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November 23, 2010

Talking In Circles and Coming Full Circle: Talking About Talking About Motherhood

Marita Dachsel’s first book of poetry All Things Said & Done (Caitlin, 2007) was shortlisted for a ReLit Award. Her poetry has been published in many Canadian journals, in a recent chapbook, Eliza Roxcy Snow (red nettle press, 2009), and as part of Vancouver’s Poetry In Transit Program. Currently, she is working on a novel as well as finishing Glossolalia , her second poetry book, in which she explores the lives of the polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church. After twelve years in Vancouver, during which she received both her BFA and MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, she now lives in Edmonton with her husband, playwright Kevin Kerr, and their two sons.

Marita is also editor of the “Motherhood and Writing Interviews”, which are published on her blog (scroll down, links in the sidebar) and include conversations with writers Annabel Lyon, Marina Endicott and Sara O’Leary. When I recently found myself having conflicted ideas about connections between motherhood and artistry, I thought Marita might be a good person to talk to, and it turned out I was right. What follows is our conversation, which took place over email during the last month or so.

Kerry: Marita, I think I’m beginning to change my mind. You see, I’ve been fascinated by narratives about motherhood since before I was a mother, and as I prepared to become one, I devoured the modern “ambivalent motherhood canon”.

But I’ve been reluctant to pursue such narratives myself. When I interview writers, I insist that their work is what’s important, and I avoid questions about writing and motherhood that would probably fascinate me as much. I worry that such questions would undermine the writers’ works, would undermine the individuals as artists, would undermine me as an interviewer and a reader. But I can’t shake a suspicion that these questions are important, that perhaps we just have to carve out a time and space for them. Or not. I’m not sure.

Did you feel any similar qualms as you embarked upon your Motherhood and Writing interviews?

Marita: When I first conceived of the Motherhood and Writing interviews, I had no qualms at all. I think that may have been because I really wasn’t aware of all the books written about motherhood and writing. I’m sure if I had dug a bit, I would have discovered them and not felt the need to start the interview series.

The interviews came from purely selfish place. I wanted content for my blog, but more importantly, I really needed to know how other writing mothers did it. My boys are twenty-two and a half months apart. When my second child was born, I panicked. I remember clearly breast feeding him while reading a biography of Margaret Laurence and having the terrifying flash that I would never write again. I knew I wasn’t as driven as Laurence was and couldn’t make the choices she had. My nascent career was over.

After my husband helped talk me down, I realized that of course my career wasn’t over. There were many, many writing mothers out there who were kind, loving, stable mothers. I wanted to talk to them simply to know how they did it. How does a mother balance all those things mothers do and make time to write. And I wanted to talk to women who were in various stages in their careers–from award winning to not yet published.

The project was supposed to be just for a year, but I’ve managed to draw it out longer, partly out of laziness and partly whenever I think it’s time to shut it down, I’ll get an email or a comment on the blog from some writing mother out there to thank me. It’s important, especially in those early difficult years, for those in the trenches to be reminded that they are not alone, that there are other women out there who are struggling, too. And, of course, that it will get better.

That said, recently I’ve begun to have qualms. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer in the trenches, or maybe because I’ve become sensitive that I might be contributing to the creation of a “motherhood ghetto”.

We would never ask a man how he manages to write while being a father, so why do we feel it’s relevant to ask a mother? Is it because there is an assumption that the woman is at home with the babies and that the man is not? And that if she isn’t, she should be? It’s insulting to both mothers and fathers. But I don’t know what I’d rather see–interviewers asking fathers what they ask mothers, or stop asking mothers what they don’t ask fathers.

So, yes, I am now quite conflicted. I hope that in the context of my interview series, the questions I ask aren’t insulting because that is the point of the interview. But I don’t think if I was interviewing a writer in another context, I would feel comfortable about asking about their relationship between writing and motherhood, unless the writer brought it up or it was clearly related to the writing.

Kerry: But yet, beyond domestic drudgery and “how does she do it?”, fascinating connections abound concerning art and motherhood. These interest me the most, and they’re questions that could serve to illuminate artists’ works and the experience of motherhood in general.

But there’s the matter of the ghetto, which you mentioned, and that, as Rachel Cusk mentioned in the introduction to A Life’s Work, that “motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers.” Why do you think this is?

Marita: I think there are a few reasons and they’re interconnected. The first that popped in my head is that it isn’t paid work, it’s part of the spectrum of “women’s work” (this label makes me want to scream, but I’m using it anyway). Also, because it seems anyone can get knocked up and therefore become parents (which anyone who has struggled with infertility knows how false this is), there is no understanding that parenting is a difficult job. I mean, how hard can it be, right? Turn on the t.v. and feed them and the job is done, right? Um, no.

It’s also invisible work. In public, unless you are a mother or you’re at a child/parent place (playground, school, etc.) you really only notice mothers when their children are in melt-down mode. Mothers are noticed when they are “failing”. I don’t know about you, but once I became a mother, I noticed how invisible I suddenly became.

But there is the inherent sexism of women’s work, too. In a patriarchal society, women’s work isn’t valued work. For mothers, the outcome is important–we want children to become obedient, hardworking adults–but how it’s done isn’t important. The idea of the loving mother is celebrated, but please keep that mechanics of that behind closed doors. We want to see smiling mothers and quiet children–not the day to day drudgery.

All these economic and feminist reasons I’ve been obsessing about since I became a mother, but this morning I woke up with might be the most basic reason: because it’s shop talk. Who likes going to a party and have to hear workmates talk about their jobs the whole night? Maybe it’s that simple with motherhood. People who aren’t mothers don’t care because they can’t relate, don’t want to relate. The politics and theories don’t interest them because they don’t affect them. (Although, I think the politics of motherhood does affect the wider society, however I’m sure the banking industry has an impact on my life, but I don’t really want to hear about either.) It seemed like such a revelation this morning, but now writing it down to you, it feels a little weak. What do you think?

Kerry: I actually love that idea, that it’s shop talk– it is! And it’s easier to think of motherhood being boring for that reason rather than motherhood itself being inherently boring. And yet, putting motherhood up/down there with dental hygienisthood and geography teacherhood isn’t quite right either, is it? Or perhaps it undermines what I’m most interested in about motherhood– how it changes how we understand the world, how we understand our bodies, other women, our own mothers. Issues of empathy, bonding.

I think that motherhood is mostly boring for a reason you mentioned– that it’s so ordinary. Everybody’s mother was a mother, and a lot of daughters will end up being one too, and quite a few of them even managed to go about it without waxing ad nauseum on the subject. Without having conversations like these.

Do you think it’s a phase, this obsession with motherhood? You’ve mentioned that you’ve moved away from it as your kids grow out of babydom. Was it a necessary phase? A useful phase? And how do we make it about more than navel-gazing (which so much online conversation about motherhood, I regret, never manages to do)?

Marita: On a personal level, I think it is a phase, at least at this level of intensity. I wonder if it is a product of our society, this need to analyse it so much? I can’t imagine mothers of our grandmothers’ generation dissecting it so much. Is it because we generally have children at a later age? We’re having less children? We’re not as physically (and perhaps emotionally?) as close to our families as generations past, so it’s more foreign to us? So many questions I don’t know how to answer.

For myself it was both necessary and useful. I was the first of my close girlfriends to have a baby and other than my small, immediate family, I have no relatives in North America. My husband had some friends with children, but I wasn’t in his life during their early years. Despite always knowing I would have a family, I had no idea what those early years of motherhood would be like. I became obsessed. I think that’s normal.

I learned so much about motherhood, about myself. I especially needed to see my position as both a writer and a mother reflected back at me. It’s almost silly now to think how desperate I felt, how much I needed to see that yes, I could be both a writer and a mother. The day-to-day life of writers and mothers can be terribly solitary. I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.

How do we get past navel-gazing? I don’t know. Partly we need it to be navel-gazing, because we need to see ourselves, our situations reflected back to us by others, and how can we do that if we don’t talk about ourselves?

Motherhood is incredibly transformational, especially for those of us lucky enough to have been able to conceive, carry, and birth our children. The physicality of pregnancy and birth is so intense, so raw and life-changing. Birth changes you. You battle through this profound visceral event, and on the other side of it, you have a new title, a new job: mother. It’s crazy. Of course we’re going to talk about it, analyse it, try to make sense of it.

I’m curious about your desire to take beyond the navel, that’s my impulse too, but I’m not sure what the forum should be. Are you specifically talking about the online world?

Kerry: Oh, I’m talking about the whole wide world, but online in particular. I think that’s what I liked about your motherhood and writing interviews– that they were looking at motherhood in the context of something bigger, and that was so interesting to me. Perhaps I also needed a reflection of mother/writers, to know it was possible.

Whereas the whole mommy blog circuit was just depressing, uninspiring. Once I’d grown accustomed to being overwhelmed by my crazy blown-apart new life, I didn’t so much want that experience affirmed, as some bloggers delight in doing. Maybe I am unusual in this, but I wanted to believe in the possibility of something better, something more. That I wasn’t limited to this entrenched idea of motherhood– of being forever harried, depressed and stretched to the point of exhaustion. I mean, of course it was nice to know I wasn’t alone in the hardships, but when life is really awful, how much do you really want it reflected back at you? And how far can that kind of reflection really take you?

If we’re talking beyond navels, I’ve been really inspired by the work being done through the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI, formerly the Association for Reseach on Mothering). Their book Talking Back to the Experts was a real tool of liberation for me as a new mother, and I also appreciated Mothering and Blogging: The Art of the Mommy Blog, which gave me such an appreciation for what blogs about motherhood have done in particular for marginalized or isolated mothers. These books had me understanding my own experience in a wider context, and also addressing issues of feminism and motherhood and how these ideas support and contradict one another. That motherhood was a job that required a great deal of thinking, learning and understanding. Worthy of an area of academic study, even– I liked that.

I wonder if the level of analysis and need for understanding you so astutely addressed is particular to artists– writers tell these stories over and over again, but would an architect fixate on the narrative quite so much? Does our artistry give us the means to engage with motherhood as we do, or do you think it happens to everyone?

Marita: Thank you, I’m glad you liked the interviews! I think you nailed how we can take the discussion of motherhood beyond the minutia–by talking about it in relationship to something else. Perhaps that is why we talk about it so much now. Our mothers’ generation was fighting for our rights to be anything we wanted to be, and now, our generation is figuring out how to negotiate our place within so much choice and what that all means.

As a huge, sweeping generalization, there seems to be two types of mommyblogs. The negative, complaining ones you mentioned and then the ones on the other end of the spectrum, where everything is perfect and idealized. No chaos, all domestic bliss. It’s hard to be in that place, too. Neither options feel honest or a reflection of my reality. But I must to admit that I still read a couple regularly, and one of them is the “perfect life” kind. (However, if she didn’t post every day, I probably would stop that one, too.) I can’t read the negative ones at all.

Your last question is a hard one. My hunch is that most mothers want to reflect on motherhood, at least early on and I think that’s why mommyblogs are so popular. That said, artists have the creative vocabulary to fixate, which many people do not, but more importantly, it’s our job to fixate. A new mother who returns to work at her architecture/accounting/law firm has other work she’s paid to do, but as artists, one of our jobs is to obsess. So many artist-mothers that I know try to work from home at the same time as trying to be a SAHM. Both are full time jobs, so it makes sense to me that this obsessing ends up being reflected in our work to some degree. Writers specifically create narrative, so of course we’re going to examine and dissect how this new character is changing our personal narrative arc.

I believe that every experience we have somehow influences our work. I haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s Room yet, but my hunch is that it would have been a very different book if she wasn’t a mother. You’ve read it. What do you think? And do you think you can tell if an artist is a mother? Would you want to?

Kerry: I think an artist can imagine her way into motherhood, and I say this with assurance because I’ve read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I remember reading the novel The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele too, and being stunned to discover that Gabriele wasn’t a mother– it’s a funny, popular novel, but her depiction of mothering a disabled child is stunning. I asked Alison Pick if she’d made changes to how she wrote about parenthood in her novel Far To Go after her daughter was born, and she said she’d pretty much got it right the first time (and she did).

What was remarkable about Room to me was not how “right” Donoghue got my experience, but that she’d actually managed to articulate aspects of my experience I hadn’t before been conscious of– which is really incredible. I’m at home all day alone with Harriet, and I remember as I was reading that everything I said and did was taking on a new resonance. I had never realized (perhaps because Harriet is still so young) how much a mother constructs her child’s universe in the various real-world Rooms in which they find themselves– the womb, the empty house alone all day.

I think if Donoghue hadn’t been a mother though, Room would have had a different kind of emphasis. I recently read James Woods’ review of the novel in the LRB, and he wrote about its lightness, its readability, the cutesy focus on Jack– and how the actual story that inspired the novel would not have such a rosy tinge. Because of her focus on the mother-child bond, Donoghue was able side-step a horror story, the fact that an actual mother probably would not construct such a fair and happy world for her child, would have neither the tools nor the capacity to do so. Room is a fairy-tale, really. Perhaps as a mother Donoghue was unable to look the real situation in the face (and I can’t blame her). Her story is a hypothetical one rather than a particular one, and there is safety in that.

And I must say that you’ve just answered my question, Marita! Well done. You ask, “Can you tell if an artist is a mother?” and I think, perhaps, one can’t. (Though sometimes, with bad artists, you can tell when they’re not a mother cough cough Christos Tsiolkas). Which means that my longing to ask or not to ask questions to artists about motherhood is kind of beside the point of the art. Has more to do with my own life and my own interests at the moment than art itself. (Ah, sweet navel, nice to gaze at you some more…) Which doesn’t mean these questions don’t matter, and can’t be incredibly useful/interesting in some respects. But perhaps my aversion to dwelling upon them comes from a rational place?

I think, Marita, that we’ve come full circle, and in a satisfying way. Do you think so? Can you tell if an artist is a mother?

Marita: Yay! I’m glad I helped you find your answer. I agree, I don’t think you can tell if an artist is a mother, and one wouldn’t want to. There are things that only some mothers can know, like what let-down feels like, or when your water breaks, but those details are so small that they are insignificant when it comes to the creation of art.

Someone once told me to not write what you know, but write what you want to know. This seems rather relevant to this conversation. I’m more drawn to writing about certain subjects and themes at the moment (my polygamy project) because of motherhood, but I know I won’t only write about those for the rest of my life. As artists, it’s what interests us in the moment, and for some it is motherhood.

I do think, however, that we still need to have conversations amongst writing/artist mothers, even if it is simply to compare navels and say, yes, that’s normal too.

16 thoughts on “Talking In Circles and Coming Full Circle: Talking About Talking About Motherhood”

  1. Heidi Reimer says:

    Thank you, thank you for this. I’ve gobbled it up. I’ve been in my own navel-gazing obsessive analysis of motherhood and mother-artists and whether such a thing is possible since I first started to consider becoming a mother two years ago. My paralyzing fear was that I would never write again, and I sought out the narratives of those who’ve done it because I needed that lifeline of reassurance. I had no models in my real life of mother-writers or mother-artists, only of 100% give your life to your children mothers, and I was terrified. So on a very personal level, the stories in books and online of women who write were a crucial part of my being able to redefine motherhood and discover different models that enabled me to be a mother in a way that fit who I am as a person, which is (in large part) a writer.

    I think also that as writing, thinking people, any life change or stage is accompanied by a lot of thought and research and a seeking out of other writing thinking people who are in a similar place. Motherhood is such a complete overhaul of who you are that it makes sense that this thinking and analyzing could become obsessive, especially in the beginning when it’s so all-consuming and transformational.

    I think we absolutely need to have these conversations. But maybe just because these conversations saved me.

  2. Panic says:

    Wow, so much here that I want to talk about! What I’m most interested to comment on is this notion that “motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers.” I can tell you in my case that’s absolutely not true (and I’ve read Rachael Cusk as well). I’m very interested in the topic, as a feminist and a woman, and also as someone who’s chosen to never have children. I read a lot about motherhood on the voyage to that choice, both good and bad. Motherhood narratives were incredibly helpful, actually, in my decision making process. And I can’t believe that I’m the only one!

  3. m says:

    Heidi, I think your last two sentences say it all. They saved me, that’s for sure.

    Panic: I’m curious if you are still interested in the topic, or if it was mostly to help you come to your decision regarding not becoming a mother?

  4. Panic says:

    I’m curious if you are still interested in the topic
    Absolutely. It affected me before making the decision, but now that it’s made, I’m still interested, as a woman, a feminist, and a friend of a lot of mamas.

  5. Carrie says:

    Wonderful blog post! Thanks for letting us listen in on your conversation.

  6. Keri says:

    Thank you for this conversation. I absolutely believe that we need to continue talking about motherhood, and how it changes our urge to write/create, how we believe in ourselves, how we see ourselves and what we learn about ourselves and about being human by doing this job. No one talks about how difficult it is, or at least no one told me. I’m not finding satisfaction any longer in the traditional mommy blogs you mention, but I still need to know that there’s a way for me to start to write again…. someday. And maybe even restart my blog.

  7. Melissa says:

    As a Mom of four, when my brain is mush, which is often, I have difficulty writing but have found wonderful artistic expression in painting and crocheting. Loved this post, by the way.

  8. m says:

    Panic, I find that comforting to hear. I wonder what the numbers would be, as I’m sure it can’t be a lot, though as you say, you can’t be alone in that either.

    Keri, you will write again! The longer you (meaning, me/anyone) is away from it, the harder it is to start up again, but it’s just a matter of starting, even a little. I found that my drive to write/work on my craft exploded when I had kids. I fought for it because I was so scared it was going to go away. It will only disappear if you let it. I know you won’t.

    Melissa, that’s so great that you’ve found other outlets for your creative expression when the writing doesn’t come. I think that’s important, keeping those creative juices flowing. In the winter, I’ll embroider. Unlike writing or mothering, it’s nice to have something tangible that you can create in a short period of time.

  9. Kerry, I love your posts, essays and interviews about motherhood. Not because I necessarily agree or have shared the same experience but because you offer real and original insights into the creative tensions of parenting.

    A few weeks ago Christopher Hitchens made the following remarks to a Globe & Mail interviewer:

    “[M]y life is my writing before it’s anything. Because that’s who I am and my children come later and that’s what they’ve had to put up with,” he says.

    Once, he reminds me, Cyril Connolly said “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Mr. Hitchens understands what that means, but he doesn’t necessarily agree.

    Children, he says “give you a sense of the future of the kind that I don’t think anything else can. Unless there’s something very psychically shrivelled about you, I think it’s impossible to regret.”

    I think the last part of this comment sums up pretty much everything there is to say about parenting and creativity: that it’s hard work, but there’s nothing else more generative or (re)productive. The challenge for mothers is that it’s harder for many women to achieve the kind of balance Hitchens managed — or to choose, as he did, to put his children second (something he also tells the interviewer).

    My own view, of course, is that biological reproduction is intrinsic to creative work, and that the labour of giving birth and of finishing a book are pretty close to the same thing. The difference is that, as Marita reminds us, too often mothers become invisible after giving birth while authors are feted for their labours.

    I feel *extremely* fortunate to have contracted to write a book a few weeks before (finally) successfully getting pregnant. It meant there was always something else ahead, something to combat not only the sense of erasure but the myth that “mommy brain” renders mothers creatively barren. It doesn’t — and I feel considerable pleasure when my 2 year-old daughter wanders over the the shelves in a bookstore and points out “Mommy’s book.” She already knows that when she’s bigger she can writer one of her own.

  10. Kerry says:

    I am so pleased that this post has so resonated, and grateful for all your generous comments. Ideally, I could write something neat and tidy now that sums up everything this conversation has been about, but there is nothing neat and tidy about it. And I love that. Clearly a lot of “Mommy Brains” (and if there is a term I detest, it’s that one) are functioning just fine. Also, interesting that as I conclude that connection between motherhood and artistry is not as essential as I’d wanted it to be, 10 comments refute my conclusion. Good things to keep in mind.

  11. Architect Mom says:

    Trust me, I do obsess about motherhood and it definitely affects everything I do at work, as it does with all the other architect mothers I know. It makes us more aware of the spaces we design and the buildings we create. We just have a different outlet to express our new found knowledge. Instead of verbalizing our ideas and new understanding of the world we create spaces which are more more accessible and hopefully have better public amenities for example.

    It also makes us more efficient in the way we spend our time at work because we know we have to leave to pick up our kids. Our jobs are no longer our main priority in life which is actually very good for the soul.

    On the negative side it puts our career aspirations a bit on hold as you kind of loose your bargaining ability. Especially when 5 months pregnant in a job review. I know I should have been much better compensated for my achievements this year but with another mat leave looming on the horizon I was powerless to negotiate. Others I know are in similar situations. They are passed up for becoming associates despite years and years of dedicated work and experience because their employers know that their job is no longer their top priority. Fathers are in completely different positions and I think are actually given more responsibility and compensation. It’s definately a double standard and it isn’t fair but it’s just the reality of this stage in a mother’s life.

    Motherhood is one of life’s true paradoxes. It’s awful and wonderful all at the same time. Some choose to focus on one side or another but I don’t think any mother is ignorant to the true complexity of their situations it’s just that they don’t know how to express both simultaneously. Ultimately every mother is connected in a way and we are also all different. We each need to find our own best balance between keeping our minds alive and vibrant and nurturing and caring
    for our kids and helping them grow into interesting and amazing people of their own.

  12. René says:

    I came here from Marita’s link on Twitter, and am so glad I did. The Cyril Connolly quote mentioned in the comment above reminded me of an article in the Guardian this summer titled The Parent Trap: Art After Children.

    It was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, so it comes from a father’s perspective, but it contains this paragraph that has stuck with me for months:

    I remember reading that when the writer Tracey Chevalier had her first baby, someone told her that “every baby costs one book”; she said something to the effect that that seemed fair enough. But we should turn Connolly’s equation upside-down and say that maybe what’s in the pram – breathing, vulnerable life, hope, a present responsibility – is actually more important than good art. It might make us produce less art, but maybe it would be art with the future at its heart.

  13. Melissa says:

    Interesting, I have a great artist friend that considers her five children to be her most amazing creations. And, to continue the artist/mom dialogue, my children make me a better artist because they are my most discerning audience and always want to know what I am working on…

  14. Laisha says:

    Thanks for this great conversation, Kerry & Marita.

  15. Marina Endicott says:

    I don’t know how I missed this post in November—but I love reading Marita’s series of mother/writing interviews, and I loved doing one. It was very good to think and talk about my writing/mothering life, to talk out loud about those two kinds of hidden work.

    It’s important to exchange stories about our shared experience with children and the need to write. More than those complaining blogs or sentimental maundering, I like the shop-talk idea: the shop-talk of those miners trapped in Chile, how they survived it, what they did during those long days. How they loved their companions but still wanted out. Not to say that motherhood is like being trapped in a mineshaft, but.

    Okay, let’s say it’s like shop-talk from those crab fishermen with the famously hardest jobs. Mothering is a ferociously difficult, vital job requiring all your attention, all the time, no days off. So is writing. At least we don’t have to do it in 25-foot seas. Although some nights…

    When I was a weekly newspaper editor, a worse job than crab-fishing, my only happy task of the week was the column I wrote called Home Remedies—a space-filler billed as parenting advice, as if I knew anything. I wrote about whatever my small children were doing that week, often including the books I was reading or remembering because of the children’s prompting (like R.D. Laing’s lovely little book, Conversations With Children). The column was always a pleasure to write.

    Thanks for this Conversation With Women.

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