What Motherhood Means
Below is a poem I wrote in 2010. It is the title poem of my first collection, a pamphlet called Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare.
I wrote it not long after my daughter died. She died during an emergency caesarean section after complications in the third trimester. The poem itself was the first thing I wrote after a period of simply not being able to write anything. I was in therapy, dealing with the return of my depression having been flattened by grief. The poem seemed to come from nowhere. I remember crying while writing it and not realising why. Afterwards, my therapist pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t just a poem about a witch who turns into a hare, or a hare that embodies a witch; perhaps it was a poem about my daughter and myself, about how I felt when I was pregnant, how it felt to be so physically close to someone that they live inside you, so connected that their very body parts are made from your own cells. I found pregnancy with my daughter life-defining. I miss my daughter. She would have been four this month and there are still days when it is unbearable to have lost her.
Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare
I will tell you how it was. I slipped
into the hare like a nude foot
into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones
to one side to make room for my shape
so I could settle myself like a child within her.
in the dark I groped for her freedom, gently teasing
it apart across my fingers to web across my palm.
Here is where our separation ends:
I tensed her legs with my arms, pushed my rhythm
down the stepping-stones of spine. An odd feeling this,
to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg;
the aching jaw around her delicate self. Her mind
was simple, full of open space and weather.
I warmed myself on her frantic pulse and felt the draw
of gorse and grass, the distant slate line
at the edge of the moor. The air span diamonds
out of sea fret to catch across my tawny coat
as I began to fold the earth beneath my feet
and fly across the heath, the heather.
At the time I became pregnant with Matilda, my husband and I had been trying to have a baby for six years. Matilda was an IVF baby. We’d been through so much to reach her that when we lost her it was immeasurably painful, the worst pain. We’ve now been trying for 11 years. And I have suffered two missed miscarriages to add to our depressive collection of loss. Missed miscarriages are a type of miscarriage where no bleeding occurs – the baby’s death is picked up via a scan. Ours were both early, at eight weeks. No live births, as yet.
Infertility places a person outside society. An infertile woman is always on the outside of her friends, always on the fringes of what is classed as ‘normal’ life. I’ve felt that acutely at times. Not being able to have a baby without help, trying to conceive for months and years at a time without success leaches life out of you. I do what I do to deal with it, I write what I know. I write about my daughter and about grief and loss because that is where my life has been for four years: losing her, trying again, losing another baby, trying again, losing another baby.We’ve just taken a year off from further IVF and it’s done me the world of good, but we are back preparing for IVF number five.
The thing about writing is that you can only ever write about what is in your head and your heart. I write and I write and I write and I can safely say that losing my daughter has pushed my writing forward. I have become braver, more confident in my writing because I have written about my daughter. I don’t solely write about her – my new collection Museum Pieces is testament to that – but she seeps into my poems without me realising and perhaps that is as it should be, that is right for now, and in the future I will write more about other things.
The experience has taught me so many things. I am a much stronger person than I ever imagined, I am much more resilient and I have a voice and I have a tool and I have a lot to say about a lot of things. That is what motherhood is to me: it’s my daughter, my pregnancy, the experience of loving someone in a way that is completely unrelated to anything I could imagine. It was loving myself and my husband and the creature built from our very bones, it was the first time I saw her face, the feeling of her stretching and kicking inside me, the waking in the night to a foot pushed under my ribs. And now? It is a white marble headstone in a quiet graveyard, it is laying pink roses for my Matilda Rose, it is putting her first even though she is dead, it is about talking about her and what happened to us, it is about sharing her story and hoping that the mistakes with our care do not happen to another couple.
My motherhood experience continues in a different vain. Now it is the constant Holy Grail of a successful pregnancy. It is about living in the moment with my husband and my dog, cat and chickens, in our little house. Writing is about discovering myself among the ruins of my child’s death and it is about keeping something alive inside me that says we will reach where we want to be, that we will become a family of three and I will experience that wonder again with a baby I can bring home. But not every story has a happy ending and that is something to work on. At some point there will be no more trying and we will have to readjust our lives accordingly.
‘Motherhood’ is a description of the relationship between offspring and mother, the period of life in which a woman goes from singular to collective; the family is a catalyst to a new relationship with oneself. It is not singularly about pregnancy, birth, childhood, children and mothers – it is all of these things. As such I imagined it would be difficult to create an anthology of poetry about ‘Motherhood’ without falling into Hallmark territory. Mother’s Day has just passed and among the schmaltz and fluff I was lucky enough to read The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood. I usually avoid Mother’s Day like the commercial plague it is but as a writer, and a writer who writes fairly incessantly about my own experiences of motherhood, I am fascinated by the subject. I wanted to explore how other writers think and write about motherhood and look at my own ideas of motherhood.
The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood is a fantastic anthology. I found so much to connect with in its pages. It ranges across the subject with wit and curiosity and doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable truths about motherhood. It questions the relationship inheritance that is the bond between child and grandmother (or lack thereof), the relationship with one’s own mother, the failings, the relief, the joy, the beauty. It is not schmaltz, it is one of the most powerful collections I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have very little personal experience of motherhood beyond that which I have described but I could connect with so many of the poems in this anthology that I didn’t feel on the fringes. I recognised in others that which I recognise in myself. Hilary Gilmore’s Where the Baby isn’t struck a particular chord with me.
Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright put the collection together (Wright also illustrated it). Among the most memorable poets within the anthology are Kate Garrett (whose poem Ten about her autistic son is achingly touching) and Carole Bromley – her poem DIY beat at my heart and reminded me of how needlessly worried I had been about having our own house decorations finished for my daughter’s arrival.
When I spoke to these four inspiring women I wanted to know how they felt about motherhood. I wanted to know what they thought about feminism and the empowerment of women. I was lucky enough that they all answered my questions honestly and eloquently and the impression I got was that, even though their backgrounds differed immensely, they felt it was important to write about their experiences, to bring together other women writers to explore the dark as well as the light. As Wright says in her introduction to the anthology: “The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood is not a comfortable book. It houses many disparate voices and offers no easy resolution to the tensions of expectation between women and motherhood, and mothers and children.”
That hits the nail on the head. Motherhood is an individual experience as well as a communal one, it is a sociological expectation but also something loaded with our own and our mother’s expectations. It is visceral, cloying, bright and dark and no two stories are the same in the way that no two births are the same. This is why poetry about motherhood is so fascinating. Poetry, for me, is the distilling of emotion and experience to a point where the thing that connects us to each other is the purest drop. Poetry plants itself in your head and casts its roots out for connection.
One of the questions I asked the four women was whether they classed themselves as feminists and if they thought feminism was treated as a dirty word. I think of myself as a feminist but the perception of feminism as some sort of Man Hater’s Club is one that is hard to shake. As Smith put it, the word feminist “frightens people”. This is something to be railed against. One can be a mother and a wife and still be a feminist. One can work or not work and still be a feminist. One can enjoy being feminine and still be a feminist. Feminism is about fighting for and upholding the rights of women.
Garrett says: “Perhaps we don’t celebrate parenthood as an equal role enough.” Men can be feminists, men can nurture. To come across a book about motherhood that includes men writing about their own experiences alongside women is refreshing. One day I’d like to speak to Richard O’Brien whose poem National Moth Night is gentle and touching and reminded me of my husband’s relationship with his own mother. Meanwhile, George David Clark’s poem Laud in the Turning Leaves touched a nerve – a poem about a woman trying to become pregnant and finding she is not. It is sensitive and absolutely captures the grief packaged up in month after month of negative pregnancy tests.
It is empowering to write about motherhood from all angles. The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood does that. I shall be returning to it.
The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood is available here: http://theemmapress.com/
Wendy Pratt’s books are available from Prole: http://www.prolebooks.co.uk/
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