Posted by: stelladuffy | August 5, 2012

mithering on mothering

Amanda Craig has come in for some fire on the comments for this piece in the Telegraph. I admire her for putting it up on her facebook page and asking for comments from fb friends, which she has had, from quite a few people, both against and for. And I’m really saddened by the article.

Saddened because I don’t think Craig is alone at all. I constantly encounter the attitude that there is so much I cannot understand because I am not a mother. I am reminded of this prevalent attitude every time someone assumes another’s grief (or joy) when they say “As a mother”* – as if being a mother gives one a special knowledge, a special understanding of humanity, of love, of caring. And every time I hear this I think “Really? Did you not empathise with another’s love or sorrow BEFORE you were a parent? Really??”

In the specific terms of this article though, I do believe it is as possible for another person to understand and write about (my own experience of) chemo-induced infertility, as it is for me, as a writer/theatre-maker, to imagine my way into another’s pain or joy. If we can make work about dying or flying or living 500 years ago or 500 years from now, surely we can trust each other to make work of value whether or not we have or haven’t been through one of the most common life experiences for most people? (And, at least in the matter of having children, everyone of us has been a child, most of us have some experience of family, whether we are parents or not.)

What I really would love is for us women to get past a place where we judge our achievements on our child-full or child-less/free lives, and to a place where we acknowledge that ALL of our experiences count. I truly don’t see my men friends rating each others’ work by the standard of whether or not they are also fathers. I’m sure having children takes up time and energy that might be better (?!) devoted to writing. So does a year of cancer treatment and three years of infertility treatment, and the ensuing grief, made especially difficult in a world that continually treats non-mothers as not-quite-fully-women. And yet we all keep making work ANYWAY, despite the drains on our time, emotions and energies. And that is something to be proud of.

So PLEASE my fellow women, let’s stop with the “I understand/feel/empathise more than you do because of the childfull/childfree/childless state of my uterus.”

ALL of our experiences make and shape us, whether mothers or not, none with more depth than any other.

*and of course, this phrase is as absurd as it is patronising (matronising?). Given people usually say “as a mother” when they’re talking about loss or grief, it’s a very self-serving phrase, colonising another’s grief. Not one of us can ever understand another’s pain, not truly, not without experiencing their exact life, their exact pain. When I watched my mother live through my sister’s death, when I watched another of my sisters survive her son’s death, I saw how it broke both women, and how they slowly rebuilt their lives, not to the same life, but one with a core of deep and utter grief within. And STILL it was life, and a life worth living. Every time I hear someone say “as a parent, I understand how they must be feeling” I want to say, as my mother did, you can’t, and I pray you never will.


  1. I’m glad you wrote this, it’s encouraging. But I fear Amanda Craig is still in the smug majority.

    I often hear those words, both as a writer and as a woman. I hear it from women and from men. It doesn’t matter how you are able to empathise in your writing and daily life, what your life experience is, what your imaginative ability to understand and enter the lives of others – if you are childless, there will come a point when you’ll have to face the opinion that you are unable to fully comprehend the whole of human experience, because you have not given birth and nurtured a little human being for 18 years.

    But really, what can she know more than you or I of what a woman goes through when her children are killed before her in war? When she is raped and gives birth to her rapist’s child? When she has to watch her child go through cancer and day by day slip away? Or when she has to face the horror that her child is a killer? What can she know of bullying if her child is not bullied, or of learning disability if her child is doing well at school?

    My heart and admiration goes out to good parents. They undoubtedly have an important task and a selfless one. But there are many ways of contributing selflessly to society and developing empathy and understanding.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, Stella Duffy. Thank you for a brilliant response. You are so fair and so right.

  3. Oh, yes.
    It’s silly essentialism again, with a wee twist.
    No experience – beautiful or ghastly- makes us better equipped than the next writer on the page.
    And it’s impossible to write anything imaginatively in a world of absolutes,either -the- ‘No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child’. Well, sure, no doubt the majority of women with kids AND without kids feel this but *perhaps* some don’t. I know my grandmother didn’t, bless her. My mother’s laughing *right now* at the thought. This didn’t make my grandmother any less – it made her, her- and that was that.
    We CAN all write. That’s it. That’s good.

  4. I read the original article in some anger mainly at the trashing of a well loved novelist who had yet to be buried but also at the views she expressed in a somewhat misguided attempt to puff up her own (somewhat less successful) literary career.
    I wholeheartedly agree with Stella and Sophie’s comments. I’ve experienced ‘mommyjacking’ (as someone so eloquently put it) firsthand. I have no children (although I was a ‘step-parent’ in a previous relationship) and I’m a man. I was often made to feel two steps lower down the level of human existence.
    I’m sure motherhood does change a person just as any life changing event does and it gives an author a deeper library of human experience to draw from. It may well make them a better writer than they were but does it automatically make them a better writer than someone who doesn’t have children? I really doubt it.

  5. Yes. Absolutely. Love is where we develop our caring and nurturing, love of people, friends, siblings … And well I have known you for so long and those qualities have always been yours, in fact more than many people I’ve known. And I’d like to add that between women who are mothers there is the rivalry around which of you is the more truly motherly mother, the better, more caring, nurturing or not .. and so it goes on. I didn’t have a very strong sense of how to mother but I learnt many of my nurturing skills from friends like you and from my husband, from maturity and life. XXX

  6. xxx

  7. […] you complete as a woman, or in some way emotionally superior. As Stella Duffy rightly points out in this excellent response to the article, you don’t see male writers being judged over whether or not they’re […]

  8. Stella, you’re absolutely right.

    In my experience as a reader, the question of whether a writer has children or not is entirely irrelevant. In terms of the heart of a book – whether fiction or non-fiction – it’s the extent to which s/he engages with other people and the world. In terms of the head of a book, it’s the extent to which s/he engages with ideas. In terms of the soul of a book, it’s the extent to which s/he integrates those two. Those things, plus craft. End of.

    Having/not having kids may make a difference to subject matter, but, frankly, subject matter is largely irrelevant to whether a book is any good or not (although, to be honest, one of the things that’s irritated me most over the years – again, as reader rather than writer – is what I call GDCS. Gratuitous Dead Child Syndrome. Please novelists. Stop killing children in your books in a heavy-handed attempt to make readers emote. Please kill them only when their death is integral to the story. And that’s *story*, not plot).

  9. Interesting. I do think “As a mother…” is sometimes used for special pleading or pulling rank.

  10. And sometimes, becoming a parent can make people quite selfish about other things: viz. 4 wheel drives in suburbia, cheating to get your child into the ‘best’ school, and so on and on. And let’s not start on a list of people who are parents but do awful things in other parts of their lives!

  11. ‘… but going through the ring of fire does change you and bring about a deeper understanding of human nature’ (Craig) is in the running for the most infuriating thing I have ever read. Apart from the fact that because of caesareans and epidurals many mothers never actually experience it, the ‘ring of fire’ provides you with nothing more than a particular experience of a particular pain.
    My writing has changed over the years, but it has everything to do with learning from other writers and reflecting on my craft, and nothing to do with becoming a mother. I don’t want to be in the childed(?) camp if it means I can’t share a tent with the childless – you gotta smell other people’s (metaphorical, obv) midnight farts so you can imagine what they had for dinner!

  12. hah! LOVE the earthiness of the analogy Karen!

  13. Absolutely – there is a real smugness around motherhood and interpretation of other’s pain. I admit I feel certain things differently now that I’m a parent, but I refuse to believe that I feel them more than others (and including my pre-parent self in that). Just this weekend someone tried to pull me into a conversation around the sad plight of 9mo fostered twins saying ‘now you’re a parent you’ll understand this more’. My reaction was no actually I wasn’t a heartless bitch before, empathy is a human condition that develops through all of your experiences, not one born with your children.

  14. hah. yes. indeed. and so glad you weren’t a ‘heartless bitch’ before!

  15. Hee hee, this is so wonderful. Lately the ‘inadequate childless woman’ monster has been biting me on the arse . A constantly bruised arse is not compatible with a chair so not many words have been flying off the page. But Stella, your response to that silly article and all these comments have blanketed my rear in a cotton wool mountain. Hooray! And many thanks xxxxx

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