Mothers Day: why we need more great writing about being a mother

Poets Hollie McNish, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Kathryn Maris appear at StAnza’s Writing Motherhood event

‘The mainstream is scared of motherhood,’ says the poet Hollie McNish, speaking in St Andrews at the StAnza Poetry Festival 2015. ‘I feel I’m not allowed to talk about it.’ She has been trying to get a book of poems about motherhood published, but has been told by publishers' marketing teams that people don’t want to read about what it’s really like to be a mother.

McNish was speaking as part of a Writing Motherhood poetry event at StAnza, alongside fellow poets Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Kathryn Maris. McNish is a highly respected performance poet who has struck a chord with an unusually large audience – her performance poem about breastfeeding, ‘Embarrassed’, has over 1.3 million views on YouTube – but she still encounters prejudice about the subject of her work.

This StAnza event was part of a series of Writing Motherhood events taking place across the country organised by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, whose poetry collection Boom! is entirely about being a mother. ‘When I was done with the collection, I wasn’t done with the conversation,’ Jess-Cooke says. ‘I wanted to hear more from writers about how parenthood affected their creativity… women’s fiction is dismissed as “chick lit” [and] the female experience is not seen as a literary subject.’ She started organising literary events to confront ‘the unfinished business of feminism within motherhood’.

It was hugely refreshing to hear Jess-Cooke, McNish and Maris speak in an open and literary way about motherhood, an experience that has long been dismissed by literary critics and male writers as a niche experience. This event was strikingly honest and inspiring, revealing some of the harsher truths and darker sides of motherhood that are suppressed by commercial publishers and big organisations in favour of Hallmark-style sentiments: flowers and chocolates and cheery slogans like ‘Mums go to Iceland’. One of McNish’s unflinching and glitteringly well-observed poems centres around a trip she made to Mothercare when heavily pregnant to buy bottles and a steriliser. She asked the assistant if there were any sterilisers that could be used without a microwave. The assistant responded, in horrified disbelief, ‘You can’t have a baby without a microwave!’

It is these strange moments – moments of judgement, accepted half-truths and sudden feelings of inadequacy – that poets who are also mothers are exploring to fascinating effect, whether or not publishers want to admit it. Kathryn Maris read a poem about reuniting a lost child in a museum with her parents, detailing all the things an alternate-universe Maris could have said to her fellow mother but did not. It was a masterfully subtle poem about the ways that mothers judge each other even when trying not to judge at all.

The most refreshing part of the StAnza event was hearing women talk about themselves, and not just their babies, in nuanced, literary analysis of what parenthood involves. We are so used to hearing about mothers only as selfless heroes, entirely focused on the miraculous life they have created, but what we don’t hear nearly enough is sophisticated literary exploration of the unique physical sensations of pregnancy and labour, how mothers are treated by wider society, and how becoming a mother changes your identity, for better and worse. Poetry is well-placed to interrogate the disconcerting dual experience of being an independent human and growing a separate, brand-new human inside you.

McNish read ‘Embarrassed’, her most popular poem, to rapturous applause. She wrote the piece while forced to breastfeed her infant daughter in a public toilet to avoid embarrassing anyone around her, and the poem centres around the hypocrisy of a society that tells women that breastfeeding is obscene, while sexualising breasts on advertising billboards and in daily national newspapers. The literary experience of motherhood, just like breastfeeding, is too often censored or sidelined under the pretence of keeping it ‘private’, or the flawed idea that poets and readers should focus on matters more ‘serious" or universal.

One of McNish’s poems was about her frustration in the maternity ward when hearing a nearby man wake his partner, who was recovering from labour, so he could tell her to change the nappy of their older child. ‘I don’t do nappies,’ the man said. His pathetic refusal to embrace the less-than-glamorous realities of parenthood was a reminder of literature's general unwillingness to pay serious attention to parenthood in all its glory and ugliness together. Too many publishers ‘don't do nappies’ either. The strange, prescriptive notion that writers shouldn’t probe motherhood too deeply – instead keeping mothers on a safe, perfumed and unrealistic pedestal – persists despite the fact that writers and readers have all, at some point, been born to a real-life mother and might be interested in what that means.

It’s a cliche to describe motherhood as wonderful and magical, so these women’s complex poems intermingling love, hurt, unfamiliar physical sensations, fear and anxiety, with utter frustration at a society that refuses to see mothers as individuals, were majestic and intricate compared to the Hallmark Mother’s Day cards’ vision of motherhood we’re so used to seeing. This was not unserious poetry or even ‘women’s poetry’; this was literature for everyone. Poetry will only become more interesting as it explores more of the hidden, censored world around creating life.

Writing Motherhood took place at StAnza: Scotland’s Poetry Festival on Fri 6 Mar 2015.

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