Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How NOT to Write About Motherhood


Since Sunday is Mother's Day in the US; in Israel, alas, this day has already turned into "Family Day," I decided to use the opportunity to bring up a minor yet important point about motherhood and fiction.

Rereading Jane and Prudence  (1953) Barbara Pym’s third novel, I was surprised to read that  Jane, one of the heroines, states that she  does not feel much like a mother, since she only has one child. At first, this statement didn’t register,  I glossed over it. But then I kept thinking and  realized that this was a major error. Even in fiction, the feeling of motherhood does not depend on how many children you have. I believe  that  the narrator here reveals  the lack of knowledge and inexperience of the  author, who herself never married and had no children of her own.  

It is true that Jane, a clergyman’s wife, has romantic notions about her role and the life that comes with it. She regards her inability to produce a large family, like the ones exemplified in the clerical novels by Charlotte Yonge, as a personal failure.  However, to me this does not feel like an authentic emotion that could come from a mother.

Before our first daughter was born my husband and I took prenatal Lamaze classes. I remember that on the last class the instructor suggested, “before you go to the hospital to have the baby take a good look around your home, it will never be the same.” Although it seems like a  cliché, this statement could not have been more accurate. Coming back with our first baby life has never been the same. And I felt like a mother and could not feel stronger about it when I  had another child.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that in order to write about something you have to personally  experience it, although it does help as it provides a shortcut. But if I don’t have personal  experience about divorce, for example, I will have to compensate for it. Since it means that I don’t have  instincts or  intuitions to rely upon I will have to conduct  thorough research on divorce.

Moreover, because I don't have that personal experience, even when I do conduct thorough research, my knowledge will lack a certain depth and could never be equal to someone who had life experience. There  could always be surprises -- those issues that I didn’t even know  existed.

On the other hand, not going through the experience myself means that I am not bound by reality, granting me the freedom to write about the subject in a novel way. But I still have to be careful, since I cannot rely on my own experience and intuition I would likely want to consult with esxperts. The most obvious way is  to find an informed reader and  especially a good editor.

Barbara Pym does not make many mistakes, generally her information is reliable and the sentiments of her characters ring true, to the extent that her novels are often used as a source for social and church historians.

 In a way it is gratifying to find a flaw in an otherwise great writer. It encourages me that even Barbara Pym can  make such a silly mistake.

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