Parents of my generation haven’t maintained the convention of calling their spouses “Mother” or “Dad.” This was the dominate style of address within families when I was young, and one I heard around town, on television, and read in books. I think this social convention reflected the belief that “good” adults were not sexual (Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, explores this with unnerving precision). My parents came of age in a time that saw women’s dress hemlines rise to the knee, their bodices adorned in bows or flowers to invoke the pre-pubescent innocence of children’s clothing. Men adopted nick-names like “Buddy” and wore suits and ties, desexualized into respectable uniformity. Storks delivered babies. All mothers and fathers were virgins. Now pretenses have been dropped, and I rarely hear families overlay their adult sexuality with “Mother” and “Dad,” the genetically enmeshed labels that invoke inter-generational hierarchies.
Sex is easier to talk about now, but motherhood remains a difficult subject to broach. Public conversations about realistic parenting and authentic experience are less accessible than Facebook memes of perfect babies and vintage childhood nostalgia. Each carries the demand “SHARE if you care,” and explicit mother-love calls to action. Popular media continues to resist straying outside the binaries of “good” mom/”bad” mom; real motherhood remains taboo, or perhaps too complex, for social consumption.
As I attempt to deliberately engage in realistic portrays of family life in my own writing I often feel I am walking in forbidden territory. In this swamp of ideas and clichés, personal emotions and social pressure, I am more likely to experience writer’s block here than within any other topic. I am not alone. In “A Kind of Housecoat: Poetry and Motherhood,” poet Clare Pollard has explored some of the difficulty of giving voice to the experiences of motherhood.
As a topic it seems to me to touch on, well, everything important really. And yet, bizarrely, poetry about parenthood is still seen to be somehow minor, petty, ‘domestic’. I have heard very well respected male poets observe that they don’t really care for ‘motherhood’ poems (try imagining them saying the same for love poems or war poems and see how odd it sounds).
She observes that women write motherhood poetry with apology, knowing that their work is likely to be met with disdain, or dismissed as a marginal topic of interest to only new moms. “The problem is not so much with poems about motherhood as with the perception of mothers in general,” Pollard writes. In both literary circles and conversations within the larger culture, the complexities of motherhood are too easily dismissed, rendered invisible.
Critical backlash in motherhood literature frequently marginalizes or effaces the artistic voice of the poet. Such acts can be humiliating and exhausting for those who bear the backlash. Responses like these also resonate deeply with other writers, who react by refraining from participating in the discussion. In silence, we fail to render a significant and universal experience. Without the complex nuances and deeper considerations demanded of serious literature, motherhood within the public discourse remains an empty rhetoric, portrayed in a trivial and unsophisticated manner.
Pollard considers the inconsistencies and easy dismissal that arises, such as they do for writers like Plath and Suzanne Moore, when written engagement with motherhood refuses to be informed by the writer’s private experiences. Writing becomes a public act of distancing, invoking a hostile separation from motherhood which then extends itself to a rejection of other women and of the self.
These are important topics, of course, and important poems, but there is a sense that writing from the perspective of an ordinarily lucky, happy mother is somehow icky – the equivalent of showing baby photos or bragging about your kids’ IQ. That mothers are smug and motherhood a kind of superficial narcissism, where you lose sense of anything important beyond your darling son (or DS, in mumsnet speak).
In Pollard’s words above we find the resonance of our fear, recognizing that to inhabit the category of ‘mother’ as though it were a self-contained identity would be to inhabit the child as well. In the closeness of relationships, one comes dangerously near to effacing the difference between self and other, too easily damaging the emerging or existing identities of both child and adult. Even more problems arise when we assume we can evaluate parenting as successes and failures, invoking the oppositions of inclusion or exclusion from the Good Mothers Club (subtly masked as community organizations and parental school associations).
Timothy Beneke stated in his 1997 book, Proving Manhood: Reflections on Men and Sexism, that men encounter their own dis-ease with ‘motherhood’ which constitutes itself in the rigours of achieving masculine identity. He writes, “If sex could be denuded of the need to prove manhood, men would let out a loud but secret sigh that would change the weather.” Beneke argues that a binary of good (desexualized) and bad (sexualized) mothers is at the core of male violence against women, the root of rape, sexism and homophobia: “It is no accident that those men who most romanticize and sentimentalize motherhood are also quickest to devalue the role of mothering and its legitimacy as work.” He writes:
The splitting of women into Madonna and whores is a way of separating one’s own lust from affection; and it is a form of sexist oppression that seeks to repress the lust of women one loves or might love. It appears that the men who are most afraid of their own lust must repress the lust of women they love or respect. One can point to a certain circle: men bound out of a fear of women and women’s sexuality; that bonding necessitates the separation of sex and affection—if they go together then affection between men becomes sexually threatening; the separation of sex and affection makes men more sexist. Such a circle shows sexual repression and sexism supporting each other.
Pollard, in 2012, writes the mother binary as ‘yummy/slummy,’ a dichotomy that brings to mind the yoga-going, breastfeeding holistic mommy pitted against the tabloid wreckage of careless celebrity motherhood. The sexual neutering of good mothers is less obvious within the symbols of the new Earth Mother imagery (compared to the more overt Virgin Mary), but she in none-the-less castrated from herself. The public image of good mothers is currently buried beneath the accumulation of gym wear, fair trade lattes, organic cotton and paraben-free plastics; on the surface a socially accepted “yummy mummy” is a woman cut off from all but the commercially available representations of mothering care. These representations are carefully marketed to her with shame and guilt, accompanied by nasty price tags.
The fifteen years separating Beneke and Pollard’s writing suggest that the hopes of the feminist movement have turned on itself. Recalling Dorothy Dinnerstein’s call for the death of “the romanticized mother of motherhood and apple pie, pure and innocent and loving,” Beneke adds to the collective hope that women entering the workforce will put an end to the idealized mother. The workplace, however, has not offered escape from gender constructs, but rather, demanded women to invest more heavily in them.
The good woman/mother now wears her “big-girl panties,” and she collapses her sexuality with tasteful efforts to remain youthful. With the financial means to purchase the status of “yummy mummy,” women’s lives have become more vulnerable to the pressures of commercial branding. Now, a woman’s successful procurement of said products reads as a kind of short hand for her intelligence, work ethic, creativity, networks and social connections, and general worthiness. Rather than being freed of her constraints, the working woman has so much more to lose; the stakes of her successful womanhood are so much higher, her accomplishments (or lack of) much more visible.
Meanwhile, violence against women has not diminished, suggesting that the complex relationship between men and women has not changed. Beneke had written that the apple-pie mother “may only have existed in our fantasies, and her image is born of guilt at our rage toward her, but to move on, we must let go of her.” In this, he may be right, but evacuating the home space has not killed the romanticized mother. Women remain struggling to negotiate real acceptance of themselves both personally and culturally.
We cannot escape the reality of our bodies. We are physical beings, with identifiable characteristics that can be delineated by categories. How those categories are created, named and perceived, however, are social constructions. In the 1996 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary the word motherhood is more than “the condition or fact of being a mother;” it has added expectations, “protective, withholding the worst aspects.” Fathers are not given the same parameters. Fatherhood is merely listed, without its own definition, under the entry for father, a word defined first by the biological function as “a man in relation to a child or children born from his fertilization of an ovum.” The final half of definitions under the word father overlap with religious doctrine, and it is here (only) that fatherhood becomes imbued with emotional expectations, mainly to be respected authority figures. Perhaps if we could give equal neutrality to our primary engagement with motherhood as we do the biology of fatherhood, we could recreate the construct without ascribing obligations and moral judgments.
Of course, creating openness in the motherhood space, like building a demilitarized zone in a war, takes work. It requires an effort to enter the zone without weapons, to maintain respect. In ideological spaces, this calls for a willingness to push beyond fear and writer’s block, and to begin speaking, to keep speaking, and to encourage others to join us so we can expand the neutral space, which will in turn shrink the war.
Pollard confronts her anxiety of breaking the motherhood barrier: “I have been writing a few tentative poems about motherhood recently, but I can’t shake this feeling that female poets have to be careful; that a single wrong note can make people hate them.” To help her, she hunts for poems “about mortality and responsibility and religion and being thrown, as a feminist, against the limits and instincts of your own animal body.”
There is hope that a poem, a blog, or a book can become a space for women and men to be real with their voices. In this space we stop calling our wives “Mother” and do not use the word “Father” to speak to our husbands. We recognize that biology offers us neutrality within our relationships—that politics exist outside of this—and neutrality is something much needed.
We begin, I think, with the willingness to see each participant in our shared space as a whole person. Traditional family structures don’t encourage members to see themselves as life forms separate and differentiated from the collective. We need to change this. We especially need to do this with regard to children. Both men and women need to reconfigure the way in which we value and include children. I am not suggesting we consider the young as adults, but that we simply see them as complete beings. In this way, we shed the “superficial narcissism;” seeing the other as a whole person renders us less likely to impose ourselves upon the other. We are less likely to efface those we profess to love. And we are less likely to amputate away pieces of our own selves.