The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Myth of Motherhood Poetics by Jennifer Givhan

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My children make myths in the games they play. My daughter holds out a book of fairy tales and she and her friend become princesses lost in Pennsylvania (I have no idea why that state—it’s not in the fairy tale book) and her friend Santiago puts on a dress that his parents won’t allow him to wear at home because boys don’t wear dresses but right now they are only princesses and there is no one who will judge or make fun of them, not in this mythic Pennsylvania arisen from the hardbound book they’ve laid on the floor and jumped into and emerged from, transformed.

When I couldn’t have children, when my body wouldn’t cooperate, when the lines wouldn’t transform into a pink cross, or when the pink cross did appear but then the bright red poppies began their painful stain, I made myth. I became a mother in my poems and my babies were alive and the blood flowing out didn’t mean dead.

When I adopted my son and I had no idea what I was doing and felt like a body snatcher like a thief like an imposter and his colic-stressed body and his sleepless-helpless body kept us both in perpetual dreamstate and I was afraid always he’d wake some day and scream you’re not my real mother, instead, we created myth. We became mythical, to each other. In our mutual need. The myth of motherlove carried us; it carries us still, through thick reality, through thick reality we learn each day to love.

Carl Jung says myth connects us, taps us into the collective unconscious where we become part of the unseen world. Joseph Campbell says myth evokes a sense of awe, supports a cosmology, supports the structural order, and introduces individuals to spiritual enlightenment. J.R.R. Tolkien says myth is a universal language. That through the hero’s quest, we all who partake in the myth go through a cathartic transformation.

I think of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the “semiotic chora.” As described in her Revolution of Poetic Language, Kristeva’s “semiotic” is prelinguistic, on the edge of language and verbalization, and has the capacity to rise out of culturally constructed space. It resides in the realm of humming, screaming, rhythm, sound, music, and color. Associated with the semiotic is the “chora”—or space, receptacle, womb—which deals with bodily drives and the child’s prelinguistic relationship with the mother’s body. It is different from the “symbolic” element of language, which is the realm that sets up ideology and reality—the definitive, culturally grounded aspect of language. According to Kristeva, “the symbolic—and therefore syntax and all linguistic categories—is a social effect of the relation to the other, established through the objective constraints of biological (including sexual) differences and concrete, historical structures.”

And she says poetry taps into this chora space.

I believe that motherhood poetry has the potential to tap into this chora, but also to rise out of it, to tap into the womblike space of creation, and to create something transformational the way imagination is transformational, as my children innately know, as they create each day in their fairy tales.

The cynic believes myth is merely fairy tale—is fantasy, fable, fanciful fiction. At best it is a harmless children’s story.

The mother (poet) knows better.

I believed I was a mother and found a way to become a mother. The son made me mother. No, I was mother always and had only to believe. Then the daughter clung. The daughter transformed the mother’s body with her mythical reality.

For so long, I’d been “the barren woman,” reclaiming this term and using it as a source of exploration of our patriarchy. My first full-length collection Red Sun Mothers examines cultural constructions of and attitudes toward the “barren” woman. In it, I mine the symbolic mythology surrounding the childless or “infertile” woman by juxtaposing her with differing cultural models of motherhood in order to include her story with the other mothers of literature. I analyze stories of figures such as La Llorona (the crying woman), our Biblical first mother Eve, and the wet nurse, or “other mother.” Through these symbolic frameworks, my work explored prevailing ideology that roots motherhood in biology.

According to this view, a woman is not “real” (not fully realized) until she bears a patriarchal lineage. The dichotomy between mother/non-mother is predicated on reproductive function regardless of the mothering-work performed, so the noun “mother” often relates solely to a “woman who biologically bears a child.” There is no corresponding word for “a person who performs mothering acts” in English or Spanish, thus exposing the epistemological inadequacy of basing “reality” solely on biological function.

In other words, I’d formed my entire outlook of myself and the body of my work as the reclaimed barren woman—the woman become “Other Mother.” And then, I became pregnant with my daughter, and she clung. She, stubborn and steadfast, held on inside my body. And I held onto her just as tightly.

I was the Other inside the Mother.

I was myth. Made real.

I feel guilty for writing instead of just being a mother. Yet even the way I write this confession bears scrutiny—as though being a mom is an exclusive act in and of itself. I’m a writer, a mother, a wife, a feminist. It’s a lot to juggle!

I’ve long grappled with two deeply imbedded beliefs. First, that a woman should have the free space in her mind and in her life to think and write and become whomever she chooses. And second, the fierce desire to mother.

How selfish I often feel—for wanting so much.

I write more now than I did before I had children. More now that I have two children than when I had only one. Yet, even though I know how much I need writing in my life, I feel guilty much of the time.

Adrienne Rich, in her seminal work on motherhood Of Woman Born, makes a compelling argument regarding the social dogma surrounding the mother-child relationship. Women, she argues, are socialized to believe that “mother-love” is “continuous” and “unconditional.” Women are not supposed to get angry, she says, because culturally “love and anger cannot coexist” within the mother. However, Rich goes on to deconstruct that destructive and misguided social view of mother-love:

The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery or sweated labor because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways the forced laborer does not know… Love and anger can exist concurrently; anger at the conditions of motherhood can become translated into anger at the child, along with the fear that we are not “loving”; grief at all we cannot do for our children in a society so inadequate to meet human needs becomes translated into guilt and self-laceration.

Motherhood, like anything else, is subject to the ambiguities and ambivalences of human emotion.

Yet sometimes it feels like the taboos of motherhood broken down in the 1970s by Adrienne Rich and likeminded feminist mothers were replaced by something more insidious and deeply woven. The pressures are not as external for all cultures in the U.S., but the social mores strictly defining motherhood and its prescriptions are now internally imbedded; we are our own guilt machines. We mothers bear our own internal failures. We carry the onus within us.

I think of the unattainable striving for perfection I see through the social media mask, all the posturing and false faces we wear there, the identities we create there that hold us hostage. How I feel guilty for writing instead of attending to my children. Their needs at each stage are different, how my writing is different now than when I was writing with babies.

How when I’m alone the silence is nearly frightening. The house emptied of children and my writing feels like it should be emptied of children, the way my belly is emptied of children—and my heart. So conflicted I don’t even know how it keeps beating. I fight with myself to get the words on the page instead of driving to the preschool and picking up my daughter, taking her for ice cream.

But when my children are with me all day and fighting and talking back and refusing to clean their rooms or eat their lunches? When they want me to play and play, but the writing is calling… then I have to imagine there is some space, some mythical creation where I am not so split. So torn. A friend without children asked me how I was doing and I answered split, and she didn’t know what I meant.

How I feel as though I am tearing down the center always and maybe there is a place in the chora that allows for this splitting, that allows it to be anything other than painful.


Jennifer Givhan is a Mexican-American writer from the Southwestern desert and the author of three full-length poetry collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (Pleiades Editors’ Prize, LSU Press, 2016), Protection Spell (Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series, U of Arkansas Press, 2017), and Girl with Death Mask (Blue Light Books Prize, Indiana University Press, 2018). Her honors include NEA and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowships. Her work has appeared in POETRY, AGNI, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.

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