Did you the hear the one about the mother who raised 2.2 perfect kids with no discernible hang-ups, had a happy and fulfilled relationship, a rich and challenging career, and never felt guilty about the choices she had made along the way?
No, neither did I.
But I’m sure you’ve heard stories about mothers who left the kids in the toystore while they went shopping, went back to work while their baby was still very young, and even the ones about desperate women who murdered their children.
I’ve discussed in a previous post some of the kinds of stories that circulate in contemporary culture about motherhood, which specifically focus on the dead mother, the bad mother, the analysed mother, the anguished mother and the celebrity mother. This time I want to focus on the way those stories are told.
Recently, I read a paper that compared motherhood - and any proper assessment of how well one might have done it - to a decades-long parenting narrative (see the paper delivered here). Instead, however, the author, philosopher Rebecca Kukla, argues that:
We have a tendency to measure motherhood in terms of a set of signal moments that have become the focus of special social attention and anxiety .... Women’s performances during those moments can seem to exhaust the story of mothering, and mothers often internalize these measures and evaluate their own mothering in terms of them. ‘Good’ mothers are those who pass a series of tests - they avoid a caesarean during labour, they do not offer their child an artificial nipple during the first six months, they get their child into the proper pre-school, and so on.
Or, if you will, instead of thinking of mothering - or, as she initially had it, parenting - as the social equivalent of the Odyssey or Middlemarch, Western culture with its attention span of a fruit fly, prefers to judge according to anecdote, limerick and flash fiction. And, having done so, dramatises these ‘signal moments’ as maternal (‘cos you know it’s really about those mothers) morality plays.
Medieval and renaissance morality plays were intended to educate as they entertained, specifically to educate people in how to live godly lives. Typically, a character would be going along minding their business, then they would be tempted in some way - imagine a little devil on your shoulder - fall into error, but, crucially, they were made to realise the error of their ways and repent. Such plays were used as a means of teaching the primarily illiterate faithful how they were meant to behave.
The modern maternal morality play (or ‘maternity play’ for short) follows a similar format, but with a nasty twist on the traditional tale. The maternity play follows a woman who is going about her business, but then gets pregnant. Now, of course, everything she does is shadowed by temptation. Step away from the soft cheese! Put down that formula tin! Don’t even think about leaving the baby’s arms free while s/he’s asleep! Swaddling, don’t go there!
Now, actually having to, y’know, do something so that the baby is fed, cleaned and put down to sleep, mothers are bound (no pun intended) to make some ‘wrong’ choices, hence the need for salvation. Here’s the real kicker, though. In the maternity play, the point is not redemption (i.e. becoming a good mother) it is the manufacture and maintenance of life-long guilt and anxiety (i.e. continually beating yourself up for the so-called bad choices ... unless your life is tragically cut short and you achieve perfection, of course.)
The signal moment could be transformed into a poem, which wears its artifice as well as its brevity on it sleeve. So, for example, we could think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ (which I’m going to quote in full, just because I like it and because I can):
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Plath, however, is a maternity play all of her own. Leaving aside the beautiful and often angry poems, her epitaph remains the signal moment of a desperate and depressed woman with her head in a gas oven.
Much better, I think, than the anecdotal ‘signal moment’ transformed into a maternity play is the epic or novelistic approach to parenthood, in which chapter after chapter builds a story that can only be properly appraised at its end. Is it an anarchic romance of individual heroism? A comic series of mishaps that temporarily turn the world upside down in order for everyone to live happily ever after at the end? Perhaps a tragic but transformative cataclysm that establishes a new world order? Or a satiric and bumbling picaresque journey through the stresses and strains of modern life? (you might have recognised my simplistic nod to historian and critic Hayden White’s analysis of metahistory). Most likely, it will be a combination of some or all of the above.
Because mothering - parenting - is not about a handful of moments, it’s about living from day to day, week to week. To paraphrase a famous quote, we make our own epics, making the choices we’re able to make, with the resources we have available, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, given and transmitted from the past.