Today my mother called me to say that a bird had fallen into the home-made bird feeder in her garden and become trapped. It pecked at her fingers through the wire mesh as she tried to disentangle its claws and wings but eventually, she said, it must have realised she was trying to help because it became very still, almost limp, submitting to her care.
I think there might be a metaphor in here somewhere.
There are so many different kinds of mother glimpsed or represented in The Motherhood Project. Pregnant mums trying to imagine how their bodies and lives will change; mums of relentless toddlers who know how their bodies and lives have changed and, much as they wish they thought otherwise, loathe both. A woman whose child was adopted, a woman whose child was aborted, a woman who is spiritual mother to a chihuahua. Mothers attempting to bring up children in a racist society, mothers attempting to bring up children in contexts of domestic violence, a mother battling structures that disable, insisting that her daughter, born with athetoid cerebral palsy, has equal rights with other children. Every new mother whose brain has clanged against her skull like the clapper of a bell as she attempts to navigate the conflicting advice shared by oh so well-meaning friends and relations and health professionals, none of whom are there at 4am as she crawls from her bed to the writhing screaming mass of skin and bone reliant on her for everything.
So many mothers, so many situations. And yet so many mothers who felt unacknowledged, absent from this project.
In 2012 I co-curated an open discussion about relationships between theatre-makers and critics at, coincidentally, Battersea Arts Centre, at which theatre-maker Chris Goode described the interaction as being uncomfortably akin to: “a child showing their mum or dad a painting they’ve done, in the hope that it’ll be deemed good enough for the fridge door”. It unsettled me, the paternalism he identified in that text. Look how I’ve squirmed and shifted the gender there.
The Motherhood Project is not a work I would be putting on my fridge door. Let alone in a frame on a hook on the wall. Lasting well over two hours, I found it frustrating, sluggish, lacking variety. But of course I wouldn’t say that to its hopeful face. Instead I would point to the intermittent brilliant bits with genuine interest and praise. To the film written by Irenosen Okojie, a mother’s fierce mediation on her wayward son, who rages “because this city has broken you “¦ because everything is a lie”, words made precise and abstract by director Akinola Davies Jr, camera roving city streets following boys and men, the crisp black-and-white cinematography lurching now and then into glitch, a whirlpool, distortion. To the poem by Joelle Taylor, short and refreshing as an iced gin cocktail. To the dance of images in Siggi Mwasote’s autobiographical film, screen splitting to reveal birds in flight, scurrying clouds, wind shimmering through grass and leaves. The rusty nail that pierces Mwasote’s heart when her daughter announces that she wants to go to nursery.
There are more, there are more. But long before the films were finished I stopped appreciating these flashes of brilliance, partly because I was doing that invidious thing of looking and wishing for all the things (mothers) missing from The Motherhood Project, partly because it’s just so bloody long. A welcome note invites audiences to dip in and out, so you could argue that I created that problem of disengagement myself. But respite, a break, a choice in when and how you give your attention? Not very true to the realities of motherhood, is it?
A few years back a friend and I started imagining a version of the game Monopoly that mapped the board with motherhood. We called our version “monotony”. In the end we didn’t get far with the idea because every time we started thinking about motherhood we became distracted by capitalism, by all the ways in which capitalism demands that care – all kinds of care, all kinds of nurture, not just the raising of children – is made invisible, the more effectively to be exploited.
Our children were young at the time and now one of mine is a teenager and motherhood still feels monotonous: day after day the same argument, which become different arguments over time, but are fundamentally the same argument, conducted with people convinced they know better than you on pretty much every aspect of existence, in what feels like a futile attempt to raise humans who brush their teeth twice a day, balance chocolate with vegetables, hang up their towels after showering and don’t leave dirty dishes lying around.
The Motherhood Project feels monotonous too: despite the range of mothers I’ve already listed, the range of experiences and scenarios, there is a narrowness to it, that might be to do with the preponderance of films that involve someone sitting at a camera talking to you – not just in the video essays but the dramatic monologues too. I kept wanting to tune out, go and do something more interesting. To play, to dream, to disappear into reverie. Much like a child being talked at by its mother, in fact.
While writing this I received an email from Barbara, a theatre enthusiast who sometimes comes to the Theatre Club discussions I host once a month (you’re all invited! DM me on twitter for details!). We’d both been excited by The Motherhood Project in advance, and disappointed. “Contrary to my expectation,” she wrote, “the films completely failed to move me, and some of them left me quite frustrated.
“I keep trying to rationalise why that is. Is it because I am not a mother? Is it because I have no desire to be a mother? Is it because it does somewhat frustrate me that the tone of those films about not wanting to be a mother feels either somewhat apologetic (because it’s not something one is meant to talk about?) or it feels like the author/playwright is struggling not to make the characters seem selfish, but they somehow come out selfish (because the character secretly/subconsciously think they are?) anyway? (Perhaps because the playwright *really* thinks they are but is not comfortable wording it? I’m not sure…) Perhaps it’s just too many things on roughly the same thing? Perhaps it’s all too expected?”
I’ve borrowed Barbara’s words for this bit because – and this is sticky – outside my critical practice I’m also a dramaturg, and one of the things I should have been working on in 2020 was the final touring version of a show called #thebabyquestion (among the venues – you guessed it – Battersea Arts Centre), made and performed by Paula Varjack, Catriona James and Luca Rutherford about their very different relationships to the question societally forced on women of whether or not to have children. But I’ve also borrowed Barbara’s words because, like that time I walked through the school gates listening to a mother say, verbatim, something I’d been struggling to communicate to my own child, they fill me with relief that it’s not just me.
Published in 1999, Aminata Forna’s book Mother of All Myths: How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers is a fascinating survey of the development within capitalist patriarchy of “motherhood” as a concept. “Beliefs about motherhood are passed off as ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’, as though those two words had the same meaning; and, as both traditional and natural, these beliefs have become unassailable. Yet, as any historian will tell you, the most enduring of these ideas is not more than a few hundred years old,” she writes.
Many historians can be heard saying exactly that, in a BBC radio programme called An Alternative History of Mothering, first broadcast in 2019 and presented by Emma Griffin. “Our culture continues to claim that there is something special and innate about a mother’s love for her children,” Griffin notes. “Yet the history suggests a more complicated story. Our ideas about motherhood are not determined by our biology but are social creations.”
The Motherhood Project prods at this idea the way a child might poke at a fluorescent orange slug. The character in The Queen’s Head is so ambivalent about becoming a mother that she flips a coin to decide whether or not to keep the baby; her partner Mark, she believes, would be much happier to be pregnant than she is. The character in Untold who decides not to keep the foetus tells it unequivocally: “You’re the best thing that ever didn’t happen to me.” It is, she reflects, “so fucking transgressive to wonder what [else] I can be”. Juno Dawson gets at the social construction most precisely when she reveals that: “For the first 32 years of my life no one asked me about children. These are questions I wasn’t asked when I was perceived as a man.”
The motherhood myth survives, suggests Forna, because people no longer really know why they have children: “Fuelling the modern obsession with motherhood are our efforts to construct a new rationale for it.” The Motherhood Project tries, and yet in doing so ends up reinforcing the connection between womanhood and motherhood – so tight, so close, Dawson observes, that you can barely slip a Rizla between them.
At the Theatre Club, Martin talks about how engaging he found the films, how sometimes he felt like a voyeur, being gifted an insight into an aspect of women’s lives usually kept private. Maya echoes Barbara’s comments on familiarity. Where, she asks, is The Fatherhood Project? Following Dawson’s logic, it doesn’t exist, because not enough people think to ask the question.
Mothers who become step-mothers. Mothers whose wives gave birth. Mothers who become mothers accidentally when they already have older children. Mothers whose children become parents and rely on them for free childcare. Mothers whose adult children move back in with them because they are ill or their relationship broke down or they can’t afford to live any other way. Mothers whose children live on the other side of the world. Mothers whose mothers live on the other side of the world, or whose mothers die when the grandchildren are young. Mothers whose children die. Mothers coping with miscarriage. Mothers of teenagers. MOTHERS OF TEENAGERS. Mothers caring for children and mothers. Mothers who have Alzheimer’s and no longer recognise their children, some of whom are mothers. All absent.
It’s called The Motherhood Project but with so much of its attention clustered in the years around pregnancy and birth, it’s as though motherhood were a moment and not a lifelong endeavour. Here is something I’ve learned about motherhood in the 15 years since I realised I was pregnant with my first child. Motherhood is a journey into grief, on a road full of potholes, sharp gradients, perilous unexpected bends, with no exit points – or at least, none that don’t eventually lead back to the same road. That rusty nail piercing your heart, again, and again, and again.
And sure, it might seem unfair to expect The Motherhood Project to tell all imaginable stories, be all things to all people. But that overwhelm of expectation, that you are all things to all people, at once selfless and generous, an individual containing multitudes, IS EXACTLY WHAT BEING A MOTHER IS LIKE.
And then, when I got it out, it just flew off, my mother says.
Huh, I reply. Not even a thank you.
That’s what your dad said, she tells me.
Definitely a metaphor.
The Motherhood Project is online till 2nd May. More info here.