Towards a “maternal commons”? Exploring the potential political resistance of televisual birth

By Sara De Benedictis

On the 10th March 2014 artist Sheona Beaumont gave birth to her second child, Dylan, on the BAFTA winning Channel 4 primetime television show, One Born Every Minute. Beaumont invited people to comment and engage in the viewing of her birth through social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, during the show. The experience of giving birth on television and the reactions to her birth depiction will feed into her next artwork.

As Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser (2013) argue in Private View, Public Birth, in the past three decades in Western culture we have seen a dramatic rise in the visibility of childbirth. This is somewhat peculiar considering the abject qualities historically associated with the birthing body. However, as they go on to suggest (drawing on Hannah Arendt) the increased presence and focus of birth, especially within artistic sites such as Birth Rites Collection, can pave the way for a “natal politics”. As they argue, “a natal politics would insist on natality as not just an experience we have in common, but a metaphor for a mode of sharing words and deeds in public space that allows for the appearance of transformational beginnings” (Tyler and Baraitser, 2013: 23).

Tyler and Baraitser are understandably slightly skeptical of birth depictions on reality television shows, such as One Born Every Minute. As they note:

We might conclude that within much US and British childbirth TV, women are portrayed as largely passive subjects caught within the processes and practices determined by local cultural and social, health and medical structures. These televisual depictions of childbirth are undoubtedly limited in terms of the absence of possibilities they encode for imagining, experiencing or understanding birth outside of dominant systems of control and surveillance that characterise obstetric practices in the Global North. Perhaps more significantly, the fear they create feeds into and reproduces ideas of birth as a ‘crisis’ which needs to be managed to a successful conclusion by medical experts with the institutional (and increasingly corporatised) spaces of hospital settings.

My doctoral research explores a group of women’s (both those who have given birth and those who have not) reactions to One Born Every Minute through a combination of textual analysis and audience reception. Thus far, the textual analysis side of this research corroborates Tyler and Baraitser’s insights into televisual birth. Drawing on Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood’s research on reality television, Reacting to Reality Television (2012), the audience reception has complicated and furthered this argument as each participant has taken meaning from the visibility of birth in the show in varying ways.

In this sense, when I discovered that Beaumont would be giving birth on One Born Every Minute and this would feed into a new art project my interests were piqued. My first thoughts were how interesting the combining and intermingling of these different sites (hospital, television, social networking, art) and subjects (birthing body, televisual birthing body, maternal body, viewer, artist) were. A number of contradictions would seem to play out when thinking through Beaumont’s experience of giving birth on television, the reactions to this birth on social networks and how this will inform her new artwork. If Beaumont is represented as passive and censored in the televisual depiction of her birth (with the latter especially ringing true considering the show heavily edited her birth, including the decision not to show her episiotomy according to Beaumont’s twitter account), what does it mean for her to be producing this artwork now on her birth as an active, speaking subject?

Further to this, how does the intermingling of two sites, “art” and “television” – ideologically created as oppositional, as high/low cultural forms – coming together, alongside the reactions to people viewing the birth on social networking, to inform Beaumont’s work complicate ideas around visual cultures and class through the lens of the maternal? On the one hand, considering the neoliberal market-driven mentality of reality television shows, the forms of exploitation that are present from various angles in the production of these shows and the limited representations that they tend to produce, these programmes are not often seen as productive sites to explore non-dominant representations and experiences of birth. On the other hand, the infiltration and far reaching impact into the everyday of cultural texts such as One Born Every Minute makes the show a potentially interesting and urgent site to explore the public visibility of birth from alternative perspectives.

Amongst a multitude of questions that could be asked, I find myself considering what does it mean to give birth, watch yourself give birth on television and watch others react to this televisual birth? Does this fracture the stronghold of dominant ideologies of birthing bodies One Born Every Minute encourages to offer resistant potential? Do these differing experiences and depictions bring alternative maternal subjectivities to the foreground? How can these experiences be drawn upon as a form of natal politics, stepping towards a “maternal commons”, whereby “recognising what we share, what we have in common, is also a political act” (Tyler and Baraitser, 2013: 23)?


Sara De Benedictis is an ESRC funded PhD student in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. Her thesis explores the representation of birth in British reality television programmes. Sara is also a research assistant in the Media and Communications department at London School of Economics and interns for MaMSIE (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics) network, based in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Prior to starting her PhD, Sara worked for a number of UK women’s organisations in the third sector.

Motherhood and a Scholar Via Media

By Amy Young

Motherhood is a hot topic in both popular and academic presses. Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, Brooke Shields’ Down Comes the Rain: My Journey through Postpartum Depression, Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have each each become bestsellers. Indeed, Chua’s Tiger Mother was simultaneously praised for its unflinching take on motherhood and eviscerated for its perceived undercurrent of unkindness towards children. Organisations all over the United States have Lean In groups where women talk about the realities of motherhood as employees and the changes that need to be made to organisational life to truly include mothers as equals (Belz, 2013, October 10). In academia, Evans and Grant’s Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life is a collection of first person narratives. Ghodsee and Connelly’s Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Life Balance in Academia is designed as a how-to guide for surviving life as a mother and faculty member. Each of these books contributes to an important conversation, and while allowing people space for personal narratives is important, the academic books prior to these two new books tend to address motherhood while being overwhelmingly micro (first-person stories) or macro (longitudinal data over several decades) and not a venue for mothers to write about motherhood as scholars.

I believe there is transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary space for projects on and about motherhood—it is a topos (or “space” of argument) rich with critical import and opportunity. My comments about middle ground, or as Kenneth Burke would say, a “via media” or “middle way,” are not a critique of existing projects, but rather are a way of conceiving or reconceiving feminist projects as scholarly collectives. Indeed, the last thing any scholar interested in motherhood should do is to pit women against one another—we hear enough of the “mommy wars” rhetoric every day and we do not need to bring it to work. What I mean by via media is a way around some of the limitations of other work on motherhood so far. The topos or space I am trying to claim, or arguing that scholars interested in motherhood ought claim, is the space between solely experiential and solely meta.

What resides in this space is a theorising out from experience and a theorising in from data. Using a particular disciplinary theory, methodology, practice or lens gives rigour to an experiential project. Situating the project disciplinarily brings a more personal, and therefore more salient, connection to the project than metadata can deliver. For example, coming out of the rhetorical tradition, I might speak to the differences in the communication about motherhood at the large public institution where I did my Ph.D. and the small liberal arts institution where I work. I would do a textual analysis of official and unofficial narratives and policies on motherhood, comparing the political implications of stated and unstated policy and its relationship to broader discourses of motherhood and work. This via media most certainly has its own limitations, but it does not fall prey to the same critiques as narrative and meta projects because I have made a personal experience a theoretical and methodological one, while maintaining a connection to lived practice and local politics and culture.

My own response to this theoretical conundrum will be in my proposed edited collection, Teacher, Scholar, Mother: (Re)Envisioning Motherhood in the Academy. The book offers three primary scholarly contributions. First, this volume covers substantial ground. It is interdisciplinary as well as  methodologically and demographically diverse. Scholars from fields in the humanities, arts, sciences and social sciences, from a variety of institution types and at different ranks speak to issues ranging from policy to cultural expectations to raising a child with intellectual challenges to what makes a “good mother.” Second, this volume breaks important middle ground between purely narrative and purely longitudinal offerings currently available from academic presses. Scholars use their own discipline’s traditions, theories and lenses to frame issues about motherhood in the modern academy. Third, this volume is multi-mediated. Dr. Angela Aguayo, a scholar of rhetoric and documentary film at Southern Illinois University as well as a filmmaker, will assist in creating a video repository for scholars and for institutions where mother teacher/scholars can speak to their own experiences, questions, policies and other issues related to motherhood in the academy.


Anna M. (Amy) Young is Associate Professor of Communication at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Prophets, Gurus & Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) details ways for academic intellectuals to take their work “public” and to better engage audiences outside of disciplinary peers to speak to society’s largest problems and challenges. Her work appears in a variety of scholarly venues including the Quarterly Journal of Speech and KB Journal. She also has two children—this project is for them.

The Business of Being Made

By Katie Gentile

In her recent book Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films,  Kelly Oliver reminds us that, until fairly recently, Hollywood made sure to keep pregnant celebrities out of sight. These days, you cannot pass a magazine stand without being visually assaulted by images of celebrity baby bumps. Neil Patrick Harris and Nicole Kidman with Keith Urban have gone so far as to discuss their experiences with their respective surrogates. Other older female celebrities have discussed egg donation. What is still kept under wraps, however, is infertility and the repetitive failures of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs).

As with other forms of biotechnology, ARTs have become a normative part of women’s reproductive health care with a critical impact on women’s subjectivities (Mamo, 2010). Yet as these technologies have proliferated, feminist and cultural theories have taken up the challenges of theorizing the subjectivities produced through these interventions, but psychoanalysis has remained relatively mute, and certainly uncritical. The current issue of Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 14, Number 4 addresses this gap. This issue of SGS is unique, not only because it is dedicated to ARTs, but also because it examines them from a variety of different perspectives and disciplines – focusing on cultural and feminist theories, sociology, and in-depth clinical case work. In a culture organised around ideals of ‘reprofuturity’ (Halberstam, 2005) where some babies are objects of consumerism and fetish (Gentile, 2013), while others are cast aside as excessive (Oliver, 2012), ARTs take on particularly loaded meanings in the cultural and clinical spaces. This issue attempts to engage some of these representations to further their analysis.

The issue begins with my own interview-based research outlining “the business of being made.” The paper orients the reader not only to the technologies themselves, but to the cultural pressures surrounding the proliferation of these interventions. This climate is one marked by collapsed spaces for reflection and a narrow neoliberal focus on success at all costs. With older celebrities slinging biotech babies it is hard to remember 80% of IVF cycles will fail and the majority of people entering fertility clinics will not become pregnant. This paper also brings to light the potential for traumatic repetition in ARTs, in particular around sexual abuse.

In most ART stories the egg donors remain the anonymous secret, contributing to what some feel is a tenuous maternal subjectivity. To counter this, the issue features a paper by Michelle Leve focusing on the process of egg donation and the donors themselves. It explores ideas of subjectivity, choice and agency for these donors as well as the complicated political and economic issues surrounding the selling of eggs, and how they are ranked and valued based on the identified qualities of the donor. This paper is also based on interview data and provides a feminist cultural analysis of the practice of egg donation.

These papers set a cultural context for an in-depth psychoanalytic case study by Tracy Simon. Simon describes clinical work with a woman who struggled through 11 years of ART procedures until she succeeded in getting pregnant with a donated egg. Simon details the complicated experience of her patient, who felt feeling abducted by the donor egg, and wanted to evacuate herself of this very expensive and sought after nugget of life. André Lepecki, Stephen Hartman and Orna Guralnick deepen this case with their respective discussion papers. Each picks up on a different point of the case, from the assembled subjectivities involved in egg donation (Lepecki), to the unspeakable void involved in defining just what is viable (Hartman), to focusing on the potentially playful and generative potentials of ARTs (Guralnik).


Gentile, K. (2013). Biopolitics, trauma and the public fetus: An analysis of preconception care. Subjectivity, 6 (2): 153-172.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time & place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: New York University Press.

Mamo, L. (2010). Fertility, Inc.: Consumption and subjectification in U.S. lesbian reproductive practices. In Biomedicalization: Technoscince, health, and illness in the U.S. eds. A.E. Clarke, J.K. Shim, L. Mamo, J.S. Fosket, & J.R. Fishman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 173-196.

Oliver, K. (2012). Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood films. New York: Columbia University Press.


Katie Gentile is Associate Professor of Counseling and Director of the Gender Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and on the Faculty of New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. She is the author of Creating Bodies: Eating Disorders As Self-Destructive Resistance, and the forthcoming The Business of Being Born: Integrating Cultural and Psychoanalytic Theories to explore the production of temporalities in assisted reproductive technologies, both from Routledge. She is co-editor of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality and on the editorial board of Women’s Studies Quarterly. More information on the above mentioned issue of Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 14, Number 4, can be found at


Artists Who Mother

By Rose Gibbs

According to Sheryl Sandberg, the woman responsible for turning around the fortune of Facebook (1), ‘the number one impediment to women succeeding in the work force is now in the home. Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. The majority of heterosexual couples operate on that basis’ (2). Sampson Lee Blair (3), professor at the University of Buffalo, studies the division of labor in families and notes that with families where the woman has a job and a man doesn’t, where one might anticipate a reversal of roles, ‘even then you find the woman doing the majority of the housework’ (4). For childcare the ratio is closer to 5 to 1, no matter who earns the money for the family. Business and institutions are set up without regard for the exigency of parenting an infant, and clearly women take the strain.

There are lots of excuses made for sexism. While issues of parenthood, maternity leave and employers’ weariness of it is all too often given as a reason for women not getting ahead in the professions, no such thing can be said of a self-employed artist. The success of an artist’s output cannot be measured by the hours spent on a piece of work. There are no set hours. There is no office, and no one will notice when you leave the studio early. For many artists there will be fallow periods, or periods spent thinking. Artists can work at home and don’t have to damage their reputations by asking for flexi-hours.

Women dominate art schools (5), yet they are failing to make it to the top. Eighty percent of solo shows go to men. Commercial galleries, with only a handful of exceptions, represent many more male than female artists (6). This gender disparity illustrates a sexism that though notable in other industries, cannot be so easily brushed over in the art world. Or to put it another way: we can’t blame the baby. In fact, amongst many heterosexual art couples the flexible nature of an artist’s practice allows for a more equal distribution of hours spent parenting.

Being an artist has traditionally been the job of a man. The same can be said of doctors- but while doctors are supposed to be caring and responsible, qualities we often associate with women and motherhood- the romantic idea of an artist is that of the bohemian who devotes their life to art with reckless abandon. This is not an idea we have left behind. In August 2012, Marina Abramovic explained that there were not more great female artists because women were not willing to make the necessary sacrifices required to produce great art. It was women’s desire to have children and look after those children that stood in their way. Tracey Emin has echoed elements of this sentiment, saying that she ‘could never be a mother and a good artist. The emotional pull would be too much’ (7).

In business and other professions there are tangible ‘problems’ with employing women who mother, while in art the problems are tied up with myth and myth is a powerful force: ‘It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality’, wrote Virginia Woolf in 1931 (8). Where practical steps can be taken to allow women into the world of business, no such steps can be taken against our mythologies. For Woolf ridding herself of notions of how a woman should be was the first step to writing. The problems now are slightly different. Art schools allow women to think of themselves as artists, make art and be artists, yet beyond those utopian institutions there is reluctance to support them as such. Ideas are the very fabric of art and this allow the lifeblood of the artist to seep in, as art and artist in some cases completely merge. Despite Joseph Beuys’ statement ‘Everyone is an artist’: there remains an unspoken rule of what an artist must look like, what an artist must be.

Artists ‘out’ themselves as women when they mother. If artists are supposed to be driven by their work at the expense of all else, this does not sit well with the idea of the archetypal woman. Motherhood is the epitome of femaleness, it reminds us of women’s ability to bear children – and is as such a clear indicator of sex difference, while simultaneously illustrating a responsibility to something other than art.  Even in a world where we know that the child may not be the mother’s own progeny, or where the mother may not be the main carer, children stand as clear living reminder that an artist is a woman – more female and therefore less artist-like. Needless to say I disagree with the old notion that we must be wild bohemians to make great art. Just as businesses benefit from skills that workers learn from their parenting experiences, these experiences could inform and enrich an artistic practice – though perhaps not Tracey Emin’s.

Often people are surprised when they are told how massively under represented women are. We look at art without thinking about the sex of its creator. Or do we? I suggest that these observations are going on all the time as we assess the world and its contents, and effects the way we read a piece of work. It is presumptuous to believe that we can allow art to transcend our prejudices. We do not look from a void: how we perceive, interpret and understand the world is mediated by our experience of it. Art is a matter of communication: who we think is communicating to us, affects what we think they are communicating and has a bearing on how we understand it. This is not always a bad thing, it’s a way of putting something in context: it only becomes a problem when sexism gets in the way. The question is – does the art world, do the consumers of culture, think that women are worth listening to?


1. Auletta, K. 2011. A Woman’s Place: Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture? The New Yorker, July 11. Available at

2. Ibid.

3. Belkin, L. 2008. When Mom and Dad Share it All. The Times Magazine, June 15. Available at

4. Ibid.

5. Ratcliffe, R. 2013. The gender gap at universities: where are all the men? The Guardian, 29 January. Available at

6. The East London Fawcett Group. 2013. Great East London Art Audit. EFL Audit. Available at

7. The BBC Radio 4. 2013. Woman’s Hour, How to Be a Powerful Woman, Be in Balance. The BBC, 28 June. Available at

8. Woolf, V. 1931. Professions For Women. In: Woolf, V. 1931. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. The University of Adelaide: Adelaide. Available at



Rose Gibbs is a visual artist who graduated from The Royal College of Art in 2010. She has exhibited extensively, in the UK and internationally. Her work was featured in Alistaire Sooke’s 2011 BBC Bristish Sculpture documentary series, Romancing the Stone. Moreover, she has been part of various panel discussions including at Kings Place, London as part of the Talking Art series (Does Gender Matter?), at The Royal College of Art in their Rethinking Soup program, at the Kingsgate Workshop Gallery, The Ben Uri Gallery (Are we Not Now all Feminist?) and has taken part in the Metaflux symposium in association with The Royal Academy of Art for their Bronze exhibition. In 2013, she curated a series of shows and events across London for the 2013 International V Day, in conjunction with One Billion Rising which is linked to her continuing work with the grass roots feminist activist East London Fawcett group. More information can be found at:


Mother of Invention: A New Collection of Essays on Mothering and Feminist Subjectivity

By Rachel O’Neill

MaMSIE readers may be interested in a new collection of essays on the theme of mothering and feminist subjectivities. Edited by Vanessa Reimer and Sarah Sahagian, Mother of Invention combines feminist theory and life writing to explore the many ways in which mothers – whether or not they identify as feminists – can inspire feminist consciousness in their children. Below is an extract from the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘Impressions of my mother: On wilfulness and passionate scholarship’, in which I consider some of the difficulties of writing feminist auto/biography.

On beginning to draft this chapter, I realise that I don’t know how to name my mother in writing. Should I employ the formal ‘mother’, the generic ‘mom’, or do I address her as I do in person, favouring the Irish pronouncement, ‘Ma’? What of her own name? Do I need to be consistent anyway, or is this a literary affectation? Further difficulties present themselves as I start to write and find myself vacillating between past and present tense, confounding temporal distinctions as I try to capture the change and constancy of my mother’s character. How can I convey the complex and multifaceted nature of her person? She has been so many different people, has had so many different lives: a subdued little girl, well-versed in her own mother’s stoicism; a brilliant but troubled young woman who wore her dark hair long, as though to hide behind it; a sad and resentful bride, her sister so recently laid to rest; a young wife who followed her husband to Canada in earnest, only to find herself left alone to look after her two babies; a daughter who cared patiently, tenderly, for her ailing mother in the final years of her life; a woman married thirty years, with all the tribulations this entails, now steadily adored by a man who fixes her coffee, picks her flowers and comes home early; a skilled photographer, immortalising fishermen on Achill Island, consecrating discarded remnants in a place time forgot; a mother of four who, loving us each intensely, suffers all of our hurts and disappointments as if they were her own (and seems to believe they are); a woman who dances with her arms raised and her eyes closed.

These fragments can do only some of the necessary descriptive work. I know that to give some account of our relationship I will need to refer to specific episodes and anecdotes. I quickly find, however, that it is not easy to quarry one’s memory banks. I worry too about the distortions of memory, feeling that some of those familiar familial stories will have become exaggerated in the repetition of their telling. Conferring with family members, my misgivings are confirmed as we turn up different versions of events. Is there any one account that most closely approximates the actuality of the occurrence? Is the veracity of any story even important, or is there something more compelling in how it is remembered and re-told? I wonder what is at stake in remembering (and re-membering) family stories. Perhaps the best thing is to adopt a more “methodical” approach. I decide to interview Ma. She agrees to this and one Saturday evening we settle in to talk over the internet, she at home in Ireland, myself in London, seeing each other via computer cameras. She is nervous at first, unsure of what she is supposed to say, not knowing what the exercise will consist of. I ask her simply to tell me about her life, describing any relation to feminism she might have. She begins, hesitantly, but soon relaxes and begins to talk with ease. Enjoying herself now, she tells me stories I have never heard before. I am engrossed. When I review my notes the next day, it is clear that I was too absorbed in my mother’s talk to give it any direction; I have come away with far more questions than answers. Transcribing my notes, fixing the spoken word by converting it to the more lasting form of the written, I am struck by the immutable character of words on a page. I wonder if my mother has given too much of her self, has spoken too freely. Did she forget that the interview – which had so much the character of a tête-à-tête – was supposed to provide some basis to this paper, that I would write about what she told me? I worry about exploiting this expansiveness, so uncharacteristic of her.

These attempts towards authentication are borne of a desire for my mother to recognise herself in this composite portrait. In writing, I become resigned to the idea that there will be discordances – because she does not, cannot, see herself as I see her. I worry especially that my attempts to read my mother through feminism will be rebuked, my efforts towards better understanding met with charges of intellectual posturing and pretension. I cannot but be conscious of the dangers my presumptions might hold, wary of the ambivalence of our relationship: the easy hurt, our mutual fear of saying the wrong thing and becoming at odds. And what of the others? My father – very much the public face of our family – will he be embarrassed, offended or disappointed by what I write? Probably he knows that he does not come off well in any account of my mother’s early married life, having neglected (the word is bitter) his wife to forge his career, the real fear of poverty and the absolute need to succeed always spurning him on. How changed he is now, so generous and considerate – it seems unfair to bring up these early failings. And yet, this is part of the story, and an important part of my own story. I consider as well my two older sisters and my younger brother. What will they think? Will they read what I write and balk at the conceit of the iteration ‘my mother’? Because she is not my mother alone: each of us, her children, have different conceptions of who she was and is, our relationships to her mediated by divergent upbringings, the shifting life circumstances and family dynamics we bore witness to and participated in.


Rachel O’Neill is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where her research centres on men and masculinities, sexual cultures and social change. The above extract is taken from her essay on wilfulness and passionate scholarship, one of seventeen contributions to Mother of Invention. Further information about the book is available via the publisher’s website:

Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood at the Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum, London, UK, 10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014

By Rebecca Baillie

In the same way that the parent and child are distinct and separate whilst remaining undeniably connected, so too are the parallel shows curated by Susan Bright on photography and motherhood at The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum. Although part of the same story, the atmosphere of the two exhibitions is completely contradictory. As you enter the Foundling Museum, you are immediately greeted by loss. Originally a home for abandoned children, perhaps sadness and longing has somehow seeped into the walls. However it has happened, loss overwhelms as you enter the museum; it then follows behind as you walk down a grand staircase and arrive inside the hidden basement space, home, for the time being, to the work of Miyako Ishiuchi, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Ann Fessler and Tierney Gearon.

This work, exhibited together, left me somewhat speechless, breathless, and wanting to get away. As the eye moved between the intricately photographed possessions of Ishiuchi’s dead mother, the melding of past and present in a digital family album created by Palakunnathu Matthew, and the fraught insanity at once observed and stimulated by Gearon, the ear listened to the depressed, echoing voice that guides Fessler’s searching journey to a place where her mother no longer lives. There is nothing to hold in this space; by this I mean, all bodies have been taken over by emotion that is deep and intangible. The mothers are dead or absent, and the present becomes insignificant as individuals fade into a background that speaks more of continuum, of our brief appearances in the world and then, more forcefully, of their decline and disappearance. Being in this space was a ‘womb-like’ experience as one felt as though he or she was reverting to an earlier state of things, becoming uneasy owing to the confrontation with Freud’s notion of the ‘death drive’. As a mother of young children, the weight of the nostalgia, and the urge to look back rather than forward to the future, seemed to trouble me more than it would have done in the past. I felt an urge to see pictures of a life at the start, abound with carefree energy and limitless potential.

The selection of work at The Photographers’ Gallery re-aligned my balance and helped me to breathe again. On the night of the private view, the space was alive in dialogue with the work. The Katie Murray piece made me laugh out loud, and for all of the pain witnessed in other surrounding images – the blood, cuts and bruises – this gave the work immediacy and a place in the everyday. And thus the video brought the viewer back to earth from the realm of the spirit world (found at The Foundling Museum), ready to make connections and to be a relevant and active spectator.

After initial thoughts stored from the private view evening, I returned to The Photographers’ Gallery with a notebook one morning. Typically, the page that I opened up to start making notes was covered with drawings of people, done by my 3 year old daughter, using yellow highlighter pen. They are beautiful pictures – big heads, big eyes, and lines everywhere for arms, legs, even for ears I think. Opening my notebook on this page reminded me of such an important point made by this exhibition: that once a mother/parent, one’s life is fully invaded, in all of its aspects, by one’s children. It seems only wise to integrate your children into your work, as perhaps this is the only way to give both the full attention that they deserve?

You go up the stairs to The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition, right to the top of the building; there is a slither of glass on one of the walls that gives an amazing view of the far off horizon and suddenly, all journeys seem possible. Having said that, the view also makes clear that death is never far away either, just one step if you so desired. The work of all of the photographers in this part of the exhibition very successfully marries boundless potential with the sharpness of death, not in a depressive way as in the work housed by The Foundling Gallery, but more in a straight to the point, matter of fact way. Perhaps the experience of giving birth does this to a mother: as likely the closest that she has come to dying, suddenly flesh torn, wounds and blood split, become more common place.

The work of Ana Casas Broda unites many of the reoccurring themes that we see throughout the show. Her work presents a family portrait. Interestingly though, in the images hung in the gallery – for there are more in the artist’s book of the same title, Kinderwunsch – her husband appears only once. Father of the artist’s two sons, he holds the mirror as one of his boys shaves his head in a kind of ritualistic male rite of passage. In the work of Murray, the father figure seems baffled and wants to remove himself from the scene, whilst Fred Hüning and Leigh Ledare, although the artists, illuminate not themselves, but the women with whom they are obsessed. In this sense, what is happening in this exhibition is very complex. It acknowledges the necessity to challenge and subvert tradition, but at the same time does not eliminate long-standing ways of looking or of making art. In the same vein, despite the fact that some artists in this exhibition have suggested that their work moves away from the traditional Madonna and Child depiction of motherhood, it is interesting that some of them re-stage the pieta (Broda and Hüning), some veil their heads (Hüning) and that in general, the iconic mother and child image remains strong throughout, in particular in the work of Broda and Elinor Carucci. What is interesting no doubt is that the woman in the picture is now active artist as well as mother, model, muse, and furthermore, that imagery considered ‘feminine’ is taken to be a profound subject matter for male and female artists alike. The full article with images from the exhibition will be published in the forthcoming issue of Studies in the Maternal.


Rebecca Baillie is an art historian who has always practiced as an artist alongside conducting research and writing. Recently awarded a PhD, her academic specialism lies in the study of melancholia, surrealism and its legacies, and the maternal body in visual culture. In her artwork she uses photography, drawing and sculpture – whichever medium best supports the current idea. She is the curator of MaMSIE’s online ‘visual library’, and has published a variety of writings in the journal, Studies in the Maternal. She is currently a dissertation supervisor at Kingston University, as well as freelance writer and curator.

Beyond the Clinical: Maternal Health and Wellbeing

Our era is characterised by a ‘work-family clash’ and there is evidence that trends towards gender equity have stalled. In 2006, a multi-nation study by the European Commission identified the Transition to Parenthood (TtoP) as a ‘critical tipping point on the road to gender equity’ (Lewis and Smithson 2006:13). It is in the early years after the birth of an infant that gendered roles can become entrenched, while at the same time the vast majority of couples are attempting to achieve a gender equal or egalitarian family form (Garvan 2010). The Commission’s report, which drew from quantitative and qualitative findings from eight countries on work–family boundaries, concluded that ‘gender shapes parenthood and makes motherhood different from fatherhood both in everyday family life and in workplaces’ (Lewis and Smithson 2006:13).

Particularly in this context, becoming a mother is often a profound and life-changing experience of important social, cultural and personal consequence. Cultural traditions and beliefs about what it means to be a mother are in flux and mixed up with interpersonal dynamics between the woman-as-mother and her infant. The birth of an infant is most importantly a social and cultural event that has been highly medicalised. Current trends include surveillance of pregnancies and the puerperium, along with interventions in birth, and high rates of Perinatal Depression and anxiety.  Marital dissatisfaction is high and there are legendary issues related to identity for women-as-mothers across the industrialised world.

In the face of significant social change the associated health and welfare services are struggling to respond. There is much work taking place within the Humanities that is highly relevant to practitioners. Midwifery, Family Child Health Nurses, Social Workers, Psychologists and family practitioners are critical touchstones with women and their families. These practitioners are in a position to assist individuals or couples manage significant twenty-first century pressures. However, while there continues to be an emphasis on a biomedical model of health to the exclusion of this wider social and cultural context of change, an opportunity is lost. The issues associated with the ‘transition to parenthood’ such as changes to the sense of self, changes to relationships, changes to the life course, negotiating more housework, and finding a line between self and baby are topics that could be integrated within these related health programs when they are not present.

Sociologists agree that changes to gendered practice are the single most significant development in the later part of the twentieth century. Yet maternal and child health services, particularly in the early years after the birth, are enmeshed within a medical model that most often assumes a gendered breadwinner framework for care. While wage setting has moved to an independent worker model, health and social welfare policies are targeted to maintain families within a new ‘mixed economy of care’. These are issues canvassed by Michael Fine (2007) using a sociological lens. As long as aspirations towards gender equity are caught within this web of care and repacked as a work-family balance, the health and wellbeing of women and their families will suffer. The European Commission have identified the Transition to Parenthood as a critical life stage, but while our institutional framework fails to adequately respond, practitioners who are working with women and their families can assist their clientele navigate very real 21st century tensions.


Joan Garvan graduated from the Australian National University in December 2010 with a doctorate in Gender and Sociology. Her thesis was concerned with the experience of women in the early years after the birth of an infant and she has set out to work in the gap between the academic literature and practitioners such as Midwives, Maternal and Child Health Nurses, Social Workers and Psychologists who are working with women and their families. She has launched an internet site at:  and offers an online Professional Development Course: Beyond the clinical perspective: Perinatal depression and the mother’s life. The course focuses on research on Perinatal depression and the Transition to Parenthood, relevant materials from within Midwifery and Maternal and Child Health, Social Work and Psychology, along with contemporary literature from across the humanities on being a mother. Through online discussion participants engage with topics that arise from the course content while maintaining a continuing dialogue about program development and practical outcomes. Joan can be contacted at


Fine, Michael. (2007). A Caring Society? Care the Dilemmas of Human Service in the 21st Century, U.K.:Palgrave/Macmillan.

Garvan, Joan. (2010). Maternal ambivalence in contemporary Australia: Navigating equity and care, Doctoral thesis, Australian National University see:

Lewis Suzan, and Janet Smithson. (2006). Gender parenthood and the changing European workplace: Young adults negotiating the work-family boundary TRANSITIONS Final Report. U.K.: European Commission.

The Literary Imagination of Alice Munroe

By Tom Ue

Back in 2008, in an article for The Underground UTSC’s Official Student Paper, I responded to a review of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories that was published in The Calgary Herald. In it, Naomi Lakritz criticized Munro’s stories for being “choked with trivial details,” although these stories lead readers nowhere. “Alice Munro’s world is unremittingly grey,” wrote Lakritz: “It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.”

Quill & Quire’s Derek Weiler dismissed Lakritz’s claims, “it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before.” Both Weiler’s response and Lakritz’s review provoked heated debate amongst readers of Quill & Quire’s online forum. One reader, “Charles,” claims: “You can agree or not with the opinion of Naomi Lakritz, but to her credit she’s laid out a certain amount of analysis of the book.”

Certainly, Lakritz’s use of the term “Aargghh” in response to samples of Munro’s dialogue does not, in the opinion of the present writer back in 2008 or today, require much “la[ying] out” or fall under the category of literary “analysis.” From Lakritz’s review, one would not have gathered that she was describing an over 500-paged collection that anthologizes some of the Canadian writer’s best works—including “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the story from which Sarah Polley’s 2007 Academy Award-nominated film Away from Her was adapted, and “Runaway,” the title story from the 2004 collection. In fact, Lakritz’s review does not even refer to Margaret Atwood’s insightful introduction to the collection, an essay published in The Guardian. According to Atwood, “Munro’s stories abound in such questionable seekers and well-fingered ploys. But they abound also in such insights: within any story, within any human being, there may be a dangerous treasure, a priceless ruby. A heart’s desire.”

Munro’s career has been a long and prestigious one. Since her 1968 Governor General’s Award-winning début, Dance of the Happy Shades, she has redefined the short story form, using the genre to explore issues of maternity, love, and loss. Regarding Runaway, which won the Giller Prize over Miriam Toews’ outstanding novel A Complicated KindnessVanity Fair writes: “The great Alice Munro proves again why short-story writers bow down to her.” This sentiment was shared by Time magazine’s Mona Simpson, who declares that Munro deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is a pleasure to return to this debate about literariness and the short story form, and to celebrate the Nobel Prize for Literature for Munro, one of the most generous writers of our time, and one who has contributed significantly to the short story form. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” Victorian writer George MacDonald tells authors: “The best thing you can do for your fellow [i.e. reader], next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” Perhaps, we should, as MacDonald suggests, think more carefully and critically about what we read, and see what things stories like Munro’s awaken for us.

An early version of this entry was published as “Recent Review of Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories Sparks Online Feud.” The Underground UTSC’s Official Student Paper 28.05 (2008): 11. Print.

Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing, and Oscar Wilde. Ue has taught at University College London. He was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English at Yale University, and the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer, and he has held an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship. He has contributed essays on Thomas Hardy, Gissing, Wilde, and with John James, Sherwood Anderson and James Cameron.

Although Ue specializes in nineteenth-century literature, he cares deeply about, and writes on, many aspects of intellectual history. His work has appeared in a number of journals including the Journal of Gender StudiesThe Gissing JournalNew Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative WritingShakespeare Bulletin, and Variants: The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship, and he contributes to Film International and the TLS. He is editor of World Film Locations: Toronto (Intellect Books, 2014), which coincides with the city’s 180th anniversary, and he has published widely on Sherlock Holmes. He is concurrently at work on a shorter piece on photography and phonography and their impact on the forms of late-Victorian and Edwardian writing. This is an opportunity to do some preliminary work towards a monograph on legal theory and the British novel in the nineteenth century.

Mindy Stricke Launches ‘Landing Gear’ as Part of ‘Greetings from Motherland’

By Maria Collier Mendonça

“Welcome to Motherland! You may have recently washed up on its shores, or have been living here for a while and already acclimated, the blur of the early years of motherhood behind you. Or maybe you don’t live here, but you have a relationship to this place as a partner, child, or friend”. Mindy Stricke, ‘Greetings from Motherland’.

Originally from New York and settled in Toronto (Ontario, Canada), Mindy Stricke is a photographer and multi-disciplinary installation artist, whose work challenges boundaries between artists and non-artists; artists and audience; process and product. Her work has been exhibited throughout North America and also in international publications such as the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, among others. I had the opportunity to listen to Mindy’s presentation “Welcome to Motherland: Artists Collaborating with Mothers to Create New Representations of Motherhood” at the MIRCI Mega Motherhood Conference on Academic Motherhood, Mothers & Work, Communicating Motherhood, in Toronto, on June 2013. I was so touched by her presentation that I asked to interview Mindy in person on the following month.

Her main project, “Greetings From Motherland”, is a series of collaborative art projects, first launched by Mindy in 2009. It has been funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and supported by the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. Along this initiative, Mindy has worked with both artists and non-artists who are also mothers in Toronto, Canada and in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work process consists of a deep dive into mothering and motherhood. During workshops with groups of mothers, free childcare is provided while Mindy and her colleagues invite participants to express their maternal subjectivities in very creative and original ways. Women are stimulated to question, investigate, share and play using their mothering experiences as the raw material, which inspires them to create new representations of motherhood through a collaborative process.

Through the exploration of several languages beyond the verbal, participants experience photography, writing, storytelling, music, sewing and other codes to produce artistic pieces and express their maternal subjectivities. Soon after, these pieces are exhibited and the audience can interact with some of them. As Mindy explained during our interview, ‘Greetings from Motherland’ was created six months after her daughter was born. As she emerged from post-partum haze, she realized that she was not the only one who felt so disoriented. Mindy said:

“As a new mother and an artist, I felt troubled by the disconnection between some of the sentimental representations of motherhood and the reality, as well as the isolation and related pressure to be the mythical “perfect mother”, whatever that means.“Greetings from Motherland” is a collective artistic exploration to remedy that. Through this series of multi-disciplinary collaborative art projects, I bring women together to question, investigate, share, and play using our real lives as mothers as the raw material, and to hopefully create some honest representations of motherhood in the process.”

For Mindy, the most surprising of this collaborative working process is the creativity of the participant mothers.

In her words:

“All of them bring things to the project that I would never dream of. So my job is to create the overall idea, and then they bring their own individual experiences and visions to each project and they always surprise me! I will have a certain vision or idea and I will try the idea and then I think it will go in one direction, then, when I bring it to the group, will make incredible images and take them into interesting different directions. For example, capture that feeling of landing in this place that I call Motherland that feels very overwhelming when you first become a new mother. I had this idea to create images of miniature figures, juxtaposed with baby objects from our world. I was playing with them at home, but then, I brought the activity into the workshop and people came up with ideas that I never would have thought of. One woman took five figures and put them on a stroller wheel. I had been thinking about motherhood as an individual experience of this overwhelming feeling, but this woman did something completely different right? In my interpretation, that image shows the ways women are trapped against each other and going around the stroller wheel… It is just a beautiful image, it is really cool and it is funny. A lot of people brought humour [to the project]. [Now,] I want to figure out where are the laughs in our experiences with motherhood.”

From 28 September to 6 October 2013 at the Arcadia Gallery in Toronto, Mindy and a group of mothers from the Harbourfront Community Centre in Toronto will be presenting  ‘Landing Gear’, another chapter in the history of ‘Greetings from Motherland’. ‘Landing Gear’ is an interactive multimedia installation about early motherhood told through the clothes we wear.  Through a combination of documentary audio, photographs, text and collage centred around an antique wardrobe trunk, viewers will be invited to explore the contributing mothers’ stories and share their own. More information about the show is available at the Greetings From Motherland website: I especially recommend looking at the photo installation named You Are Not Where You Were, as well as the Motherland postcard rack.It is out of this multidirectional spectrum that ‘Greetings from Motherland’ shows itself to us. Participants embark on an artistic journey that has great impact on both those taking part, and those viewing the results.

In my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of the project is challenging mothers who are not artists to discover and reveal their self-identities and subjectivities through art. It opens a path to their self-expression by using other languages and codes, beyond the verbal and the traditional. It is not like a coin, which has only two plain sides. It explores a deeper subjectivity that challenges a monolithic way of viewing motherhood.


Maria Collier de Mendonça is a Ph.D. candidate at the Communications and Semiotics Graduate Program at PUC-SP (The Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil). Her dissertation is entitled: ‘Motherhood in Advertising: a Qualitative and Semiotic Analysis in Brazil and Canada.’ From January to July 2013, Maria conducted part of her doctoral research in Canada, as a CAPES Foundation Grantee, under the supervision of Dr. Andrea O’Reilly at York University, in Toronto, ON.

Soapy, Gendered Glory: Performing ‘Papahood’ Through Routines and Spaces

By Emily Chapman

Pigeon, a Japanese family brand, advertises its baby soap with a father and his baby in the bath together, covered in soapy suds. The text reads: “Every time papa bathes you, you look more and more like him” (o-furo ni irete ageru tabi, dan dan papa no kao ni naru). The advert is not alone in singling out the father-child bond, but adverts featuring just papa remain rare. Of interest here is the use of bathtime as a space for the development of the father-child relationship exclusive of the rest of the family unit.

I asked Japanese friends whether the triumvirate of father, bath, and baby was familiar to them. With rapid assurance over coffee, one replied “it’s communication time” (komyūnikeishon-taimu), the implication of which is that there is no other time set aside for father-child bonding. It is perhaps too clean a jump to suggest that this is because of the rigid working schedules of urban male workers in Japan, yet, what if it is?

Tsipy Ivry’s 2010 monograph Embodying Culture compares the cultures of pregnancy in Japan and Israel. One of the strongest differences emerges in the expected and experienced roles of male partners during pregnancy. Ivry expertly unravels the knots of and around pregnancy’s institutions in Japan, in which the scope of male partners’ participation remains dually capped, first and foremost by “men’s enduring commitment to their workplace”. This obstacle is reinforced in turn by “the structure of prenatal care services” (Ivry 2010, 160). In Israel, prenatal courses surface as a place for father and foetus to coincide; however, as Ivry describes, in Japan “most of the “parents’ courses” feature only one lesson, out of five or more, in which husbands are actually invited to participate. The special class takes place during evening hours, to make it possible for husbands to attend, which again reinforces the primacy of their work over their partnership. The content of these lessons varies, but many of them include a practice session of baby bathing for the husbands. As participants explained, bathing is considered the “traditional” role of the father”. Ivry goes on to suggest that the “skinship” incarnate in bathtime is a sustained replacement for the “lack of opportunities to bond precisely because they are not as physically connected to their children as their spouses” (Ivry, 162).

Using the idea of gestation as a privileged bonding experience, bathtime may serve as a moment of exclusive gendered bonding and becoming which survives on the assumption that the mother will have had ample other time to bond with the child. Should her hours of bonding be reduced by virtue of her working hours, there is no allocated catch-up space – discursive or practical – since it has already been assigned to papa. It is his corporate-sanctioned runway for expressing and experiencing fatherhood through nightly ritual. From desktop to doormat, it is his “glory run”.

Sanctioned or otherwise, to what extent is Pigeon peddling a sud-fuelled imaginary rather than a viable reality? Drawing from the Nationwide Survey on Families and Children (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2009), the graph below plots the time at which working mothers and fathers return home.

Mothers’ return peaks between 6 and 7pm with the majority returning before 6pm, whereas fathers trickle through their front doors between 7.30 and 9pm. The graph bolsters Pigeon’s storyline, with the hours before bath and bed as the statistical preserve of mothers with the time for bathtime remaining staunchly at the frontline of fatherly performance. For those fathers who do not make it home in time to bathe in both Pigeon soap and their daily dose of glory, the changing Japanese father-scape does offers other opportunities – whether it is feeding your baby, changing a nappy, or being a pushchair papa out in the park at the weekend. The unspoken assumption, however, is that in papa’s statistically likely absence, mother will bathe baby, yet oddly enough she will encounter none of this tantalising glory.


Tsipy Ivry (2010) Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.

Tamago kurabu (June 2012), Tokyo: BenesseLifeSmile.

Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2009) Nationwide survey on Families and Children. Available at:



With an undergraduate degree in Japanese studies, Emily Chapman finished her MA in Gender Studies at SOAS in 2012 and will start a PhD in the SOAS History department this September. In the meantime, she blogs at with a focus on the gendered construction of the family in postwar Japan. Her work is geared in particular to broadening ways of looking at families in Japanese history in order to better appreciate the spaces and places of coping which do not, and have not, conform[ed] so cleanly to “work” and “home”.