Saturday, 29 September 2012

A little bit of Autobiography ~ Motherhood

I think my recent autobiographical musings (here and here) have been laying the foundations for this post. To recap, in a recent interview Zoe Lambert said:
Of course, the relation of the self to writing is more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author.
I've been thinking about Zoe's comment, particularly with reference to the forthcoming publication of my first short story collection. It's not really up to me to say what my book is 'about' - I won't ever be able to view it as a reader - but as I reflect on the stories, I notice frequent instances of parental ambivalence and perhaps, on an autobiographical level at least, some of that ambivalence can be contextualized by an understanding of a woman's place in the Mormon community.

I grew up feeling that my life was building towards the ultimate fulfillment of motherhood. I always pictured myself with a big family. Maybe statements like the one below played a part in my imaginings:

Woman and the Priesthood, Rodney Turner, p.222. 

My own family life probably played a part, too. I'm one of five children. Some people hate growing up in a big family, but I loved it. I loved my siblings, we had tremendous fun - when we were small we were like the five musketeers: one for all and all for one.

Mormon girls are taught that bearing children is their primary purpose in life. A 2010 statement reads: 'Teach your daughters to find joy in nurturing children. This is where their love and talents can have the greatest eternal significance' (see full text here).

The song below, 'I Want to be a Mother', is featured on a CD for Mormon children that is still on sale (it contrasts beautifully with the get-up-and-go, disco-influenced 'My Big Brother's Going on a Mission').

What if a woman doesn't want to be a mother? It seems that she is intrinsically bad: 'Faithful daughters of God desire children' (see full text here).

What if a woman wants to be a mother AND something else? Tough luck: 'It was never intended by the Lord that married women should compete with men in employment. They have a far greater and more important service to render... Wives, come home from the typewriter, the laundry, the nursing, come home from the factory, the cafe. No career approaches in importance that of wife, homemaker, mother - cooking meals, washing dishes, making beds for one’s precious husband and children' (see full text here).

I wanted to do motherhood the 'right' way, the way I'd been taught: milk and cookies and yellow balloons, the whole joyous, fulfilling experience. I spent several years in a slightly bewildered and occasionally desperate fug, wondering what I on earth I was doing wrong. Things were difficult financially because we had followed the advice of numerous Mormon prophets: 'Do not curtail the number of children for personal or selfish reasons. Material possessions, social convenience, and so-called professional advantages are nothing compared to a righteous posterity' (see full text here). Consequently, I needed to get a job. I decided to work nights so I wouldn't be away from my children during the day. I felt guilty about working and I was so exhausted that I was frequently physically sick. My doctor gave me some medication to counter the sickness. I didn't tell him that on the nights when I wasn't working, I often lay awake, struggling to breathe past my bounding heart as I worried about things like eternal polygamy and how to quell the desire to snatch back some of my life from sticky, grasping fingers.

There were times when I attempted to give voice to my feelings, but other mothers were incredibly skilled at squelching ambivalence. I couldn't find anyone who was prepared to concede that parenthood was bloody awful at times, so I began to assume that there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. A thick, cotton-wool silence surrounded topics like postnatal depression and sleep deprivation. When I got a prescription for anti-depressants, I didn't tell my husband - I couldn't find the words, they weren't in the script of joyous, eternal motherhood.

Things got better. When I finally started writing again (I stopped when I was 19, after I got engaged) I wrote about all the things I couldn't discuss. (I talk about this in a Thresholds article on short story writer Helen Simpson, here). I wrote about harried, sleep-deprived parents; about shattered expectations and beastly children; about absent miracles and anxiety. After so many years of trying to carve myself into a complaint, and obedient woman, writing about the dark side of family life was a transgressive and extremely enjoyable enterprise.

My collection isn't autobiographical; I'm not divorced, I didn't buy my children at the supermarket and I don't live in a gingerbread house. But, as Zoe says, the relationship of the self to writing is complex and I wonder whether, among the drowning dolls and twilight supermarkets, the fictional parenting books and decapitated snowmen, there are tiny refractions of past anxieties: the place of women, polygamy, motherhood - I expect they're there, somewhere.


  1. I love this, Carys. And I feel exactly the same way about my writing. I need to do more. I've neglected writing in the last few months and it has effected my emotional health. And I have a good life too . . . great post.

  2. Thanks Angela. I have a good life, too. And lovely, patient children!

  3. Thanks so much for this. I love all five of my children, but there are days when it's just too much. We're not often given the space or the validation we need to acknowledge or verbalize that. And when parenting is compounded with work, often at no-future, low wage jobs because we can't possibly do work that's fulfilling or enjoyable outside our home, we get a double whammy of exhaustion and guilt and shame.

    I remember being so excited after my medically needed hysterectomy. I didn't think before telling a woman in my ward how wonderful it was to know that now I would just get to be Sarah. I would never again have to share my being and existence with another. I could just be me. The woman looked at me like I was something between a lost soul and a great danger to everyone else in my ward. Did I willingly sacrifice my body and autonomy to get my kids here. Absolutely. Is it a great joy to know that my body is only mine now and I'll not ever have to make that sacrifice again in this life? Absolutely.

  4. "The woman looked at me like I was something between a lost soul and a great danger to everyone else in my ward."

    That's very sad Sarah. I think the pressure to hide your true self is vastly more dangerous than an honest comment.

  5. Carys, the honesty within your book is exactly what makes it so great. Real life is not as sickly sweet as they make it out to be in Young Women's lessons.