Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s interactive lecture series on Motherhood reflects on the impact of maternity on the female author. Her event at Durham Book Festival was the sixth of a series of twelve lectures, touring book festivals throughout the UK, each one entirely individual, focusing on different aspects of the maternal experience through women’s writing, and exploring issues surrounding motherhood and writing. Natasha Cooper reviews.
Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s lecture examined maternal values in relation to questions of authorship, and the ability of the mother to articulate her personal, private, and public issues of being through her writing. The wider lecture series seeks to explore the impact of motherhood on feminine creativity, and marry the roles of mother and writer to produce the figure of the mother-author: a mother for whom writing becomes a cathartic experience, through which she expunges her internal confusions, her sense of loss, and her worries, while simultaneously celebrating the joys of motherhood, and reconciling herself with the changes within her emotional and physical state of being.
Reject the feminine ideals of mothering and replace them with a realistic viewpoint: nurturing with nappies, stories with suckling, lullabies with lactation
Notably, the series describes the experience of motherhood, over that of parenthood, harking back to female notions of the mother as the child’s first, and possibly primary, source of comfort. The supremacy of motherhood over co-dependent parenthood reinforces the belief of the experience of child-bearing and child-rearing as unique to femininity, reiterating specific issues affecting women, and extending long-established notions of female attachment, translating female emotion into a process of self-reflection. Rather than focusing merely on the outward principles of raising children, this series provides a view into the interiority of emotion felt by mothers upon giving birth to their children, their wonder at their newborns, their confusion of identity, their sense of loss as their children become independent beings, their reconciliation with new facets of their being, and upon their changing relationships – all instigated by their sudden launch into motherhood.
The event opened with readings by mother-authors, Carolyn Jess-Cooke (The Boy Who Could See Demons, Boom!), Kate Long (The Bad Mother’s Handbook, Bad Mothers United), and Liz Fraser (A Spoonful of Sugar, Lifeshambles), all of whom read extracts from their own published and upcoming texts. The experience of writing through motherhood, somewhat analogous with the feminist notion of writing through the body, became a very “real” experience, so to speak, rejecting the feminine ideals of mothering and replacing them with a realistic viewpoint: nurturing replaced with nappies, stories with suckling, lullabies with lactation, and yet through it all a strange sense of loss as the child steps into adulthood, signifying the end of traditional mothering.
There remains an enforced sense of maternity, even in today’s contemporary post-feminist world. The rejection of the fluffy pinkness of books on mothers is in Fraser’s forthcoming novel, Lifeshambles. Fraser is self-publishing, a result of her rejection of enforced publisher’s choices and censorship. Self-publication and self-promotion become, in a sense, a liberation from the shackles of the publishing house, a female break from the patriarchally-enforced codes of being that define the mother-author figure, a liberation from “yummy-mummy” pigeonholing, and hemming women in by publisher’s choices of girlish book-covers and reviewer’s categorisations of authorial identity.
Fraser’s reading of motherhood referenced the sudden sense of loss experienced by mothers who find themselves lost as their young children grow into teenagers. She recalled the raising of children in a world before the onslaught of the internet, mobile phones, and Netmums. She dismisses the idea of writing a traditional manual for raising children, growing up in an era of Snapchat and Youtube, and instead writes for mothers, about mothers.
Long meanwhile described her process of writing as a creation of her own world. Echoing Fraser’s loss, she replaces the loss of children, with an imaginary world of escapism through writing. Here, Long, in writing of bereavement, guards her heroine as she guards her sanity, maintaining herself through her writing as an imaginary mother to imaginary daughters, in a personal novel that she does not seek to have published. She adopts these daughters as her own children, guarding her ink-and-paper offspring from the eyes of publishers and readers alike. In her other books, Long further explores issues of the adoption of a child, alongside the development of the maternal instinct, shifting the focus from giving birth to that of the raising of children.
Jess-Cooke’s reading dismissed the stereotypical tone in books about motherhood. Rejecting traditional parent-manuals and handbooks on motherhood, she instead offered a reading of her poems on the maternal experience. Her poetry provides an introspective into the changes wrought by motherhood, the realities, and relationship dynamics that a baby might bring into a household. Her baby, from the title poem of her anthology, Boom!, is a metaphorical hand-grenade, who threatens to explode everything she knows. Beyond the happily-ever-afters of the idyllic marital relationship, the baby threatens to change the ending of the fairy-tale: “… she blew us to smithereens. / We survived, but in a different state than before.”
The questions of motherhood addressed were vast: Do we seek to criticise the career woman for not being a stay at home mother? Is the woman who sacrifices her career to raise her children too subservient? Do women, in critiquing their gender, sabotage women? Do all women love being mothers? Can children be used as actual raw material or are they just inspiration for fictitious characters?
The ultimate message was not merely that women have the choice to be anything they desire. It was simply that women, having gained the right to work, to enter the traditionally occupied male spaces of being, still remain largely in charge of child rearing, and bear the brunt of the biological changes necessitated by the birth of their children. Women writing about motherhood write through their motherhood: the physical changes and the emotional process. The uniqueness of such writing is in the stark realities of motherhood as related to women themselves, creating a community of maternal experience, denying the shaming of women and encouraging an acceptance of the self as mother, in open dialogue with other mothers. As Long reflected, “If I’ve made even one reader feel better about herself, then I’m happy.”
Durham Book Festival 2014 continues until 20th October, with talks and topics ranging from politics to poetry, and fiction to feminism. If you are interested in the issues raised in this review, you might want to consider our conference on Fifty Years of Sexism: What Next? which will take place on International Women’s Day 2015.