Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood

Overview

The intersection of motherhood and creative life is explored in these writings on mothering that turn the spotlight from the child to the mother herself. Here, in memoirs, testimonials, diaries, essays, and fiction, mothers describe first-hand the changes brought to their lives by pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering.
Many of the writers articulate difficult and socially unsanctioned maternal anger and ambivalence. In Mother Reader, motherhood is scrutinized for all its painful ...

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Mother Reader: Essential Literature on Motherhood

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Overview

The intersection of motherhood and creative life is explored in these writings on mothering that turn the spotlight from the child to the mother herself. Here, in memoirs, testimonials, diaries, essays, and fiction, mothers describe first-hand the changes brought to their lives by pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering.
Many of the writers articulate difficult and socially unsanctioned maternal anger and ambivalence. In Mother Reader, motherhood is scrutinized for all its painful and illuminating subtleties, and addressed with unconventional wisdom and candor. What emerges is a sense of a community of writers speaking to and about each other out of a common experience, and a compilation of extraordinary literature never before assembled in a single volume.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781583220726
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 345
  • Sales rank: 1,068,313
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

MOYRA DAVEY is a photographer whose work has appeared in Harper's, Grand Street, Documents, and The New York Times. Davey has exhibited her work widely in the U.S. and Canada, as well as overseas, and is represented by American Fine Arts Co. in New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


DORIS LESSING

* * *

EXCERPT FROM
Under My Skin:
Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949

(1994)


WE MOVED AGAIN. We kept moving. Nothing to it! We owned our clothes, our bedding, an odd chair and the famous table, and books, loads of books. A small van transported us to yet another of the small houses. They were all furnished the same. If many farms still used improvised furniture, karosses, flour sack curtains, petrol-box shelves, then in the towns "store" furniture was the rule. A kaross already paid conscious tribute to the country. There were chairs of the kind whose backs are adjusted on notches, woven grass chairs. Also paintings of jacarandas, sunsets, kopjes, lions, natives, elephants and innumerable buck lifting their heads to stare at the viewer. But it all didn't matter. I was not going to stay in this life, I said to myself, desperate, trapped, but behaving beautifully, doing everything I should, though I was exhausted because of the child. From the moment he woke with a shout of greeting to this wonderful new day, until night and a reluctant falling to sleep, he was never ever still. Even now, seeing some amenable little baby cooing in its nest, I remember John at the same age and marvel. Literally, I could hardly hold him. It was not his nature to cuddle. He did not really like being dandled. One felt he put up with it because it was expected of him. He liked to lie on the floor, his legs like a bicyclist's, or being held by Frank, though even he found those striving limbs hard to control,or standing in my arms, treading down on my thigh. Every mealtime was an ordeal because he wanted to hold the spoon, and was angry because he could not, tried to grasp the bottle, and yelled when it slipped. Other women's babies slept in the mornings and in the afternoons, but this one did not. When Frank went off to his office at half past seven, I sometimes was already walking John around the streets, since movement calmed him. And by ten or so was ready for the morning tea parties I despised. Young women met in each other's houses, taking their babies and small children. It was expected that I should be friends with the wives of Frank's colleagues. There was a group of ten or so women. I have described the morning tea ritual in A Proper Marriage, but if I were describing that society now, I'd give it more emphasis, because of the role it played in making sure new babies were born. One of the group has a new baby, and there she is with the little thing, its head helpless on her shoulder. Suddenly your own toddler looks enormous, even gross. You remember the sweet intimacy with a new baby. You might have said, "I'm not going to have another baby yet—or perhaps not ever," but suddenly, holding an infant, you are "broody." "Oh, have a heart, I'm getting broody"—and you hastily hand the dangerous creature back to its mother who seems the most enviable person in the world, although she is misshapen from the birth and breast feeding. But it is too late. The hormones have received a jolt and you're off. Soon you will be announcing at a morning tea, "I'm pregnant!" "You're not! But you said ... Oh, I'm jealous. When?"

     It doesn't matter whether you like these women or not, or they like you. "We have nothing in common!" Don't make me laugh, you have the biological basis in common, you are young women together and that's enough. These days we all know about periods coming into sync at the same time with women who continually meet, and that's just the start. Now we know that within a few moments of any group being together, their brain waves are in sync (The Dance of Life). Oh, indeed, we should be careful of the company we keep, but young breeding women will spend time with others. If the birth rate is a matter for concern in a country, then see to it that young breeding women meet every day for a couple of hours. I was bored, I was rebellious, I hated the morning tea parties. I craved them, and hated myself for craving them. I would go home and tell Frank I would rather die than ever go to another. But next day I went. For one thing, John, sociable from the start, liked them, was interested, had to watch what went on. "John, just look at John, he's going to be crawling any second now."

    We had a "boy," a servant. Everyone did. By eight in the morning the two or three rooms were cleaned, and he was gossiping with his friends at the back. He cooked lunch. Frank brought people home from the office for the lunch hour and we ate and, more importantly, drank. After lunch I pushed John for ever, for ever, around the park and the streets. In the late afternoons we took John with us to the Club or friends. There was the little boy, all alert intelligence, watching what went on, and always trying to pull himself up, or clamber up and over anyone who held him, "Hey, Tigger man, look at this, you must be worn out." "Oh no, it's all right," I'd say modestly, though worn out. If we did not go out, but—rarely—stayed in, then people dropped around and the servant made a meal. It was the custom for them to hang around waiting until their employers came back from sundowners, in case a meal was needed. This meant he would bring the morning tea at six, have nothing to do most of the morning and afternoon, but might be up till nine or ten at night. There was no such thing as legal working hours. Frank and I paid the servants everywhere we were much more than the custom, risking the anger of neighbours. "You'll spoil them. You mustn't let them get out of hand." The same words as used for small babies, in fact. "You've got to let them know who's boss."

    All the men Frank brought home were at least ten years, often more, older than me. I was Frank's pretty new clever wife and he was proud of me. I liked being admired, for myself and for my exuberant baby. The man I remember best was a small, sandy, thin, ironic Scot, a stockbroker, Sonny Jameson, whose comments on this provincial little town came from a viewpoint far removed from the stereotypes of Preserving White Civilization or Uplifting the Natives, which still informed the Rhodesia Herald, and most people one met. He read. From me he borrowed my Everyman books. He brought me the Romans. If I wanted to understand Southern Rhodesia, said he, then read the Romans: the attitudes of our administrators were no different from those of a Roman pro-consul in a colony in North Africa or the East. Heady stuff for a civil servant's wife. He did not make this kind of comment in company.

    "When in the provinces, you learn to keep your mouth shut."

    The other memorable thing was that he drank, so they said, a bottle of Scotch every day. Certainly he scarcely ate. For years I assumed he must have died long ago, then heard he was alive and flourishing. This tale is not likely to please nutritionists.

    Stendhal—the Stendhal of The Red and the Black—was my friend and ally. He is the author for anyone feeling trapped in the sticks.

    "In the provinces—" so he may begin a deadly dose of hatred for mediocrity, and I would mentally add to his list, full of the relish of contempt

    "In the provinces all languages other than English are guttural." I heard this again in Harare, in 1992: "German is so guttural."

    "In the provinces any girl with some life in her is sex-mad."

    "In the provinces any woman with a mind of her own is opinionated."

    "In the provinces any food not English is greasy." This one has certainly gone with the wind.

    "In the provinces women are automatically offered sweet wine, or sweet sherry. The dear little things have a sweet tooth."

    When John was nine months old, soon to get to his feet, we decided to have another baby. Yet with half of myself I knew I was not going to stay in this life. I had nothing in my mind as serious as a plan or a programme. No, I merely dreamed of a life with similarly free spirits in Paris or London. I did not belong here. Yet any observer might be deceived because I was apparently doing so well. Who was? Tigger was, bright, slapdash, amusing, a competent and attractive young woman. "Clever Tigger Wisdom" might also make comments that caused uneasy laughter, or "Have a heart, man, that's not fair!" But she was living this life as if born to it. Was it I who decided first to have this second baby? Probably. But it was the Zeitgeist. All around us young couples were saying, "Let's have another, we'll get it all over with while we're still young." Three or four years before it was "I'm not going to bring a child into this world, no fear!" Yet while Frank and I discussed the problems of the second baby, we were still talking of how we would tuck both babes under our arms and go wandering in the South of France, or live in Paris.

    I got pregnant the week I left off the Dutch cap. This method of birth control is considered now as too unaesthetic, but it works. The point is, one has to get into a routine with it. Easy in marriage but not so easy in a life of affairs and adventure. At once I had morning sickness and indigestion, which I knew would soon pass. And there was John, who got to his feet without the intermediate stage of crawling, and he was running about everywhere, and then he took off into the vlei nearby—long since built over—and although I was a pretty good runner, I soon lost sight of him. I went from house to house in a panic, begging people to dispatch their servants to look for him. An hour or so later a group of black men came tossing John about in their arms, admiring this tough little boy who was already fighting to be put down so he could run off again. I did not know what to do with him. Straps and bonds hurt his feelings. If I fitted on him the harness that would enable me to attach a leash to him, he gave me a look that said, "You're supposed to be my friend, how can you do this to me?" Outrage, incredulity, accusation, shouts of indignation then tears I would try to hold him, to comfort him. Standing in my arms, rigid with emotion, he sobbed, giving me looks of puzzled reproach. So it had to be the park, where he ran about unconfined among the flower beds, yelling with delight. Then I caught him, since I was afraid he would run away out of the park, and made him sit in his pram, where he at once stood up, with his back to me so he could see where he was going.

    I pushed him around and about for hours, for hours. So it seemed. There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very small child. While I pushed, I wrote poems in my head.


    RAIN


Rain-clouds rest on the trees of the higher town, Here rain sweeps off the rusting tin, Beats against the patched shutters, Batters the leaning roofs.
Storm water scours the gutters, Flooding away banana skins, Straw, sweepings, filth and dirty rags, Gurgling through the broken bottles, Creeping beneath the crazy floors.
Already walls show patches of damp.
Thin faces of children Peer through cracks To their playground the street. Soon, when the street lamp shines down Gold, crimson and blue Will wash across the tarmac.
But now, through the grey rain And grey stream that drifts up from the street A small black child runs shivering Clutching his rags and a milk bottle To the better house among the trees Where the hen voiced impatient shrew His white mistress is waiting


    These conventional verses were the start of bad trouble with Frank. He said indignantly that I was unfair. He showed the verses to his sister Mary, and she said I was unfair too. But his indignation was theatrical. His face working with accusation, he stared at me with hot and aggrieved eyes. It was then that began an atmosphere of falseness, of unrealness, that was at first only intermittent. When a man feels his woman's work or interests outside marriage threatening, then often this is expressed indirectly. Frank always agreed that I should get a job, when it was possible, that I was going to write, when I could. But I was growing away from him, and very fast, and he felt it, although I could not have been more amiable, amenable, ready to please. Women's instinct to please confuses men, but it confuses women too. I really did not know why suddenly he was sulky, and asked me Why are you so unfair? "We're not as bad as that!" he grumbled. Yet Frank thought that we—particularly nagging white housewives—were as bad as that, and was consistently critical of white "superiority." And later in his life he suffered for it. From now until the end of the marriage there were times—unpredictable and dangerous, when he was sulky, sometimes for days, angry, self-pitying, full of reproaches, and always about things we both knew were off the point. Meanwhile I was bright, false, "reasonable"—hypocritical.

    His angers were not only due to me, but perhaps even more because he was not up North in the desert with his friends. The moment he got home from the office he wanted to be up at the Sports Club. He was drinking a lot. Nothing new about that. Now when I try and recreate the patterns of our days, I can't believe how much we all drank—but as a matter of course, that is the point. In the 1920s—that is, after the First World War—drinking too much became not only permissible, but smart, clever—fashionable. There it all is in the novels, memoirs, histories of the time. It was not only in the colonies that everyone drank too much. Southern Rhodesia was nothing if not a drinking culture. Now we are all obsessed with food, eating it, reading about it, eating this and not that, giving it all up for days at a time. Then, we drank, gave up drinking, drank beer and not spirits, drank spirits and not beer, decided not to drink until six in the evening and sundowner time. Boon companions might have to be despatched to be dried out, but everyone knew they would be back on the verandahs drinking soft drinks, having "given up" for ever, but within a few months they were hooked again. I was beginning to find the Sports Club almost unbearable, but Frank wanted me to be with him, wanted his son there too I was tired I was utterly exhausted. Never in my life have I been so tired.

    And yet being tired was not on my agenda, why should I be tired?

    And when my mother rushed in from the farm, to say I was being irresponsible to have another baby so soon, I defended myself, said "why shouldn't a strong young woman have two babies one after the other, all the black women did, didn't they?" "Oh my dear ..." And she went off to complain to my father, but he was too ill these days to listen.

    Again I was making the little dresses and rompers, filling drawers with nappies John was already out of. He was not one to put up with having a wet bottom. Without much effort on my part, he became "toilet-trained." Or "clean."

    The months dragged past. Here we are, in 1941, the Phoney War is over, the War is boiling up all over Europe, the Germans invade Russia, and everyone says that that's the end of Russia, because their tanks are all made of cardboard. Nothing goes well for us, the Allies. Hitler, it seems, cannot be stopped.

    Just before the birth of my daughter, there was the Atlantic Charter, a bit of political show business that has never been equaled for cynicism. Roosevelt met Churchill in the middle of the Atlantic, during the worst time in the war, the Germans overrunning Russia and the eastern Mediterranean, Rommel still succeeding in North Africa. The Atlantic Charter should be studied by anyone interested in how far rulers can go in contempt for the ruled. Anything that anyone has ever thought of in the way of benefits for mankind is there. Peace. The right to work. Free movement around the world. Freedom from hunger and fear. Democratic rights. In the Atlantic Charter nothing less than paradise was promised us all. Its immediate parent was the American Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I believe the cynicism of the Atlantic Charter was one of the causes of Churchill's defeat after the war. The Air Force found endless ways to deride it; these people had escaped from the grimy and dreadful poverty of Britain in the 1930s, only because of the war, to be sent out into this exile in Southern Rhodesia—they did not find the Atlantic Charter funny. I did not find it funny; my emotion was the grim What can you expect? Sonny Jameson was witty about it. Frank, who found it easy to admire authority, defended it. Not many things now in the way of political venality can shock me, but even now the Atlantic Charter never fails.

    If you are wondering, why such contempt for these promisers of earthly Paradise, when in only a couple of years you, as a Communist, will be promising the same thing? the reply is, we the Reds believe in our visions. Churchill and Roosevelt could not have believed in the Atlantic Charter. They were cynical, we were stupid.

    My second accouchement was not what I expected. I make this point because of the claim that it is an attitude of mind that determines the course of labour. I approached my first lying-in (as it used to be called, accurately enough, when you might be in bed for weeks) without a care in the world, not expecting pain, or difficulty, because of my arrogant young health. But the pain was very bad; afterwards the baby exhausted me, probably just because of the exuberant health he inherited from me. And so this second time I was ready for a painful childbirth and another fighting baby. Once again the Lady Chancellor Nursing Home, the stupid bossy matron, the cheerful nurses making sure that mothers and infants met as little as possible. I was in a room on the other side of the entrance, the twin of the one I had before: small-town living offers continuities unsuspected by the dwellers in great cities. I went in, as before, in the evening because of a certain pain I recognized, to be distinguished from all the other twinges, pangs, sensations, pressures of the end of pregnancy, and because of the unmistakable surge of energy Nature in her thoughtful way equips you with. I strode about the room alone, having been bathed and—of course—shaved. As usual the Home was overstretched. "Just be a good girl," the nurses cried, popping smiling heads around the door.

    I wanted to be alone. I walked, I walked all night, around and around, went to look at the babies who at first were still asleep but then avoided them when they began screaming a couple of hours before feeding time. I stared out of the window at the stars. I wondered how Frank was coping with John. Then, at ten in the morning, sharp pains, in came the doctor and nurses, and the baby was born within half an hour. I was still waiting for labour to begin. There had been very little pain before the chloroform. A little girl was shown me, smaller than her brother, and at once evidently made of different stuff, a pretty little thing ready to be held and cuddled. But, "You'll have enough of her soon." "Please nurse, don't take her," "Oh well, just for a minute then." The tiny lips fastened on the nipple, the miracle again, life knowing exactly what it must do. The nurse stands over you, frowning. "You haven't got any milk yet, you know. It'll be in tomorrow." And the baby is carried triumphantly away, and I am left, ready to cry my eyes out, in my bed. There was a new turn of the screw. The matron forbade brothers and sisters to come and visit the new baby because of infection John was brought by his father to stand outside the window on the gravel, where I held up the new baby and waved to him. I was miserable. He was miserable. I cannot think of anything more guaranteed to produce jealousy of the new baby, or foment anxiety in a mother. That was the worst thing about this second birth.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction xiii
Journals, Memoirs, Essays
Excerpt from Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949 3
Excerpt from On the Side of the Angels: The Second Volume of the Journals of Elizabeth Smart 13
Excerpt from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 19
Excerpt from "On Being a Grandmother" 27
"Feminism and Motherhood" 33
"Documentation IV: Transitional Objects, Diary and Diagram" and "Experimentum Mentis IV--On Femininity" 47
Excerpt from The Mother Knot 61
"Anger and Tenderness" 81
"A Writer Because of, Not in Spite of, Her Children" 99
"Writer-Mothers: The Fundamental Situation" 103
"Writing and Motherhood" 113
"One Child of One's Own: A Meaningful Digression within the Work(s)" 139
"A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry" 155
"The Fisherwoman's Daughter" 161
"Talking About 'Mothers'" 187
Excerpt from the M/E/A/N/I/N/G Forum: On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie 199
"Novels and Navels" 211
"A Little Bit of Loss" 225
"The Case Against Babies" 231
"Beginning" 241
"For Molly Entering College (August 1997)" 247
"Notes on Early Motherhood" 249
"A Woman's Prerogative" 253
Stories
"I Stand Here Ironing" 265
"A Subject of Childhood" 273
"Good Housekeeping" 281
"Learning the Rules" 285
"My Death" 301
"Giving Birth" 311
Excerpt from A Frozen Woman 325
Excerpt from Beloved 337
"The Old Dictionary" 341
Contributors 345
Permissions 353
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