the watch-your-entitlement-bitches genre of critique, at least the way it’s deployed now – which is to say, deployed almost automatically – does more damage than good. The critique is readymade and indiscriminate and functions like a blunt weapon. Good for hitting heads with, not good for much else. Alarmingly, it distracts us from another insidious problem: the reproduction of the so-called ‘mommy wars’. (I hate the term ‘mommy wars’. Or ‘mummy wars’. I hate ‘mommy’ and ‘mummy’. I remember a lovely neighbour of mine referring to us both as ‘busy mummies’ and my teeth aching every time she said it.) Motherhood is as divisive as race, class and religion. Yet the thing about mommy wars – stay-at-home versus back-to-work, attachment versus benign neglect, mothers versus non-mothers, establishment versus intersectional, structural analysis versus personal narrative – is they’re a dead end. They lead nowhere. Books or essays written and read into these wars, whether deliberately or not, are rarely enduring. Mostly they replicate clichés – of form, language, thought. They stifle thinking, trap us into an unnecessary, deadening shrillness.

What could writing about motherhood that ‘blasts open’ (I borrow this useful Anne Carson expression from a completely different context) these ‘swirls of terms’ (I borrow this gorgeous Maggie Nelson term from a different different context) look like? You would think that an emphasis on personal experience, on the contours of a singular life/soul/family, infused with lyricism and hyper-locatedness, is just what is needed to not keep re-erecting the same barricades. In fact, it could be that memoir in its present iteration is not a strong enough form to blast things open. What is required is formal innovation, hybridity of form, opening up of language, a getting at and through motherhood in unexpected ways.

The coupling of motherhood and memoiristic writing feels at the moment too tight, overly melded, too much like a foregone conclusion. I worry about books that are not being published because they do not feel familiar enough, do not tick boxes. More profoundly, I worry about books that are not being written because what the authors of these unwritten books have to say about mothering or families or stuff that passes between generations or love or terror cannot be truthfully said in the language of personal experience or made to fit a memoir shape. A part of me is grieving for these books, yes.

This is an extract from Dangerous Ideas about Mothers (UWAP), edited by Camilla Nelson and Rachel Robertson. Details here.