Making Motherhood into Art

The everyday realities of motherhood are not all about noticing or experiencing. She writes about a moment of frustration with her child as she tries to calm the child while dinner guests drink and chat just outside the door. Dakin’s 1897 A Handbook of Midwifery, he writes, “Child-bearing is known to have a particularly marked influence in causing insanity in those women who have an hereditary taint of madness or of other marked neurosis.” The solution was not to diminish the potential for demands of motherhood — but rather isolation at home or in an asylum, a respite from the demanding world of the mind. In W. I’ve pressed the phone to my ear trying to talk to an editor, while tossing fistfuls of fruit snacks at my toddler, while running around the park, trying to convey with a hand wave and a stern frown the “Mommy is doing important work here!”
At its core, Menkedick’s book tries to grapple with the task so many of us face: reconciling the indignities of motherhood with the pressures of work. She describes her dreams of becoming a respected literary journalist and contrasts them with her reality — pregnant and living in Ohio — which, as she explains, “forced [her] to confront the persistent cultural prejudices [she’s] long held against the perceived feminine: against domesticity, motherhood, the imagined softness and weakness of introspection as compared with real, hard, muscular experience.” There are two sides in her perception: feminine and masculine, motherhood and muscularity. Yet, treating writing as a lofty art, rather than hardscrabble work, evades a larger question of how women and work are viewed. Even as recent as the early 1900s, birthmarks and birth defects were all read as moral or visual failings, a sign a mother had not kept her mind and thus her body pure. But this moment immediately reconciles once the baby falls asleep. That motherhood causes such a clash of identities is neither surprising nor new. Women put eggs in the freezer and milk in the cupboard and blame it on pregnancy brain. But for how many mothers, really, is that true? Erma Bombeck, Mary Shelley, Adrienne Rich, Mary Cassatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neale Hurston, Erica Jong, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and on and on. Medical practitioners from medieval times through the Enlightenment believed that a child’s deformities could be linked to the things a mother saw or ate during pregnancy, or even her innermost thoughts. Motherhood can, as the early medical texts argued, give rise to a temporary insanity. Her goal is to reconcile the two and rescue motherhood and the feminine from patriarchal realms where those qualities are devalued. Even the science of birth is inconclusive, a tangled mess of myth and medicine. Well, not work so much as art; Menkedick isn’t exactly in the same boat as most of us. Mothers are encouraged to relax and rest. Motherhood is as much a woman’s undoing as it is her making. I’ve lactated while a guest on a Huffington Post Live segment, scooching down in my chair to hide the tell-tale circles while I nodded seriously at the question from the host. It is here in this gestational dissonance that Menkedick grapples with her identity as a writer in light of her new identity as mother. Many women quit working because they find the pull between the demands of motherhood and the demands of work too overwhelming. Her book The Death of the Midwestern Church is forthcoming from Indiana University Press and   Belabored: Tales of Myth, Medicine, and Motherhood is forthcoming from Norton. I’ve developed an aversion to stories that have too clear an aim; I want the heady, dreamy immersion of novels or of stories so intimate and pressed up close to a life that they have no bigger picture. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times,   The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and others. Both Galchen and Erdrich have lists of mother writers in their books. This is not to erase all bias, which exists in the publishing world as well as all of our worlds. Wallace Stegner in Angle of Repose creates one of the most vivid image of the confines motherhood I’ve ever read. They are typically just called mombloggers — their writing, precisely because it is by and for women, is dismissed, but that does not mean it should be; certainly it should not be ignored by writers seeking to amplify this narrative legacy. And any rendering of motherhood that doesn’t grapple with shit cannot be fully honest. Yes, patriarchal attitudes are real, but so are postpartum psychosis and depression. What motherhood means for an individual depends not on the act of giving life, but of living it. Many women have given birth and remain unchanged. Homing Instincts is part of this legacy of literary motherhood. Just as much as motherhood has always been part of art, not all moments of motherhood rise to the level of great significance, aesthetic or otherwise. Or that to protect her mind a mother should be devoid of all intellectual stimulation. Yet, she elevates this boredom as a Zen-like state of contemplation and noticing. In A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, historian Jan Bondeson explains how according to legend a noblewoman became pregnant with a hairy child after copulating underneath a picture of a bear. Autism was for many years attributed to a mother’s lack of love and warmth. It can also be a force for sanity. Dakin, a British physician, wasn’t the first to suggest that an active mind was bad for mother and child. Erdrich notes that more mothers have written since reliable birth control became common place, and she argues that women writers “must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured.” Yet, this oppositional approach to motherhood and writing is not one size fits all. Menkedick separates writing from work, establishing that for her, writing is not about money; it’s a personal endeavor. Writers like Adrienne Rich, Louise Erdrich, Rachel Cusk, Sarah Manguso, Rivka Galchen, and Anne Lamott have sought to reconcile the complexities of motherhood with the demands of art. The lesson here, if we can be so reductive, is that no one benefits from polemics or binaries. When these nuances are stripped from the conversation about what motherhood and work mean, these moments lose their relevance and also bring up a question of audience. In fact, the elevation of “motherhood as art” has often been to our detriment — casting the ideal of motherhood high on a pedestal from which so many women have fallen. O. Artistic renderings of motherhood have been used just as much to hurt the cause of women as they have to help. In another section, Menkedick writes about the boredom of motherhood. Motherhood can feed inspiration and sap it. Late in the book she concludes:
In these months and coming years, I also recognized that for as much as I may follow a male formula for success, traipsing through jungles and writing with cool detached bravado, I would never be afforded the privilege of maleness. Motherhood is the realm of both the saint and the monster. JULY 7, 2017
I AM THE IDEAL AUDIENCE for Sarah Menkedick’s book Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, a book anatomizing the experience of being simultaneously pregnant, a writer, and living on an Ohio farm. And the reality is that time — both the passage of a woman’s life and the movement of history — changes these positions. Science has proven that a mother’s stress level impacts fetal health. To write these complications off as a limitation of thought or a patriarchal literary legacy dismisses the real and desperate needs of mothers who don’t have access to affordable childcare, struggling to pay bills in a culture that lauds them but does little to actually help them. It seems a little anachronistic for Menkedick to insist so vigorously that it be considered as such, when in fact it is already. Exhaustion, lack of maternity leave and affordable or accessible maternal care, and preoccupation with the demands of the child cover women in a heavy blanket of responsibility that is often difficult to escape. Motherhood in and of itself is not always profound. To assert that motherhood is in and of itself significance, is kitschy in its denials of shit. I’ve transcribed interviews, cringing as I heard my children scream, “Who farted in here?!” drowning out the recorded voice of the important person I was interviewing. Like war, sports, medicine, epic travel, it’s a matter of blood and sweat and gore and suffering, of life and death, of triumphing over the limits of body and mind, except: Only women can give birth. Rich faces this darkness; so too do Cusk, Lamott, and Galchen. Insisting on motherhood as art without facing its darkness is an incomplete argument. If before I had been able to nurture a vision of myself as the odd one out, the prodigy, the foreigner, the strong woman running with men, I now came to understand that there were forces I could never outrun, and that in the very act of running I was limiting myself and my writing to a narrow realm of proficiency. Menkedick, herself, admits to this complicity in a way. Some moms are shitty. In the book, Menkedick maps out a binary: motherhood versus serious art. Here Menkedick’s conclusions ascend from the easy binaries that much of the book relies on, and align with the complicated history of motherhood in culture: that the closer you look at it, the more complicated it becomes. ¤
Lyz Lenz in the managing editor of The Rumpus. Which mothers are supposed to find meaning in these observations when the observations overlook their reality? In fact, there is a whole constellation of women who have and are making motherhood as art. Mothers abuse. Again, here “patriarchal norms” doesn’t suffice as an answer. For others, the balance is less fraught. It’s disingenuous to say that motherhood is ignored or undervalued in the literary canon. And why should it be? Motherhood is just shit. Writers such as Kate Douglas Wiggins, Martha Finley, F. She writes about how she used to privilege other topics of writing over motherhood, but the source of that impulse is never fully mined. Sometimes they are just what they are — a lot of hard shit that you scrub out of your carpet because someone pooped on the floor (again). R. To nod and say this is simply because of the persistence of patriarchal attitudes in medicine and society is a rhetorical trapdoor — it’s too easy a way out of the complexities of how motherhood fundamentally changes a person. Although that theory, like the theory of maternal impressions, has been disproven, the idea that a mother is still not fit for labor, particularly intellectual labor, still informs the way we speak about pregnancy. For centuries, motherhood has been held in opposition to intellectual pursuits. Using an iPhone during breastfeeding sessions is not always a distraction for women; it’s about earning a paycheck. Giving birth is almost unremarkable in its commonality. There is Catherine’s motherhood and madness in Wuthering Heights, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Virgin Mary peacefully holding of the infant Christ, the rage of Medea. E. Fed and cared for, Menkedick is allowed the space few women have, to sit with her pregnancy and truly grapple with its implications for her life. As a mother and a writer, I have the sense that I too should value this argument. In a recent op-ed, Menkedick writes,
Birth is only, after all, is the single most important experience of our lives. It’s not hard to understand then why women who are mothers and intellectuals feel like they must prove themselves, furiously railing against the forces that would segregate motherhood from more “important” endeavors. The insistence that motherhood ought to be considered art strips art of its history of complicity in the promotion of patriarchal norms. And yet, I find that it chafes, because the binary of motherhood versus art, patriarchy versus matriarchy, removes the conversation of its complexity. Motherhood is art. Toward the end of the book, Menkedick writes about her new self, the one that has emerged from the rock tumbler of motherhood, noting:
I have shed the pressing need for purpose. Many women and have found their voice and inspiration through motherhood. Rölvaag’s depictions of mothers going mad on the prairie forever haunt me on school days. She writes, “The ultimate shallowness of artistic fervor became terrifyingly clear in pregnancy, and although there are moments when I get my fierce ambition back, its centrality has forever been tested.” Which is a nice position if you are a mother whose work is optional. Mothers, even the good ones, want to run away. But the legacy of motherhood in art and as art is more complex than the work/motherhood binary presented. According to her depiction, she doesn’t have to work in the traditional sense of paying bills and affording childcare. The frustrations of the interminable waiting of parenting are not always about reconciling a self to a life outside of the “Anglo-Protestant” hierarchy, personal fulfillment, and the “overwhelming American pressure to conform,” but about actual survival. Like Menkedick, I am a writer — and I live in Iowa, hacking away a Midwestern living out of a crumb-infested, pee-stained, child-riddled existence. Carolyn Graglia, and Janette Oke have used motherhood as a righteous justification for women to take on a more passive role in society and in marriage. Motherhood is a not a cloak of moral superiority any more than possessing a penis or going to war. The book takes place while she and her partner live rent-free in a cabin on her father’s property, who also helps with childcare. The book is a pregnant Walden — traversing the space between the internal and external, both a record of a real time and a carefully formal creation — a growing child, the changing of seasons, location, and identity. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth depicts a sacrificial model of motherhood that is detrimental to the health and well-being of the main character, and offers a conclusion that is fraught with sexual shame. Privileging some form of art over other (more feminized, popular) ones segregates the very voices of mothers who are and have been doing exactly what Menkedick is doing herself — making art. And it falsely paints the impulse not to write about motherhood as evidence of some internalized patriarchal oppression, when perhaps the topic is simply just not always interesting to the woman, mother, and writer. I don’t need to be able to define a book’s themes, its goals, its message. So birth is imagined as an ingenuous, icky realm for the dull-minded. Also, insisting that motherhood has been ignored, in turn ignores the very women who have been making art of motherhood for centuries. It’s an understandable urge to try and make every moment teem with meaning, but sometimes, your kid pukes, you catch it, and the moment is everything and nothing. Additionally, there are many women who write amazing moving accounts of birth and motherhood. Menkedick does not face this darkness head on. Yet the binaries she attempts to reconcile, and the fact that she poses them as binaries, often erase the complexities of motherhood, feminism, and writing. It’s an admirable project. Sometimes you just sit and stare at your baby, because what the hell else can you do? Just as not all motherhood rises to the level of significance, motherhood itself is no pure endeavor bequeathed with an inherent moral goodness. Motherhood is all of these things and none of them. And while there is no conclusive science that proves a pregnant woman has diminished intellectual capacity, ask almost any mother why she lost the keys in a salad bowl and she will tell you, without irony, that her body was too busy making a baby to think. They are not always elemental. I want to feel the world called up, depicted in its contradictions and coincidences and complex schemas.