Writing Motherhood

Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Publication Date: 
Thursday, March 9, 2017
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‘This is a truly inspiring collection, all the more so for its wit and its grit, its poetry and its honesty; here we have women producing ‘good art’ despite – and often  because of – ‘the pram in the hall.’ – Shelley Day

‘Essential reading for anyone who is a mother, or who had a mother, and is interested in how motherhood and creativity intertwine. Packed with top quality writing that serves to remind us that far from being marginal, the challenges of motherhood are central to the human condition and the dual creative role of writer and mother is both conflicting and super-charging.’ – Helen Cadbury, author of the Sean Denton series of crime novels.


Debates and debacles surrounding the issue of motherhood have hounded women’s writing for decades, and despite advances in feminism, equality, maternity leave and childcare, we are still asking female writers with children how they find time to write.

Through a unique combination of interviews, poems, and essays by established writers, Writing Motherhood interrogates contemporary representations of motherhood in media and literature, queries why so many novels dealing with serious women’s issues are packaged in pink covers with wellies and tea cups, and portrays the exquisite moments of motherhood as often enriching artistic practice rather than hindering it.

Entries include an insightful interview with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Sharon Olds, excerpts from Hollie McNish’s motherhood diary, Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful portrait of being and having a daughter, and specially commissioned poems by Sinead Morrissey, Rebecca Goss, and many others. Crime fiction fans will enjoy CL Taylor’s witty essay, ‘How Motherhood Turned Me to Crime’, and Nuala Ellwood’s heart-wrenching depiction of miscarriage and loss. 

By engaging with both the creation of literature by mothers and literary representations of motherhood, Writing Motherhood is a vital exploration of the complexities of contemporary sexual politics, publishing, artistic creation, and 21st Century parenting.


Review by Suzy Kopliku

Thursday, May 4, 2017

I lightly tap these words and watch them tip toe across the quiet, ordered screen so as not to stir my grandson as he sleeps soundly in the bed beside me. This is about as much quiet and order as I've been able to wring out of the day thus far.
Practically speaking, a mother’s time is limited by her children's needs and routines and the constraints of the childcare available to her.
Free time feels luxurious and rare these days, especially for mothers. Free time is akin to a favourite Saturday morning sweatshirt that makes allowances for natural breadth and freedom of movement. As both a full time mother and a work at home mother I have, at times, over the years, felt metaphorically as bound in bone corseting as any pre-twentieth century woman.
A mother often plays the centrifugal role in a family and as a result her own identity often becomes an extension of that role. In the early weeks and months after having a baby, identity becomes a question that many mothers wrestle with. Much of this book illustrates the ways in which mothers navigate their roles in order to make time for creativity and how, post birth, they can emerge with an identity that may be re-defined but that they are not solely defined by. The over-arching message in this book is optimistic. Not only can motherhood make space for creativity, it can often be a catalyst for it. The excerpt below written by Rebecca Stonehill, titled ‘Writer and mother: How children can help (and not hinder) the creative process’ suggests that perhaps one is flint to the others steel. Perhaps, the experience of motherhood can actually become tinder for the creative flame to kindle:

Prior to children, my right-hand companion to my writing process was procrastination. With three small children to care for and a supportive husband who took them out on Saturday mornings so I could write, I didn't have TIME to procrastinate any more. Here was my precious opportunity and I had to seize it with both hands. 
Those mornings came to form a vital pulse of my writing, with many short stories and sections of my novel springing from them. 

Writing Motherhood, edited by Carolyn Jess Cooke, is full of thoughtful essays and poems that examine the role of motherhood in a woman’s creative life. The diversity of experience detailed in the book share the common theme that motherhood can be a window into a woman's creative expression rather than a door which closes her to it.

A mother's life is made up of many constant re-negotiations of time, needs and priorities. The obstacles mothering presents to creativity are real, sleep deprivation, breast feeding and birth recovery being the most immediately pressing and physically demanding. These difficulties are not shied away from, indeed they are described at length from many diverse angles throughout the book. Yet the breakthroughs that come like morning light are equally as present. The kind of re-emergence of self that motherhood brings is beautifully described from the perspective of the child as his understanding of the world around it simultaneously grows ever more coherent in Rebecca Goss’ exquisite poem, ‘The Baby who understood Shadows’:

This baby she washed, fed,
kept close as fog, now able to see through

the branches of her arms, find the sun's rays,
his own shadow, all things that are not her.

Though motherhood draws boundary lines around space and time it just as powerfully forces a blurring of boundaries between self and other. Empathy with a child’s rhythms can expand a mothers sensory experience of the world. Exploration of the world through the budding sensory perception of a child is detailed in the playful internal rhymes of Sinéad Morrissey’s poem, ‘The Camera’, which describes how her young daughter steals and stashes random, ordinary objects around the house and wraps them in ‘blankets’:

pine cones, driftwood, rocks -
the waist-high were your common subjects

and while I watched, the air above me stretched

The photographs her daughter takes take this extra perspective to a poignant conclusion:

your own bright smile framed twice,
you've nevertheless led me back
to an earlier time, before we swapped

the kitchen table for a sturdier one
or painted the door frames brown,
when you were four, unschooled, unkempt,

absorbing this house and your place
in it: bewitched by the marvelous - 
and then stealing it.

Motherhood provides more than just new insights and creative inspiration though. In the chapter titled ‘Mother’s Work’, Holly McNish deftly argues that the skills required for negotiating with a toddler provide better qualification for a chief ambassador to the UN peacekeeping force than a PHD in conflict resolution. Her piece concludes:

Have you ever had to settle a dispute with a child or group of children without resorting to fist-banging, shouting "Ra ra, Mr Speaker", raising your voice or laughing in a pompous, arrogant manner at them?
Er no.
Ok, thank you. We'll let you know. We were really looking for someone who has toddler-care skills. Primary teaching might work too. We'll call you.

Writing Motherhood covers all aspects and stages of mothering including, most movingly, a chapter on loss, absence and suffering.
In ‘Postcards from a Hospital’, Doireann Ní Ghríofa writes with aching clarity about the time her newborn spent in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Poetry glimmers through each starkly written paragraph:

‘Blood blood - Blood blood - a steady thud.’

‘Every hour I descend to the basement in search of my Persephone.’

The sharing of such experiences through the art of writing gives voice to the experience of motherhood from mothers themselves, as Sharon Olds writes:

Someone who has knowledge of a subject like motherhood, which through most of human history had not been memorialized or embodied in art, has precious knowledge.

Considering how the experience of motherhood effects us all as human beings it does seem extraordinary that the writings of mothers on the subject of motherhood hasn't been more widely available.

As a writer and artisan who is also a mother to five and grandmother to one I thoroughly enjoyed reading Writing Motherhood, in-between nap times, exam coaching, cooking, taxi driving, changing nappies and school runs of course.

Review by Amy Leigh Ridsdale

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Motherhood. A reality for me and a reality for many. Whether you're an expectant mother, a grandparent, a mother etc this book really connects and touches base on so many issues related to Motherhood. Many raw emotions have been spilled on many pressing matters such as miscarriage, emergency births, separation anxiety ( childcare). Each has been composed by a mother going through her own experiences as a Mother and a parent. One in particular really hits home for me and was almost identical to my very own experience and as such allowed me to realize that others understand what I have been through. Doireann Ni Ghriofa POSTCARDS FROM A HOSPITAL, I deeply connected and related to on so many levels. As mothers, we all need a bit of support, comfort and to know that we are not alone in what we go through on a daily basis. This book serves as a kind of journal with entries from multiple different women sharing their experiences. This book can serve as a comfort, as a reassurance when you are seeking strength encouragement and have a need to know that you are not alone. In saying the above, I highly would suggest this novel as a must read.

And to all you mothers out there who like expressive writing and embrace motherhood, this book is what you have been seeking.

Review by Shelley Day

Friday, January 27, 2017

Writing Motherhood is an amazing collection of contemporary writings by women on motherhood, specially commissioned pieces edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke; a great mix of poetry, prose and interviews that explores the wide range of ways in which women writers have fantasised about, experienced, and written about motherhood – what it means for them as women, as mothers, as writers. It’s a fascinating and compelling collection; such a range of lovely, lively, fresh and honest work has found its way here. The accounts are thoughtful, moving, gritty, often raw, sometimes sad, and always beautifully written.

            Many women talk about how they battled with the apparent loss of their creativity when the baby came along. Esther Morgan, for example, finds she can no longer achieve ‘the act of becoming adjacent’ upon which her creative practice has depended. Her writing self surfaces again, however, once she learns how ‘to find poems in the music as well as in the silence.’ Her writing changes to become ‘a part of the rhythm of living rather than apart from it.’ It becomes ‘a poetry of connection, rather than escape.’

            Similarly, Rebecca Stonehills writes how her ‘life changed irrevoacbly’ and the novel she was writing just ‘juddered to a halt.’ The energy and even the desire to write eluded her totally after the baby was born. But Rebecca managed to re-capture her writing mojo by blogging about what she found difficult about motherhood.

            Motherhood, it seems - despite the dominant ideas in our culture that tell us how ‘natural’ it is - is fraught with all sorts of tensions and difficulties, all sorts of uncertainties and ambivalences, though none of the contributors in this volume gets stuck for long in the downside. Sinead Morrissey, for example, begins her poem The Camera: ‘Daughter, for the trick of making me travel / in three dimensions at once, I raise my glass./ Degna Stone’s poem Ruby, Aged 4 1/2 is a long list of complex feelings on both sides, but is ultimately life-affirming. C I Taylor took the plunge and transformed her angst and loneliness into a new genre of writing; she took a risk, and it worked. Poet Catherine Graham looks back after a period of post-natal depression and expresses in her poem how her feelings for the infant helped her through: ‘How wisely you reminded me / that even sand and water / in time / become solid, unbreakable stone.’ Greta Stoddart finds unexpected solace in the community of mothers she meets every day at the school gates.

            One thing that really shines through all the writings in this collection is the sheer power of the feelings mothers can have for their children; often unexpected, these are feelings that can take you over, delete your boundaries, fundamentally alter who you are. As Rose Sandler puts it, ‘Having children turns you mad. Nobody warns you. /’ Deryn Rees-Junes talks about feeling such a deep connection with her baby daughter that the boundary between them disappears: ‘I can’t tell us apart. When I do, daughter, I’ll admit, I’m lost, /

            The emotions of motherhood can be all-consuming. As Rachel Zucker puts it, ‘Now, I have never been anywhere / else … my beautiful child eviscerates me.’ Jacqueline Saphra refers to ‘the helpless love one creature must bear another.’ Rebecca Goss tries to express what it is like when the boundary between yourself and another person dissolves, when the other is ‘kept close as fog.’ She talks about ‘The fist she held / in her lips, when love required her to eat him.”

            The writings in this collection are as powerful as the feelings and the psychological struggles they describe. Alicia Ostriker says, ‘This is a prison … It does nothing but open its mouth.’

For some of these writers, writing itself proves to be a crucial way of working through the bad times or, in the case of still-birth, as in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s piece, of simply surviving the trauma and learning to live with the loss. As Marie Naughton reminds us, there is no word for a parent whose child has died. Such parents are left groping for words in a strange limbo. Nuala Ellwood talks about the twin ‘weights’ of love and loss. Doireann Ni Ghriofa, in a deeply moving account, describes in close detail her anguished experience of neonatal intensive care, making the reader cry with relief when finally the baby opens its eyes: ‘Her eye, when it opens, seeks me out like a mouth.’

            Carol Ann Duffy’s moving poem brings together birth and death, and the twin experiences of both mothers and daughters.

            Holly McNish’s piece made me laugh out loud. She brings humour to bear, the better to expose the taken-for-granted assumptions that continue to dog motherhood, and to make bright and visible the aspects of the experience that are invisible at worst and undervalued at best. She imagines that the skills motherhood has taught her are so many and various and useful that she emerges from the experience equipped to apply for the post of Head of a UN Peacekeeping Mission.

            This is a truly inspiring collection, all the more so for its wit and its grit, its poetry and its honesty; here we have women producing ‘good art’ despite – and often  because of – ‘the pram in the hall.’

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