The mothers we think we’ll be are very different to the mothers we become

After bonding about the challenges of motherhood during school drop-offs and pick-ups, writers Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell collaborated to publish a book, (Hamish Hamilton), about the experiences of being a mother. Here, they share the mothers in art and culture that struck a chord before – and after – they became parents themselves.

I think of [her] often, more than one should perhaps think about an invented character

by Ceridwen Dovey

In 1997, when I was in Year 11 at high school, we studied the poetry of Gwen Harwood. I knew nothing about her as a person – only that she was Australian – and we studied her poems like objects unrelated to their human maker, parsing all the icy technicalities of syntax, rhythm, and structure. To rote-learn these poems so I could quote lines in exams, I read them into a cassette dictaphone and played them back often. What struck me was that the speaker in her poems, the I – often a daughter thinking about her mother, or a mother thinking about her child – felt so familiar to me. Raw, intimate, unsettlingly honest. I’d want to cry while I was listening to them, or would experience her poems as an ache in my belly, or a tightness in my chest. I never mentioned this, of course, in any exam.

At the time, I was living alone in a rented flat across the road from North Sydney Girls High. I could hear the school bell chiming as I hurriedly ate breakfast in the flat and dashed across Pacific Highway still trying to do my hair or pull on my school jumper. My mother lived on the other side of the world, for reasons dictated by politics and work. I was aware that my childhood had ended more abruptly than either she or I had ever expected or wanted. In the evenings, I sat at home watching the winter light fade, boiling pre-made pasta, listening to my recordings of Harwood’s The Violets, and wept. The poem’s speaker is an adult remembering a time when she was a small child, and her parents were young, and her mother – with long hair and gentle laughter – comforts her with spring violets after she’s had her first intimation of how time gets stolen from all of us.

I remember the image of the little family returning inside at dusk, lighting the lamp, getting supper ready, and the child’s sense of the order of things being restored by these simple gestures of care and love. It moved me because that is how I was mothered – my mother always restored the order of things with gentleness and grace – and I remember solemnly hoping that it would one day be how I mothered my children.

In a semi-poetic twist of fate that I feel Harwood herself would have appreciated, I now live with my children in an apartment on the very same street as that flat where I was living alone in Year 11. When the wind blows in a certain direction, I can hear the school bell of my old high school chime. When I dash across Pacific Highway, I’m unsuccessfully trying to smooth out my kids’ tangled hair, or haranguing them into putting on their school jumpers. I still boil a lot of pre-made pasta, but not while listening to myself speaking poetry, watching the winter light fade and weeping…I boil it while I’m paying bills, supervising homework, chucking wet clothes in the dryer, packing the morning’s dirty dishes into the dishwasher, and responding to work emails on my phone. I haven’t noticed flowers in years. I doubt I’d even be able to recognise a violet.

In this phase of motherhood, it’s a speaker from a different Harwood poem – Suburban Sonnet – who feels familiar to me, comforting in her ambivalence. Tellingly, I don’t remember studying this poem as a 17-year-old. Back then, it would have scared me for expressing something about the gap between ideal and reality. In the poem, the speaker isn’t channelling the memory of a child’s idealised view of her mother but is making sense of the eternal present of mothering her children. Within only 14 lines, over the course of an unremarkable afternoon, the mother-speaker travels from high to low, now to then, life to death. With her kids playing – then bickering – at her feet, she tries to practice the piano, remembering how once, long ago, she played for a renowned pianist who was bored by her performance. She forgets that she’s boiling something on the stove, and as she cleans up the mess Zest and love/drain out. The poem ends with the speaker comforting her children after they find a dead mouse – which she, as an unwilling saviour, takes out of sight wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.

She does all this not with gentleness and grace but with other more complex emotions coursing through her: frustration, resignation, despair. But that same word and instinct from The Violets – to comfort – is repeated here. The context is radically different, and the comforting happens not in a golden, unreliable haze of memory but on her hands and knees as she touches with disgust the limp body of the mouse. Still, the repetition feels significant: the speaker is affirming the courage and stamina that constant caring for others requires, and recognising that her mother would have performed that care for her in moods both fair and foul. The ideal mother is truly a figment of her imagination, a trick of memory. In this realisation lies freedom.

I think of this speaker created by Harwood often, more than one should perhaps think about an invented character. I thought of her just this evening, as I heroically got a huntsman spider into a glass in the kids’ bedroom and then freaked out and dropped it on the balcony. Shards of spider and glass everywhere. Did it survive? the boys called from their bunkbed. Yes, I said, crouching above the carnage with a brush and pan. Everything is going to be fine.

As far as I could tell, Lucy was the ideal woman. She was wild, embarrassing and hilarious.

by Eliza Bell

I wasn’t really allowed to watch TV as a kid – or anyway, my parents didn’t approve; there were rules. Whenever I stayed home sick, my mum and dad paused to worry over me in the morning, wondering how sick I really was (I learned what malingering meant and worked on my evidence), then they rushed out the door to work, promising to call and check up on me. At ten to eight, they were gone, and I ran straight to the TV for the 8 and 830am double-header of I Love Lucy.

As far as I could tell, Lucy was the ideal woman. She was wild, embarrassing and hilarious. She made a mess of everything. She was always doing her best. She didn’t quite fit in her world and that was the fun of it. I was too young to take much notice of the husband, but he put up with her and that seemed like an excellent sort of man to have.

Plus, her best friend was always nearby and helped her figure things out when she got stuck; sometimes literally, as in the masterpiece Lucy and the Loving Cup. In this episode, Lucy’s head is stuck in a sort of trophy and she urges Ethel to rush her downtown for help. Ethel Mertz calmly declares that she needs time to change: Lucy, I have never ridden on a subway in my blue jeans, and I’m not gonna start now. Ethel taught me that in this black-and-white time, the rules for how to be a woman were strict and strange. Lucy Ricardo said you can always scrape through. Life is impossible and humiliating, but you can still win.

Then, suddenly, Lucy had a big belly and quickly there was a baby! But Lucy and Ricky slept in different beds like toys in a dollhouse. I puzzled over this because I understood that real married people slept in a big bed together, and this was how you got a baby. I figured that in some ways Lucy was just a little girl pretending to be an adult; it was a relief to think that you didn’t have to understand everything when you got to be a woman. Maybe you didn’t even have to grow up all the way.

Lucy’s belly swelled and so did the laughs. I knew there was a whole other story there, something much more intimate and deeply physical than this, about being a mother. Things got more complicated and fascinating when I learned that the actors who played these characters had a real baby (two actually), but that the one we saw on TV was not theirs and was played by different babies. It was all mixed up, but there were flashes of real-life inside these TV versions. You could play your part but sneak in being yourself.

In my 20s, I tried out being an adult woman in New York. I lived on the Lower East Side with housemates and my cat Lucy (yes, named for that Lucy), who was great company. I sometimes got stuck, but I learned to manage. My best friends were always nearby. We laughed a lot, and we all wore jeans on the subway.

The 2021 film Being the Ricardos uncovers some of the complexity of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s family life. Their children Lucie and Desi (executive producers on the film) do not appear, except as that pregnancy I watched growing up all those years ago, the first on TV apparently – a major tension in the film. But the children themselves and their relationships with their parents do not figure: the couple, the marriage and their working lives are the story. What Ball was like as a mother remains largely private, except for the public example we know she set for her kids of a ballsy entertainer who was the face of the biggest show on television.

These days, I still often look for my heroes in mother comedians. And because private lives are not so private anymore, it’s possible to explore the intersections between the public persona of mother and the real family life that called it into being.

Ali Wong performed her stand-up special Baby Cobra while nine months pregnant, then created follow-up specials, a feature film, and a memoir addressed to her daughters, Dear Girls. Amy Schumer has shared her experience of hyperemesis, haemorrhoids, and IVF in her own stand-up specials, interviews and on Instagram. While some call it oversharing, I am grateful for the offering. Sharing is something women are often great at; and these stories and many others like them are opening up new ways of being a mother, a public person and an artist. The path from a young woman to mother in the world is brightly lit now, crowded and full of friendly faces. I’m glad to be here, and not to be on that path alone.

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