Issue 2: Feminisms

On Motherhood and Violence

Iman Mersal

Translated from Arabic by Anna Ziajka Stanton

“You are not going to defeat me,” I say
“I won’t be an egg which you would crack
in a hurry for the world,
a footbridge that you would take on the way to your life.
I will defend myself.”[1]

The above passage is from a poem by the Polish poet Anna Swir (1909–1984), and in it she is speaking to her infant daughter. Yet the poem was published for the first time only in the early 1970s; that is, if we look to the poet’s biography, at least thirty years after she gave birth. So as a reader it is difficult not to wonder: Did Swir need all those years to nurture a certain anger toward her newborn child, an anger that she reclaims or redevelops in this poem, titled Maternity, where we find the arrival of the newborn threatening the life and very existence of the mother? The profoundness of Swir’s insight lies not in her having turned the struggle between the mother and her infant child into something general — it is not a contest over ownership, gender, or generational differences — but in her linking it with the biological process of childbirth. In this process there are two participants: one is a being who, before the moment of giving birth, lived, became someone, made choices determinant of her own existence; the other, this small thing, this doll, that has just emerged into life from the former’s innards.

The idea of a struggle between the mother and her newborn child falls outside the grand narrative of human experience, which records motherhood as a practice of giving, of mutual identification between two selves, of love at once unlimited and unconditional. It is as though Swir’s poem makes us recognize two motherhoods: a mainstream motherhood — shaped by religious rhetoric, philosophy, ethics, and social norms — where motherhood is seen as a human instinct naturally immune to conflict and anxiety; and a marginal motherhood, whose narrative fragments can be found in certain medical books, in literary texts, and in stories of domestic crime, in which disjointed voices try to express the fear and conflict and anxiety of motherhood as mental illness, in writing, or as crime. What concerns me here is not how specific features of motherhood became firmly established within the dominant narrative, but rather how we can attend to what is outside of and in opposition to this narrative. How we can acknowledge that motherhood, supposedly characterized by altruism and sacrifice, may also encompass selfishness and a deep sense of guilt. How we can view it, at least in some of its aspects, as a struggle for existence, as tension between the self and the other, as an experience of connection and separation of the sort that occurs at many of life’s thresholds — birth, weaning, death.

The idealization of motherhood in the dominant cultural narrative only increases the feeling of guilt among those whose own personal experience has made them doubt the essence of the ideal. The dominant narrative greets any expression of an experience different from the norm with moral and social condemnation — perhaps this is the reason for the scarcity of stories of motherhood that depart from the agreed-upon narrative. Perhaps this is also why Swir needed decades to free herself from having to say what was expected of her, and which in any case would not have been possible to say before the various efforts to extend feminist inquiry to everything generalized and structured about a woman’s relationship with her body and with the world.

The Crack in Motherhood Starts from Within

The mother refuses to be an egg cracked open by the baby during its passage into life. Latent here are the terror and gravity of the threat, for the birth of a new individual requires the death of other beings. As Georges Bataille sees it, the death of what came before is the indispensable condition of a new thing’s finding room to live[2]. It is as though what Bataille sees as the enchantment in the tragedy of life, Swir sees as a threat of annihilation, the tragic side of the most magical moments in life. Either way, the crack in motherhood starts from within.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins describes the endless battles that the gene must win for the preservation of the species. Survival is not for the fittest alone, but for the most selfish and the most able to prevail in the fight for existence against the other genes. There is no unconditional sacrifice; self-denial for Dawkins is a means of preserving certain genes, with investment in a given gene subject to its proving its capacity to sustain itself afterward[3]. The fetus inherits half its genes from the mother, and it depends on her for everything it needs to stay alive, even if what it needs is against her interests. The fetus’s programmatic mode of selfishness exploits the mother’s genes and makes her renounce herself for its sake, through “love.” If we imagine that a woman’s desire to be a mother is bound up with her desire as an individual for an extension of herself, an image, her wish to leave a part of herself living after her death; then love, altruism, and sacrifice are feelings not devoid of self-love, nor of selfishness on the part of the mother herself.

Indeed, any medical description of the processes of pregnancy and childbirth furnishes us with numerous metaphors related to threat, conflict, selection, investment, and danger. The womb defends itself against the harmful fetus, its walls increasing in thickness, which is what leads to menstruation; this is the means by which the mother’s body tests the viability of the embryo before allowing it to continue. The mother’s body must confirm that the pregnancy is a good investment for the future. The placenta will develop if the embryo wins its battle, but simultaneously a fine membrane must form separating the blood of the mother from the blood of the fetus — separation, and not mutual identification, being the condition of survival for both. The umbilical cord carries food and oxygen from the mother to her fetus and waste products from the fetus to its mother; yet during the transmission of what is necessary for the fetus’s development, diseases can also be transmitted to it from the mother. Biologically the fetus is alien to its mother’s body, a parasitic creature, and by being inside of her it may infect her as well with any number of diseases. It may cause her to die: before, during, or after childbirth. We cannot expect this struggle that happens on a biological level to disappear wholly from the relationship between the mother and her child after birth. It is this struggle that may introduce into each sacrifice the mother makes for her child a vague sense of threat, and into each practice of self-love a deep feeling of guilt.

My son pointed to a huge statue whose base showed a crocodile and a shark facing each other, and he asked:

“If the crocodile and the shark fought, who would win?”
“I don’t know, who do you think would win?”
“The dinosaur, of course!”

When there is a struggle between the self of the mother and the self of her child, then neither will be victorious: the dinosaur will win, “of course.” This dinosaur is guilt. It appears that guilt may be the single feeling that unites all mothers in spite of their differences[4]. It is implicit in the distance between ideal and reality in relationships of filiation, in love, work, and friendship. It also emerges out of the distance between the idealized vision of motherhood in the dominant narrative and the many failures that accompany it in personal experience. Guilt is such a core feeling that it serves to define the mother’s practices in her daily life: Your son’s weight is below average for his age group; you must not be feeding him enough. He woke up scared from a nightmare because he does not feel safe. You didn’t hug him when you dropped him off at school because you were late for work. You never learned how to ice skate, and though you go with him and stand in line with him in temperatures several dozen degrees below zero, you will not be able to help him put on the unfamiliar shoes, and in the end he will go off to skate by himself while you wait for him in the café, reading a book. You are a woman who is in a bad mood in the morning and preoccupied in the evening. The other mothers enjoy playing chess and know many children’s songs by heart.

As soon as I had confirmation of the pregnancy that I had wished for with all my heart, I felt none of the happiness that I had expected. I was overwhelmed by a deluge of anxieties and the fear that my body was not up to performing this task. I was thirty-two, and I realized suddenly that I had never cared about my health before, that my body had always been only a vessel for what I thought of as my self, a machine that never demanded anything yet was expected to stay in service. I had been a heavy smoker for ten years, and I lived a semi-bohemian lifestyle that assumed the body needed neither regular meals nor defined hours of sleep. All of this was in addition to a history of taking antidepressants, sleeping pills, sedatives, and whatever else fell into my hands. This was the history of my body before the pregnancy. But as soon as I became pregnant, I was faced with multiple institutions working night and day to enlighten me about the possible risks that this personal history might pose to the fetus. In my experience of motherhood, the feeling of guilt preceded all the others.

I called my father one morning during my third month of pregnancy to ask him whether I’d had German measles as a child. He told me, “You never had measles as far as we know, but what’s German measles?” In truth I had no idea if we were talking about two kinds of measles or one. I had read the previous night about the dangers associated with the mother’s contracting German measles, how the infection could be transmitted to the fetus and lead to a child being born dumb, blind, or with defects of the heart or nervous system. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would disagree with my father over the medical terminology. I asked him if he could get a report from our health collective listing all the vaccinations I’d been given as a child. My father answered simply that the collective we had belonged to until the end of the seventies had been demolished, and that he had watched with his own eyes as all the files inside burned before they could be moved to another building.

For and Against Institutions

Perhaps I thought that not reading all the facts about German measles was more merciful to myself than knowing them, that definitive knowledge opened the door to fear and nightmares. Meanwhile, the one institution that could have reassured me had vanished. A body without a documented medical history defies the revolution of modern medicine, which asks questions and offers an outlook on the future of the body partially from its history of illnesses and vaccinations.

The modern woman is unable to enjoy peace of mind while she is besieged by knowledge of what is happening to her pregnant body day by day: from her doctor, from publications provided by the health office, from how-to books that tell her here’s what you should eat and this is how you should feel and these are the average weight gains that you will experience at each stage, from medical reports that describe for her the nausea and strange dreams of the early months, and the back pains and frequent urination of the final ones. And beyond this: a mountain of printed books and specialized medical websites that warn of the disasters that can befall her and the thing in her womb, from miscarriage to premature birth, from eclampsia to fetal deformities, from chicken pox to the possibility of delivering a child who is handicapped, malformed, afflicted with birth defects.

Do the institutions of modern medicine come between the mother and her fetus? Did I mean by my story that knowing the risks during pregnancy can cause immense anxiety, while happiness may result from being ignorant of them? There are influential writings critical of the role of the institutions of medicine, childhood, and motherhood in the West[5], but honestly I cannot adopt a position of “critique” toward these institutions without conceding that in my case such a position would lack authenticity. According to the World Health Organization, between 289,000 and 343,000 women die annually from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and 99% of those who die are in the so-called third world[6]. I went through the process of pregnancy and childbirth in the first world and I enjoyed every one of its medical advantages, but originally I belong to the so-called third world. My attitude toward the institutions of medicine, childhood, and motherhood is complex and inseparable from my experiences in both worlds. When I was a child I knew women who died in childbirth. I could tell any number of stories; but why should we digress? It is enough here to say that my mother herself died at age twenty-seven, a few hours after delivering a stillborn child. And that there were no books within her reach that she could have read to learn that several days of silence from a fetus in the ninth month is a sign of danger. And that the hospital she went to was unable to save her. My mother, who died in the 1970s, is a perfect example of so many third-world women up to the present day, women who are unlucky enough to give birth at a moment when traditional medicine and channels of shared oral knowledge are being cut off and disrupted by modernity, while the halting progress of this modernity means that there are not yet medical institutions available that can take their places.

I gave birth to my first son in Canada, far from family and in semi-isolation. I had arrived in Canada only a few months earlier and I hadn’t yet made any friends there, but there was universal healthcare. During a routine visit to the doctor, she told me seriously that she suspected I might be suffering from postpartum depression. She gave me a brochure about the disease and sent me to group therapy with five other mothers or patients who were facing a variety of difficulties. Over a period of six months, we would meet once a week with a psychiatrist and a social worker. We were asked at each meeting to complete a specific assignment that was called a “task,” such as telling about the time during the preceding week when we’d felt most afraid or about any desire we’d had to hurt ourselves or our babies, or recounting dreams and nightmares, or sharing how many times recently we’d abruptly burst into tears. All of the women were Canadian, born and raised in this city, and they all had family support of some kind or another, except for me and an Iranian doctor who hadn’t been able to get a license yet to practice her specialization in Canada.

One of us hated her mother, or so she told us: “I hate my mother, I despise her more than any other person in the world, and the fear is killing me that my relationship with my daughter will be like my relationship with my mother.” One of us suffered from insomnia and watched her son all night while he slept so she could wake him if he suddenly stopped breathing. The Iranian woman told us that she had delivered her son normally at the hospital, and everything had seemed fine except that for an entire week she was unable to nurse him naturally: “The milk solidified in my breasts. My son has a birth defect on his lower lip, and it prevented them from producing milk. The doctors tried everything with me and nothing worked. I called my grandmother in Isfahan and told her what was happening to me. She said, ‘Get a fine-toothed comb, put it in warm water, and after drying it off stroke your breast with it a few times every two hours.’ She also told me, ‘Put the child under your armpit so that his feet are behind you and support his head with your hand as if you were dancing with him, and he will nurse.’ I succeeded in nursing him after less than a day.” Doubtless we were all dazzled at the genius and the success of this traditional advice, but the Iranian doctor appeared miserable. It seemed to me as if she were unable to enjoy any part of the experience because motherhood had happened to her somewhere other than her place of origin, as though her happiness were postponed until she returned there. I realized that regardless of the effectiveness of the group therapy and the institution supporting us, she and I did not feel safe because we were having this experience far from our families, and because there is a certain frame of reference that we lack when far from home.

The Frame of Reference for Motherhood

It appears that thinking about motherhood calls for looking in two different directions at once: toward the past, when you were daughter to a mother, and toward the future, when you became mother to a child. I don’t know exactly how the experience of being a daughter shapes that of being a mother, but I can easily imagine the impossibility of putting it aside and ignoring it. Might this itself be an unperceived reason for the stress of motherhood? If your own mother was very affectionate, perhaps you wish to be like her, and perhaps you feel guilty because you cannot. If you were your mother’s primary project in which she invested everything she had so that you would be as she wanted you to be, you might replicate the same investment with your child. Or you might watch yourself so that you don’t put your child through the same torture, after having tortured yourself to break free of your mother’s ambitions. Whether your mother was calm or violent, warm or cold, sane or crazy, she must provide a frame of reference for your visions of how to be a mother. But what if your mother died before you could remember her relationship with you? What about the absence of the mother, or her disappearance, as a personal frame of reference that you can adopt or fight back against when you become a mother? What about the experience of motherhood far from home, where you yourself are absent from your “mother land”? Does this make you more free, or more lost, as you perform your role as a mother?

Eve may be the only woman who went through the experience of motherhood without any personal or collective memory of being the daughter of a mother, without a frame of reference by which to be guided. How did Eve give birth to her first child, then? How did she deal with the nausea during the early months, and did she love her child as soon as he came out of her, and who cut the umbilical cord between them and with what tool, and were there other mammals nursing for her to watch and imitate or does this type of knowledge come from instinct? Did Eve want to be a mother, or not, and how could she know when she herself was not born of a mother’s womb, and there was no other woman in the world before her! We have heard that Eve and Adam sinned, and that for this they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Adam was punished by being made wretched upon the earth; this punishment, as we can see from our vantage point in the modern world, was not for men alone but for all human beings, men and women both. But Eve’s punishment was for her alone, not to be shared by any man, and this was the pains of childbirth: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”[7]

It is difficult to imagine the first birth on this earth, aided neither by prior experience nor by institutions. It is difficult to imagine the women who gave birth in the desert and in fields, in kitchens and on the outskirts of cities, or who lost their lives before the discovery of drugs or antibiotics. Yet it continues to be difficult to give birth and to be a mother today, even with all possible advantages of social class and medicine. Childbirth is an individual act, regardless of the doctors and assistants, the support of a husband, solutions and sedatives. You alone must give birth and free yourself of what is inside you, because the pain has become unbearable, because the life of the child has come to depend on your separating from him and because your existence, too, has become conditional on this separation.

After the birth, you will start a journey with a creature who must be a part of you yet who sometimes seems to you like a stranger. With each step of this journey, a new question will confront you, as if it were up to you to create your own motherhood out of nothing, as if it had never happened to anyone before you, as if it were an endless test of your own existence as a person, first of your relationship with your body, and second of your relationship with everything you used to think you were.

If you had hoped that the feminism of the 20th century would be attentive to your experience, perhaps you will be frustrated. Most feminist theory fights for women’s rights and for equality in the workplace, before the law, and in the public sphere, and to do this it has to generalize the idea of the woman in order to demonstrate the objectivity of women as a group, as a force in society, and as peers among men. When it comes to motherhood, the contradictions of Western feminism become apparent. Western feminism does not listen to individual experiences, and if it did, it would be critical of them on the grounds that they make the experience of motherhood separate from society and its institutions, or that within motherhood they separate the self from the other, or because in all cases they fail to narrate a subjective experience that supports this or that notion of feminist rhetoric.[8]

You will find most feminist movements radical in their defense of your right to take paid maternity leave, your right to reduce your work hours while you are breastfeeding, your right to protest the state’s stinginess in supporting childcare centers or the refusal of health insurance providers to take postpartum depression seriously. Feminist movements can open files on what no one talks about, like the rights of unmarried mothers and mothers in same-sex relationships, but most of the victories of feminist rhetoric have been against institutions. It is as if motherhood were an experience locked away deep inside the community of women as they do battle against patriarchy; they are better off without digging up this experience of “difference” between women and men that could alter the consciousness of both. Until feminist theories pay attention to the violence, anger, and frustration of motherhood, you must narrate your experience yourself. Or you can familiarize yourself with the existing narrative, which will help you to realize that you are not alone.

My son was four years old when he asked me: “What was the place we visited yesterday?” I tried to remember, and when I realized that we had gone nowhere in the past few days except to the daycare and the park, I thought of the previous week. “We went to see Yusuf’s doctors.” He looked at me impatiently. “No, no, yesterday.” I considered that perhaps the misunderstanding was not over the place but over the time; maybe, for instance, yesterday to him meant last month. All of my attempts to answer him failed. After a great deal of effort, I discovered that I had simply been in his dream; that when he had a dream, and I was with him in that dream, I was really with him, and so it was only natural that I would remember what had happened to us.

On Familiarizing Yourself with the Narrative

In J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, John — the son of the famous writer Elizabeth Costello — refuses to read what his mother writes; he will wait to do this until he is thirty-three years old: “That was his reply to her, his revenge on her for locking him out. She denied him, therefore he denied her. Or perhaps he refused to read her in order to protect himself.”[9] How did Costello deny her children, and why? The narrative offers us scattered fragments about Costello’s performance as a mother. For as long as John can remember, “his mother has secluded herself in the mornings to do her writing. No intrusions under any circumstances. He used to think of himself as a misfortunate child, lonely and unloved.”[10] We see Costello’s motherhood from the perspective of her son. For the whole length of the novel she will not discuss it; she talks only about her writing and about big subjects like realism and the treatment of animals. We can imagine her as a young mother taking pains to divide her time between her work and two children, feeling guilty sometimes because she does not spend enough time with them. We can imagine a mother who has bad moods in the mornings, and who, lacking the energy to deal with the world, locks the door in its face. Yet Costello seems more complicated than this. John himself wonders about her true self that he does not know, and which deep inside he does not want to know. If he were to speak, he would say: “This woman… whose words you hang on as if she were the sibyl, is the same woman who… hid day after day in her bedsitter in Hampstead, crying to herself, crawling out in the evenings into the foggy streets to buy the fish and chips on which she lived, falling asleep in her clothes. She is the same woman who later stormed around the house in Melbourne, hair flying in all directions, screaming at her children, ‘You are killing me! You are tearing the flesh from my body!’”[11]

Adrienne Rich is not a fictional character like Elizabeth Costello, but she too was a writer and a mother. Rich wrote in her journal in May, 1965: “To suffer with and for and against a child — maternally, egoistically, neurotically, sometimes with a sense of helplessness, sometimes with the illusion of learning wisdom — but always, everywhere, in body and soul, with that child — because that child is a piece of oneself.”[12] We can imagine that Rich, at certain moments, is Costello in one form or another. Although her child is part of her, there is an instant when she is helpless to stop being a woman with a project of her own that predated her being a mother. Her identity was shaped through writing, just as the identities of other people are shaped through what they hope to contribute to this world. There is no obvious contradiction per se in being a writer and a mother, but Rich talks in various places in her book about her frustration because she cannot find time for herself, about bouts of anger and tears, about her child who refuses to let her be an other to him, and drops whatever he has in his hands to spring at the typewriter as soon as she sits down to work. I think that she hoped that her child who was part of her would separate himself from her once in a while and accept that it was within her right to go off sometimes to encounter herself. Rich, like Costello, confronted this juxtaposition between her identity as a writer and her identity as a mother: “Once in a while someone used to ask me, ‘Don’t you ever write poems about your children?’ The male poets of my generation did write poems about their children — especially their daughters. For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.”[13]

It is not just a juxtaposition between two elements within the identity of the mother-writer or the writer-mother, but a ripping apart, a struggle over time and energy. When the writer succeeds in being a mother for a day she will feel like a failure for all the reading and writing that she did not get done, and when she has a day to herself she will agonize over her selfishness. When she is able, on a third day, to write while her child sits on her knees, and to play hide and seek with him while she thinks about how to change a word in a poem, there is no guarantee that she will not feel guilty or feel like a failure even while doing this. Moreover, there is no guarantee that her child will read what she wrote someday, or that he will not be angry like John, Elizabeth Costello’s son.

When you give birth, remember that you are not an egg. Swir herself knows this. You may feel for days or hours that you are at the mercy of a “womb” surrounded with other organs, but it is surrounded as well with an existence and a history prior to pregnancy. It is true that the instant of giving birth will split you into two halves. But isn’t there, in each of our lives, a breakage, a crack, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says?[14] Isn’t this crack itself part of the identity with which we move through the world? Childbirth is a threshold on a journey; it is the crossing that the body undertakes to become self-aware. Adrienne Rich broke herself for the sake of this: “I had been trying to give birth to myself; and in some grim, dim way I was determined to use even pregnancy and parturition in that process.”[15] It is as if the two poets Anna Swir and Adrienne Rich — each in her own way — is trying to say: I recognize my own cracks; I lived with them before I gave birth. I am brittle, and giving life to this doll, and then its separation from me, is a new crack in my being. I did not only have to give birth to this doll but I must give birth to myself as well for its sake, and this self-birth will reconfirm the cracks already within me, or help them to mend.

By way of conclusion: the poem “Mourad”

— I don’t want to die, mama.

— You won’t die now, you’re only four years old, habibi.

— I don’t want to get old, then die, mama.

— Maybe by that time you will be ready, habibi.

— But why do we die, mama?

— Maybe because we, I mean… maybe because we are greater than life, habibi.

— Tell God that Mourad doesn’t want to die, mama.

— But I’m not in touch with him, habibi.

  1. Anna Świrszczyńska, Talking to My Body (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1996).
  2. Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973), 11.
  3. In his book, Dawkins treats the mother as a machine who does everything in her power to make her genes live on in others (106). In a separate context, he also addresses the selfish behavior of the child, where no matter what his mother has sacrificed for his sake, his own life continues to be, for him, of greater value than hers, because in the end she is only the source of half his genes (131). See: Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  4. There are numerous studies and surveys that confirm the centrality of guilt in modern motherhood, including: Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women (London: Free Press, 2005); Sheila S. Coleman, Mommy Grace: Erasing Your Mommy Guilt (New York: Faith Words, 2009).
  5. For example: Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997); Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).
  7. Genesis 3:16, New King James Version [translator’s note].
  8. Look, for example, at the criticism leveled by Patrice DiQuinzio at any suggestion of a theoretical structure dependent on personal experience; she sees the importance of personal experience but affirms its inconsistency and shortcomings, as in the experience of motherhood for Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution and for Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. See: Patrice DiQuinzio, The Impossibility of Motherhood: Feminism, Individualism, and the Problem of Mothering (New York: Routledge, 1999), 205–220.
  9. J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (New York: Viking, 2003), 5.
  10. Ibid., 4.
  11. Ibid., 30.
  12. Rich, 22.
  13. Ibid., 31.
  14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald: The Crack Up and Other Autobiographical Pieces (London: Bodley Head, 1965), 273–278.
  15. Rich, 29.