Mother & I: The History of a Wilful Family
by Ianto Ware
Published May 2021
Child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote,
‘There is no such thing as a baby,’ meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.
In Mother & I, Ianto Ware frequently uses the title phrase as if the subjects are inseparable, even when another formulation might make for smoother prose, as if the three words, sufficiently repeated, might transform into a single pronoun acknowledging Ware and his mother, Dimity, as being at once entwined and distinct. Ware appears committed to this Winnicottian approach, providing a gentle redescription of motherhood as an evolving relation, a singular set of possibilities, rather than a reductive category.
Ware, with a PhD in cultural studies, is a veteran of the Australian arts scene. He co-founded Renew Adelaide (an organisation that facilitates the provision of rent-free spaces to creative businesses), has authored zines, produced cultural festivals, and currently works on cultural and urban policy for the City of Sydney. Mother & I is his second book (his first was Twenty One Nights in July: a Personal History of the Tour de France) and is guided, as Ware’s career perhaps is, by a desire for a society unrestricted by the sometimes ponderous, sometimes violent social conservatism that reduces our capacity for locating joy in nonconformity. His mother’s garden, something like a managed wilderness, serves as both a metaphor for and manifestation of this hopeful manner of living, ‘Once,’ Ware writes,
flying home to visit her, the plane banked before landing and I saw our house from the air. It stood out like a great plume of green, jutting out from the flat, baked quarter-acre blocks surrounding it.
Against the odds, Dimity distinguished herself, her green garden an extension of her character.
Throughout the book, Ware describes himself relationally, considering his life in terms of how it was shaped and understood by his mother, his movements towards and away from her. The transitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are contingent on transitions in the son and mother’s views of one another, their revelations of each other’s personhood. In considering the relationship’s significance, Ware describes family as not just origin but ‘context; the background to the situation you find yourself in, and the first key to making sense of your place in the world.’ Simone De Beauvoir wrote: ‘The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and a sketch of our projects.’ One might say something similar of a family. Ware endeavours, in Mother & I, to comprehend this context, and in doing so, he raises a monument to his mother, reconstructing her life through her diary entries and his recollections.
The book includes enough of its author to prevent it from being straightforwardly biographical, but it is framed as a biographical exercise. It is the narrative of Dimity’s life: her childhood illness; her kidney transplant at 24; the expectation that she wouldn’t live beyond her thirties; the conception of her only son in May 1979, shortly before coming out as a lesbian and leaving her husband; raising her son as a single mother; protest against the conservativism of Adelaide suburbia via radical gardening methods; her antagonistic relationship with her mother, often expressed through fights about housework and tidiness; and her eventual death at 65.
Ware’s contextual manner of thinking was, in fact, shared (or originated) by Dimity herself, who once asked her son whether he considered himself inherently good or evil. Ware explained that he tried to be good, and Dimity questioned his premises:
‘So were you being good or evil waiting for the bus?’ she continued, pressing her point. ‘Do you think it was society’s fault you were waiting for the bus, or was it more of a personal fault? Do you think it was because you’re complicit with patriarchy? Is that why you were waiting for the bus?’
Ware said that these questions were nonsensical, and his mother agreed, her point having been made. Dimity’s understanding of the metaphysics of a question such as ‘are you inherently good or evil?’ as nonsense extended to her view of how others would categorise her ‘as an invalid, a single mother, lesbian, poor, working class’. The use of these terms implied that they captured her essence, rather than simply describing a set of unfixed conditions, many externally imposed.
Wittgenstein described philosophy’s ‘craving for generality’ and would view the question ‘are you inherently good or evil?’ as an example of language going on holiday. The ‘cure’ for this nonsense, according to Wittgenstein, is to pay attention to use, context and particularity. Think of it this way: rather than defining the criteria we expect a ‘single mother’ to fulfil, we should consider the assumptions that underpin the term’s use. One way of doing this is to recount a life in all its texture and flux, recording how an individual has been described and how they have resisted those descriptions. If this kind of exercise constitutes philosophical work, then Mother & I is a work of philosophy.
One word that Mother & I subtly but thoroughly rethinks is family. Ware writes that when he was born
it was still shameful to be a single mother, and the idea of a lesbian producing a child — let alone a son — bordered on the unthinkable. IVF was not widely available, homosexuals weren’t allowed to adopt, and fathers usually won custody in the divorce courts. I’ve never met anyone older than me from a family like mine.
It was only four years ago that Australia endured a needlessly painful plebiscite in order to legalise gay marriage, and it is still rare for the platonic family of the Australian imaginary — a financial unit that might be able to afford a house — to include just one parent and one child. I, an only child, recently caught myself remarking to my partner, on seeing friends welcome a second baby, that it felt now that they were a real family. Mother & I exposes the harm done by presuming the category of family can only be met by a narrow set of criteria.
As a child, Ware understood that he and his mother were pariahs, that their existence was considered by many to be unacceptable. Instructed at school to sketch a portrait of his mother for Mother’s Day, Ware drew Dimity as she was, in her natural habitat, only to have his peers conclude that the short-haired dungaree-clad figure standing in a garden was ‘not a mother’. He compromised, lengthening her hair but refusing to put her in a dress.
Ware is heterosexual and writes of the unsettling realisation that becoming a man, independent of his mother, meant no longer being subject to the risks that accompanied the outsider status of his youth. Throughout his childhood, Ware was seen by his peers as unmasculine and strange, often failing to walk the thin line of social acceptability. ‘I doubt a week went by between the ages of thirteen and seventeen without someone expressing a desire to pummel me,’ he writes.
To find safety among his high school classmates, he decided to adopt a ‘patriarchal persona’, peppering his speech with vulgarities and armouring himself with churlishness. This behaviour dismayed his mother. Ware remembers a period of months during which he internalised the worldview that his mother might indeed be to blame for the problems he faced, a belief that consequently triggered a guilt that manifested as stomach pains so intense that doctors wondered whether he might have cancer. Adolescents trying on unpalatable personae is not unusual, but the nature of this violent, if brief, rift between mother and son provides an example of how the intolerance for a life lived like Dimity’s can be atmospheric, a consensus easier to abide by than reject, even when the consensus harms your loved ones.
In addition to being considered a threat to oppressively traditional family values, Dimity found it difficult, as a new mother, to find a feminist community that made her welcome. Among her activist peers were those who ‘felt motherhood was a sign of irrecoverable conformity’. Ware includes a quote from his mother’s diary, recounting what he describes as ‘a sort of inverse bigotry’ inflicted on her by a Women’s Lib camping trip:
I complained that the camp had a policy for drugs, men, and dogs, but nothing for mothers. I was told that as I had chosen to be a mother it was my problem and the women involved did not feel politically obliged to support me.
‘It was,’ Ware writes, ‘extremely difficult to be a mother and a revolutionary’.
By documenting this tension, Ware produces a thoughtful polemic against the forces that shape our society so that these classifications seem irreconcilable, and against those who prefer ill, gay, activist single mothers relegated to the margins. Among the questions raised by Dimity’s life is how, under these conditions, a queer Australian family might flourish. The book’s subtitle, ‘The history of a wilful family’, provides one answer. If a society’s politics depend on your exclusion, you can refuse that exclusion by obstinately committing to a life, a cultivated self, that in its complexity exposes as absurd the cruel caricatures of the bigoted.
One of the pleasures of Mother & I is joining Ware in the gradual discovery of his mother’s multitudinous character. A child never meets their parents on neutral terms but, Ware shows, it remains possible, in growing up, to discover who a parent is and was beyond their parenthood. By trying to show Dimity whole, in her flawed fullness of character, Ware registers the futility of those who wish to control the world by neatly categorising it and the hierarchy that perpetuates itself by elevating the staid and conventional while casting Dimity as its antagonist.
Ware writes that
My mother was not one of history’s famous men but like many good and deserving people, she dragged the world along behind her. Of course, the vast majority of good and deserving people go unremembered, and our histories are too often left to the monopoly of those rich and famous enough to write them.
This recalls the end of Middlemarch, where George Eliot writes that
the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.
This is the logic of Mother & I: we should pay attention to the unattended, not for some grander purpose, but for the sake of that attention. Ware’s final sentence states the book’s aim: ‘Here, I have told my mother’s story to posterity, and by that she will live.’
The fantasy that our parents might live forever is bound up in the fantasy that we might remain children forever, or at least that the option of returning to childhood remains, that the door to our past is open a crack. But Ware is interested not only in how his mother might live on, but how she lived as she did and how she overcame innumerable obstacles, and nurtured a relation that allowed her son to flourish. It is not just that society tends to be distracted from the heroism of ordinary people but that, when telling our stories, we can too easily discount the ordinary battles fought by those who launched and nurtured us, what they gave and gave up.
In a recent review of a newly translated collection of stories by the wonderful nineteenth-century German writer Adalbert Stifter — an author who locates enchantment in what might be considered by others to be the unheroic ordinary — Deborah Eisenberg quotes Stifter defending himself against accusations that his writing is too often trivial, concerned only with ‘small things’:
The force that makes the milk in the poor woman’s pot swell and boil over is the same that thrusts the lava upward in the fire-spewing mountain and makes it flow down the mountain slopes. These phenomena are merely more striking, more apt to draw the gaze of the ignorant and inattentive.
There is a temptation — I have at times given into it through this essay — to read Mother & I as a fundamentally political book, a book about the way patriarchy constrains and punishes its subjects and how a person can fight back. But I wonder whether such a reading risks obscuring the life that the book records. We are often drawn to interpretations that scale up the implications of a text, making a message universal to grant it weight and significance. In the case of Mother & I, we might better meet the book on its own terms, as the story of a family, significant in itself.
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