We Need to talk about Motherhood



Rachel Cusk, Aftermath
Lionel Shriver “We Need to Talk about Kevin” film clip

Rachel Cusk Aftermath

Lesley Wheeler, “Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s ‘The Flower Master’ and H.D.’s ‘SeaGarden.’

We will also be looking at several reviews of Cusk’s work:


Author Rachel Cusk

And watching a few clips of the film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk about Kevin:


Images of motherhood in much 19th century literature written by men and women often depicted mothers as “angels in the house” – either figuratively (in the guise of saintly/self-sacrificing mothers like Louise May Alcott’s Marmee in Little Women, or Ursula in Dinah Craik’s John Halifax Gentleman) or literally (as in she’s dead). In 20th and 21st century fiction and culture, the picture is far more mixed. Mothers can be good or bad, absent or present, angels or demons – but wherever they are portrayed and whatever their character, thanks to Freud, their role in the lives of their children and wider community is always read as hugely powerful. This week we consider portrayals of motherhood not only in fiction, but in our culture, and in particular the media portrayals of figures like Lionel Shriver and Rachel Cusk who have each written very differently indeed about the darker side of family life: how do contemporary women writers portrayed motherhood and how, in turn are they themselves portrayed? Have a look in the papers, listen to the evening news, watch a little television or a film – if you were an alien visiting earth – what might your understanding of contemporary motherhood be like?







11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Fliss on February 13, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s “The Flower Master” and H.D’s “Sea Garden”. Lesley Wheeler.

    Wheeler’s essay offers an in depth analysis and comparison of the work of McGuckian and H.D, to engage with the question central to debates surrounding motherhood and womanhood in the field of writing: ‘what’s the relationship of woman, of womanhood generally, and reproduction in particular, to literary work?’ (p.497). For Wheeler, both writers consider this question in their work, specifically in their use of flower imagery (as representative of femininity and reproduction), however the manner in which they do so and the answers they appear to suggest lie in stark contrast to one another. While H.D, in her collection “Sea Garden” ‘divorces womanhood from its conventional association with domesticity’ and places significant importance on ‘wildness’ (the freedom that it brings, and the growth it encourages) (p.496), McGuckian’s “The Flower Master”, as the name implies, places emphasis on cultivation and ‘productive confinements’, finding order to create mastery over her womanhood and motherhood. In many ways Wheeler’s comparison illuminates the different ways in which women, mothers, can approach writing, and outlines the similarities found between pre-creating and the creative act of writing, how one might complement the other.


    What is the significance of H.D. as a ‘modernist’ writer? How does this affect her writing? In what ways does it mark her poetry out from that of McGuckian’s?

    Does writing on motherhood have to be autobiographical? Would biographical or fictional writing be less effective? Is the purpose of work such as “Sea Garden” and “The Flower Master” largely a working through of their own thoughts, feelings, ideas?

    Is the fact of both poet’s use of imagery, and the vagueness of meaning, it’s main appeal? Would such writing be less well received in another form, such as the cut and thrust writing of Rachel Cusk? Is poetry the only way to acceptably discuss the ‘low topic’ of motherhood?


  2. Rachel Cusk, ‘Aftermath, On Marriage and Separation’

    In ‘Aftermath, On Marriage and Separation,’ Rachel Cusk explores the outer conflicts of divorce and the inner conflicts of motherhood with the displacement it causes her to feel as a woman. By speaking from her experiences of a broken marriage, Cusk demonstrates how equality confuses gendered identities and destroys her relationship. In an attempt to both live equally, Cusk’s husband is stripped of his masculinity by sacrificing his job to take care of the children and enable his wife the opportunity to write. Cusk seeks answers to ‘why had I destroyed my home,’ suggesting that the truth can be found in reflections of the past and the aftermath, rather than the story given by her husband who believes he has been mistreated, accusing her of being a feminist. In a search for the truth, Clusk has a self-discovery as her belief in the ownership of her children represents the ‘cult of motherhood’ that she opposed, making her feel ‘alien.’ As a result of her realisation and contradictory principles, Cusk poses a number of questions regarding feminism and the identity of a mother, associating the different roles of women with domestic images to show how a categorisation is complex.

    1. Is Cusk trying to categorise herself when she defines feminists and discusses being ‘two women’ or ‘half a woman’ etc.?
    2. Do you believe that Cusk should have had children if she felt divided between being a mother and wanting to work?

    Lesley Wheeler, ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s The Flower Master and H. D.’s Sea Garden’

    Both poets Medbh McGuckian and H. D. are concerned with the issue of motherhood and how this may complicate women’s abilities to work and write. In her essay, Lesley Wheeler examines the similarities and differences in their poetry collections The Flower Master and Sea Garden, referring to other critics who draw parallels between the flower motif, a symbol of feminine beauty, reproduction and fertility, adopted by both women. Although both poets rely heavily on imagery throughout their work, their choices in language and structure inform the reader of their opposing attitudes towards motherhood and female sexuality. Whilst their poems portray enclosed landscapes and gardens that represent the constraints of a Victorian society, H. D. uses the wind to disrupt these conventions and convey a more modernist approach, in contrast to McGuckian who is inspired by domesticity. The garden, also emblematic of the child in the womb, communicates H. D.’s own trauma of a stillbirth as she uses the wind to revive her lost daughter. Likewise, the poet’s contrasting views may originate from their differing roles as mothers as H.D. exercises more freedom, continuing her travels shortly after having her child. Alternatively, McGuckian embraces maternity, admitting that she follows traditions, afraid of the risks of feminism and the broken family life that Rachel Cusk narrates in ‘Aftermath.’

    1.Both writers use flowers (for example, McGuckian’s ‘gladiolus’) to explore female sexuality in domestic and conventional backgrounds, represented by the gardens. Could this be interpreted as a comment on the Victorian belief that women possessed no sexual feelings as mother’s and wives? Are both writers trying to suggest that women can have more than one identity with the ability to work and be mothers?

    2.Do you agree that McGuckian and H.D. hold differing views towards motherhood due to their own maternal identity’s and freedom, similar to that of Rachel Cusk’s companions who debate whether children belong to their mother’s in the ‘Aftermath’?


  3. http://heidijames.me/2013/02/14/think-we-had-mothers-troilus-and-cressida/
    Dear students, have a look at this blog by a colleague – fits the bill for this week’s blog!


  4. Posted by floeastoe on February 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’ Rachel Cusk
    This extract seems to present a very negative view of marriage and motherhood, as Cusk compares that part of her life to “the dark ages” she learnt about in history lessons at school, with pregnancy likened to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, both troubled times in English history. This subverts the traditional literary view of this part of a woman’s life, which is yearned for. Cusk also subverts tradition, as the “working mother” and the person who provides the alimony for their former spouse, highlighting the hypocrisy of her situation, and of society’s views of a working mother and working father. Cusk may also use history in this text to remind her readers that history and the past are there to be learnt from.

    This extract is an interesting portrayal of life after divorce, and and the suggestion that marriage was seen as the end point, as to be “possessed by a man” used to be the ultimate aspiration for women. Cusk uses the phrase “regression: the gears of life had gone into reverse” to describe how it felt – she has gone back, taken a step back down the ladder of life.

    Cusk seems to resent her children, and the oppourtunities that have been lost to her because she has become a mother. She separates mothers from women who have not had children, describing mothers as those who have “opened up a chink in the tall wall of womanhood”, suggesting that motherhood makes a woman weaker. Despite this, the “primitivism of the mother” shows itself the moment her husband states that he wants half of everything, including their children, “they belong to me”, she says fiercely, showing how a mother’s determination defies everything with it’s power.

    Reviews of ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’ emphasise Cusk’s experiences in marriage, rather than those in motherhood, but I believe that the two are equally important.

    Q: There are a lot of references to Greek and Roman stories in the extract, including the Aeschylus poem at the beginning. What is the meaning behind that poem?

    ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s “The Flower Master” and H.D’s “Sea Garden’ Lesley Wheeler

    Wheeler highlights “the garden trope” that both poets use. Flowers and gardens regularly appear in literature written by and featuring women. The “garden trope” features flower metaphors to discuss femininity, but H.D and McGuckian use them in different ways. Cusk also uses the garden in her house as a metaphor for her failed marriage – it too has become unloved and fallen apart, while others around it continue to flourish. Using flowers in poetry is conventional and traditional, and almost predictable of a female poet. Wheeler suggests that this is because women, like flowers, take on the dual role of “aesthetic objects and creators of beauty”.

    The main topic of both poets is motherhood, and the effect that it has on their lives. While McGuckian’s approach values and emphasises traditional female roles, viewing her role as a mother as the most important part of her life. The ambiguously initialed H.D (now known to be a woman) writes of the pain of the loss of a child, and how a woman can still be a mother despite that loss. Despite their contrasting views of maternity, and the kind of gardens that represent that part of a woman’s life, both H.D and Medbh McGuckian use flowers to represent the “erotic possibilities” in a woman’s life, and celebrate “female sexual appetite”.

    Q: Did H.D choose to keep her gender ambiguous because of the time in which she was writing?


  5. Posted by Caroline on February 16, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Aftermath, Rachel Cusk

    This chapter within Cusk’s book is detailing the separation from the nuclear family unit to divorced, and the effects that this has upon being an independent woman. She details that by being a modern woman, who is self-sufficient and the career mother, the woman becomes more masculine, and the father becomes emasculinised. A mother is a sacrificial act to Cusk, as mothers have to choose between a career and being a full-time mum, undertaking the pressure of the choice of being successful, or being the traditional care-giver. Cusk considers the risk of motherhood as losing part of oneself, in the fact that women live through their children, and that to be a mother is to displace self-interest, however this isn’t the case for the father. She concludes the chapter with the symbol of a window, arguing that there is no equality, and that you either have it all or nothing to do with femininity.

    Q. Cusk uses the window to symbolise the lack of equality for women. How does the view from outside differ from the feminist woman and the man?

    Bother Flower and Flower Gatherer, Lesley Wheeler

    This essay parallels women with the image of flowers and flower-gathering, also known as Ikebana. Flowers link women to beauty and to creators of beauty in the process of childbirth, signifying women as still objects to be looked at. Wheeler describes women as being linked to confined spaces also, as seen in the poems of H.D and McGuckian, arguing women are unable to move about freely, as are flowers rooted in the ground.
    McGuckian claims that to be a feminist, a woman loses her womanness as she becomes more masculine. There are images of the flower being considered asexual, therefore standalone, as the feminist intends to be independent, however there are alternating images of domestication of the flowers in greenhouses, and wilderness.

    Q. Flowers are considered often a gift that a woman receives from a lover. Perhaps this could be taken as a metaphor for pregnancy. Why are women so closely paralleled with nature? What is the man closely paralleled to?


  6. Posted by Alice Gomm on February 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Lesley Wheeler – ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s The Flower Master and H.D.’s Sea Garden’


    Lesley Wheeler focuses this essay on the relationship between motherhood and artistic work using t poetry collections by Medbh McGuckian and H.D. Floral imagery represents ‘poetic and feminine beauty’ but the ‘reproductive structure’ of plants also allows the reading of this imagery as representing motherhood and creativity. McGuckian and H.D. use floral imagery in different ways. McGuckian ‘investigates subversive possibilities within confined garden and traditionally feminine spaces’ using the flowers to highlight an ‘intense sexuality’ while also ‘celebrating’ motherhood. H. D.’s garden, however, is a ‘harsh world’, reflecting her first pregnancy which ended in stillbirth. H.D.’s work separates womanhood from ‘its conventional association with domesticity’ as her bleak garden implies that ‘only windswept wildness can nourish women, children, and poems’.

    Do contemporary female writers use floral imagery in similar ways to McGuckian and H.D.?
    What relationship do contemporary women writers or artists have with motherhood and how is it reflected in their work? Do female writers/artists feel that motherhood is a drain on their creative energy that motherhood is beneficial to creativity?

    Rachel Cusk – Aftermath


    In Aftermath Rahcel Cusk details her feeling about her divorce. Cusk compares her life after her divorce to Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire. Cusk writes that her marriage was ‘civilised unity, racked by the impulse to destroy’, after her divorce her life is ‘compartmentalised […] disorganised’ but she feels ‘the dark stirrings of creativity’ and so it is a better life. Cusk discusses whether children belong to the mother or to both parents equally, and despite her egalitarian views she finds herself saying: “They’re my children […] They belong to me.”’ Cusk considers whether this is a ‘persecuted truth’ that her life has hidden, has her equality made her reject ‘the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority’? Cusk argues that because of the increasing equality between the sexes her mother had ‘nothing to pass on from mother to daughter but […] adulterated male values’, because of this, Cusk feels she is an ‘alien’ from the ‘world of femininity’.

    This alienation from femininity, asserts Cusk, meant that as a mother she had to ‘suspend’ her character and she felt that ‘she didn’t belong anywhere’. Cusk appears to be torn between traditional gender roles and modern ideas of equality between the sexes. Cusk’s husband took care of the children but she is conflicted about this, she says: ‘I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity’ because ‘it represented dependence’. In contrast, Cusk writes that her husband helped her to have it all but she says: ‘I didn’t want help: I wanted equality’. The idea of ‘help’ is problematic for Cusk because to be helpful is to perform duties which are outside of your ‘own sphere of responsibility’, and she says: ‘Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude.’ Cusk felt confused by her identity, she did ‘both things, was both man and woman’ and states that ‘I wanted someone to restore me to my lost femininity’.

    Why are many female writers drawn to a confessional style of writing such as Cusk’s?


  7. Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation-CUSK

    This passage is a very sincere opinion of a woman concerning the politics of married life for a woman. She describes herself as less of a feminist as she once thought, but as a transvestite; in other words she has morphed into both the mother and father, man and woman of her marriage. She both works and maintains the household whilst her husband it seems is left to become emasculated and act as the helper rather than an independent parent. This seems to be essentially what causes the separation.
    Q. If like Cusk says, a woman has the ability to both work and run the house, bringing together the two main functions (masculine and feminine) of a relationship, is she whole as opposed to just half of the couple? Once this discovery is made by a woman, is the man of the house even needed and if so what is his purpose?

    Both Flower and Flower Gatherer- WHEELER

    There is an interesting link between McGuckian and H.D’s writing of plants and particularly flowers. They represent and symbolise women, reproduction, sexuality, beauty and motherhood. Wheeler mentions that there is a shared opinion between female writers that motherhood comes between a woman and her career. However motherhood can also serve as a powerful inspiration for Her art. It allows Her to improve and deepen her meaning in her work and to add more significance to it; ‘Child rearing [is] a crucial background and inspiration for their writing’. The flower symbol serves not only to capture feminine beauty, it also portrays the double role of women within society; they are expected both to remain beautiful and to create beauty (new life)
    Q. The idea of the ‘flower master’ is associated with death itself and implies a control over the flower (the symbol of womanhood). Considering the Victorian oppression of women, is it fair to say that the ‘master’ of flowers could stand for the male-dominated society which aimed to keep women purely as mothers and objects of beauty?


  8. Posted by Nabilah on February 17, 2013 at 12:53 am

    Rachel Cusk, Aftermath

    Rachel Cusk in Aftermath, discusses her thoughts and feelings after her marriage broke down and she and her husband had to get divorced. Cusk talks of her confusion with the stereotypical gender roles, of the woman being the homemaker and child bearer, and the man being the breadwinner. She tries to come to terms with why her marriage broke down, and she comes to the conclusion that it may have been because her husband became ‘the wife’. She had ‘conscripted’ him into looking after their children, ‘he gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.

    What is your opinion on feminists, do you think they hate femininity? Are they really ‘two women’ or ‘half a woman’ as Cusk states?

    Lesley Wheeler, Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s “The Flower
    Master” and H.D.’s “Sea Garden”

    In this essay, Wheeler focuses on floral imagery throughout McGuckian’s “The Flower Master” and H.D.’s “Sea Garden” and how that relates to pregnancy, childbirth and maternity in general. Both authors portray maternity in a different way according to their personal experiences. ‘For H.D. whose first pregnancy ended in stillbirth, successful poetry and motherhood require confrontation with a bracingly harsh world’ whereas ‘For McGuckian, a conservative understanding of maternity blossoms into a radically experimental poetics’. For both authors, floral imagery represents fragility, femininity and fertility. The growing of a seed into a flower can relate to the growing of a baby inside the womb. “Sea Garden” ‘divorces women from domesticity and being restricted, while “The Flower Master” does the opposite and suggests that gardens celebrate ‘the productive confinements of bearing and raising children.

    Do you think gardens represent constriction/confinement for mothers as McGuckian discusses in “The Flower Master”?


  9. Posted by Nina Gill on February 17, 2013 at 10:16 am

    ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s “The Flower Master” and H.D’s “Sea Garden”’, Lesley Wheeler

    This essay is centred upon the ‘relationship of womanhood generally, and reproduction in particular, to literary work.’ Wheeler debates the ‘advantages’ and the ‘costs’ of motherhood in relation to women’s writing; she does this by comparing the poetic work of Medbh McGuckian’s and H.D. Both poets infuse their poetry with garden and flower imagery as the garden is seen as a typically feminine space and the flowers provide multiple ‘meanings of femininity’, including sexual experiences, beauty and love. Wheeler explains the use of the garden and the flower imagery: like the flower, the women can be seen as an ‘aesthetic object’ and like the flower gatherer, also have the role of a being a ‘creator of beauty’. ‘The two individuals, certainly seem utterly opposite as mothers’, showing the ways in which poets can use imagery to evoke multiple meanings. The intensity of D.H’s poems suggest the ‘wild world’ as an ‘empowering’ space for women, while McGuckian portrays the concept of a ‘strangeness at home’ which can arguably be as equally empowering to women. Similarly, they both use metaphorical language and imagery to speak about this mysterious and complex idea of motherhood and womanhood louder than simple explanations or stories, because it is perhaps the poet’s most intelligible way of sharing the ‘incomprehensible’ world of motherhood for women writers.

    Q: Rather than motherhood, as a ‘great subject’, being an inspiration for writing, does Wheeler think of the inversion? That writing poetry can contribute or affect the woman’s life by becoming an expression for aspects of her sexuality or a forum for rediscovering her womanhood while she commits to mothering in reality?
    Q: Isn’t it intriguing that, women are (and have been for centuries) associated with and celebrated as the wildness, seductiveness and beauty of nature and yet also, the obedient, loving central figure for the home? What might this tell us about our society’s view of women?

    ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, Rachel Cusk

    Cusk explores the ‘aftermath’ of her divorce in first person narrative and shares that it has always been ‘life’s difficulty’ to understand the relationship between ‘the story’ and ‘the truth’. She discusses the confusion in her role within the marriage when the roles that are seen as feminine make her feel ‘unsexed’ and are then entirely adopted by her husband, making him feel emasculated. She questions her priorities as she begins to ask whether as a mother she has been, ‘denied’ other lifestyles and then ends with questioning why she ever felt like leaving the traditional roles in her home. This sense of ‘conflict’ of motherhood is sensed throughout and in the aftermath she tries to discover her ‘whole’ person and continuously questions gender roles and what it means to be feminine: ‘In that world of femininity where I had the right to claim citizenship, I was an alien’ and her lack of femininity leads her to feel like a ‘transvestite’. She concludes that the aftermath of the divorce reveals the earlier confusion and the opposing ideas of womanhood, femininity and motherhood, leading to an internal conflict and leaves her questioning.

    Q: Can feminism stunt femininity in some ways and also enhance femininity in other ways?
    Q: Does Cusk’s idea of a ‘half-person’ manifest in a lot of women’s writing?
    Q: What exactly is ‘equality’? Is it the culture’s perception? Or could it be entirely internal and relative?


  10. Posted by Jasmin Staveley on February 18, 2013 at 9:04 am

    ‘Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s “The Flower Master” and H.D’s “Sea Garden”’, Lesley Wheeler

    Wheeler explores the difficulties of the feminist mentality with the female biology of child bearing. It is highlighted how children are an interruption to working or writing women, however this also provides an experience and a basis for the content of their work. Boland states ‘specifically female experiences do not belong in poetry’. This statement highlights the deep-rooted patriarchal dominance and the desire to keep women and the female voice under suppression; even twenty-first century women believe their experiences not to be worthwhile in art. Wheeler also explores the use of flowers as a metaphor for femininity in H.D and McGuckian’s work. They imagery is used in a plethora of ways to denote female sexuality, virginity and beauty. McGuickian symbolises pregnancy and childbirth through images of seeds and the ‘fattening moon’. It is noted however, H.D’s depictions of childbirth are more underlying and harder to define while a glaring absence of the mother is noted. It is documented how she found it ‘difficult to reconcile female sexual identity with creative power’.

    Q: Can true feminism ever be achieved if they have children?

    ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, Rachel Cusk

    ‘Aftermath’ discusses the modern day struggles and disjunction of the arguably outdated nuclear family, with the ‘transvestite’ and ‘whole’ female. Cusk discusses the concept of motherhood both in terms of being a mother and how she sees her own mother. Although she portrays a somewhat austere perception of the topic, comparative with her career, she does question what you are without children and her desire to call upon her gender status to keep custody of the children in a divorce. She highlights the debate about which parent the children ‘belong’ to and how, if not her, one never receives any praise for birthing and creating life, instead the archaic notion that she must be thankful to the passive man for helping her do so. She must be thankful to him as one is to God. She states ‘womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience’, this is the complex backbone to feminism, how far must you go to break of out male defined femininity? This calls into question what is feminism, for it has a clear goal yet the reality is undefined. To be a true feminist should you not marry? Not be a mother? What is actually being fought for? Cusk questions whether men can be better parents by not being bound to feminist ideal. Yet does this imply feminism is binding rather than liberating? She defines the traditional couple to be two halves of a whole, each with different roles. Now however, each parent strives to be a whole by themselves, working and raising children, which causes disjunction to the compact, nuclear family. This text in itself could be seen as a strictly feminine text for it discusses the loss of self, family and child bearing.

    Q: Is feminism what is ‘right’ over happiness? How can happiness be achieved? What is a modern feminists goal?


  11. Posted by Natalie Brown on October 27, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Rachel Cusk’s ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Seperation’, details the personal struggle of her identity in conjunction with the familiar and traditional spheres of femininity; marriage, motherhood, work and domesticity. Upon being asked in an interview what she thinks about the ‘feminist principle of autobiographical writing’, the tendency for women writers to write centrally about their own personal experiences, she claims that as long as there is a disjuncture between how women live and how they feel, in her case being motherhood and marriage, she will always feel a right to this way of writing, and so defends it. It it this disjunction that has made me think about so many women’s written works and their inspirations to them; that from so far back in the beginning they were struggling with who they were and who society expected them to be, and in drawing parallels to the early Christians and dark ages of the Saxons, Rachel Cusk identifies a simpler time without struggle to power, where perhaps being a woman was more harmonious with the world. As she says, upon being asked if it is a curse to be a woman, it’s ‘perhaps true that the less you live as a woman, the more cursed it is to be one’.


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