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27 August 2015

Parenting remains primarily women’s work. Is that why it’s passed over in literature?

We need more mothers in literature, not just to make it more inclusive, but because our perception of motherhood remains so badly skewed.

By Glosswitch

Should there be less sex and more childcare in modern fiction? Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last weekend, the writer Janice Galloway argued that “literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.”

Is Galloway right? I guess it could depend on how much sex you’re having, but raising children is clearly not a niche activity. Each of us is someone’s daughter or son; most of us will go on to have children ourselves. Parenthood is not a temporary state: once you’re in it, you’re in it for life. But is this something we want or need to read about? Or is it just too mundane?

As any woman who found the birth of her child the most miraculous event ever will be told, she’s hardly the first person to think this and she won’t be the last. Birth happens, children grow. Is there anything left to write? And if so, who would write it?

Although it has become commonplace to use the gender-neutral term “parenting” to describe the practice of child-rearing, across most cultures raising children remains primarily women’s work. If parenting is a story, it is a story about women’s lives. In the 2007 introduction to her 1977 novel The Women’s Room, Marilyn French describes the way in which “convention has always held women’s work – what is still called women’s work – illegitimate as subject matter for serious literature: one could describe ruined casseroles or erupting washing machines only as the comic frustrations of a wry, witty ‘mad housewife’”:

Although novels like [Christina] Stead’s [The Man Who Loved Children], and Doris Lessing’s great The Golden Notebook and, later, The Women’s RooI treat women’s work seriously, the subject still consigns a work to less than serious status in the eyes of literary critics. To put it another way: under no circumstances may the actual daily occupation of half of the world’s population be taken seriously.

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I think French is correct. Furthermore, almost forty years after The Women’s Room’s publication, there has been, if anything, a lowering of ambition in how we describe the “shit and string beans” realities of suburban mothering. Chick lit merges into mum lit as heroines settle down. The housewife’s “comic frustrations” find expression in works such as Gill Hornby’s Enid Blyton-esque The Hive. We have stopped feeling angry and remembered to feel embarrassed. After all, we’re just the mums.

It would of course be difficult to argue that French’s work ever represented the experience of “half of the world’s population.” As with Betty Friedan’s non-fiction Feminine Mystique, its focus on the domestic sphere is narrow: white, mainly heterosexual, middle-class. Both politics and great literature are required to cast the net more widely, seeking out universal truths. The specific will always be too specific. Unless, of course, politics and great literature are male.

As women writers of any genre could confirm, the rules are different for boys. Male experience is universal experience, transcending race, class and culture. Scratch the surface, get beyond the superficialities and you’ll find a shared humanity (sure, Jonathan Franzen can’t do women, but he can do people). Female experience is only ever female, hemmed in further by apologetic streams of contextual qualification. As the philosopher Mary O’Brien pointed out, serious politics, economics and literature can be based around such simple, repetitive activities as eating, sex or death, but not reproduction nor the raising of children. If a man experiences something, it is a human experience; if only a woman experiences it, then it is diminished both by the detail of her life (too niche!) and by the fact that it appears pitifully mundane.

As Barbara Katz Rothman writes, “women’s reality is not the dominant ideology, and women’s view of the world is overruled by men’s view. Motherhood in a patriarchal society is what mothers and babies signify to men.” Hence we turn away from the shit and string beans and focus on the long view, the patriarchal line and the degenerate seed: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and Balzac’s Comédie Humaine are all hung up on the family not as material reality but as symbolic legacy.

Both our literary structures and our broader political understanding of what parenting is tend to position reproductive experience on male terms, as something apart from “real” life. In Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed, Meghan Daum’s collection of essays by writers who chose not to have children, it is notable that while male contributors fret over their failure to continue the generational line (thereby treating reproduction as a form of extending the narrative), female contributors celebrate all of the “real” things they have been able to do in place of caring for children: all the books written, countries visited, work accomplished. There is no place for the story of mum.

We blame “the pram in the hall” for the fact that we don’t get to hear mothers’ stories. Practical issues, we reason, get in the way. But could it be that there is no place in our narrative conventions for mother, other than as “she who must be left behind”? The novelist Rachel Cusk describes motherhood as sometimes seeming “like a sort of relay race, a journey whose purpose is to pass on the baton of life, all work and heat and hurry one minute and mere panting spectatorship the next.”

Mother has, by definition, served her purpose. Your father is the person you aspire to be, your mother is merely the person from whom you must separate. Male knowledge is adding stones to the edifice, female knowledge must be constantly dismissed and reinvented anew (as in feminism’s matrophobic focus on waves). Maternal subjectivity is a contradiction in terms. We acquire subjectivity by killing mother, shit, string beans and all.

This holds true regardless of whether the writer is male or female. As Marianne Hirsch puts it, “women writers’ attempts to imagine lives for their heroines which will be different from their mothers’ make it imperative that mothers be silent or absent in their texts, that they remain in the prehistory of plot, fixed both as objects of desire and as examples not to be emulated.” Whether we are dealing with fairy tales, in which the “real” mother is dead and the active mother is an evil impostor, or with the feminist Bildungsroman, in which the young woman has to reject the path followed by previous generations, the person who has made another person – another subject – has to become an empty shell.

Against all this, there are some stunning works which explore and redefine maternal experience. Both Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Emma Donaghue’s Room merit greater recognition as examinations of the choices mothers have to make under extreme conditions. Elisa Albert’s After Birth offers a brilliantly in-your-face depiction of the embodied meaning of maternal life. These are all works in which the mother goes on living, thinking and creating, despite having already presented a new human to the world. Moreover, she continues to do so as a mother, not as a woman-with-plot-device-baby (à la Rachel in Friends). We need works more like them.

We need more not just to make literature more inclusive or more varied, but because our perception of motherhood and what it means to become a mother remains so badly skewed. Life does not stop when you make another life. Mothers are not static points of reference; we move, too. To understand motherhood in experiential and embodied terms, looking beyond the male symbolic, could change how we think about individuality, relationships and the passage of time in ways literature has not done before. Galloway is right. We need to write having children back into the story. 

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