If Mothers Could Be Heard


I was reading a book review tonight, and it spurred some feelings within me. The book is about the inability of mothers to express what their lives are really like, and what they are learning from their lives as mothers, and what they are feeling about their lives as mothers.

The book being reviewed is Marianne Levy's Don’t Forget To Scream, which "seeks to challenge the way we minimise and deny how hard the ordinary business of mothering is. Because during pregnancy, birth, maternity leave and beyond, Levy’s attempts to express what she was feeling were repeatedly shut down. “People got up and walked away,” she says, when she tried to tell them how hard the birth was. “People literally put their hand up and stopped me talking. I found it grimly fascinating. I realised I didn’t have the words to punch through what people thought they were seeing to what was actually going on.” Even among other mothers, she found it hard to express her struggles. Some, she says, had taken years to conceive; one mother in her NCT group had a stillbirth. “‘I conceived my baby in two weeks and now I feel like my life has fallen apart,’ that’s not an easy conversation to have with people you don’t know well, neither of you has slept and you’re both holding a baby that might go off at any moment.” She relates one nervous attempt to communicate her struggles to another mother in the book, screwing up her courage to say how hard she finds staying at home with the baby: “‘Oh’, she said, perplexed. ‘I love it.’ And that was that.”

"Women’s pain and its trivialisation are another big theme of the book: a chapter called Some Discomfort skewers the weirdly euphemistic and minimising way female pain is treated. A doctor tells Levy pain having sex 18 months postpartum “wasn’t something of concern”; a physiotherapist tells her she isn’t trying hard enough at pelvic floor exercises. “You don’t have ‘dental discomfort!’” she says, indignantly. The fact you get a baby at the end of labour and the way mothers’ pain is described as “worth it” is, she says, “A justification of really shitty care of women. As soon as you say something is ‘worth it’, you’re basically saying you can jump through endless hoops of suffering so long as you’re both alive at the end. At what point is it not worth it? If I die? I don’t know that I’m OK with that.”

"Since her first period, Levy writes, she had been introduced to the idea that women’s pain doesn’t matter, but the entrenched unfairness of mothering, the structural absurdity of how we are expected to muddle on uncomplainingly, losing status, economic clout, identity, came as a shock. “I’m a feminist, I literally live in Islington, it’s not going to be a problem,” she thought. Instead, “I felt my narrative as a person had been completely replaced by my narrative as a mother and subsumed by the narrative of my child: I have no discernible personality, wants, needs, nothing that happened to me was of any interest to anyone. I felt that if I wasn’t OK with that – which I obviously wasn’t – it meant that I was a poor mother.” With writing and mothering, she says, “There’s a real sense that if you’re going to do it properly, it has to be front and centre”. By doing both, she automatically felt she was failing and, on top of that, childcare costs meant every time she sat down to write: “I’ve been £90 in debt. I sit down to claw back up to zero.”

"Her attempts to articulate her feelings continued to fall on deaf ears: “I said less and less as the years went on, and life got harder and harder,” she says. Now, of course, she has spoken – well, written – and the distinction is crucial. Levy’s second child was born when she was 39, after another difficult pregnancy; he spent time in the NICU, and Levy suffered post-operative infections after her C-section. Again, getting people to understand her feelings seemed impossible. “People kept asking how I was and I remember thinking, I could write something.” She did, posting it online . “It went whoomp,” she says, making an explosive gesture. “It caught fire.” She kept writing on motherhood, occasionally, then Covid happened and another piece – on the impossibility of working, or indeed, having an identity at all as her husband worked full time from another room and she cared for the children – again struck a chord. These essays, the latter written in 40 half-desperate minutes, were the starting point for the book."

This un-heard-ness, this unwillingness to know and unwillingness to hear is at the root of the invisibility of mothers and the concerns of mothers in our society. These line in particular caught my eye from the review:

"“My life is ongoingly joyful,” she says. “Even as it’s difficult.” But there’s a vein of anger running through her writing. Is she? “I’m lovingly angry. How can this great expression of love and wonder be so diminished by everyone around us?” Rather, she’s keen to see the full gamut of emotions motherhood involves given the space and the weight they deserve. “You can feel incredible anger and hurt and self-loathing and love and wonder all in a heartbeat and be expected to just carry on.” . . . "I’m desperate for men to read it; I’m desperate for people without kids to read it,” she says. “For this to be a conversation that breaks beyond the café with the buggies.”

The question, which I've bolded above, is one I have thought about for many years. Coming from a Latter-day Saint perspective, I ask myself, "Is this the way it's supposed to be, as a feature of the Plan of Happiness? Or is this a horrible travesty imposed by the Adversary, which must be overcome for Zion to come into being?"

Let me present the argument for both interpretations. Perhaps it is a feature of the Plan of Happiness, much like the need for the veil between Heaven and this mortal world. If there was no veil, we would not have full agency and would not be fully responsible for our choices. Perhaps there would also not be the full measure of growth for the individual. Maybe there is a veil over Motherhood because it is what is left of Heaven here on earth (or is meant to be)--the last Eden. And even that last vestige of Heaven must be veiled for the Plan to work in our individual lives. So sometimes I console myself with that interpretation.

But then at other times, I feel this silencing of mothers, this willed invisibility of mothers, must be from the Adversary, and must be overcome if we are to build Zion in our midst. The whole point of it all--even the work of God--is the "continuation of the seeds." Motherhood is the foundation of everything, and without it or without understanding its truth, we can never build Zion because its cornerstone would be missing. Society's priorities are warped without this understanding. Men are warped without it. And all the children are warped as well.

I didn't really see how this invisibility and silencing of motherhood warped children until I read Dorothy Dinerstein's classic book The Mermaid and te Minotaur. Think what it does to children to discover that the person who loves them most in the world, the person that makes their very lives possible, and that is there for them through thick and thin, is despised and thought less of by human society for doing so. I once read an article that people, on average, see mothers as having below average intelligence--just because they are mothers. There are no societal rewards for being a mother. No place at the table is there for mothers--to the contrary, her motherhood may be an excuse to exclude her from the table. The poorest people in society are elderly women who were once mothers. Tell me, does that treatment of their mothers not completely warp the children they love? That the one who loves them the most and on whom they depend the most is considered inferior for so doing?

The days I feel that this is the a horrible state of affairs engineered by the Adversary are the days that I, too, feel angry. They are the days that I ruminate on the words of the poet Muriel Rukeyser,

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.

I have decided I am going to SPEAK about what it's really like to be a mother, no matter how uncomfortable that makes other people. Their comfort is bought at the price of silencing the experience and wisdom of women, to the detriment of the whole world. It is time for hidden things to be seen, for hidden truths to be spoken. It may mean that we mothers must invent our own vocabulary, for in many instances there are not even words to express our experiences. What we need is not an Adamic language, but an Evic language.

We need to know the full truth of what mothers know. It is long past due.