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Mother was pleased
On maternal rage, rewilding the fairy tale and finding magic in the mundane
Nothing like revisiting a childhood classic to make you re-examine things. This edition’s subject line is taken from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series. My kiddo has gotten very into it recently, both as an audiobook and in the more traditional us-reading-it-to-him-over-and-over-again format.
In between tales of pop cakes, google buns and moon-faced men, I was intrigued by the glimpses we see of the kids’ parents, and it got me thinking about how mothers are depicted in fiction and what is subtly and not-so-subtly woven into these stories.
It probably comes as no surprise that, even in contemporary children’s books, mothers are more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behaviour, but what else could be peeking out from under the (red riding) hood?
Let's get stuck in.
A walk in the woods
In Mother and the Wolf: Maternal Power in Fairy Tales Julie Phillips writes not just about how motherhood is depicted in fairy tales (and has me looking at the Rumpelstiltskin story with fresh eyes), but also how mothers navigate combining motherhood and creative work, creating a hero’s tale of their own.
Some choice cuts:
On the initial step into the woods of motherhood:
“Motherhood challenged me and revealed me to myself. Yet I lost myself, too. My creative work wasn’t getting done. I was overwhelmed and thrown off balance by my needs and desires.”
On how other artists did it:
“I saw my impatience and joy reflected by Audre Lorde, too, who wrote poems on scraps of paper that she kept in her diaper bag and in both her art and her mothering found healing for her own childhood hurts.”
On what really makes motherhood and creating difficult:
“Because I suffered less stress and time poverty than my American friends, I could see what Doris Lessing saw: that it’s not mothering but the conditions under which it’s done that lead mothers to lose themselves.”
And, finally, on combining motherhood and creative work:
“I believe that there is more than one matrix into which mothers must descend. One is for the artist, who follows her muse into the core, where the language is hot and the images smolder. Another is for the mother who must reckon with her volcanic emotions: anger, resentment, despair, too much love. Entwined, they become a hero’s tale about the most basic work of being human, nurturing one’s soul.”
Love of this voltage
I recently started reading Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor and it had me both laughing out loud and welling up within the first 10 pages.
This quote in particular stood out:
“I swear every woman in my position feels the same. We all go bustling about, pushing shopping trolleys or whatever, acting like love of this voltage is normal; domestic, even. That we know how to handle it. But I don’t.”
For me, it seems to sum up so much of my own struggle with depicting motherhood in my creative work: *how* is something this epic this mundane? Is everybody else experiencing motherhood as viscerally, dramatically, cell-shakingly as I am? And how do I explore that in a way that doesn’t feel overly-sentimental and twee? (And why is that something I am so afraid of, most of all when it comes to creating work about being a parent?)
“I’m angry nearly every day of my life”
And sometimes something old just needs to be looked at with fresh eyes. Greta Gerwig is on the brain, and has me returning to her adaptation of Little Women, which included the above line from Marmee. It’s only the second time that line that has made it into any of the film adaptions, and was praised for so aptly capturing women’s rage. In an interview with The New York Times, Laura Dern, who plays Marmee, explains why she felt it was essential to include it:
“I was really grateful for that scene, because I think the availability of Marmee as a mother is about something raw and about expressing what isn’t working with how women are treated or measured.”
Writing for the New Yorker, Sarah Blackwood discusses how so many adaptions – including Gerwig’s – have missed this take on Marmee:
What’s missing is what the novel takes pains to reveal: a subtle account of the damages that Marmee has accrued across a lifetime of becoming and being a Marmee.
Rewilding the fairy tale
No where is more ripe for some much-needed reading between the lines than your run-of-the-mill fairytale. Might the subversive origins of fairy tales, and the women’s wisdom that once circulated within these narratives, teach us how to live again with ghosts and monsters? This is the central question in Kaitlyn Teer’s beautiful, evocative essay. Love her take:
Soon I would be lost in the woods, realizing I couldn’t find myself in these stories. I tried to remember: were fairy tales regressive or subversive? I read once that telling fairy tales was a domestic art—stories that women told to children or to each other while they worked—that men who aspired to make literature of folklore had tamed the tales they took from the mouths of women. Since then, the cultural status of fairy tales has been debated, simultaneously undervalued and overvalued, marginalized and mythologized, like motherhood
I’ll leave you with a few other internet nuggets:
Staying on theme, I am still getting a chuckle out of the Hot Dads of Picture Books Instagram account.
“When I practice this routine, I feel a meaningful psychological shift: I can seize back a piece of power I yielded to motherhood.” Why the ‘three-or-four-hour rule’ for creative work feels tailor-made for the full days of motherhood.
Vogue has a handy listicle on 10 of the most compelling mothers in fiction.
Some new-to-me books currently on my wishlist:
Matrescence by science writer Lucy Jones explores the “spectrum of emotional and existential ruptures” that happen during the transition into motherhood
In Birth Control: The Insidious Power of Men Over Motherhood Allison Yarrow dives into the “trauma and tragedy” of the American childbirth experience (you can read an extract on her experience breastfeeding her three-year-old son here)
That’s it for this edition. If you have any feedback, article recommendations or just want to say hi, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading, and see you soon,
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