As we sink into the hellish depths of women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, it’s time to reconsider what motherhood means to women. Womanhood is deemed incomplete without the “joys” of motherhood – joy that is undeviating, unconditional, and unadulterated. There is no denying that there is a sense of triumph in a well-raised child, but the journey is not without its fair share of challenges.
It is easy to mistake motherhood as a destination – one that culminates in nursing the perfect baby and checking off another box in the long list of ideal womanhood. However, motherhood is not so much a destination as it is a journey that a woman takes irrespective of whether she wants a child or not.
“Women are born with pain built-in,” Belinda says in Fleabag. “We carry it within ourselves.” This is a succinct description of what womanhood is – pain that is repetitive yet shocking; and the female body reacts violently to both choosing and rejecting motherhood. If the monthly ordeal of menstruation is already bad enough, the anguish of motherhood is even more pronounced. Along with its physical manifestation, motherhood is a realisation that life as you know it has changed irrevocably.
Gender roles are mostly rigid and women, especially mothers, are subjected to the rigorous demands of their sex – there’s a career that needs to be attended to, an absent father who needs to be made up for, and the ageing womb that needs to be prepared for future rounds of child-bearing.
From fiction to memoirs, these eight books challenge the chaste image of motherhood and asks what it means to be a mother in a world that continues to be hostile to women.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson meditates on gender fluidity, transitioning, motherhood, and family. The author relies on complex theories of gender and personal experiences to understand the changes in a pregnant body and transition of the author’s trans-FTM partner. Nelson recalls the moments of wonder and fear about babies, the confusing mess of conception, the pains of carrying a foetus, and how people reacted to the unusual couple. As she prepares for motherhood, she also scrutinises her own tumultuous relationship with her mother. When all is said and done, The Argonauts tells us that loving a child is the greatest joy of motherhood – although, or because, the road to arriving at this joy is so long and complicated.
Small Pleasures, Clare Chambers
Keeping Biblical references aside, virgin birth is not as bizarre as one might think it to be. In the 1950s, scientists gave a serious thought to single-sex reproduction and some women even come forward with claims of being a virgin mother. While most were dismissed, Emmimarie Jones’s claim was considered with some seriousness. Jones’s extraordinary introduction to motherhood has been fictionalised as that of Gretchen Tilbury’s in Small Pleasures.
While it is difficult to imagine the mechanics of virgin birth, Small Pleasures illustrates the fierce protectiveness that Gretchen feels for her daughter. As the story of her conception reaches the media, the mother-daughter duo is made to undertake tests to substantiate their claims. When the investigations force Gretchen to confront some upsetting truths, she realises that proof of authenticity cannot be greater than ensuring the well-being of her daughter. Small Pleasures is a definitive tale of how motherhood, especially when you are not expecting it, can set the stage for the rest of your life.
Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters
Reese, a trans woman desperately wants to be a mother. Ames, has detransitioned after having previously transitioned and used to be Reese’s girlfriend. While adoption is the backdrop of Ames and Reese’s relationship, it is integral to highlighting the barriers to adoption for trans women.
Detransition, Baby shows the painful consequences – psychological and quantifiable – of falsely defining gender by fertility. The novel comments on how obsession with biological / heteronormative parenthood prevents the queer community from building families. Are there any biological requirements to be a parent? Why does the State dictate the terms of parenthood? While some cisgender single parents and cisgender homosexual parents might have better chances at adoption, Detransition, Baby reminds us that trans adoption is barely included in the conversations about adoption.
Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder
Nightbitch is a gruesome and extraordinary take on motherhood. To me, it is an elaborate metaphor of the Kafkaesque transformations that the female body undergoes during the process of childbearing – the mother’s body disintegrates and reassembles to create a new life, orifices become gateways, breasts become life-source, and new pains emerge every day.
Yoder inspects motherhood from the perspective of failing bodies, dying sex drive, and uncharitable spouses. As if this is not discouraging enough, added to this mess is the modern dilemma of choosing between a career and family. But the demands don’t stop here! Mothers are also expected to have an invigorating social life and unageing beauty – there is no way to win and there’s no way out either. Nightbitch exaggerates the horrors of child rearing in a way you have never witnessed before.
Motherhood, Sheila Heti
At 37, the author-protagonist is nervous about the ever-narrowing window to motherhood. Heti puts together the experiences of her friends and mother and observes how women become vessels of male offspring – they strike gold by birthing sons and the birth of daughters means more male children in the future.
In Motherhood she makes a case for women by urging that they can exist on their own terms and without becoming mothers, thank you very much. Heti leaves us with necessary questions – ones about pregnancy and everything that follows. Motherhood is a powerful description of how the existential angst of motherhood and womanhood are intricately linked, and how they have become synonymous with female existence.
The Joys of Motherhood, Buchi Emecheta
There’s wicked humour in the title – it is a misnomer. Emecheta tells us right away that there are no joys of motherhood if you are burdened with a brute for a husband, live in poverty, bear girl children, and worry about losing your husband to another woman.
The Joy of Motherhood chronicles the life of Nnu Ego from her conception to becoming a divine spirit (or “chi”) to her many children and grandchildren – a life (and afterlife) where she’s not an individual but the bearer of all their sorrows. Mother to seven children, Nnu Ego struggles to make ends meet. She sacrifices the meals of herself and her daughters, educates only the sons, and marries off the girls early to whoever is ready with a bride price to keep the household afloat.
Along with her tangible troubles, Nnu Ego is also crippled with sexual insecurity, miscarriages, and marital rape. In her moments of quiet, Nnu Ego wonders what it would be like to exist just for herself and not as an “appendage” to her family. The Joy of Motherhood is a confrontation of womanhood far removed from Western feminist discourse.
The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O Smith
The Devotion of Suspect X is one of the best-known titles in contemporary thrillers. But as much as it is a whodunnit and a tale of peculiar sexual obsession, it is also testament to the lengths a mother will go to protect her child. To me, the “devotion” in the title signifies the fierce love that Yasuko feels for her daughter – even when she’s suspected of a heinous crime, she does not let go of her maternal instincts. Yasuko dupes the police and well-wishers to hatch an elaborate plan that will prevent the incrimination of her young daughter.
Crime novels are an excellent insight into human nature and The Devotion of Suspect X is no different. The complexities of police procedures, slick sleuths, and cat-and-mouse chase of the authorities and suspects pale in comparison to the primal hunger in a mother to always keep her children from the way of harm.
Where Reasons End, Yiyun Li
Motherhood intensifies all emotions and there’s perhaps no grief as insurmountable as losing a child. Where Reasons End is almost autobiographical in nature. Li lost her own son to suicide at the age of 16 and the novel, too, revolves around a Chinese immigrant author-mother and her dead son, Nikolai.
Li tries to find reasons for her grief with Socratic dialogues and metaphors of time and space. The conversations between the mother and the dead son are a cold reminder that the journey of motherhood continues even in the absence of the child – once you become a mother, you bear the delights (and sorrows) of motherhood until the end of your days.