Monday 5 May 2014

The Pleasures of Reading

There is a dance that appears out of nowhere, steps we don’t know we know until using them to calm our baby. This dance is something we learn in our sleep, from our own hearts, from our parents, going back and back through all of our ancestors. Men and women do the same dance and acquire it without a thought. Graceful, eccentric, this wavelike sway is a skilled graciousness of the entire body. Parents possess and lose it after the first fleeting months but that’s all right because already it has been passed on – the knowledge lodged deep within the comforted baby.
(from: The Blue Jay’s Dance, L. Edrich)

Well-being for me has been about connecting with others through the written word and this has been amply demonstrated in my experience of being a mother. I was a first time mum after having completed a Master of Arts in Gender and Human Geography. I was a child of the '60s. I had traveled, studied, and found interesting work and even at the age of 40 could well have filled another ten years. The options were many, the prospects unknown, and yet we took the plunge. I say we because it was, and still is, important to me that if I were to have children it would have to be a shared experience and commitment, otherwise no way. I loved being pregnant, the birth was an incredible experience, both good and bad, and here we were with a baby. I had entered Motherland and was 'rapt. 

The experience of being a mother, however, wasn't quite what I had thought it would be. To be honest I felt my life was a whole new ball game and I needed to reset the boundaries, learn the terrain and do a whole lot of adapting. As it turned out, more by circumstance than design, I discovered numerous books that talked about so many others who had gone before me. I was totally engaged and if you asked anyone who knows me the topic of motherhood became a recurring reference point in conversation.

The 1970s spawned some excellent texts on being a mother, many of which hold up today and Adrienne Rich’s, Of Woman Born is one such example. As Rich is a poet this is beautifully written and spans philosophy, history, sociology and poetry – drawing these threads together while reflecting on her life and experience with her own children. This book is political and it sets a steep agenda for change that was necessarily a part of 1970s movements, and going back to it reminds me of an idealism that was a characterising feature. Nevertheless, a central contribution is a distinction that Rich made between the experience of being a mother and an institutionalization of motherhood that is perpetuated through social policy and practice.

Another by Jane Lazarre The Mother Knot was important to me when my children were small. This became a chance meeting with a friend, someone I could understand and who, in turn, seemed to understand me. Lazarre talked about her everyday experiences of being a mum, the good and the bad, while leaving room for ambivalence and uncertainty. I discovered that Michael Leunig has a talented sister Mary Leunig who published a series of insightful drawings reflecting on mums, dads and the domestic in There’s no place like home; Black and White and Grey; A Piece of Cake and One Big Happy Family. You can see more on these on her internet site. Another that I enjoyed when my kids were little was The mother trip. Ariel Gore says, now is the time to develop a serious relationship with your couch; a prospect that had already become a part of my everyday life.

A friend bought me a copy of the Myths of Motherhood by Shari Thurer. I loved reading this jaunt through history from cave woman to modern day mums. The incidence of infanticide up until the early 20th century was a shock but also the effect of current insights into the subconscious that challenge parents to come up with new ways of discipline so as not to scar our children’s sense of self. We don’t want to give our children destructive messages that can become self-perpetuating, so we strive to communicate the positive while providing behavioural boundaries.

Over recent years I have completed a doctorate asking why is it that many women grapple with issues related to identity when they become first time mothers. Why is it that a substantial proportion of couples who set out to achieve equal, or egalitarian, caring routines have been unable to do so. These questions have led me to explore maternal subjectivity and the social structuring of women within families. It seems to me that modern women and men, are pioneering new ways of being, and new ways of bringing up children, if only the social system could catch up and accommodate, rather than hamper our efforts. I have set up an internet site at www.maternalhealthandwellbeing and launched online professional development courses. I commend to you the power of reading and who knows you too may be bitten by the bug and become one of the many who have taken to the pen to tap into the very deep well that can be unearthed by parenthood.