Motherhood and its Aftermath: Images of Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Writing


Rachel Cusk, Aftermath

Lionel Shriver “We Need to Talk about Kevin” film clip

 This week we considering two linked themes in our reading: Writing, Reading and Difference in the works of women writers, and representations of motherhood in the works of two contemporary women writers.  We begin with the first Chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath, a memoir of marriage and separation. We will also be considering a range of reviews of Cusk’s work.

And we will be 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).  Contemporary women’s writing such as these texts by Cusk and  Shriver, tend toward representations of motherhood as engendering a loss of agency and identity, suffering in silence, depression, lack of fulfilment. Other popular fictions of our times, by contrast, depict mothers as heroic overachievers triumphing against all odds (think Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich).

Such extreme configurations suggest that there is something inherently unrepresentable about motherhood: that it must be portrayed always in extremes to be of interest to any audience. Mothers on television or in films never have normal, long-winded but uneventful pregnancies or deliveries: there is generally a last minute dash to the hospital where the woman gives birth to triplets before dying or is delivered in an elevator of a child she was not expecting and then the child dies. Our appetites for such overwrought stories about maternity veer towards these outlands of experience turning motherhood into an extreme sport which no one can ever win. Moreover, writing about  the experience of motherhood from the inside tends to let loose the the wrath of those harshest of critics: other mothers.  Is motherhood a losing game, rigged from the start? Must stories about it be harsh and infanticidal or self-effacing and heroic to be find an audience? When women write about motherhood what are they saying? And when they read stories about motherhood – what judgements are they passing?


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Eliza on October 27, 2015 at 11:37 am

    It often seems as though motherhood polarizes or at least inspires great ambivalence, which may account for the extreme portrayals of women as mothers. On one hand, Cusk talks about her ‘primal’ feelings about her children, and the instinct to have custody after her divorce, how she is somehow bound by it, and how it warps her view of her role in the world as a woman. On the other hand, Tilda Swinton’s character in ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ is an example of a woman who has been completely abandoned by the same instinct, who can’t call it up. What is usually called the ‘motherly instinct’ puts women in a double bind: feel it too strongly, and you’ll be imprisoned by it, feel it not at all, and you’re a monster.


  2. Posted by Eva on October 27, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    When Cusk writes: “The stay-at-home mum often describes herself as lucky: that’s her pitch, her line, should anyone – a working mother for instance – care to enquire.” I feel like she is addressing the question of judgement being passed between women and between mothers. It seems like the stay-at-home mum feel the need to justify herself to the working mother because she is afraid of being judged. At the same time (like in the movie The Intern) the working mother is spoken down to and judged by the stay-at-home mums. This gives the impression that you can never do motherhood ‘right’ because you will always be judged by one or the other.


  3. The role of the mother throughout history has been depicted as a heroic duty that every woman should want to fulfil. However through feminism, modern day women question this idea and some sought more mental stimulation and aspiration through careers and hobbies. With that comes an internal and external conflict, as is evident in Rachel Cusk’s book ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, ‘To act as a mother, I had suspend my own character’. Cusk states that becoming a mother resulted in the loss of her identity. This can be linked to Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk about Kevin” as the protagonist does not feel the ‘natural’ bond with her son that society believes should be imbedded in women. Society has made women feel that this ‘natural’ maternal instinct whether felt before motherhood or not, will develop when their child is born. However, for those women who do not feel this instinct are demonized and looked upon as unloving or unkind. I believe many mothers may feel this loss of identity and is exemplified through the loss of their name. Mothers become ‘mum’ and/or ‘mother’ and this subsequently becomes their identity, resulting in a disassociation with their children and with motherhood itself. Motherhood, in my opinion, is a battle with yourself and with society that is never truly won.


  4. One part from Aftermath that really exemplified for me the gender divide that Cusk is describing was “It was easier to be grateful to someone who is not there.” As Eva said in her comment, Cusk comments on the phenomenon of stay at home mothers feeling ‘lucky’ to be able to do so; Cusk vents her frustration at working husbands being constantly praised because their work is done in another physical space and is therefore more worthy of praise. The idea of it being easier for the children and the wife herself to be grateful to an absent figure is one which I feel is true for many modern families; the whole statement struck me as a unique complaint, even though I hear the same praise on a regular basis.


  5. I agree with this post, I found both Cusk’s work and We Need to Talk About Kevin to be incredibly frustrating in the fact that both of these highlight extremes and in these cases to some extent are fear mongering. As noted there is rarely a uneventful pregnancy and motherhood in film and literature. As a mother women are still portrayed as either angelic and selfless or verging on demonic and incredibly selfish. I feel that it is up to us to question these portrayals in light or real life or future mothers to be might not want to take on the role.


  6. Posted by Christie on October 27, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    I agree with the idea of ‘other mothers’ as the ‘harshest critics’ of mother-hood narratives, and this is exemplified in many of the reviews of Cusk’s Aftermath. Whilst this harsh critiquing could be seen as resultant of the fact that all mothers experience mother-hood in a unique and different way, it could also be due to the contradictory interests of consumers: As you say, there is an ‘appetite’ for the extreme (whether angelic/monstrous) mother-hood narrative within the media, despite the fact that these narratives are less relatable for most mothers. Thus, the consumer’s appetite for controversial and extreme motherhood narratives, alongside their contradictory, harsh reviews of such narratives, seems to be a dilemma within the media which suggests there will always be a significant split in the reviews of works such as Cusk’s and Shriver’s.


  7. Posted by Kirsty on October 27, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    I think that the reason we are invested in seeing dramatic portrayals of what it is to be pregnant or a mother is because society dictates that motherhood is something that every female should want, no matter what, is because it gives a sense of having an argument for or against their own opinion; by this I mean, when a female states ‘I don’t wish to have children.’, the response is usually hinting toward or explicitly stating that they will change their mind soon enough, so seeing these portrayals of how affecting, depressing, unfulfilling and stressful life can be as a mother gives these people the ability to go ‘Well, this is a representation of one of the reasons I don’t feel inclined to believe that I will change my mind.’ The interest in the other extreme of the heroic mother would thus stem from the need to engage with the idea that motherhood is something a female is destined for, by that theory; she will triumph over everything as a mother, nothing could possibly stop them. It’s almost a fairytale. Neither representation may be at all accurate, but say we were weighing up positives and negatives, a grey area idea of motherhood isn’t particularly what we’re looking at comparing, it’s the two polar opposite ideas of.


  8. Posted by Phoebe Deans on October 27, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    As Meg mentioned, nineteenth century literature often depicted mothers as ‘angels in the house’. In our other reading, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, ‘Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud’, Freud is described, by good friend Jones, to see the female sex predominantly as ‘ministering angels to the needs and comforts of men’. Freud, like many other men of his time, viewed this ‘angelic’ ideal of womanhood as being determined by their ‘nature’. It is due to this continuing notion of motherhood as ‘naturally’ occurring that writers, such as Cusk, whom address its true complexities, are met with such criticism.


  9. Posted by Steph Coles on October 27, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Whilst motherhood is seen as a duty to many like Freud, as well as other womanly “duties”, Cusk discusses it as a sacrifice. She touches on how motherhood is expected of women, to be a working mother is to commit heresy against motherhood but once achieved women can feel excluded from womanhood, with their own identities lost in the social weight of being a mother. This is seen in We Need To Talk About Kevin, a woman who feels completely secluded from society by not bonding with her son, for her lack of unconditional maternal instinct and love. Womanhood and motherhood are so tightly bound but perhaps it is social rather than natural causes that bind them.


  10. Posted by Salma AlTabari on October 28, 2015 at 1:17 am

    Raising a child, whether mothering or fathering, is a demanding position. One has the responsibility of a living, breathing being that needs to learn everything (literally) from scratch. What I find quite fascinating is how this role is – generally – only seen as overwhelming to the female. As Rachel Cusk asserts, men are seen as capable of fathering without the internal conflict of abandoning work and staying at home, and they are often seen as better at it than women.
    It would be interesting to think about how these roles play out in same sex marriages, is the female position seen as something one adopts through taking up domestic responsibilities, as Cusk’s ex-husband? Or is that role preserved for the being who gives birth? Does having a physical connection to the infant create a special bond? Or is that bond irrelevant as seen in ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’, where the mother feels no clear maternal/emotional attachment to her son, in-spite of the physical bond they once shared?


  11. Freudian theory implies that a woman will only truly be fulfilled once she has given birth to a child. If Freudian thought has shaped society’s view on women as much as Betty Friedan suggests in The Feminine Mystique, ‘Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud’, then women (whether they realise it or not) are led to believe that having a child will be a magical experience which will finally enable them to feel entirely complete.If having a child does not leave a woman feeling fulfilled then she will undoubtedly feel depressed and a lack of fulfilment. Perhaps motherhood is only represented as one of two extremes because Freudian thought has left no room for any other representations to be made.


  12. Posted by Wafaa on November 17, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    The representation of motherhood is mostly narrowly represented, so when Cusk talks about different aspects of being a mother and a wife I find it refreshing that she doesn’t comply with stereotypical representation of what a woman should feel and be as a mother and approaches the topic in a way that makes her seem more human and has mixed and conflicting emotions about her role as woman and where she stands in society. Friedan’s analysis of Freud’s theories are interesting and made me think about there being a lack of society trying to fit around a woman’s life and expectations but rather bulldozes them in to two very limited occupations of either having a ‘penis envy’ and overcoming it only by entering a ‘masculine complex’ or becoming a passive ‘Nora’ which suffocates a woman’s potential.


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