Review: Lucy Sussexon motherhood books

The State of Motherhood

Na Carenza, penre marit m’agenza
Mas far enfanz cug qu’es grans penedenza
Que las tetinhas pendon aval jos
el las[c] ventril aruat e ’nnoios

Lady Carenza, I’d like to have a husband,
But making babies seems a great penitence:
Your breasts hang way down
And the belly is wrinkled and painful

Alais, Iselda and Carenza (trans. Meg Bogin and Paschal Thomas)

For an experience to which half the world’s population are liable, motherhood is contested. Opinions on the matter are legion, chief preoccupation being what mothers are doing in error. Even before birth, religions and some states still seek control, with legal and moral incursions into the womb.

In an ideal world conceiving, bearing and raising a child should elicit the greatest support from society. It is hard, debilitating, even lethal work. Instead mothering is a battleground. In these three books, mothers write back, documenting their personal experience and that of others, from the scientific and the sociological to the artistic. They all beg the question: is it possible to be successful both as a mother and do other things beside childcare and housework? In the act of writing, they answer as one, yes!

The Cost of Labour by Natalie Kon-Yu’s sets out as memoir: she had the pregnancy from hell, not always helped by the medical interventions. In her first trimester, her legs began to tremble. She already had the expected nausea, but now what was happening led to anxiety and insomnia. Her mental health fragmented. It took an intelligent observation by a relative and a change of doctors to reveal she was suffering withdrawal symptoms from a painkiller taken for a back injury.

To make things worse, Kon-Yu also endured hyperemesis gravidarum: the prolonged nausea and vomiting that strikes indiscriminately, from princesses to Charlotte Brontë, whom it may have killed. It recurred with Kon-Yu’s second viable pregnancy, her last; the Duchess of Cambridge was afflicted thrice. Both women’s pregnancies caused extreme suffering before the ordeal of birth – which was additionally difficult for Kon-Yu, who had two caesarians.

From her experiences, Kon-Yu deduced that something is gravely wrong with the state of motherhood in Australia. Why should a woman undergo such traumas in a first-world country, with parental leave options and health care programs? She was not disadvantaged in terms of class or income, but had a high-status job as a humanities academic. Part of the issue was, in her case, everyday racism: as a woman whose parents were Italian and Mauritian, she was not the hegemonic ‘white’ mother.

She contrasted her experience with the ideal of motherhood, the supposed norm, that it marks the apogee of a women’s experience. It led her to research – hence this book. The Cost of Labour functions as a hybrid work, part memoir, part what can only be described as a literature review, part impassioned polemic. In it Kon-Yu examines the history of motherhood, and also how different cultures treat women’s work.

The book is intended not for an academic audience, but for a general readership. That makes for a colloquial tone, as when she describes her doctors as ‘shitty’, rather than overworked and under-read in the diagnostic literature. Elsewhere information is introduced anecdotally. Kon-Yu also conducted interviews with mothers and midwives, in which vital insights are communicated. A short recommended reading list appears at the end of the book, featuring queer, First Nations, and of colour authors. To follow up on the references in the text, it is necessary to go to the publisher’s website, rather than to a set of footnotes. That is an economy in modern publishing, as is the lack of an index.

Once mothers sought information from peers or midwives. Now, they hit the web. Given how important motherhood is, and as this book reminds us, dangerous, they surely should be well-informed. However the literature is huge and coloured by bias. Kon-Yu has to negotiate some minefields, a difficult task in which everybody will not be necessarily pleased. As Kaz Cooke recently showed in You’re Doing It Wrong, the hectoring and mis-advising of women is incessant; and particularly vile for mothers.

The problem then arises how to access the scientific articles cited in the book, without spending substantial time online, and possibly money too, if a reader lacks access to databases of academic journals. And what sources can be trusted, when doing your own research? It pains a reviewer to play gotcha, but citing Rosalind Franklin not only re DNA imaging, but foetal as well, is inaccurate: that is the work of anthropologist Sarah Franklin.

When Kon-Yu moves into polemic she fires up, identifying the problems. One is the privileging of the foetus above the mother, old as Biblical tenets. It recurs in medical research: hyperemesis gravidarum, for example, lacks a cure. It can only be alleviated, though IV hydration means it no longer kills. The thalidomide scandal is still influential here.

A third factor is the unwillingness to acknowledge that motherhood, if no longer a major killer, can still cause major trauma, equivalent to living in a warzone. Yet another is first-world domesticity, with the isolating of women in their homes. Perhaps the greatest culprit is neo-liberalism, where everything has a price, and services for women and babies are cut. Here the cry of ‘You’re Doing it Wrong!’ is rightly directed not at women, but at the wider society, and its strictures.

This is a hybrid work and ultimately its three parts pull not always equally together. Where the mix works best is in the commendable final chapter, on the cost of labour for men, no longer excluded from the maternity ward, nor from their children’s lives. That is a novel and necessary viewpoint.

Mothertongues approaches the topic in an entirely different fashion. Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell are creative practitioners, and also mothers of small children. They collaborate on this book, taking a multi-genre and disciplinary approach. Dovey is a literary novelist, critic and science writer; Bell is an actor, dramatist and teacher of drama. Their joint project also involves a musician, Keppie Coutts, who provides her own responses to the book. Being bang up to the minute in terms of technology, QR codes are provided to scan and hear the songs, available also via website. While the traditional publishing model was followed for the book, the accompanying album was crowdfunded via Pozible, with additional business sponsoring involving the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

That approach is innovative, an arts cross-fertilisation. That said, the Coutts songs are not to everyone’s tastes, nor is the book. What it brings first to mind is Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction, in working towards a non-linear narrative, an omnium gatherum of notions, memoir, songs, scenes and collages. Notions of the heroic are deconstructed, with the authors of Mothertongues inventing an alternate heroine, Odysseia. Also notable is the influence of Virginia Woolf. But the book is most informed by a genre dominated by males, the Absurdist writers and playwrights. As Dovey and Bell comment:

…absurdism really captures something about motherhood. I mean, what’s more absurd than giving birth to another human? Is there any more ordinary existential crisis? The life of a mother to young kids is made of non sequiturs, fragments, interruptions, stories that go nowhere, gaps, cyclical language, repetitive gestures.

A few pages on comes the telling remark: ‘Being a mother is banal, but also sublime and magnificent.’ Making sense of this contradictory state is the project of the book. So enmeshed are the authors that it is often difficult to distinguish them, though Dovey refers to her South African origins, Bell to her life in America. Their writings here seem not markedly different, being two voices joined in a melodious duet, united by experience and their theme. That Bell is a theatre worker is reflected in passages that seem meant for performance, but both women can write in this mode.

Kon-Yu can express the pleasures of parenting, but her emphasis on work means that The Cost of Labour tends more to the dour. In contrast Mothertongues is full of wit and play, with word-games, experiments in form that recall how a child experiences and learns from the world. While it does not avoid the grim, the overall impression is of joy.

Nor does it seek to impart scientific knowledge, being a creative rather than scholarly work. Certainly studies of motherhood are mentioned, and the authors’ reaction to them. The reader can, if curious, search online. Here again it is possible to nitpick: it is for example arguable that it has only been ‘a few short decades’ since women have been ‘able to publicly share their intimate experiences of pregnancy and childbirth.’ What of Jane Sharp, midwife and author of The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered, first published in 1671? (To which the authors might reply that Sharp cannot yet be located in the historical record, and might even have been a man.)

Such is the exuberance of the book that the reader ultimately just goes with the flow, as when Dovey searches for ‘birthing chairs in history.’ As she notes, ‘Big Mistake’, for she gives herself the horrors. But she picks up a thread regarding gossips, which she then extends to her critical work on Coetzee. Next back to the horrors, reading aloud ancient texts on obstetrics. A few pages on, the book shifts to science fiction, with two AIs, who also happen to be pregnant.

In different hands, Mothertongues might be infuriating, but despite the non-linear approach, part patchwork, part tapestry, it thoroughly engages. The authors describe it as a chaos narrative, truly reflective of what a baby does to a woman’s life. And yet Mothertongues is never chaotic. Rather, it can both be acute and astute. Consider this passage, following a largely excruciating writers’ forum on motherhood:

Sometimes it can feel to me as if the really disturbing aspect of motherhood is that it is designed – as it currently exists – to exhaust women until they are no longer capable of thinking of themselves as political subjects. They’re just bodies, reproducing, surviving, keeping the next generation alive. They’re too tired to ask questions about the wider structures that dictate how their lives are lived. It’s too late for this generation of mothers now, anyway – our experience is what it is.

The unnamed speaker continues: ‘…the sharing, the emphasizing, the repetition of the same jokes and stories about the strange or difficult things that happen raising a child, that can itself be a political act.’ By this measure and more, Mothertongues is not only a personal book, but political as well. If there is to be significant change for mothers, then Dovey and Bell will be on the barricades, with props and agitprop, ensuring that the revolution will also be fun.

The third book in this trilogy of mothering is vitally concerned with women’s lives, but only partially through the medium of memoir. Julie Phillips is an Amsterdam-based biographer, a National Book Critics’ Circle award-winner for the 2007 James Tiptree Jr.: the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She is also the mother of two children. How to both create and mother she terms the mind-baby problem. In The Baby on the Fire Escape, she considers a group of twentieth-century women who did both, and achieved prominence in their artistic fields.

If Dovey and Bell note that the absurdist writers tended to be male, then Phillips confronts the popular image of the artistic genius, using Jenny Offill’s term ‘art monsters’. The ideal image is of monomaniac concentration, something difficult with a child in tow, constantly interrupting. And yet mothers do make great art, as so many can attest. How did they do it?

Golden Age Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch had ten children, and a career lasting six decades. The Sensational (proto-crime) Victorian writer Mary Braddon had similar longevity, and six children, with the added strain of being in a common-law relationship. These two had servants, not an option for most creative women in the twentieth century. The subjects of this book did have control over their fertility, the choice to mother or not. However, acquiring contraception, not always reliable, could be a battle. They also had increasing legal rights, including voting. Still, as Phillips shows, it was always a difficult process.

Her major subjects range from artist Alice Neel to Angela Carter, with side excursions to the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald or Louise Bourgeois. All are women from the global north, though not all were white, nor heterosexual, nor in conventional relationships: Audre Lorde was a polyamorist. Nor were all immaculate – I use that word advisedly – in their mothering. What mother is, especially when judged by others?

Neel, who was born in 1900 and died in 1984, is the first women examined in depth, a bold choice, with the title being: Outlaw Mothering. Neel defied the conventional expectations, with the example of her own mother’s frustrations – a theme in this book. She saved from a typing job to pay for her art education. Although she did wed, her first daughter died of diphtheria, and a second, Isabetta, did not save the marriage. Neel, realising her sanity depended on her art, relinquished the child to relatives. Their relationship never recovered; Isabetta would suicide late in life.

Is this ‘shitty’ mothering, as when Dovey and Bell berate Colette for slapping her daughter – who had cut her face, so ruining Colette’s ‘masterpiece’? My own mother, Marian, never quite got over having her mother say, in front of the child, that she regretted having no sons. It did have the result of turning her into a feminist, a blessing for daughters, arty or not. And Marian, like Penelope Fitzgerald, became a successful artworker, if late in life.

Neel, once located in her ideal setting, Greenwich Village, painted continuously, took lovers, and in the latter years of her fertility, had two sons. This time, the art and mothering balance worked; the boys were proud of her art, considering her a ‘gift’ as a mother. Neel might have been poor, but her sons went to elite schools, and led satisfactory lives. Neel lived into old age, with a critical breakthrough in her sixties, and her best work in her latter decades. Her portrait of her daughter-in-law and grandchild is the cover art for this book.

As Phillips shows, the decision to both do art and mothering is a double load of work, hard to do well, and subject to grief. Doris Lessing also left her two eldest children, for political activism, and because her marriage had failed. Legally, a father had more rights, and also more money to support a family. Her first husband would restrict access, which pained Lessing deeply. Yet she maintained good, loving relationships with the children. The third child, Peter, from a second marriage, she kept with her; it was their bad luck that he developed chronic mental illness. Despite the turmoil of her domestic life, Lessing became a novelist, even awarded the Nobel Prize. Press cameras caught her returning from shopping, with Peter; her reaction to the news being ‘Oh, Christ!’

Of all the women investigated in this book, perhaps the most serene was Ursula Le Guin, the subject of Phillips’ next full biography. She had a degree of privilege, supportive parents, not frustrated in their ambitions, and a long, happy marriage to a man who shared the childcare and encouraged her writing. Yet it might have never happened had Le Guin proceeded with a pregnancy when at university, with a fellow student who would take no responsibility. Her parents supported her decision, with the best abortion care money could buy. Later in life she disclosed the event, a political decision; as was her using the National Book Foundation medal award to make a fiery speech denouncing the morals of corporate publishing.

Phillips has chosen her examples well and investigates them scrupulously. While not making herself a subject, she can venture into the text, mostly via a series of discursive essays which she terms ‘Discomfort Zones’. Here she grapples with subjects like maternal abandon, or ‘The Unavailable Muse’, her prime example being Elizabeth Smart. Here she is judgemental, unusual in the text: Smart produced one great book, four children, and ‘an example for other women of how not to live’.

Throughout the book, Phillips displays an excellent choice of quotes, and anecdotes. Jack Keroac told poet Diane di Prima that she would never be a writer if she worried about her babysitter. She disagreed: for both mothering and art discipline is necessary. Phillips can also sum up complicated lives succinctly and evocatively. She does not shy from tragedy, yet sensibly does not feature Plath. She does give space to Shirley Jackson, whose unpleasant domestic situation fed her horror writing, and also killed her.

Like Ceridwen and Bell, Phillips found her writing an interrupted task:

If it’s so hard to move beyond anecdote and discord onto some higher plane of maternal theorizing, maybe it’s because the interruptions are what I’m meant to be noticing. Perhaps interruption and disruption are not what keep me from seeing mothering clearly, but are the conditions of maternal creativity.

It affects her structure too, for while she organises her text into biographical chapters with associated musings, the book is as much to be dipped into as read in one fell swoop. But then, Phillips knows well the Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction, if not finding it wholly applicable to her project. She also sees mothers as truly heroic in their own stories. The artist-mothers in this book have led different lives, but all have produced work that will outlive their children and grandchildren.

Phillips finishes with the words:

I don’t believe in giving birth as a metaphor for writing books. I refuse to think that the two are equivalent, even though I did swear at my husband in a fit of stress the night before I turned my manuscript in, the same way I yelled when labor ran me over.

Like her subjects, she has done both, in sorrow and in joy, and learnt from the experiences. The result is a tremendous book.

Works Cited

Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (Scarborough: Paddington, 1976).

Kaz Cooke, You’re Doing it Wrong: a History of Bad or Bonkers Advice to Women (Melbourne: Viking, 2021).

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction (1986).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, or, the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (London: John Marshall, 1671)