Ashley Hay on three works about mothers
Three Mother’s Day books consider motherhood in all its magnificent manifestations, writes Ashley Hay
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