Reflecting who we are

I have never been able to interest myself for very long in the need to keep up appearances. It seems to take me an enormous effort just to work out how to get things to look good, or at least better than usual, for a special occasion. But it has occurred to me that I am quite deeply affected by the images that I see around me, and that I do often internalise these in relation to what I feel motherhood is expected to look like. I might not be consciously measuring myself against such images, but I am aware of the pressure that they bring, especially when there is nothing else to offset it. 

I think beneath this there is a more basic question: “am I doing any good?” It is difficult to know and there are not many outside sources to give you an answer, or to regularly reinforce or acknowledge your efforts. But also the job itself is so all-encompassing that the answer can perhaps never be definitive. The effects of what we do or don’t do might not be seen for years to come, and even then they might take us by surprise. 

I guess if one was to ask: “what does good look like?” the answer could be as various as all mothers are in their own individual relationships with their children. But still I think there is a value in having some examples to go on, and in seeing others engaged in the same thing. It’s one thing we’ve really lost out on during the pandemic, I think: doing parenting alongside others as opposed to in our own little self-contained bubbles. 

I think what I am interested in is images of motherhood that tell a different story; that weren’t necessarily created to meet the requirements of a particular platform or medium. I want to be able to remind myself that there are sources of wisdom in the lives of those beyond me and my own experiences.

Dealing with birth

There are many recommendations around how we can try and prepare for giving birth, and yet in the aftermath there can be a bit of a void, once the immediate rush of the first few days has settled down. A couple of years ago, as I was waiting for my first baby to arrive, I was moved to watch a short clip from the BBC about how women from the Oromia region of Ethiopia help a new mother to begin to recover. Five days in, she is surrounded by the women of her community who gather to perform a special ritual. Prayers are said, there is singing and dancing by the older women, porridge and tea are shared, and a herbal medicine is prepared to help the mother recover her strength. It is a tradition which seems pitched just right: meeting the emotional vulnerability of the mother with notes of encouragement, cheeriness, and, above all, understanding. It is expected that she should need all these mothers and sisters around her, and so there they are, ready for her.

As I was preparing to welcome our second baby, I heard quite a different story from a woman in this country who is now in her nineties. She described how, when she had both of her babies, it had been customary to go into a kind of nursing home set up specifically for the purpose. After giving birth, she had to wait two weeks before returning home (despite having no serious medical issues), as it was thought best to allow the mother time to rest physically first. I was quite taken aback, thinking of the impact of this separation from the family at such a critical time, but it also made me realise how we can’t take for granted the way in which we do birth now. It makes me think that for so many women, and for so many different reasons, birth and what follows is not necessarily the empowering experience that it might have been.

The one difference that stands out to me in these two stories is that one can be made to feel either visible or invisible, in those early days. With both of my births, I found it very difficult to be observed in the first few hours and days, even by those who were trying to help, as I made attempts to breastfeed. I was very afraid of being told I was doing it wrong; afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it right. But being “seen” is I think a gift at this time, and perhaps the only way that you get to truly realise what is happening to you. 

How we are together

Though I wrote initially that I was looking for images, I was thinking of something that captures motherhood in action, as opposed to a still. But in this search I have found myself drawn in by the work of a photographer, Elinor Carucci, born in Israel but who is now bringing up her children in New York. Her collection Mother captures numerous moments from the first nine years (including pregnancy) of her life as a parent of twins. 

The images in this collection work to straddle the gap between art and life, and illustrate why sometimes we might need art to help communicate a truth about life. We don’t generally get to see ourselves in the act of mothering. But also, children change and time moves on so quickly. ‘I photograph moments because I don’t want to lose them’, Carucci said as she later presented her work to an audience. 

There is a picture that I like called ‘Bath’. The mother is sat behind her son in the bath, and holds him with one arm across his upper body as he tries to strain away. The look and emotion on the boy’s face is unrestrained; he is unhappy about having to have the bath. But the mother’s energy as she looks down is focused on trying to quieten him, whether this is possible or not. It speaks to me of that frequent need to do the quietening, whether or not you feel quiet yourself. And it also conveys powerfully to me that double task of allowing the child the space to feel everything and anything, whilst also offering to contain those feelings of distress which so quickly become too much.

It is not complicated. But it is complex, and there is never a day that does not offer up moments such as those that Carucci has chosen to share with the viewer in her carefully edited collection.

A mum’s work

You don’t really see the work that is involved in being a mum until you become one. Much of this takes place beyond view within the privacy of the home, and often in those out-of-hours spaces. I almost find it necessary because of this to imagine what it is like for other people, either in similar or very different circumstances.

In David Olusoga’s television series A House Through Time, he explores in the course of four episodes the history of a particular house (and its occupants) in Bristol: 10 Guinea Street. In the late nineteenth century, a baby was born to one of the couples occupying the house, but was to die at just ten weeks of what was then a very common infectious disease, in this case tubercular meningitis. The programme explores just how difficult it would have been for the whole family to keep clean: a huge priority especially for any parent of a newborn. There was no bathroom in the house at the time, so any water for washing would have had to have been carried up the stairs, in a house of multiple occupancy which was several storeys high. Each member of this family would therefore have shared the same water for their weekly bath, and the baby’s turn would probably have come last. 

There are times when, as a mum who has chosen mostly to use cloth nappies, the drudgery of constant washing – alongside everything else – can feel a bit pointless, or even silly. But at times like these it can help to imagine how others have borne the daily cost of living, without necessarily expecting that things should be any easier, or that this in itself will be enough to keep everyone safe and healthy. 

In a depiction from a similar time period, Hamlin Garland gives a very unsentimental idea of what motherhood could be like for a wife living on a farm set in the American plains. In the short story ‘A Day’s Pleasure’, Mrs Markham is introduced in the act of carrying out one of her many daily chores: ‘kneading a batch of dough with the dogged action of a tired and sullen woman’. It is interesting because this figure could easily come across as a kind of cliché; the response of the woman to her situation could have been predicted. But the writer with a kind of kindness makes us imagine and feel the burden of what this mother has on her plate. She is kneading the dough at the end of the day after putting the children to bed, and for her this is not a pastime but a necessity. She is physically worn down by it all, too: thin, stiff, with a ‘pam’ in her back, and even somewhat lame. But, again reaching beyond cliché, there is no easy claim in this story that being with the children makes it all worthwhile. It feels as though this woman has little time to enjoy such a thought. 

A reference point

Images carry the potential to be useful, or unhelpful. They can inspire, or they can fuel self-criticism and unhealthy comparison. I think we are increasingly aware of this tendency in how we use social media, for example. Social media gives us access to other people’s lives, and yet the world in our feeds can never be the whole world, however much it may feel like it. This is why I’ve felt the need here to be more active in selecting what to pay attention to: not simply going with what my eyes are drawn to first. Spending here a little time and attention, what I find moving in some of the instances above is the dignity that they lend to a task that can never be complete, nor perfectly achieved. It is dignifying, regardless of appearances.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay