A Maternal Haunting

By Anna Johnson 

I began writing for no clear purpose other than from a need of some kind. And also, I think, from some notion that I could perhaps ‘make something’ of the unexpected, powerful strangeness of this experience of motherhood in which I am suddenly immersed – that something could be formed by placing these experiences a little way outside of myself (or attempting to at least). The writing kept returning, as if of its own will (though of course not – just at the behest of parts of me I am less than fully conscious of), to an idea of haunting, or multiple senses in which I experience my altered life and self as haunted. Hallucinations and ‘visions’ of imaginary objects, during and after his birth, perhaps draw unsurprising parallels with ideas of haunting, but the more mundane events of depressive episodes, repetitive activity and the altered consciousness of endless caring also carry this sensation for me. Perhaps, as Stephen Frosh writes of psychoanalysis, motherhood also “from past to future, from subject to other[…] disturbs rational communication.” And there are the objects (undoubtedly in the psychoanalytic as well as the physical sense), to which I seem to want to attribute or attach my ghosts. Some real objects, some imagined. I wrote that:

I have this image of a ceramic vessel, spherical, pale yellow ochre, textured, which is opened by breaking. I see it in my chest, though I didn’t know until now that it was there. It contained a body of emotion that now forms a well between my heart and stomach (since it broke with my baby’s first cries) and sloshes about messily in part of the space he once pressed upon. I wonder if there is a version of this vessel in ceramic history – I would research it if I weren’t too tired 1. This lodged vessel, that required the precise pitch of his first cries (actually, not his first, but his first out of my arms, flailing on our kitchen table, receiving his first nappy, I think) to break apart, as if dropped on stone, was not all that broke. Or, and I think maybe this is it, its contents trickled down the inside of my ribs loosening the sediment that had formed there, never terribly effectively, over my ghosts.

And so I continue to write, and to look for objects to project my hauntings onto, to anchor my words and weigh down this weightless body of text.

Perhaps it is the repetition that comes, inevitably, with caring for a baby that causes images or objects to seem haunting now in their constant, paced returning. Or the returning of their loss. To me at least, the repetition involved in this practice is of a different texture to any I have experienced before. It is woven into our days, no matter how we spend them. And so, perhaps, the same cascades of connections are set off more easily by the familiarity of the sounds, actions, objects and spaces we inhabit, or even by the familiar ways in which we explore new sounds, actions, objects and spaces. He will, given the chance, make a full 360 degree survey of any new furniture or, ideally, person he is able to circle, moving his hands, one free, one secure, like a rock-climber, shuffling his socked feet. But this example is too concrete, too explicit – the texture of our most substantial repetitions is much finer. It is the grain of our movements and speech (or almost speech), the grain of our emotions too. But this is too microscopic to speak of, so I will zoom out again.
Each time I bath him, in his evening ritual, I am referred back, without fail, to a passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. It turns out it is actually not one passage, as I remembered it, but a repeating refrain. One instance reads:

“Yes, ever since old Mrs Constable lifted her sponge and pouring warm water over me covered me in flesh I have been sensitive, percipient.”

My experience of reading Virginia Woolf is, almost without exception, one of vivid emotional clarity. I envy this clarity. Not in the sense that I envy her writing (though I do envy the implicit yet sure nature of her language) but in that I wish I could experience my own, immediate emotional state with the crisp edges, the folds, the fullness with which I perceive (and, to the extent to which one might be immersed in reading, experience) the emotions of her characters.

Last year I described to the NHS therapist (the muscles just below her right eye gently twitching, with tiredness I assume, it was 6pm after all) the screen (like a light, open-weave fabric stretched taut) through which I thought I could perhaps make out my happiness, and all the rest. The feeling of being alienated from oneself, like the ghost (in the 90s movie trope) who finally realises it is dead and, no matter how much he wills it, cannot really be in the world. But this was not what I intended to write.

It is, I think, the ambivalence in being made to feel, in being born (or being made flesh by the water from Old Mrs Constable’s sponge) that I find so affecting. As I wash him and remember The Waves, each time, I am thinking about how these actions (the lavender in his bath water, the soft sea sponge that was a gift, our always too cold or too hot bathroom) form him, bring him into the world, and I hope it is okay. And how I too have been transformed by these actions, by the care that this ritual of bathing represents – made sensitive and percipient, covered, even, in a different flesh, it seems to me.
But it is the repetition that gives this remembrance the feel of a haunting. Perhaps I used to outrun such hauntings by the inconsistency of my days, before I was slowed to our more bodily pace and repeating rhythms. I am more present in myself, and it turns out I am haunted.

I am starting to see this writing as a way of fixing my maternal experience, of pinning at least some version of this down before it disperses and I am left only knowing that these things happened but no longer containing how they feel. And of course the writing is a way of coming to an understanding of my experience in the first place – like the imaging I wrote of earlier, but more formalised, more controlled, though also more exposed, more fragile and compromised by language, by being made external. I am thankful for it, the writing. If I can fix some sense of this time, create and contain some version, then perhaps it will not add to the ghosting that comes with the degradation, the thinning and crumbling, of what is retained.

Or perhaps something else is true. Perhaps I am holding on to something that should be allowed to pass, perhaps I am creating a ghost of sorts, in the sense of something held back, pulled out of the motion of time. But then, it takes on a life of its own, this writing, and refuses to be the real thing of course. Though I strive for accuracy, and more, when I look back at the text where it has settled over time, it has shifted. So perhaps it fulfils the claims I make for preventing haunting or creating ghosts in part only, because ultimately it is something new. I am reminded of the process of ceramics – the final glaze firing transforms what has in the most part, until that point, been a close, physical relationship between material and hand, and gives you back something you could not possibly fully recognise, something you did not know you were making.

I had been meaning for weeks to take him to the V&A, on some kind of odd pilgrimage to the object I had found (searching the online archives) resembling the vessel I pictured, so fully, breaking in my chest, leaking emotion and awakening ghosts. Illness, tiredness and difficult days had rolled this non-essential task over from week to week, but I decided finally to go. I checked the archive listing I had bookmarked for the object’s location in the museum and already there was a slip – the accompanying photo had been updated from a suggestive, partial image to a more explicit shot of the whole object, side on. It no longer suggested the vessel I had imagined, that I had seen and still see, lodged, broken behind my ribs.

Still, I was determined to seek it out – perhaps the resemblance suggested by the earlier photograph was still there, in the flesh, or perhaps I would find something else. And I had promised myself I would take him to play in the fountains of the museum’s courtyard.
As I struggled to contain his 14 month-old desire for constant movement and exploration on the tube journey from East to Southwest London I could feel in the gently pervading air of anxiety that I was too tired for this. But then we had made it, without tears and through his impression of a tiny commuter (in his own seat, discarded newspaper in hand) had spread some bashful smiles.

The 6th floor of the V&A, where the object is apparently housed, was closed that morning, suddenly and temporarily – it was not to be. We wandered a little, drawn into the darkness of a small cinema space where a film about the Great Exhibition played to empty benches. Here he could crawl on the carpet and feed a little in the dim space while narrators spoke the preserved letters of Great Exhibition visitors. There are so few spaces where his energies feel appropriate rather than disruptive, this domestic-sized and, importantly, empty cinema felt like a relief. And, purely for myself, I am closest to some kind of comfort in the dimmed, faux-red-velvet spaces of cinemas and the cool of museums.

He was joyous in the fountains. I wrapped him in my scarf to keep the breeze from his damp body as he sat on the hand-towel I’d brought along and repeatedly lurched in an effort to return to the water. I felt self-conscious in struggling with what was clearly a two person job, to dry him and re-dress him between the fountain and the inexplicably sodden grass I had planned to picnic on. So lunch in the museum café, opposite a work meeting of well-dressed, handsome people, and between a tourist couple and a local grandmother who smiled and chatted a little.

Settled in his sling, his head folded to my chest in an overwhelming sleep barely out of the museum. He slept the journey home as I read on my phone, over his shoulder. There was no object to speak of. Perhaps I was wrong to seek out the material counterpart to something hidden, haunting and imagined. I’m not sure now why I did – simple, casual intrigue or the desire to ‘see’, to be able (in theory of course) to hold?

And so I continue to write. And I make a plan to follow the writing, to work out from this dense central point of anecdote towards ideas, research, conversations and study. Still trying to ‘make something’ of this experience, but also to be led by it towards some exploration of what haunting might offer as a way of understanding, or at least speaking of, the maternal.

1 I later began looking for it in the V&A online archives.


Frosh, S. 2013, Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions, Palgrave Macmillan, p5

Woolf, V. 1992, The Waves, Penguin, p222

Anna Johnson is a craftsperson, writer (perhaps) and mother, living in East London. Her background is in history and theory of art, and she has an MA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins.

Meet the Mother House: A Creative Space for Mother Artists

Mother House is a pilot initiative from Procreate Project in partnership with Desperate Artwives. It is a dedicated creative space for London-based artists who are mothers, with a co-produced and flexible childcare model.
The Mother House will provide an experimental context within which women can share and reveal both the challenges and privileges of being a mother. The space will provide the freedom to work independently or alongside your children, and it will provide opportunities to work in collaboration with other artists to create a supportive and inspiring network. The Mother House idea is born in response to the urge “to make” within the life-changing experience of motherhood, offering a collaborative yet intimate space to curate your practice while ensuring your journey into motherhood is fed in a creative and inclusive way.

This experiment will turn into an artwork itself as a documentary, which will be shown for a final open-house day, celebrating this journey and exhibiting all the works created during this time. This short term project would demonstrate how a dedicated space provides crucial support for mother artists’ professional development.

“Mother House recognises the role space plays in creative work and exchange alongside the complexity of mother artists’ needs. Mother House inspires a wider understanding of artists engaged with their practices as mothers which is especially vital in a cultural epicentre like London where support is recognised as indispensable to artistic production” – Althea Greenan (WAL – Goldsmiths University)

More information about how to take part in the project can be found here. Mother House needs your support! Give your contribution to make this happen while securing a free of charge opportunity for all the contributing artists.

About the Procreate Project:

ProCreate Project is the first ever social enterprise which focuses on artists who are mothers. The organisation aims to provide practical help and financial support for artists, enabling them to continue producing work during pregnancy and motherhood. Find out more about the Procreate Project initiatives and the artists involved here.