A pregnancy unearths new depths to a mother-daughter relationship, and a new understanding of the body and the self.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t stay down there lying on the tiles. Get up.’
‘I can’t. It hurts.’
‘I know it hurts. I said get up.’
I’m maybe eight. My mother is my mother, and therefore ageless. She is omniscient, omnipotent, because I am maybe eight and she is my mother. She is omniscient but does not accept that I can’t get up; she is omnipotent, but won’t make the pain in my womb go away.
All the women in our family get bad period pains. How do I make them stop? They’re unbearable. They’re not unbearable, says my mother. You bear them because you have to. Mine stopped when I had children, she says; but don’t go trying that any time soon.
I am fifteen and I work at Best & Less on the weekends. Mum is coming to pick me up early from my shift because I can’t keep working through these severe menstrual cramps. My manager tells me I can go once I’ve counted my till. This takes me over twenty minutes because the pain is obliterating my ability to focus on the coins (my manager is a cis man).
On the way home in the car, Mum pulls over so I can spew into the grass on the side of the highway. I feel better. I’m about to straighten up and get back into the car when I feel Mum’s hand on my shoulder.
‘It’s all right,’ she says, in a soothing tone she hasn’t used on me since I was little. ‘There.’
Bizarrely, instinctively, I force out a sob.
An old man told me, after he had had open heart surgery, that he and a ward full of other men his age woke in the dark from hideous nightmares, screaming for their mothers. I have never heard or read of a woman in extremis who called for her mother. It is not possible for me to imagine such a thing.
– Helen Garner, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’
My mother disappears in the middle of one of my contractions. I twist my neck around to look for her, panicked. ‘Mum?’
‘It’s all right,’ she says, and steps back into my field of vision. ‘I’m here.’
When I’m pretty huge, my mum’s younger sister takes me out to lunch and gives me the talk Mum won’t.
‘How are you feeling about giving birth?’
I tell her I feel good, and I mean it. So many women have given birth – including many women I know, and think I’m probably tougher than – I can handle it.
‘Who is going to be with you?’
‘Mum. She’s strong and deals with pain so well, it was a bit of a no-brainer really.’
‘Make sure you talk to her about your plan and everything,’ says my aunt. ‘Make sure she talks to you before it happens.’
‘Should we talk about my birth plan?’
‘Do you have one?’
‘Um, well I just think that if I ask for an epidural, I’d like you to make sure that’s what I really want. Like, don’t just give me one straight away. Is that okay?’
It has been about twenty hours of extremely intense contractions.
‘I. Want. An epidural.’ I punch a wall. It hurts my hand. I’ve been begging for pain relief for hours.
When my body is finally completely exhausted, too exhausted to push any more, my obstetrician is called in.
‘I want an epidural.’ By now it’s a mantra. ‘I want an epidural. Please.’
‘Let’s get her an epidural,’ says my obstetrician, and gets up to organise an anaesthetist.
I’ll find out later that at this point, Mum exchanges a look with the midwife: it is far too late for an epidural. To me now, though, the message comes solely through my mother:
‘You’re almost there,’ she says. ‘You’re so close.’
‘All right, no, wait.’ I call my obstetrician back. ‘Let’s just do it. I can do it.’
My first period pain after giving birth is as painful as ever. I am livid. Weren’t they supposed to stop?
‘What was the point of having a baby, if I still get pains?’
It’s a joke, but Mum bristles. I sense she feels defensive – like making an inaccurate prediction about her daughter’s body is a failure, somehow.
I feel wrong(ed) because my body is not like hers.
The last time I lived with my parents was almost two years ago but my periods are still in sync with my younger sister’s. We send PMS snapchats of support to each other some months (photos of chocolate, ice cream, breakouts).
When my Mum has PMS, she doesn’t tend to broadcast the fact; I do tend to broadcast mine. I consider it a courtesy warning to the people around me because my irritability is monstrous; but I also like to seek out sympathy/support/snapchats when I’m feeling shitty, which is far from being my mother’s MO.
‘Do you have any pads I could please use? I left mine at home.’
‘Do you have your period now, Mum? Are we still synced?’
‘I guess we must be.’
‘Aw. That’s sort of nice.’
Mum’s mouth twitches, threatens to smile.
I imitate her, and / I don’t do it well.
– Eileen Myles, ‘Edward The Confessor’
The midwives hook me up by the tits to a comically large industrial pump. I am a dairy cow, I am an animal, I am a milk machine. I squeal with excitement when I manage to produce several millilitres of colostrum. It is not enough: my baby screams, he is hungry. Every time he screams, the hormone-induced rash on my legs flares up. When I snatch moments of sleep I dream that the rash morphs across my skin, to the sound of his screams, into the letters of his name. I cannot sit down without being in pain (my coccyx is broken: I do not know this yet). I sit on a throne of three pillows and try to get enough boob into his tiny yelling mouth. I sit on a throne of pillows and pump, whirr, whirr, whirr, everything hurts. Nothing is working like it’s supposed to.
I remember my mother breastfeeding my little sister in the hospital. She breastfed my sister for years.
‘Cracked nipples,’ she would tell my siblings and me with a grave face. ‘You have not lived until you have put a baby back on the boob when you have cracked nipples. And you’ – ‘you’ was me – ‘you used to bite. You would get this look in your eye, and I’d know, and then you’d just–’ and she’d gnash her perfectly straight teeth, to demonstrate.
‘But she still breastfed every single one of you,’ Dad would then remind us, proudly.
By the time I leave the hospital, nearly a week after giving birth, my boobs are huge – they have never been big, until this – but my milk has still not come in. I am sent home with a smaller version of the huge industrial pump.
My son never latches properly – he has a bubble palette, he has a tongue tie, my nipples are too small. Trying to breastfeed is excruciating. I want to quit. I dream of quitting.
‘Why do I get the feeling you don’t want to do this?’ My mother is angry. ‘Try again.’
I imitate her: the way I remember her breastfeeding; the way she is showing me, now, how to grip my areole, push it into his little mouth from an angle with my thumb. I don’t do it well.
I pump milk every three hours for six months. I inch along, each whirr of the pump a centimetre of tunnel, each bottle of milk in the fridge an inch closer to the six-month mark which is my light, my goal, the end of this.
Mum gets up at night with me and feeds my son while I pump for his next feed. She puts him down in his cot once he’s fed, and each time he drops right off to sleep. I thank her in a whisper as she walks past to go to bed and I finish pumping, the soporific rhythm of the pump my only company until my breasts are empty and I finally get to sleep, for an hour or two, until it’s time to get up and do it again.
When six months is over my mother says, ‘Well done. I don’t know many people who would have done that,’ and I seize on the compliment, catalogue it.
Mum doesn’t get up to feed my baby at nights anymore because I can do it now that I’m not pumping. Each time I lower him down onto his mattress (I imitate her), he opens his eyes and screams.
And yet – while pumping milk may be about nourishment, it isn’t really about communion. A human mother expresses milk because sometimes she can’t be there to nurse her baby, either by choice or by necessity. Pumping is thus an admission of distance, of maternal finitude.
– Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Pumping milk in my family, or at least for my mother and me, is not at all an admission of maternal finitude. If anything, it’s a refusal to accept it.
In my case, pumping milk rather than breastfeeding was made a necessity not by distance, but by the failure of my body to do what it was supposed to; the failing of my body to function adequately as a mother’s body. Pumping milk was, for me, not an admission of distance but a defiance of my own body’s limitations, an assertion that I would mother in spite of – as well as because of – the body I inhabit.
Shortly after my younger brother was born, he was hospitalised for pneumonia. The doctors couldn’t tell my parents that he was going to survive. One day while I am slumped, exhausted and attached to my milk pump, my dad tells me about Mum pumping milk for Liam while he was in hospital. She would pump endlessly, crying silently, as though his life depended on it – as though she could save his life through sheer maternal will. And maybe she did. He turned twenty last June.
I build up an impressive stash of extra milk, which I bottle and label and keep in the freezer. At some point, Dad comes up from the shed down the back with some bottles he’s fished out of the deep freeze. ‘Twenty-year-old milk!’ he says, showing me. It is, of course, undrinkable now, kept for sentimental purposes, but the bottles go into the house freezer with mine.
A lot of the running jokes in my family are centred on my mum’s tendency to buy things she doesn’t use. She has a good eye – and a weakness – for Art Deco knick-knacks, which she buys on eBay, and for which she is rapidly running out of room on the top of her kitchen hutch. She buys pomegranates, which sit in her fruit bowl until they start to rot, and then she throws them out.
My maternal grandfather gives people objects in lieu of telling them he loves them. The gifts he has brought around to my parents’ house include, but are not limited to: innumerable bags of prawn crackers; a glass sphere, about the size of a cricket ball, containing a small puddle of liquid mercury; an old-fashioned kettle that you heat on the stove; about thirty boxes of orange-thin mints, which still live, untouched, in Mum’s pantry; and endless packets of licorice. He passed this habit onto Mum, who sent me bags of licorice in the post during my first year away from home. Eventually, I had more bags of licorice than I would ever be able to eat my way through, even with the help of my college friends, so sometimes I would open a bag and feed the slippery sticks of licorice into my fireplace, one by one. I cringe to remember doing so; it’s a hideous image of excess, a college resident feeding food into her fire. But it also feels callous, given that the licorice sticks were, coming from my mum, actually I-love-you sticks. That’s not why I was burning them, though. It wasn’t rebellion or rejection; it was just that when the sugar burned, the flames turned blue.
I lived at my parents’ for a year after my son was born. At one point I was at the supermarket with my sisters, and I decided it would be a good idea to buy a pomegranate we could take back home to eat – half as a joke, half as a genuinely nice thing. Maybe Mum would be okay eating pomegranate that she hadn’t bought herself; maybe it would feel less precious. We bought frozen raspberries too, and maybe some chocolate. I felt generous, like my dessert was a gift. Raspberries are Mum’s favourite. After dinner I got out the raspberries and Mum didn’t want to eat them frozen, so I blitzed hers in the microwave, and then they were too warm. I hacked into the pomegranate with a knife and ended up covered in juice; it looked like blood, and so my brother took a photo of me holding up the knife.
I hadn’t heard of Persephone then. I didn’t know about the pomegranate seeds she ate in Hell, a decision that doomed her back to Hades every winter. Maybe I wouldn’t have hacked at a pomegranate if I’d known the story then (Mum hates winter; I love pretending to believe in signs).
The pomegranate seeds were sour, tart. Chalky, even. I haven’t bought or eaten one since. Mum still buys pomegranates that sit in her fruit bowl until rotten, and I hate that photo my brother took. Looking at it makes me feel like an insensitive clown, messing with something that’s sacred in a way that I don’t understand.
I have suffered from chronic depression since I was quite young – since about eight or nine, is my psychiatrist’s best estimate. Despite seeing myriad (mostly shitty) counsellors throughout my teen years, I didn’t see a psychiatrist until after my son was born. He and I spend a week at a ‘sleep school’ when he is about nine months old, in a last-resort attempt to get him to sleep without me rocking him. After one night of witnessing my sleep-deprived depressive episodes and anxiety attacks, the nurses send me to their psych.
‘It sounds like you could have bipolar,’ she tells me after a lengthy session, before referring me to a psychiatrist in my hometown. That tentative label turns out to be the wrong one, but I am so relieved to have someone taking my symptoms seriously enough to suggest anything other than ‘toughening up’ that I sit and weep in her office for nearly fifteen minutes.
To try to diagnose my mental illness properly, the psychiatrist in my hometown asks me to get my parents to come in and I feel the blood disappear from my face.
‘My mum will not come in.’
‘It can’t hurt to ask.’
It hurts to ask. She flat out refuses to do it. ‘Especially not if you’re in the room.’
‘I don’t have to be in the room. But can I ask why I couldn’t be?’
‘Because we have to live together afterwards,’ she says, and watches me as that registers.
I weigh up the danger of pushing it with the very long-awaited prospect of getting a useful diagnosis. ‘Well I won’t be there, then, but could you please just talk to the psychiatrist?’
‘I don’t want to do it, Caitlin!’
‘Because I don’t like conversations!’
‘Well sometimes–’ my anger sends adrenaline whizzing around my bloodstream – ‘You have to do things you don’t like, to help other people!’
That is her line, and I’ve stolen it and thrown it back at her – cruelly, unfairly – in the year I’ve come back into her home with a newborn neither of us was prepared for. She shoots me daggers, picks up her cup of tea and walks into her bedroom. Slams the door.
Some time later she emerges, still fuming. ‘I’ll do it,’ she says, ‘But only because I don’t seem to have a choice.’
We don’t talk for probably a week, and months later I find out she’s been blowing off steam to my brother about it. When he tells me this, I feel jealous. Mum sharing her feelings seems so rare to me, so foreign. So coveted.
At the start of the session, the psychiatrist convinces Mum to let me stay, and my parents give her the history of my personality, my behaviour – my illness, which is not what either of them ever call it. It’s fine. Neither of them says anything I haven’t heard before in harsher terms.
After the session, Dad goes back to work and Mum and I head back to our cars, me holding my baby on my hip.
‘Did you hear anything you weren’t expecting to?’
I am struck, just then, by the enormity of what she’s just managed to do for me, and how much effort she’s making to push against all her instincts and follow up about it.
‘Nah,’ I say, and it’s the truth. ‘Do you want to go and get a coffee?’
I pick the cafe, it’s one I’ve been to with a friend. ‘It’s not very well lit, is it?’ she says. When my son starts to grizzle Mum offers to take him for a walk so I can finish my lunch. ‘The coffee isn’t any good here anyway.’
She leaves and I sort of sniffle into my omelette for a bit. Eventually I am laughing to myself, struggling not to be audible. I am sleep deprived, so I’m often on the verge of either crying or laughing; but I’ve also just realised that I’m sitting in the dark. It’s so, so poorly lit.
I recently found out that concerned midwives had given Mum pamphlets on postnatal depression after she had me, before she left the hospital. I’ve no doubt she threw them in the bin on her way out.
How to make a cup of tea for my mum:
- The teacup needs to be thin china, with a lip that curves outwards just very slightly;
- You must use a Tetley ‘EXTRA STRONG’ teabag;
- Jiggle the teabag until you can no longer make out the shape of it through the colour of the liquid;
- Remove the teabag;
- Add one slightly heaped teaspoon of sugar;
- Make sure you stir it really well;
- Add a centimetre of milk;
- Stir again for good measure.
At least once, when I was little, I couldn’t get to sleep because I kept imagining large rats – rats in the aesthetic style, for some reason, of cartoonist Terry Denton – emerging from the shadows of my wardrobe. At this time, I also had a habit of wriggling right down to the lower half of my bed, so that I could have plenty of doona to hold onto without untucking it from the bottom of the mattress. Mum came in and lay down next to me while I slept, to keep me safe from the Denton rats. She lay along the very edge of the bed with her back to me and, due to my wriggle-down habit, she didn’t have any doona. Mum hates being cold, but she didn’t complain or ask me to wriggle back up.
My son will often re-enact interactions he and I have had with each other using his toys. This is sometimes gratifying and quite moving; other times, less so.
TODDLER CAR: Can you sleep with me, Mama?
MAMA CAR: Okay, bubba car!
TODDLER CAR: Thank you!
MAMA CAR: Hey! Stop kicking me in the back! Why you have all the blanky?
I check the teacup section whenever I’m in a shop that has one. There are never any thin enough.
There was blood in all my / titles, and milk.
– Eileen Myles, ‘Holes’
The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body…in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take it to the limit of what can be known about a body.
– Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
At some point during the year after I become a mother, I decide to try to ‘be a writer’. One of the first things I have published is a very thinly veiled piece of autobiography, which I submit as fiction and is published as ‘commentary’. It is, to anyone who knows me well enough, so clearly drawn from my own life that to anyone who reads it, I am more or less outed as being attracted to women. It is also reasonably sexually explicit. I am shitting bricks about my parents reading it.
‘I don’t think you’ll like it,’ I warn them.
The print journal finally comes in the post and I take it around to my parents’ house. ‘Just, if you wanted…you really don’t have to read it, I just thought I’d bring it round in case you wanted to.’
Dad reads it and says, ‘This last bit…’
I cut him off and explain how I wanted it to work, technically, as a piece of writing. I think he seems relieved not to have to ask about its content.
Some days later I’m back at their place, and Mum comes up and hands me back the journal.
‘It’s very good,’ she says. ‘And’ – she makes deliberate eye contact – ‘you don’t need to worry. Write about whatever you want to.’
‘Mum, I have a question to ask you.’
I’m home for Christmas and I want to tell her that I’ve written this piece, and that KYD is interested in publishing it.
‘It’s about motherhood – about our relationship, basically. I just wanted to run it by you before I give them the go ahead to publish it.’
I explain the gist of it, tell her it’s cut up into sections and list the sections’ names. She laughs when I get to ‘pomegranate juice’.
‘I couldn’t think of a liquid for the last bit. It’s just called ‘epilogue’.’
‘Well if you stick with the fruit theme,’ she says, ‘I think I’ve got one. And that’s fine, Caitlin.’
‘Well, I’ll send it to you, and you can have a look at it. I’m not going to have it published unless you say you’re happy for me to.’
The fifty minutes between sending Mum the draft of this piece and getting her reply are long and full of nerves. Her response, when it comes, is an email with a single edit:
A flat teaspoon of sugar. X
The first birthday that my younger sister had after I gave birth to my son, she wrote our mum a card: ‘Thank you for going through so much pain to give birth to me!’
I think about my placenta about once a month. I’ll be hunched over, wincing, bleeding into the toilet bowl, and I’ll get visions of that slippery sack of blood – its slimy red and grey shining under the fluorescent lights, through the haze of pethidine. The blood that carries all the nutrients, the contractions that push a baby out into the world even as it screams in protest. The inextricability of motherhood and pain.
Whenever my son and I come home from visiting my parents, he invariably has a new toy or book from Mum.
‘This is my special one from Nan,’ he will say, about any one of about a dozen matchbox cars.
‘Nan loves you very much,’ I tell him, by way of translating. There’s no need; he understands perfectly.
I unpack the rest of our stuff, and put the licorice in the cupboard where it belongs.