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The Mother Lode – female writers and motherhood

by Amanda de Souza

Motherhood is contradictory. It simultaneously unites and divides between the haves and have-nots, between those who go to work and those who chose to stay at home, between the free-range, the tiger and the helicopter parents. But perhaps nothing divides and unifies more than when writers question the beatified view of motherhood as fulfillment of women’s role and its cherished place in society.

Writing motherhood

Writers have long used their life experiences in their novels. Good writers use those experiences to tackle topics explored with a mixture of intelligence and forthright argument. Yet those who seek to honestly document experiences of child rearing often run the risk of being controversial, or at the very least, provocative. This week’s blog explores the work of two such accomplished, provocative writers — set almost 50 years apart. Both cast a wry and cynical look at motherhood in all its wonder and horror. These are not childcare nor self-help manuals. These authors wrote to maintain their sanity or for financial reasons — often one and the same.

A Life’s WorkOn becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk

A dark memoir and a relentless lament of the author’s early experiences with mothering.  Its compulsive reading with a familiar cast of characters (mother, father, baby, doctor, health visitor, a few friends) and plot (pregnancy, birth, colic, sleepless nights). As with the first few months of a baby’s life, the time scheme in the book is unchronological, as if to convey the disorientation of early motherhood. Rachel feels like an exhausted prisoner and even questions sadly whether her daughter likes her at all. What makes it so compelling is her masterful prose and the bravery that others will find some solace in her experiences.

Life Among the Savages and its sequel Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson

Both written around the late 1950’s, Shirley Jackson’s books seem very modern and relevant today.  Primarily known for her macabre “horror” fiction, these novels about her family life — originally serialized in magazines — portray a more human side of her writing. These books established Shirley as an unlikely predecessor of today’s “mommy bloggers.” She removed the traditional sugar coating around motherhood. Her writing serves as an intelligent and insightful chronicle of perennial issues on raising children, while questioning if every woman belongs in a traditional role.

Breeding power

Somewhat antithetical, motherhood has the ability to both empower and disenfranchise women.  All too often, the initial  respect and responsibility women experience nurturing young lives becomes diminished by reduced income and influence when they switch to part time employment, chose to work from home, or eschew paid employment completely in favor of child rearing.

Rachel Cusk’s and Shirley Jackson’s writings shine a spotlight on that dual aspect of motherhood, and calls for new inclusive definitions of power. Definitions that recognize both the joy and sacrifices required to perform that “mother of all jobs”.

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s manifesto  timely in the light of the #MeToo movement — reinforces that need for change and inclusivity in the language and definition of power. It proposes, instead of appropriating male definitions, women break societally imposed silence and create their own language and means of wielding power in order to effect a semblance of modern equality.

One aspect of a changing definition of power is the power of individuality. The acceptance of differing views on long cherished ideals about women and motherhood. The acceptance that we as women do not all fit into one mould and knowing that WE are not alone.

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