Portrait of a (Working) Mother

Portrait of a (Working) Mother at Maynooth University, June 2018

Portrait of a (Working) Mother is both a book (2019) and a touring exhibition of photographs and testimonies, co-edited and co-curated by Italian freelance photographer Marina Cavazza and Lithuanian scholar Egle Kackute (Universities of Maynooth and Vilnius). Portrait has previously been reviewed on the Make Mothers Matter website, and the exhibition has recently toured Geneva, Dublin (June 2018), and elsewhere. The exhibition shows a set of photographic and documentary case studies exploring the day-to-day routines, life projects and survival strategies of working mothers who leave their home countries. It emphasizes the extreme mobility that is required by the increasingly uncertain job market, and how the demands of the latter impact upon both family and workplace.

Accuracy: Based on data showing that women make up some 25% of all professionally employed expatriates today, Marina and Egle set out in 2013 to ask the following questions of a sample cohort of Geneva-based professional women, all expatriates in their mid-thirties: What happens to their careers when  they decide to have children? How does that affect their professional and social status? Do they continue their career or go under the radar as members of an unaccounted for, supposedly non-productive, female population that passively follows the main (male) mover to a new location abroad? Do they thus become appendages to an international male elite, concentrating on home-making and keeping the family together, however temporarily? Does the (often involuntary) nomadism impede their personal development or does it create new opportunities and boost ambitions?

Interviewees included Petina, an international trade lawyer from Zimbabwe who sees herself as the “accidental” mother of an 11-year-old boy. She studied in Zimbabwe, Cambridge (UK) and Austria and moved to Geneva to work as a trade lawyer. Her son attends a boarding school in Scotland and his dad is in Zimbabwe. Not wanting to give up her career, she still feels strongly about motherhood: “I feel my son has completely changed my life in a way that being a lawyer or a writer hadn’t. He is the one person I can truly be myself with. It’s unconditional.” Oksana did not give up her job either. She came from Ukraine, studied International Relations, held an internship at the UN and met her Italian husband. She has been living in Geneva for 14 years and has now a son and a daughter who are quadrilingual and, like their parents, embedded in global culture. Irina has been following a more traditional model. She is Russian with a Canadian husband and looks after her two daughters. She was trained as an artist and continues to paint in her spare time. She appreciates the opportunity to take time of remunerated work. She says it is: “the luxury of bringing up my children myself. To raise a young child and turn her into a successful person is the most important task for me now.” She also believes that “men are supposed to provide for their families while women take care of the home and the children.” Marcella, an Italian human rights specialist, chose to work in Geneva when her daughter was born, although her husband continues to work in Congo. They see each other only every three weeks, but appreciate the chance to raise their children in a safe environment.

Whatever the differences between these interviewees, all are making choices in order to reconcile their children’s needs with their own. All three have enough personal, intellectual and economic resources to find a way that may not be the most convenient or typical, but which works for both mother and child.

Empathy: Egle and Marina use their firsthand experience of expatriate motherhood to describe an ephemeral community of people who learn to live with rootlessness. They met with other expatriate mothers – whether in paid or unpaid employment  – in Geneva in order to document their family arrangements, choices, expectations and concerns through text and photography. Their work depicts a marginal group within the migrant population, in many respects highly qualified and privileged, but still barely visible. Egle and Marina focused on the gender divide that causes many internationally mobile mothers (and sometimes fathers) to experience complex professional and personal dislocation. Their creative project questions the challenges of raising a family in the globalised, competitive world and in the state of perpetual transition. Marina and Egle shared their most personal thoughts on their own life decisions; their project is a personal investigation as well as an artistic quest into the limits of female development (professional and personal) and maternal expression in the international expatriate environment.

  • Egle says: “I might still be able to have a job and I will not stop working. Work and earning money has not always coincided for me, so working − reading, thinking and writing − is part of the process of being alive, of making life meaningful, finding out who I am, what I am capable of, growing intellectually and giving back to the world.”
  • Marina says: “I made a choice to live in a couple, to have children and I knew that that meant a lot of my time would be spent with these people.”

Both  women talk about the necessity to build a new life without being able to control it.  Their experience of mothering, as presented here, combines adaptation and frustration as their own lives become centred around  those of others. Egle and Marina follow here the French feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, who wonders why: “While the mother remains the condition of subjectivity and culture, she herself remains unrepresented, confined to her role of “mute substratum”.

Style:  Every woman (or man) who agreed to participate in this project chose where and how they were photographed. Most chose to include their children in the frame, while their partners are conspicuously absent. This may be the mothers’ way of flagging their own competence in navigating the economic and social arenas without their partners’ help. The project undeniably lends unseen expatriate mothers faces and voices of their own. Each portrait has a unique emotional and psychological configuration. The slow succession of slides presenting women (and a few men) – listening, working, cooking, running, reading, standing, drawing, travelling, singing, Skyping, working…  draws the observer into an environment where motherhood means reinventing one’s life in relation to financial independence and loss or gain of personal space, status and freedom. It shows a set of situations revealing both the challenges and opportunities associated with expatriate mobility, without ever being judgemental. It features mothers who are anchored in traditional social structures as well as those others who adapt their mothering practices and their conceptualization of motherhood to new environments. The exhibition re-draws a maternal landscape conceived in terms of relationships rather than geography, encouraging us to re-think mothering as a set of continuous adjustments to (dis)location in a globalised and mobile environment.

Text: Geneviève Guetemme

The Pregnancy Test Verdict: Positive – a bold and brave examination of real-life mothering in an uncertain world. Next blog post – back to fiction!

Just Pure Rage: Ariana Harwicz and Die, My Love

Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love (Matate, Amor), Charco Press, 2017. Translated by Sarah Morse and Carolina Orloff.

Accuracy “I’ve been needing the loo since lunch but it’s impossible to do anything other than be a mother. Enough already with the crying. He cries and cries and cries. I’m going to lose my mind. I’m a mother, full stop. And I regret it, but I can’t even say that. Who would I say it to? To the boy sitting on my lap, sticking his hand in my plate of cold leftovers, playing with a chicken bone? No! Leave that alone, you’ll choke. I chuck him a biscuit. He gives it back. […] I call my husband. I need reinforcements. While I’m dialling, the baby hangs off one of my shoulders. He’s going to tear me apart. […] Hello, listen love, I need you to come home now, I can’t go on like this. […]”

Yes, I think we can agree just from this passage that Die, My Love is pretty unflinchingly accurate in describing the daily routines of a stay-at-home mother caring for her tiny son, as an outsider marooned in the French countryside  her husband calls home. Told almost exclusively from her perspective (by turns fervid and comic), this short book follows an obsessive love affair against the background of a relationship stifled by parenthood.

Empathy  As above, full marks for empathy. The unnamed mother struggles to reconcile to a life violently re-shaped by childbearing (“I’m one person, my body is two”) while her husband seems happier pretending nothing is wrong (even suggesting they have another one). The narrator’s behaviour is troubling beyond the point of self-parody (she walks through a glass door; screams death threats at her husband; shoots an injured dog; identifies herself with the wild beasts of the forest) yet, even after an inconclusive spell in a therapy centre, everyone continues to trust her to look after her child. While at times her narrator’s tantrums and obsessive sexual fantasies challenge belief, Harwicz has a keen eye (and her translators have a keen ear) for the petty details that bedevil motherhood, like the narrator forgetting to pack a snack for her son on a visit to friends, or an outing to the seaside spoiled by the parents’ incompatibility(“It wasn’t until we were driving over the white lines of the road in complete silence that we realized we hadn’t even taken our son into the sea”).

Style Now jagged, now lyrical, always throwing questions at the reader and herself, moving in a heartbeat from desire and affection to fury and sadism, Harwicz’s narrator’s style is absurdly engaging, even contagious. There are nappies and pizzas, but there are also chainsaws and shotguns. Best not read around one’s children. Harwicz doesn’t just flag up the absurdity of motherhood; her narrator is gunning for the entire human condition. Here are some gems:

“My ovaries wring themselves out and there’s a blood clot in my knickers that runs down my legs. I don’t think I’m pregnant again, it’s just pure rage.”

“I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance. And if it isn’t, I’d rather he didn’t speak at all. I want him to say magnolia, to say compassion, not Mum or Dad, not water. I want him to say dalliance.”

“She lived in her body as though it were an infested house, as if she had to tiptoe through it trying not to touch the floor.”

The Pregnancy Test: Positive The Guardian regularly gives space to discussion of post-natal depression, which is important and laudable. It is even more important, however, to acknowledge the range of post-natal experience, positive and negative, depressive and obsessive; and to encourage women to talk about the shattering mental and physical experiences that come with giving birth to a baby and continue throughout the early years of motherhood. A recent contributor writes: “Nothing prepares you for the onslaught and the exhaustion, mainly because we don’t yet talk about motherhood honestly enough. We don’t talk about the “normal” brokenness nearly enough. I suppose a comparison could be bereavement, where it is arguably “normal” to feel broken for a while after losing a loved one. But if that brokenness goes on, month after month, to a point where someone feels like they can’t get their life back, then it needs to be addressed.” The importance of Harwicz’s book for readers is that she does address the “brokenness” of mothers but without pigeonholing this experience as PND. While sharing the metaphor of bereavement, Harwicz’s narrator’s experience transcends PND the way a planet eclipses a moon: “I was in mourning for a long time, but there came a moment when, like the widow who unlocks her front door for the first time, who eats dinner in silence for the first time, who gets into bed alone for the first time, I felt a sadness that was exhilarating, wild.”

Milun and the Swan

Marie de France, ‘Milun’ in The Lais of Marie de France, ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2011)   Dr Naomi Howell, University of Exeter

Accuracy A story in which a beloved pet swan acts as a messenger for two lovers in a clandestine affair might not seem the most likely candidate in looking for realism –or even maternity. Yet ‘Milun’, a 12th century lai, or short romance, surprises its readers in this respect. The meeting and initial courtship of the knight Milun and his beloved is dealt with very briefly. On hearing about his knightly deeds, the unnamed-but-nevertheless-enterprising lady ‘conceives a deep love for him’. She writes him a letter, they arrange meetings in her garden, and there, ‘Milun visited the damsel so often and loved her so much that she became pregnant’. Terrified of the consequences for herself and her unborn child, the girl comes up with a plan.

Milun
”                                         “Milun” by Laura Amie.

The lovers’ tribulations intensify when the girl is married off to another man, but ultimately, the reunion of the lovers and their son is as joyous as it is improbable. Though the lovers have kept in contact over the years with the help of their swan-messenger, Father and Son do not at first recognise each other when they meet as combatants—the two most renowned knights—in a tournament at Mont Saint Michel. At length they speak and recognise each other, and when the lady’s husband conveniently dies, the three are joyfully reunited.

The author, Marie de France, makes realistic details of motherhood (details often omitted or disregarded as unnecessary in similar contemporary stories) central to the coherence of her tale, for instance in her description of how the heroine negotiates the perilous transition from pregnancy to married woman, safely getting her child into the world and into the loving care of her sister.

Empathy Details such as the helpfulness of an experienced and sympathetic confidante suggest the author’s insight and empathy. The young lady confides in an old woman, who ‘concealed her and shielded her so well that neither by word or by outward sign was her condition discovered.’ When the baby boy is born, they lay him in a cradle with identifying tokens and a letter. Cushioned on an expensive pillow and wrapped in a white linen sheet and a coverlet hemmed with marten fur, they place him into the care of several servants and a wet nurse, who care for him on his journey to his aunt. Travelling by the most direct route possible, they stop seven times a day – which seems like an accurate estimate! – to feed and wash him, and to get him back to sleep. They succeed in getting him safely into the loving care of his aunt, who raises him.

Style Eventful and exciting, with love, battles, impossible reunions and a happy ending! Available in various modern translations.

The Pregnancy Test: Positive. Accurate and sympathetic descriptions of pregnancy and childcare in medieval romance literature have received little critical attention until recently, but ‘Milun’ provides an excellent example, as does Marie’s ‘Le Fresne’. Whether or not she ever personally experienced pregnancy, Marie surely belonged to a community of women who shared these intimate, yet practical, details.

 

 

Book: Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) – made into a film the following year by Roman Polanski. Both were extremely successful.

Accuracy:

Early edition of Levin’s novel

Not very. Leaving aside the whole question of how likely it is that you’ll end up sharing a New York brownstone with a witches’ coven who get your husband to impregnate you with the Devil’s seed, and prevent you from getting a medical second opinion that might dissuade you from going to term with the Son of Satan, this is a very perfunctory account of childbirth (and recovery). The birth scene is eclipsed by Rosemary’s dawning realization that she is at the mercy of her husband, her neighbours (who are really witches), and her doctor (also one of the coven); every so often she remembers to have a contraction; then they give her an injection that makes her contractions feel ‘faint and disconnected from her floating eggshell head’. And that’s it, until she wakes up to feel ‘pain between her legs like a bundle of knife points’ (ouch). Post-partum, she takes to a breast pump with highly unrealistic ease.

The description of quickening (‘Something moved in her […] where nothing had ever moved before. A rippling little pressure’) is charming and accurate.

Empathy: Total. Rosemary focalizes every scene, so we see her vain, manipulative husband and her repulsive neighbours through her sympathetic and forgiving eyes; but we also share her reluctant but determined recognition that they are all plotting to subvert her pregnancy (wrongly, she thinks they’re planning to use her infant as a blood sacrifice to Satan).

Style: Fast-paced and highly readable (unsurprisingly selling 5 million copies within a year of publication).

The Pregnancy Test: Is this a book about the power or  the vulnerability of pregnant women? Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t give us any new insights into how pregnancy feels; Rosemary is a very typical, nice young woman with vaguely Lamaze-inspired aspirations for natural childbirth. But her battle to control her pregnancy and to protect her child could be read, as Karyn Valerius proposes in her informative article “‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects“, as a reflection of  American women’s struggle to decriminalize abortion, particularly in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy. Roe vs Wade was not passed until 1973.  P.A. Boswell in Pregnancy in Literature and Film (2014), although she discusses the film rather than the book, argues that the former provides ‘our first glimpse of a mature pregnancy narrative in contemporary film: pregnancy reveals the power of the pregnant woman’ (120). It’s true that in the book, Rosemary ultimately accrues status from her devotion to the child and her undeniable position as Satan’s Mother, but her influence is back-dated: during her pregnancy, she is tricked and manipulated. I like to read this novel as an updating of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a (childless) woman slowly goes mad, well-meaningly neglected by her husband and doctor as she becomes increasingly convinced that a woman is trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in her room. In Rosemary’s case, there really is a woman behind the wallpaper; she doesn’t have to go mad to become free. She does, however, have to have a child with claws, horns, and golden-yellow pupils.

Verdict: Positive.