Sunday, 20 November 2011

We (Still) Need to Talk About the Truths of Motherhood

"There are many masks of motherhood, but the one of silence is the most treacherous one of all...the mask of motherhood keeps women from speaking clearly what they know and from hearing truths too threatening to face."
(Susan Maushart, The Mask of Motherhood:  How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It)

In one particularly poignant scene in Lynn Ramsay's film adaption of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, the character of Eva (portrayed by the brilliant Tilda Swinton) attempts to silence both her baby’s incessant crying and her own  maternal despair by pushing her pram next to a loud drilling  in the  middle of a busy city street. Viewers are positioned to be bystanders to her transgressive act, and like the passerbys on the screen, we can choose to either engage or look and then turn away.
Although I will be writing a more full review of this  much anticipated film in the coming weeks after its Toronto December release, I really wanted to talk  here in this post about the visual imagery of maternal ambivalence and more generally, the subject of the unspoken yet  complex realities of the mothering experience.

In a feature essay in the most recent issue of Brain Child Magazine, Katy Read wonders:
"So which are we: A culture in which mothers hesitate to voice misgivings for fear of social reprisal? Or one so inundated with maternal kvetching that onlookers are understandably tired of it?"
I would agree with this writer  that “it is still rare and socially risky for mothers to admit any discontent” and that “such intense societal disapproval” of maternal ambivalence keeps the subject   under wraps . Indeed, I believe that far from reaching a “cultural tipping point”, there is  an ever increasing backlash against such expressions of the taboo aspects of mothering. Read explains it this way: "Cultural constraints lead mothers to complain, which draws societal condemnation, which makes mothers feel even more stifled, which provokes further complaint …".
Our Mother Outlaws Speakers Series this Tuesday Nov 22 in Toronto will address this topic specifically by showcasing the work of three local artists who make visible the hidden and often challenging experiences of women’s lives as mothers. 
Portrait of the Artist as a Mother: Visualizing the Unspoken, consists of presentations by Canadian visual artists: Jennifer Linton, Jennifer Long and Lindsay Page. Through their individual practices in photography, drawing and video, these artists create work that challenges the myth of motherhood as celebration and seeks to open up a dialogue around the aspects of this transition that are, in a variety of ways, unspoken.
The artists in this  panel  discussion create work that seeks to address the complexity of one’s relationship to the role of mother and in turn focus on how apprehension and taboo, loss and disappearance intermingle with the celebratory aspects of this transition. They challenge the stereotypes and critique the societal pressures to conform to an ill-fitting mold that somehow still remains intact and supported.
Undoubtedly, more honest and  accurate visualizations  of mothering “realities" -such as the ones expressed by these artists -  can lead towards radical transformations and challenges to the dominant representations of motherhood as all bliss and perfection . Of course, in conjunction with such diverse visual representations, mothers themselves must do the essential  work of  “unmasking motherhood”  by speaking authentically and  collectively with other woman about these buried  truths. As Susan Maushart wrote: “Unmasking motherhood is a greater challenge to the feminist imagination than all the other ‘women’s issues' put together”.

There is one moment I remember very clearly from my own early years of motherhood. Pushing my carriage alongside another new mother I had recently met in my neighbourhood, we attempted to have a casual conversation about diapers and sleep deprivation above the din of her daughter’s shrill crying (my son just happened to be asleep at that time). We approached the top of a steep hill and this woman abruptly stopped herself in her tracks. I looked at her directly and with my eyes  invited her to “ just say it, sister!” She spoke her truth: “ I kind of feel like I just want to push this stroller down the hill!” I simply replied with three words- “I hear you”-  and advised her to go ahead of me taking my son and that I would continue behind her at a comfortable distance  with her daughter.  She knew that she was not alone in her experiencing of  such contradictory feelings. And I knew  that I had found a true friend.
I hope the  readers of my  post also have a network of support to discuss their true feelings about mothering.

FYI: Upcoming Mother Outlaws discussion groups- Speakout and Speakeasy
For mothers in the London, Ontario vicinity, the next meeting of the London Feminist Mamas is Monday, November 21 at 6:30pm
Topic- Mothering and Guilt
For further information, contact Coordinator Shawna at

For mothers in Toronto, the next meeting of the Toronto Feminist Moms is Sunday, November 27 at 7 pm
Topic- What are the reasons and advantages in continuing to focus on mothers, motherhood and mothering, as opposed to parents, parenthood and parenting?
For further information, contact Coordinator Rebecca at

A London, England group is in its initial planning stages...please contact Jane at for more details.

For information  about starting your own Mother Outlaws discussion group in your community, please feel free to contact me at

Image credits:
Jennifer Linton, I Speak you into Being-Gravid Series, 2003
Lindsay Page, untitled-Spawn Series, 2007
Jennifer Long, untitled- Fold Series, 2011

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