It’s a mother of a day

Timed no doubt to chime with this weekend’s Mothering Sunday, Kate Middleton spoke at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists this week of her experience of motherhood,

“Personally, becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience. However, at times it has also been a huge challenge. Even for me, who has support at home that most mothers do not. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer, overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother. It’s full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together.”  

Looking tired and with a waver in her voice Kate seemed rather more real than we are used to. But then raising children is an emotive subject, even when you are Royal.

Mother it’s a weighty word, there’s no doubt.  As a noun it seems innocent enough; a mother – a female with offspring.  As a verb it’s much more complex – to mother – to give birth to, to bring up a child with care and affection; to look after someone kindly and protectively.  It’s this, the doing of mothering, that comes to define us (as child and as parent); in ways so subtle and nuanced we’ll probably never fully understand them.

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Maman, Louise Bourgeois (2000)

For centuries art has held motherhood up, almost reverentially; the life-giver, the nurturer, the carer – the bar set impossibly high.   It’s become a concept. And we are prepared to pay highly to perpetuate it – this Picasso sold for near $25m in 1988.

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Ode to Motherhood, Picasso (1965)

And so motherhood is fundamentally flawed; the lived experience is always found lacking to the ideal,  mothers can only fail.  And so many, many words have been written probing parent/child relationships;

“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and they will love us.” Megan Mayhew Bergman

These views of mothers from others (mostly their children) has produced a rich seam of memoirs and biographies revealing a myriad of maternal quirks; from the funny to the manipulative, the critical and the indolent to the horrifically abusive. We love to hold mothers up for inspection – flecks and flaws and all – responsible, accountable, mistake-makers.  For some the mother/child relationship is warm and fuzzy, for others troubling, difficult, estranged even.

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Julia Warhola, Andy Warhol, 1974                                                                                 (Painted 2 years after her death)

But now the mothers are talking back (so welcome Kate to the chorus). Once perceived as too sweet or sentimental, the mother’s voice has taken a longer time to find its footing.  But these stories are compelling as they are revealing; they tell us of alienation, identity, judgment, nature, love, loss, and the ways life does not turn out as planned.

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Mother delousing her child (maternal duty), de Hooch (1658-60)

Mother writers, ( like Rachel Cusk, Sylvia Plath, Anne Enright, Kate Figes, Helen Simpson, Barbara Kingsolver, Laura Pritchett, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Claire Vaye Watkins) Jane Smiley says,  could be important change- makers,     “. . . a picture of many women in a room, exchanging anecdotes of pregnancy and childbirth, all anecdotes simultaneously the same and different, the multifarious and simple, the One and the many. . . . It is a vision that, if we can insert it into the stream of literature, may help our country to pause so we can save ourselves and the world that cradles us after all.” 

For it’s these singing mamas who are telling us many important things; how we come to motherhood from many motives; biological, economic, social, even political. How we are required to transform from the happy-go-lucky to the responsible and assured, in a birthing instant.  How mothering with it’s many expected capabilities; assumed expertise and unrealistic juggling skills will never be a paid job with prospects and a pension.  How mothers are sacrificed at the home hearth (where are the medals for that?) mostly winging it, sucking and seeing it and hoping (and praying) that everyone will turn out ok.

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My Mother, David Hockney (1986)

So it may have become another card-industry racket (the American instigator of Mother’s Day Anna Jarvis hated the hi-jacking of her reverential day, “It wasn’t to celebrate all mothers. It was to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known—your mother—as a son or a daughter.” She spent her final years in many fruitless legal battles against the commericalisation of Mother’s Day in the US).  So kids put those slights aside (your mother experience will make you who you are) and give her a break (and a chocolate cake) this weekend.

Mothers are celebrated around the world: In much of the Arab world, Mother’s Day is on March 21, which happens to loosely coincide with the start of spring. In Panama the day is celebrated on December 8, when the Catholic Church honors perhaps the most famous of mothers, the Virgin Mary. In Thailand mothers are honored on August 12, the birthday of Queen Sirikit, who has reigned since 1956 and is considered by many to be a mother to all Thais.

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Louise Bourgeois on ‘Spider”


The kid eye view: the addict, the neurotic ,the zealot, the iconic, the murdered, the secretive, the indifferent.

Mothering words: the flaws, the shame, the effort, the fear of failure, the joy and the love.

Watch: Mothers of all kinds

Listen: Mothers sure know how to talk

What Fresh Hell and other Mother podcasts.

The Art of Motherhood:

Featured Image: Madison Omahne (USA, Ohio) Womb Project (2013-14) Photo collage with soft sculpture

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