There have always been mothers … but motherhood was invented

If you were at my book launch on September 13, then you would have heard the story of my former weekly habit of buying 10 packets of maternity-sized sanitary pads for my daughter, to contain the nappy area, when she was in a full body cast. I was thinking about this again today after reading this article, about whether a female writer needs to have experienced motherhood to be able to write evocatively about human emotion.

The article both shocked and challenged me – certainly the author’s claim that ‘there is no practical difference between a man and a woman writer when the latter has not had children’ had me shaking my head at its seeming disingenuousness. But then I found myself agreeing with the statement that ‘the feelings [that motherhood evokes] of intense vulnerability (your own and, more importantly, your child’s), passionate love, joy, bewilderment and exhaustion are unlike anything else.’

Also, I had to remind myself that at my book launch, I had emphatically stated that I would not have been able to write If I Should Lose You if I had not been a mother. But I think my point was more along the lines that, if I hadn’t been a mother, it is unlikely that the topic for this book would have entered my creative radar; I would have been writing a book about something else. And so I don’t think I can agree with the crux of the above-mentioned article; being a mother might cause me to tackle certain ideas in my writing but I don’t think it means that I do it any better than anyone who hasn’t been a mother. For instance, I think Jane Eyre is one of the most passionate books I’ve read; its author was most certainly not a mother, yet she was able to recreate on the page a very profound human emotion.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share this; it’s an abridged and altered version of an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago and that was published in indigo journal. It’s about some of the ways I experienced motherhood after my second child was born – and some of the emotion in those experiences fed into If I Should Lose You. I hope you enjoy it.

 What Fabrications They Are, Mothers. By Natasha Lester

Here is a set of hips—a four-month-old baby’s hips. We can all visualise such hips: the roly-poly plumpness, the soft clouds of skin.

Audrey in her cast

Here is another set of hips, my four-month-old baby’s hips. They are wrapped like a Christmas gift in red fibreglass; in fact, the plaster extends from her nipples down to the ends of her toes. Her legs are strapped apart in an abducted position; she is like a frog without a pond. Lashed between her knees is, quite literally, a broom handle, a piece of dowel also covered in red fibreglass plaster.

I measure the distance between each foot: 60 centimetres, the same as her height. It is like someone stretching and fixing my legs 165 centimetres apart. I doubt that it could even be done.The surgeon assures me that she will be able to bring her knees together by the time she is eighteen. My husband laughs at the joke. I don’t.

I spend our first plastered day listening to the rhythmical thunk-thunk of her feet knocking into every wall we walk past, because I am not used to accommodating such a large span of leg. By the next day I have learned to go sideways down corridors and I wonder how we must look—a mother performing a shuffling sidestep while supporting her baby’s floppy head, which just happens to be attached to an oversized concrete bodysuit. That’s what it feels like, although the technical term, which isn’t even so technical, is hip spica or spica cast. It’s pronounced spike-a, which, to my poet’s ear is just stupid; hip and spic should rhyme so at least there would be something pleasing to the ear about the contraption, rather than it sounding like a spear that might suddenly be launched suddenly from one’s nether regions.

 

You’re doing such a good job, almost everybody says to me. Or, you’re such a good mother. For some inexplicable reason, having a child trapped in a cast automatically makes me a good mother who is doing a good job. I know these platitudes are supposed to make me feel better so I always smile and say thank you. But inside I wonder, why should a mother always be good? Why was the word ‘mother’ recently voted the most beautiful word in the English language? Why is the haloed Madonna, her eyes rapturously downcast to baby Jesus, still considered the ideal to which all women with children should aspire?

I am not always good. There are days when I hate the spica, when my back is sore from constantly carrying the weight of it, when I have run out of ideas about how to amuse a sobbing child who is unable to sit or crawl or roll or even lie on her back in the cast, when I can barely summon up the energy to play with my older daughter who must surely feel left out because of all the attention that is focused on her sister.

I remember reading, while at university, that while ‘there have always been mothers…motherhood was invented.’* By whom? Bell invented the telephone, Edison the light bulb, Watt the steam engine. This I recall from school. We didn’t get taught the identity of the inventor of motherhood. I imagine a man (of course it must have been a man) pulling particles of thought from the air, studying the cells of ideas through a microscope and fashioning a philosophy so virulent he could simply open the window of his laboratory and it would spread like the common cold, resistant to both vaccine and medication. It is the word ‘invented’ against which I rebel; this implies a moment when motherhood did not exist followed by a period of development and manufacture after which it is packed, wrapped and dispatched.

I find something similar in my favourite novel, The Blind Assassin: ‘What fabrications they are, mothers. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves—our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I’ve been one myself, I know.’

Here we are, back to the language of manufacture; mothers are fabrications and their children are the fabricators. I imagine a boilermaker fabricating steel into a roof truss for a house and I wonder if mothers are so malleable and so strong, if they are able to be burnt and bent and bear great weight. And if we are such fabrications, then what is it that Audrey has made of me: a mother suspicious of the language of motherhood.

 

I remember the day after Audrey was born. The pediatrician grabbed her legs and performed the Barlow Test. I was not worried because Hip Dysplasia was a congenital condition and we had no family history of such a thing. Then, the pediatrician called my husband over and said, Feel this. My husband duly put his hands over the pediatrician’s, the manoeuvre was performed again and my husband said, Wow. By this time, I wanted to yell, what is it about my daughter that is ‘wow’ and why am I the last to know?

After an ultrasound and a consultation with the orthopedic surgeon it transpires that ‘it’ is Hip Dysplasia or DDH. The surgeon pulls out two contraptions, one that looks like a parachute harness but is actually a Pavlik Harness, and one that looks like a bull bar but is actually a Correctio Brace. He chooses the bull bar for Audrey. It is, apparently, less complicated. Six to eight weeks in this, he says, and her hips will be fixed.

It’ll go so quickly, they say. You’ll look back on this and you won’t even remember it. Six to eight weeks is nothing.

I believe everybody. It becomes a chant—sixtoeightweeks, sixtoeightweeks. I repeat it over and over as she screams and shits through ultrasounds, brace fittings, and then a change of brace, because she manages to make her hip worse in the Correctio by trying to escape out of it sideways. The surgeon is surprised she doesn’t enjoy wearing a bull bar for twenty-four hours a day. A baby has never done this before, he says, and I look at her and I am proud because I know she is strong. I also know then that this will not be fixed in six to eight weeks because she will always want to escape from anything that holds her down. I need to remember this when she is older or I may lose her forever.

We spend the next three months with the Pavlik Harness, which is like the straps of a parachute around her torso attached to a large pair of moon boots.

The Pavlik doesn’t work either. She is booked into hospital to have dye injected into her hips so the surgeon can see if there is anything preventing the braces and harnesses from doing what they are supposed to do. They discover her femur is dislocated, something they should have been able to feel when manipulating her leg, but didn’t because Audrey held the muscles in her leg so tightly she convinced them her leg was actually sitting correctly in her hip socket. She knew she did not want what came next; the operations, months of plaster; she knew her only chance of avoiding it was to deceive them for as long as she could. Who taught her such resistance, I wonder? Did she absorb it while she was inside me? Because if she is responsible for fabricating me—a mother distrustful of motherhood, pretending to be otherwise—surely I am in some way responsible for fabricating her. But the evidence proves otherwise. Audrey has brown eyes and I have blue. She has brown hair and I have blonde. I claim her lips as my own but not her hips—they cannot be my fault.

Others believe it is though. One day, out at the shops with Audrey, a woman shouts at me, What did you do to your baby? She thinks I have broken my child’s legs, that there could be no other reason why my baby is encased in plaster. Based on the evidence before her, this woman does not think I am a good mother, therefore I must represent the other mother myth: the destructive mother; Medea, or Cinderella’s evil stepmother.

There in the shopping centre I remember Eva, in Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. After the birth of her child Eva felt ‘trapped in someone else’s story’. I understand her now. I feel trapped in the plaster of motherhood—I am neither the good nor the bad mother but something in between. I am the space, the gap, the absence of words. A space like that between Audrey’s legs, notable because, for most, it doesn’t exist.

 

Audrey and I make it to the end of spica. It takes over an hour to cut the cast off her body. She screams throughout because the nurse is cutting just millimetres above her skin with a loud saw that vibrates with what must seem, to a baby, the intensity of an earthquake. When they finally pull the plaster off, Audrey is still howling because her legs have been cut by the plaster saw in six places. Her skin is filled with fluid from immobilisation; it is as red and sensitive as a severe case of sunburn from being hidden for so long in the dark, sweaty place of the cast.

Then I am allowed to pick her up. She stops crying and falls asleep as soon as I hold her. She is worn out from more than I have ever had to bear. In thiat moment, I understand why I have been unable to find a story of motherhood that satisfied me. My story lies in the absence of words, in the silence after the howling stops and before sleep begins, in the moment when my hands touch her skin. Everything about motherhood is caught there, and then it disappears.

*Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Indiana UP, 1989.

 

3 comments

  1. jo

    It is amazing how many people want to praise, criticise or generally comment on the way we are mothers. I don’t agree that motherhood is invented, though in some ways I guess it is true that it is an inventive process. You do the best you can, make it up as you go along and hope it works. I really enjoyed this piece of writing, thank you for sharing!

  2. Beautiful. Your story brought tears to my eyes.

    My daughter was braced from three weeks old due to hip displasia. I remember feeling physical pain in my chest, and crying with her as she fought to straighten her little legs that first day in the brace.

    We got through it though, finally given the all clear at two and a half years old.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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