Ash­ley Hay on three works about moth­ers

Three Mother’s Day books con­sider moth­er­hood in all its mag­nif­i­cent man­i­fes­ta­tions, writes Ash­ley Hay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - INSIDE - Mother­mor­pho­sis Edited by Mon­ica Dux MUP, 238pp, $27.99 Moth­ers and Oth­ers Edited by Natalie Kon-yu, Maya Lin­den, Christie Nie­man, Maggie Scott and Miriam Sved Macmil­lan, 384pp, $32.99 Moth­ers and Cre­ativ­ity By Rachel Pow­ers Af­firm Press, 252pp, $24.99

Many days have been ear­marked for moth­ers in dif­fer­ent times and places, from an­cient Ro­man spring­time fes­ti­vals to Moth­er­ing Sun­day in Lent (a day orig­i­nally in­tended for peo­ple to visit their “mother church” that also gave work­ers a day off to head home to fam­ily) and In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day (skewed moth­er­wards by sev­eral for­merly com­mu­nist regimes).

But Mother’s Day, as cel­e­brated on the sec­ond Sun­day of May, is by far the most wide­spread. A 20th-cen­tury con­struct, ev­ery­thing about this day — its tim­ing, punc­tu­a­tion (“a sin­gu­lar posses­sive, for each fam­ily to hon­our its mother’’) and flo­ral em­blem (white car­na­tions or chrysan­the­mums) — was de­vised by Anna Jarvis, born in West Vir­ginia in 1864, to hon­our her mother. First cel­e­brated in 1908, three years af­ter Jarvis’s mother’s death, it was pro­claimed a na­tional hol­i­day by US pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son in 1914.

Jarvis had wanted to mark the im­por­tance of moth­ers since she was 12: in 1876, she’d prayed at Sun­day school that “some­one, some­time, will found a me­mo­rial mother’s day com­mem­o­rat­ing her for the matchless ser­vice she ren­ders to hu­man­ity in ev­ery field of life. She is en­ti­tled to it.”

On May 10, her Mother’s Day will be marked in more than 80 coun­tries in­clud­ing Es­to­nia, Liberia and Bangladesh. Ac­cord­ingly, in all th­ese places, so many chil­dren will buy their mum a gift — per­haps flow­ers, per­haps choco­late, per­haps some­thing else. (Jarvis ab­horred com­mer­cialised florists and the hay they made with car­na­tions, in­creas­ing their price in May. She loathed peo­ple who chose mass-pro­duced greet­ing cards over hand­made epis­tles. She also ob­jected to sweets as a present: “you take a box to Mother, and then eat most of it your­self. A pretty sen­ti­ment.” She is said to have crashed a con­fec­tion­ers’ con­fer­ence in protest.)

This year, there are some timely gift al­ter­na­tives in the form of new an­tholo­gies: Mother­mor­pho­sis (edited by Mon­ica Dux, au­thor of the won­der­fully witty and wry Things I Didn’t Ex­pect When I was Ex­pect­ing) and Moth­ers and Oth­ers (from the ed­i­tors of the 2013 book Just Be­tween Us: Aus­tralian Writ­ers Tell the Truth about Fe­male Friend­ship).

Both ar­rived in book­stores last month, ready for the des­ig­nated day, and be­tween them prof­fer more than 40 pieces (16 es­says in Mother­mor­pho­sis; a mix­ture of non­fic­tion and fic­tion in Moth­ers and Oth­ers) looped loosely around the vast space of moth­er­ing: be­ing one, not be­ing one, not want­ing to be one, not be­ing able to be one, de­liv­er­ing a baby and still not be­ing one, know­ing what you’re do­ing when you are one (or not), and the in­fi­nite gamut of ex­pe­ri­ences be­tween.

There are stand­outs in each. Mother­mor­pho­sis be­gins with Kate Holden’s Mother­sight, a de­li­ciously, glut­tonously in­ti­mate ex­pose of her get­ting to know her own small new boy, of the per­for­ma­tive side of par­ent­ing, and of “the hi­lar­ity, the li­cence an in­fant gives you to step away from regular adult­hood”.

It closes with Dee Madigan’s Choos­ing Par­ents for my Chil­dren, an ex­quis­ite and un­ex­pected side­light on the nar­ra­tive of IVF that de­liv­ers many peo­ple to par­ent­hood th­ese days. (More than 40,000 cy­cles were ini­ti­ated across Australia and New Zealand in 2011.)

Be­tween are mo­ments that res­onate with a kind of sim­ple per­fec­tion. Hi­lary Harper ob­serves that “ev­ery­one has to bush-bash their own way through moth­er­hood”; Catherine Deveney de­scribes “the science project that is car­ing for a child from in­fancy to in­de­pen­dence”; Lee Kof­man pairs “most chil­dren and good writ­ers” as shar­ing “the abil­ity to ren­der the mun­dane strange and ex­cit­ing”.

Moth­ers and Oth­ers opens with Alice Pung’s The New Grand­par­ents and the gen­tle com­par­i­son of her mother’s first mo­ments of moth­er­hood as a newly ar­rived im­mi­grant (“she never knew how her ba­bies would be re­ceived in the world”) with the im­mi­nent birth of her own first child (“other peo­ple are think­ing of the baby for me,” she re­alises as her par­ents re­as­sure her that her baby “will be loved by so many peo­ple”). It moves through Cate Kennedy’s as­tute re­con­struc­tion of the at­tempted con­ver­sa­tions of moth­er­hood, “the sin­gu­lar fo­cus of ac­tu­ally fin­ish­ing a sen­tence and start­ing a new one”,

and a pow­er­ful in­ter­view with Rosie Batty. At the book’s cen­tre, and one of its finest pieces, sits Other Peo­ple’s Kids, Emily Maguire’s med­i­ta­tion on not hav­ing chil­dren while rel­ish­ing her re­la­tion­ships with the prog­eny of oth­ers. “I’m not a mother,” she writes, “but my world is not child­less and that is the great­est, most un­ex­pected joy of my life.” Maguire outs her­self as a “child-whis­perer”, a skill de­rived, she sus­pects, from “a pow­er­ful mem­ory of how it felt to be a child”. “Se­ri­ously, ask any­one un­der 10 how to cope with bed­time if you’re scared of the dark. I bet they’ll have great ad­vice be­cause they know it’s a real prob­lem that needs deal­ing with, whether adults will ad­mit to it or not.”

Over­all, Mother­mor­pho­sis is the most suc­cess­ful in terms of struc­ture, con­tent and craft. Dux sets out very par­tic­u­lar sto­ries to chal­lenge and coun­ter­mand the “birth and be­yond” nar­ra­tive arcs we might more au­to­mat­i­cally ex­pect, and to com­pli­cate and com­ple­ment her suite of voices and ex­pe­ri­ences. I will not quickly for­get read­ing Ge­orge McEn­roe and Hannah Robert.

In con­trast, Moth­ers and Oth­ers is more of a carry-all for dif­fer­ent forms, like the enor­mous and im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fy­ing bags Kof­man (in Mother­mor­pho­sis) watches other moth­ers heft around, from which they pro­duce “an ar­ray of plas­tic spoons, con­tain­ers of baby food, rags cloths, spare cos­tumes”. Its com­pet­ing writ­ing styles sit to­gether some­times well, but some­times awk­wardly, and the fic­tion and non­fic­tion seem to jos­tle against each other. There’s less sense, too, of an over­all vi­sion, or of the parts com­bin­ing into a greater whole. But as Su­san Car­land writes in

Mother Courage, her con­tri­bu­tion to Dux’s col­lec­tion, “our sto­ries are dif­fer­ent but we all write them in the same ink. My unique tale is just the same as yours.” Each chap­ter will find the read­ers for whom it shim­mers and shines with ut­ter truth and rel­e­vance. One of those pieces for me in Moth­ers and Oth­ers is Gerald- ine Brooks’s The Mother Lode, about her trans­for­ma­tion from jour­nal­ist to nov­el­ist and her chil­dren’s agency in that. She finds her­self re­solv­ing plot points while mak­ing din­ner “like one of those illusion paint­ings where you see the im­age best by look­ing slightly away”; she dis­cov­ers that hang­ing out with chil­dren’s leap­ing, vault­ing imag­i­na­tions “in­spires you to be bet­ter, bolder in al­low­ing a plot to un­fold in more fab­u­lous ways”.

Th­ese ob­ser­va­tions segue with a third book re­leased last month, Rachel Power’s Moth­ers and Cre­ativ­ity: The Di­vided Heart. This is an up­dated ver­sion of the 2008 book The Di­vided Heart: Art and Moth­er­hood, which I read when I was preg­nant that year. At the time I was slightly sur­prised (prob­a­bly naively) to re­alise I might even have to ques­tion whether I would “hold on to [my] cre­ativ­ity amidst the clam­our and clut­ter of fam­ily life”.

The birth of Power’s first child had pro­foundly in­ter­rupted her en­gage­ment with her cre­ative self and, proac­tively, she set out to un­cover how other women dealt with try­ing to be “both a ded­i­cated artist and a good mother”. Some of the an­swers she found were fairly stark in terms of chil­dren in­ter­sect­ing with — or, flatly, im­ped­ing — cre­ative life. This new book con­tains 11 of the orig­i­nal in­ter­views (in­clud­ing Joanna Mur­ray-Smith, Nikki Gem­mell and Alice Gar­ner), along­side nine new ones (in­clud­ing Clau­dia Kar­van, Del Kathryn Bar­ton and Kennedy) and I read this edi­tion as the mother of a six-year-old, re­lieved to find my own moth­er­hood play­ing out well, cre­atively speak­ing.

There’s a com­pelling and of­ten charm­ing frank­ness in th­ese con­ver­sa­tions: poet Lisa Gor­ton gives Power a lovely line about moth­er­hood as “a sort of en­rich­ment”. Singer­song­writer Clare Bowditch de­scribes her daugh­ter’s ar­rival 13 days over­due as en­abling her to fin­ish an al­bum. Her peer Holly Throsby laughs as she an­swers the ques­tion of whether “get­ting preg­nant was a very de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion”. “Well, I’m in a same-sex re­la­tion­ship,” she said, “so it had to be!”

Power opens with Su­san Ru­bin Suleiman adamant that “any mother of young chil­dren … who wants to do se­ri­ous cre­ative work … must be pre­pared for the worst kind of strug­gle, which is the strug­gle against her­self”. But the tenor of parts of this ex­plo­ration of process and fo­cus felt lighter than its pre­de­ces­sor.

“I think we’re al­ways try­ing to work out what par­ent­ing looks like,” writer and craft­maker Pip Lin­colne tells Power. If you need any­thing to un­der­score the fact there can be no one way of moth­er­ing, or not moth­er­ing, or work­ing as a mother, try div­ing into all th­ese med­i­ta­tions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions. They’re richer than any choco­late and more long-lived than the most per­sis­tent white car­na­tion.

Clock­wise from above left, actress Clau­dia Kar­van with daugh­ter Au­drey; Kate Holden; Alice Pung; Cate Kennedy; Mother’s Day founder Anna Jarvis

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