MaMSIE Podcasts

Filming the absent mother

This symposium was designed around the juxtaposition of two films, both about the disappearance of the director’s mother: Liseli Marazzi when Alina was 7, Clotilde Vautier when Mariana was 5. Neither child was told anything about the circumstances of her mother’s death. Using differing aesthetic strategies, both films investigate the mother’s life and, in the process of unraveling the mystery of her disappearance, reveal social and psychosocial problems  and issues that continue to be relevant for feminism. But the directors also use cinema and narration to address their own loss, creating a moving and emotional, as well as a historical and political, dialogue between the two films.

ScreeningHistoire d’un secret (Mariana Otero 2003) and Un’ora sola ti vorrei (Alina Marazzi 2002)

Motherhood, Servitude and the Delegation of care.

This show addressed issues of labour, social class, capital, care and the maternal. Lisa Baraitser was joined by Stella Sandford, Mirca Madianou, Imogen Tyler and Gail Lewis to discuss the privatisation of maternal labour, and the diverse ways ‘maternal care’ has been, and continues to be delegated and shared. Our discussion ranged from Marxist Feminism through to the creative ways that mothers in the global south are continuing to parent their children while providing maternal labour for mothers in the global north.

Birthing Ideas

Joined by two figurative London based artists, Charlotte Lindsay and Eline van den Boogaard, Rebecca Baillie considered the notion that it is often artists without children, or those distanced in someway from the everyday experience of child rearing, who best articulate the meaning of maternity. Rebecca Baillie is a London based artist and writer. Charlotte Lindsay is a painter and founder of BHVU Gallery. Eline van den Boogaard is a photographer and curator.

Celebrating Rozsika Parker 1945-2010
A Day Symposium on Art Feminism and Psychoanalysis
The Symposium explored the many facets of Rozsika Parker’s unique and influential contribution to feminist interventions in art criticism and history, psychotherapy, psychoanalytical theories of maternal ambivalence and body dysmorphia. 

Exploring, Through Design, The Complex Role of Smartphones for Mothers and Young Children

By Paulina Yurman

These critical and experimental design proposals are part of my practice based PhD. My work explores the complex role of smartphones for mothers and their young children. For many mothers, surrounding resources are used and adapted to respond to multiple internal and external demands. During childcare, smartphones are often used for work or as a connection with the outside world, and at other times to keep children quiet or entertained. Transforming from tool into toy, they become objects of competition for parental attention, but they also turn the mother into a rival as their use is often shared. They represent work, autonomy or distraction for the mother, but also play and pacification for the child, becoming a sort of contemporary transitional object for both. As a result, smartphones offer multiple and competing discourses, creating tensions that this research explores.

In my research I have created a series of symbolic, provocative, dysfunctional and narrative design proposals. These propositions are not intended to be read as designs for the commercial market, but rather as comments on the complex, often competing roles of smartphones in this particular situation. They invoke practices that often take place in private and they have been used in workshops with participants to engage in conversation and reflection about the complex role of smartphones during childcare. The proposals represent the possibilities for design to expose and critique current scenarios, and to explore potentials for change. Some of these objects are shown here.

Three of my critical artefacts are on display at the Freud Museum, as part of their Play and Psychoanalysis exhibition, held until 10th September 2017. I will also be talking about my work on Wednesday 9th August, 14:00 at the Freud Museum.

Watercolour Sketches (2016): The phone as a form of childcare, as a mediator between the mother’s and the child’s needs, as a sort of toy/pet, as a sort of transitional object, and as an object of rivalry

Sketching in watercolour allowed me to develop a visual language in which themes developed, merged and transformed. It was a process of unraveling ideas, not too dissimilar to the creative research that occurs through writing. The sketching process gave way to the development of experimental objects, which were material representations of the themes explored.

Ambivalent Objects 1, 2016 (3D printed bottle holders, bottle, smartphone, modified laptop packaging)

These objects represent the use of the smartphone as a sort of pacifier, evoking practices that are at times ridden with guilt and ambivalence. The initial response from participants towards these objects was of rejection or cynicism. However, after further conversation there emerged admissions that they represent a continuation of existing practices such as feeding children in front of the TV. Despite the initial rejection of the narratives they represent, some participants also made suggestions about how to make them more ergonomic, waterproof and where they would sell well as products. The conversations that these artefacts produced reflect our ambivalent attitudes towards smartphones during childcare, technologies that bring both intrusion and relief.

Ambivalent Object 2, 2016 (acrylic, wood, bottle top, smartphone, cord)

This pull along artefact makes use of the symbolism in psychoanalysis, which features the breast as a representation of the nurturing function of the mother. This proposal integrates the phone and breast as portable comforting objects, the pulling cord is a metaphor for the umbilical. It is a sort of designed transitional object. From participants, this object produced rejection for its combination of phone and toy, but it also prompted conversations about existing uses of the phone as a sort of pacifier. A psychoanalyst called it a ‘maternal ambivalence object’.

An Uncanny Pet, 2016 (synthetic fur, smartphone, smartphone charger)

A charging station for the phone. Playing with the idea of the phone as a sort of neutral family member, similar to a pet, this proposal uses this metaphor to create a situation where the phone is put to sleep while it charges (snoring and with its eyes closed). It makes the phone temporarily unavailable.

Sleep is a significant aspect of a child and mother’s routine. Putting the phone to sleep here represents an act of taking a break from its presence, consciously albeit temporarily. Participants could easily understand the metaphor, and suggested that it would not only discourage a child from ‘waking’ the phone up, but would also force the mother to take a break from checking her phone while it sleeps. One mother offered to host the design at home with her two children. In contrast to the previous critical design propositions, this proposal represents the transformative potential of design, offering a more positive and hopeful compromise with the presence of technology in family life.

Paulina Yurman is a designer and researcher, currently doing a PhD at Goldsmiths. Her research, called Designing for Ambivalence, investigates the tensions brought by smartphones to mothers and their young children.





The Devaluing of the Maternal: Motherhood in UK Prisons

On June 8th, Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies in collaboration with the MaMSIE research network (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics), and with support from Clinks, hosted practitioners and academics to contend with the issue of motherhood in UK prisons. It felt fitting that this discussion fell on the day of the election. In a time characterized by media amplification of partisan debate and the claims of our political leaders, this was an afternoon to consider the voices of women that often go unheard, and to reflect on an issue that requires collaboration across political divides.

Based at the Department of Psychosocial Studies, MaMSIE is dedicated to interdisciplinary exploration of the complexities of motherhood and the maternal. MaMSIE convened last Thursday’s event to consider the challenges that face mothers in UK prisons. Opening the event, Lisa Baraitser (co-founder of MaMSIE, with Cambridge University’s Sigal Spigel), spoke of the importance of addressing the experiences of women who parent and are in prisons as a pressing feminist issue. Setting the tone for the discussion to come, she cited the need to reflect on what incarcerating mothers does to women, to children, and to communities.

Anne Fox, Chief Executive Officer of Clinks, chaired both of the afternoon’s panels and facilitated a focused and thoughtful dialogue. Fox raised an issue in her opening remarks that was reflected again and again throughout the afternoon: as a society, we undervalue and fail to critically consider motherhood. Given this lack of attention to motherhood in general, mothers in prison are in an especially unique situation. In a culture that demonizes those who have offended, they are already stigmatized. As mothers, that stigma is amplified.

The first group of panelists delved into this double de-valuing of imprisoned mothers. Naomi Delap is the direct of Birth Companions, an organization that provides physical and emotional support to pregnant women and mothers in UK prisons. Delap spoke of the lack of basic access to care for many pregnant women, and the necessity of codifying perinatal services and support. While Delap spoke of initiatives to de-carcerate pregnant women, and provide better community services she also illustrated the need for appropriate care for pregnant women who are currently imprisoned. The Birth Charter, compiled by Birth Companions, sets out specific and carefully considered recommendations.

Laura Abbott, the second speaker of the day, is undertaking doctoral work in health research at the University of Hertfordshire on the experience of being a pregnant woman in prison. She is also a volunteer at Birth Companions, and she spoke of the vital importance of midwifery support for imprisoned pregnant mothers. Abbott shared her work on interviewing mothers and staff in prisons, and through her presentation, represented the voices of mothers who spoke of a lack of access to basic care, and also of their sense that sentencing mothers acts as a punishment to their children.

Anastasia Chamberlen, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick (and past lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck), discussed the gendered embodied experience of prison and punishment, noting the ways in which the impact of incarceration lingers in and on the body. Among other specifically gendered phenomena, she spoke of how for many women she interviewed, the period of imprisonment extended over what might otherwise have been mothering years.

In the panel that followed, Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer in Community and Criminal Justice at De Montfort University and editor of the Mothering Justice collection, spoke of the emotional impact of incarceration. Baldwin described prison as an assault on a mother’s ability to do the work of mothering. She gave the powerful example of prison visit rules that do not allow for mothers to touch or hold their children during visitation hours. As Baldwin so aptly noted, this lack of contact would be viewed as neglect outside prison walls, yet inside, it is enforced.

Shona Minson, DPhil in Criminology at Oxford University, and author of the “Motherhood as Mitigation” report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke further of the impact of maternal imprisonment on children. She described the ways in which having a mother in prison is linked to risks to children, and explained the phenomenon of “secondary criminalization,” through which children experience the punishment and stigma of their mother’s penal sentences.

These five speakers forcefully articulated the potential impact on individual women, children, communities, and society more broadly when mothers are imprisoned. While these panelists are each engaged in the important work of addressing these issues, the concerns they raised also demonstrated the need for further support. Anne Fox closed out the event in a memorable way by asking the room (fully populated by researchers, students, activists, and practitioners) to consider questions for collaboration. Birkbeck is unique among universities in that many students and faculty are invested in producing research that bridges theory and practice. I am hopeful that this event will prompt further work in this vein, and that attendees will heed the call to communicate and collaborate.

Performance and the Maternal: Motherhood in the Live Stage Encounter

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee

Performance and the Maternal is a collaborative project born of Lena Šimić and my desire to explore how the maternal functions in, and beyond, representation in the particular disciplines of performance and live art.  As Mike Pearson notes, ‘performance’ is an inclusive term that can bring together a variety of practices from across forms (Pearson, 2010, p.1).  I use the term ‘performance’ here to signify artistic work that focuses on live bodies making real actions intended for consideration by an audience. It seems that performance offers a unique space to explore the maternal due to its durational, live and relational elements: 

  • Performance is a durational phenomena: it is lived in real time and therefore using a performance studies perspective can help us to explore the time-based nature of the maternal. 
  • Performance is located in our bodies: the lived, embodied nature of performance parallels the lived, embodied experience of the maternal. 
  • Performance is relational: the performer is always in relation to the audience and the event of performance is only created in the moment that performer and audience member come together.  I am not here referring to performance that is participatory – instead I am suggesting that performances are co-created at the moment they are received by an audience, be they a participant or the more traditional theatre spectator.*

Further, as Dolan (2005) asserts, the performance event creates a temporary community in which collective imagining of another way of being in the world can be glimpsed, this collective space of imagining opens up the possibility for a radical rethinking of the maternal through performance. 

The maternal in performance, as opposed to other artforms, is able to move from pure representation into the realm of lived and immediate experience; that is, when we present our mothering on stage in a live art encounter we are not simply performing it, we are doing it – we are negotiating identity in real time, in an immediate and shared encounter with an audience.  The construction of a maternal identity is happening before our very eyes.  The very sharedness of this encounter has the potential to remind us of our relationality, that we do not come into this world in isolation but are always negotiating our identity as mothers and daughters in relation to an other, a concept at the heart of much of the discipline of maternal studies (cf. Baraitser, 2009; Ettinger, 2006; Benjamin, 1992).

Lena and my collaborative Performance and the Maternal research is ongoing but there have been a number of outputs to date.  We are in the final stages of editing ‘On the Maternal’, a special issue of Performance Research journal (Routledge, due August 2017), a conversation ‘Performance and the Maternal’ has been published in the Backpages of Contemporary Theatre Review (December 2016).  In addition we have hosted three research gatherings at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home (Liverpool), Edge Hill University (Ormskirk) and the University of South Wales (Cardiff).  These gatherings brought together academics and artists working in performance. The network established as a result of these gatherings has continued to grow and a further gathering on Maternal Ethics took place at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at home in April 2017.  We have also published the Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal (Simic and Underwood-Lee, 2016).  This was launched at LADA in October 2016, where a number of the artists featured in the guide met to discuss their practice. 

As I looked back over the work we have done to date in order to write this blog post, I was struck by the memory of one exceptional event.  For the launch of our ‘Study Room Guide on Live Art and Motherhood’ at LADA in October 2016 we asked each artist featured to speak for ten minutes about their maternal performance practice.  Helena Walsh, a London based performance artist whose “practice explores the relations between gender, national identity and cultural histories” (Walsh, n.d.) responded to this invitation by presenting a short performance in which she was interviewed by her young daughter, Ella Walsh Biderman. Helena and Ella’s conversation was far ranging taking in feminism, motherhood, live art and the very particular socio-political times we inhabit; but it was also personal, tender and witty. It was an interaction between an adult mother and a child daughter which demonstrated a radical togetherness that was co-operative, democratic and a conversation between equals. Difference and differing levels of experience were respected but there was no hierarchy and neither mother nor daughter was privileged in the conversation. This moment demonstrates the radical potential of performance as a means of exploring the maternal. Here, in relation to one another, in real time, with an audience and in an act of mothering (Helena was not representing a mother – she was genuinely mothering her daughter before our eyes), Helena and Ella created, performed and reimagined the maternal. Through examining such innovative moments which move beyond representation and renegotiate the maternal we hope to be able to rethink the maternal both in performance and in the wider context in our Performance and the Maternal project.

*For a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between the performer and audience as co-creators see Lehmann (2006).    


(2013) ‘Maternal Aesthetics: The Surprise of the Real’, Studies in the Maternal, 5(1).

(2016) ‘Performing Everyday Maternal Practice’, Studies in the Maternal, 8(2).

(2016) ‘On the Maternal’, Performance Research, 22(6).

Baraitser, Lisa (2009) Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. London and New York: Routledge.

Benjamin, Jessica (1992) ‘Recognition and Destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity’ in Skolnick, N. and Warshaw, S. (eds) Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis. New York, London: Routledge. 

Betterton, Rosemary (2014) Maternal Bodies in the Visual Arts. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bright, Susan (2013) Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood. London: Art/Books.

Dolan, Jill (2005) Utopia in Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Engel, Laura and Mcgirr, Elaine M. (eds). Stage Mothers: Women, Work, and the Theater, 1660-1830. London: Bucknell University Press.

Epp Buller, Rachel. (2012) Reconciling Art and Mothering. London: Routledge.

Ettinger, Bracha. (2006) The matrixial borderspace. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies (2006) Post-dramatic Theatre. New York, London: Routledge.

Liss, Andrea (2009) Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pollock, Griselda (1999) Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Writing of Art’s Histories. London: Routledge.

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) Live Art and Motherhood: A Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal London: Live Art Development Agency. 

Simic, Lena and Underwood-Lee, Emily (2016) ‘Performance and the Maternal’ Contemporary Theatre Review 26(3).

Walsh, Helena (no date) ‘Bio’ Helena Walsh. Available at Accessed 11 May 2017.

Dr Emily Underwood-Lee is a Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales. She is interested in the gendered body as it is represented in performance with a particular focus on autobiographical stories by women in the contexts of illness, health and motherhood.  She has shared her work in a variety of contexts including academic journals, hospitals and arts venues.  She is currently co-convener of the ‘Storytelling for Health’ conference, and co-editing the special edition of Performance Research ‘On the Maternal’.

Thinking Maternity Through Milky Breasts

By Sharon Tugwell

I gave birth to my daughter Molly when I was thirty-nine years old. Five miscarriages over an eighteen-year period had preceded her. As such, her existence in-utero was always precarious for me and to defend myself I could only tentatively relish in the exuberance of pregnancy. But she arrived, all 9 lb 8 oz of her, curled up in a chunky ball, her full head of hair diffusing the anger of birth in her little red face. The anxiety of whether she would or would not survive the apparent inhospitality of my womb may have been somewhat assuaged on her arrival in the outside world, but for me the precariousness of her existence continued.

Her highly medicalised emergency C-section delivery was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Alive and yet lying on the slab, numb to all physicality except for the waves of nausea, emotions existing only as thoughts and not feelings, hearing other people’s descriptions of her before I laid eyes on her myself, the last person in a room of eighteen people to see her. Absolute disconnection. “Where’s my baby?!” raging through my mind, and yet no words were able to come out. And then, finally, wiped clean of blood and all visible trace of my interiority, she was carried over to me. This wrinkly little angry crusty bundle.

I didn’t know whether to throw up or cry. Instead I held her, smelt her and kissed her little face. I could have inhaled her in one breath. That sweet beautiful smell of amniotic fluid, like soft wet hay. And so from that traumatic day began a journey of unparalleled intimacy and significance, one which was held in constant tension with a feeling of absolute disconnection through trauma, precariousness and overwhelming anxieties of separation and loss. This intensity felt like a secret I had to carry myself, an unbearable weight.

I had to undertake a lot of work to make links across the loops of disconnection, to try to make sense of things, psychically as well as in the micro- and macro-social context of what it means to mother. It was impossible for me to capture, express, and therefore communicate the intensity of maternity. So much remained incommunicable: too slippery, elusive, contradictory, affective, visceral, too excessive. Yet it was precisely within this site of excess where the profundity lay for me, it was within this elusive arena that I needed to make my meaning. In the end, the space (physical, bodily, temporal and psychic) where much of this work took place was in the context of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding offered me a unique arena of blurred spatial and temporal dimensions, an obscuration of the limits of being both mother and daughter, a deeply sensual realm of absolute intersubjectivity, mutuality and intimate reciprocity that I had never experienced before. That is not to say that breastfeeding was not without its problems for me, and its profundity should not be confused with a romantic sentimentality, nor should the assumption be that I am claiming mothering can only be made sense of through the experience of breastfeeding. For several weeks after my daughter’s birth I felt inadequate, judged, trapped and alone due to my lack of this supposedly intuitive, natural, maternal skill.

My resilience to continue was not in response to the all-pervasive cultural discourses of ‘breast is best’ but another drive within me, one might say a psychic necessity, which at the time I couldn’t adequately grasp or articulate but which has become more clear as my relationship with my daughter has developed. Breastfeeding became the embodied temporal and spatial arena for the playing out and negotiating of psychosocial tensions and realities.

How breastfeeding became meaningful for me was a complex interrelation of internal and external factors, of psychic and social life. Yet the meaning assigned to breastfeeding through the dominant cultural discourses and its representations seems to occlude all of this. Instead breastfeeding is yet another opportunity for mothers to demonstrate self-sacrifice, to remain as objects in service to their child’s needs, as breastfeeding becomes an essential component of “good mothering”. Breastfeeding has become replete in symbolic capital. But of course the value is not in breastfeeding per se but particular types of breastfeeding practices, located in particular types of parenting contexts, taking place in certain types of places and involving certain types of bodies.

The cultural images of breastfeeding and the discourses that support these images do not represent my experience of breastfeeding and it is for this reason that it has become imperative for me to inquire into the meanings given to breastfeeding by mothers themselves. I look to mothers’ own visual depictions of breastfeeding in order to draw attention to that which escapes meaning in the mainstream cultural accounts: such as the sensuality, sexuality and eroticism of this fluid exchange; experiences of pain, maternal hatred and nursing aversion; the potentiality to think about an ethical, radical relationship to the other; and importantly the possibility for a centralised maternal subjectivity.

Meanings that are of both social and psychical significance.  Meanings that exceed, unsettle and challenge the cultural fantasies of the maternal body and the colonising normativity of the cultural discourses on breastfeeding. Meanings that may or may not intersect with my own, but meanings that come from the lived experience of breastfeeding with all its excessive sites for interpretation. The emergence of a new cultural archive of breastfeeding imagery that the digital age affords us, is therefore, something in which I place great value as a cultural catalyst for the expression and articulation of a very particular maternal experience.

Sharon Tugwell is a second year PhD student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College. Her research aims to explore the psychosocial significance of the contemporary phenomenon of breastfeeding selfies.


Reproductive Justice: Uncovering the Voices of Women to Address Health Disparities within the United States

By Ellie Smith

Notable moments occur throughout data collection and analysis that strike researchers. These moments can be especially powerful when experienced during qualitative, in-depth interviews with women about their reproductive health – an immensely personal topic. This particular interview progressed in a typical, methodological manner with no interruptions or abnormal discussions. However, at the conclusion of the interview, the participant proceeded to  thank me, claiming “nobody ever asks me” about her thoughts and opinions. Nobody ever asked about her reproductive health care status and access within the rural, close-knit community she resided. Her voice had been overlooked in the larger discussion of health care access, specifically in regard to reproduction. This interview, and study at large, brought her voice to light, uncovering her story and highlighting her lived experience as a woman of color and a rural woman within the United States.

Women of varying backgrounds, such as women of color and rural women, face unique reproductive health care disparities, resulting in high incidence of poor health outcomes. Women of color face a disproportionate share of reproductive health disparities including low birth weights, preterm deliveries, and infant mortality. Often these disparities result from systemic issues such as oppression, racism, socioeconomic status, cultural norms. Additionally, reproductive health care physicians and activists must combat a legacy of coerced sterilization, and consider overwhelming mistrust of medical services due to racial discrimination. However, current discussion regarding reproductive health care access throughout the US often overlooks the unique and complex experience of women from underrepresented groups.

Reproductive justice encompasses the complete state of well-being of women and the full protection and realization of women’s internationally recognized human rights. Reproductive justice aims to create a more inclusive moment, one highlighting the intersectionality of race, gender and class on reproductive health. This brings attention to systemic issues women of color and rural women face including oppression, poverty, lack of social support, racism, and cultural stigma. The initial struggle for reproductive rights (i.e. Roe v Wade) predominately served the needs of white, middle-class women. However, these women maintained the ability to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care. Utilization of “choice” disregards women on the margins of society who may not have the social capital to exercise “choice” in reproductive health care.

This requires a shift from reproductive rights to a matter of justice to address issues that influence reproduction such as economic justice, environmental issues and racial discrimination. Moving beyond “choice” creates a more diverse and inclusive movement, providing a platform to address barriers women from unique backgrounds face when accessing reproductive health care. US-based organizations such as SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Project facilitate a national grassroots operation to view reproductive health care access as a universal (Greene, Joshi, & Robles, 2012)human right. Utilizing grassroots initiatives highlight individual experiences, especially those of women with limited autonomy of their reproductive health due to systemic issues. Further, reproductive justice allows autonomy for women to decide when, whether, and how to have children, but also to raise them in safe and supportive environments. Uplifting the voices of historically marginalized women not only constructs empowerment, but uncovers hidden truths of reproduction, allowing researchers, scholars, and activists alike to address barriers to reproductive health care access.


Chrisler, J. C. (2014). A Reproductive Justice Approach to Women’s Health. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 205–209.

Dominguez, T. P. (2011). Adverse birth outcomes in African American women: The social context of persistent reproductive disadvantage. Social Work In Public Health, 26(1), 3–16.

Greene, M., Joshi, S., & Robles, O. (2012). By choice, not by chance: Family planning, human rights and development. Presented at the The State of World Population 2012, United Nations Population Fund.

Hooton, A. (2005). A Broader Vision of the Reproductive Rights Movement: Fusing Mainstream and Latina Feminism. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 13(1), 59–86.

Lu, M. C., & Halfon, N. (2003). Racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes: a life-course perspective. Maternal And Child Health Journal, 7(1), 13–30.

Meier, S., Sundstrom, B., & DeMaria, A. L. (2015, October). “Beyond a legacy of coercion: Long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) and social justice. Presented at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Exposition: Socialist Caucus, Chicago, IL.

Price, K. (2011). It’s not just about abortion: Incorporating intersectionality in research about women of color and reproduction. Women’s Health Issues, 21(3), S55–S57.

Rosenthal, L., & Lobel, M. (2011). Explaining racial disparities in adverse birth outcomes: Unique sources of stress for Black American women. Social Science & Medicine, 72, 977–983.

Ross, L. (2011, March). What is Reproductive Justice? Retrieved November 16, 2016, from

Zucker, A. N. (2014). Reproductive justice: More than choice. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 14(1), 210–213.

Ellie Smith, B.S., is a graduate student in the Master’s in Communication program at the University of Charleston, South Carolina. Her research interests include women’s health, health communication, and reproductive justice. She is currently examining women of color’s reproduction across the lifespan utilizing a reproductive justice framework.


Maternity Tales: Exploring the History of Maternity

By Emma Cheatle

Maternity Tales is a three-year research project led by Dr Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University. It looks at the buildings and interior spaces used for childbirth in England from the seventeenth century onwards and evaluates their impact on the development of maternity practices. Until the 1750s all births took place at home – except of course where birth occurred unexpectedly! A labour and the recovery afterwards were known as ‘lying-in’. The lying-in period was typically a month, during which the new mother at first recuperated bed-bound, then remained in the house, gradually returning to her household duties. Lying-in ended with the public cleansing and thanksgiving ritual of ‘churching’ performed in the local Church of England.

Two midwives assisting a woman in labour on a birth chair, Eucharius Rößlin, Rosengarte, 1513. Courtesy Wellcome Images, London.

From the 1750s the domestic spaces of home birth were made complex by the emergence of lying-in hospitals. These were the first specialist hospitals and began an era of institutions in general – from spaces of welfare such as asylums and hospitals to those of intellectual gatherings like the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle and the Royal Society in London. The lying-in hospitals were philanthropic charities aimed at poor (albeit married) women who lacked the funds to afford decent homes let alone good midwifery care. Although they undoubtedly helped many women, the lying-in hospitals were devised and controlled by the new men-midwives to develop their skills and establish their status. At first occupying large houses, as the century progressed they acquired purpose-made buildings. In contrast to the dark and airless domestic lying-in chamber, these were lofty and neo-classical designs, with roomy wards of 6-8 beds and large windows. Their advantages – including light and airy spaces, access to new forms of care and spaces of rest – contrasted with their disadvantages – lack of privacy, a shift in control over one’s own body as it was passed to the institution, the medicalisation of birth and an increased death rate from puerperal fever.Lying-in did not take place just anywhere in the home but involved carefully remaking the master bedroom into a dark and airless lying-in chamber. At the first signs of labour, extra linen was draped onto and around the bed and over the windows and doors. The fire was stoked up, and all openings in the room closed – sometimes even gaps and the keyhole were stuffed with fabric. It was thought air and light were harmful and may lead to the dreaded puerperal fever, a tremendously dangerous illness (essentially an infection) experienced after childbirth. Men were removed from the room, and replaced by a gathering including the midwife and at least five women to aid the birth, called the ‘gossip’. The room was darkened further after birth, as it was thought light could damage the new mother’s eyesight, already weakened by the effort of childbirth.

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth at the 2016 Being Human Festival

General Lying In Hospital, York Road, Formerly New Westminster Lying-in hospital. Engraving by J. Shury, 1830, after N. Whittock.

Across the nineteenth-century, birth witnessed various experimental practices in these purpose made spaces. Men-midwives were gradually renamed accoucheurs and then obstetricians. Although the vast majority of women continued to give birth at home – indeed it was not until the 1940s that more than 50% women gave birth in hospital – midwifery care had shifted, and the practices and ideas tested in the hospitals affected home delivery. Light and fresh air were seen as important. Instruments such as midwifery forceps became more common, and men began to be called into the birth chamber in favour of the traditional female midwives, particularly by the middle- and upper-classes.

Parts of the Maternity Tales project are being presented in an installation which can be seen at this November’s 2016 Being Human Festival. The installation, taking place at the Laing Art Gallery and Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, presents a ‘listening booth’ to explore the history above. Aimed at parents to be, parents, grandparents, midwifery/obstetric professionals, plus anyone interested in architectural and maternity history, the booth comprises two parts:

[1] Histories: Visitors are able to explore a tall wooden filing drawer unit containing different visual displays and sound pieces on the history of spaces used for birth from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

[2] Collections: Visitors are encouraged to fill in record cards found in one of the drawers, in order to explore and share their own labour experiences as ‘spatial maternity stories’. Willing participants are also invited to make sound recordings in a separate screened private interview space. Both these collections will inform Emma’s further research and a radio play.


Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge, 2000).

Ralph A Houlbrooke, English family life,1576-1716 An Anthology from Diaries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989

Pam Lieske, Eighteenth-century British midwifery (Pickering and Chatto, 2007).

Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-midwifery,1660-1770 (Harvard University Press, 1995).

Margaret Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, Medical Men and “Poor Women Labouring of child”: Lying in Hospitals in Eighteenth-century London’, in Helen Roberts (ed.), Women, Health and Reproduction (Routledge, 1981), pp 18–24.

Helen King, Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology: the Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium (Ashgate, 2007).

Dr Emma Cheatle is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute. She is an architectural historian and writer, and author of Part-Architecture: The Maison de Verre, Duchamp, Domesticity and Desire in 1930s Paris (Routledge, 2017). Her current project presents a critical history of maternity spaces and examines how the past changes our understanding of contemporary experience.

Maternal Readings of Motherhood on Television: A Birthlight Summary

By Rebecca Feasey

I recently published a blog giving an overview summary of a research project that asked mothers in the television viewing audience to comment on their readings of motherhood on the small screen (Feasey 2016a). After presenting this work at a recent ‘Womb to World’ conference, I have been asked by Birthlight to consider the ways in which their members might be seen to adhere to or negotiate my original research findings. Birthlight members listened to my research and informed me of their individual maternal readings, before asking if Birthlight members could complete the questionnaire that informed the original project.

Birthlight is a ‘charity and teacher-training organisation focusing on the holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). During a time when pregnancy and childbirth are becoming increasingly medicalised, Birthlight members are committed to the ‘spiritual’ dimension of birth and view labour as a ‘light and fulfilling experience’ (ibid). The organisation supports families from conception through to the third year, with body-based practices inspired from yoga playing a crucial part in what members call ‘an expanding spiral of joy and wellbeing’ (ibid).  With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the ways in which Birthlight members responded to questions posed about representations of childbirth, their favourite maternal figures, those they can relate to and those that they see as problematic, and how this compares to the wider maternal population presented in the original research who had not spent time with the Birthlight group. In short, this blogpost seeks to draw attention to shared maternal responses from within and beyond the charity in question.

When asked if they liked to watch reality shows or television dramas about pregnancy or childbirth, many Birthlight members echoed the wider maternal population, with responses telling us that they not only felt an emotional connection with programmes such as One Born Every Minute (2010- ) when they were pregnant but that they looked to this programme and its successors for an insight into hospitalised childbirth. And like those women originally surveyed, the majority of those expecting Birthlight mothers, who were interested and invested in the show while pregnant, stopped watching soon after the birth of their first child due to an emotional or instructive need already fulfilled by the programme in question.

That said, for every Birthlight member who was emotionally invested in or looked for instruction in One Born Every Minute, there were those mothers who felt irritated, frustrated and angered by what they believed to be an unnecessarily dramatic and fear-inducing depiction of childbirth. What was interesting here was that for those women who looked to critique One Born Every Minute, they did so after their own childbirth, comparing their personal experiences to those seen on the small screen and finding them wanting. And such divisive readings of reality childbirth television echoes comments made by the original audience.

Comments relating to the question about ‘favourite’ television mothers again mirrored the wider maternal population as a number of these women pointed to the characters of Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls 2000-07), Lois Wilkerson (Malcolm in the Middle 2000-06), Sue Brockman (Outnumbered 2007-14) with the addition of Beverly Goldberg (The Goldbergs 2013- ) and Nadiya Hussain from Great British Bake Off (2010- ) fame. The common theme here was that these women were understood to be ‘real’ and believable characters rather than romanticised or rose-tinted figures, irrespective of their factual or fictional nature.

Some mothers pointed out that they struggled to find favourites or even likeable maternal figures because women in general and mothers in particular, tended to be marginalised in specific genres, which echoes recent research on what is being termed the ‘missing mother’ trope (Aström 2017). Sadly, however, this trope is not restricted to science fiction, fantasy or horror fare as suggested by some respondents, rather, it is evident in the wider cultural imagination. Indeed, a forthcoming volume makes the point that representations of motherhood are, across the medium of television, absent, missing and presumed dead in much popular media culture (ibid, Feasey 2017).

I was interested to find out if there were any mothers on television that inspired them or maternal figures that they could relate to, be it through parenting practices or sartorial choices, the Birthlight mothers formed an unwavering consensus, with each respondent answering in the negative here. That said, there was the acknowledgement from a maternal minority who felt that even though they could not relate to mothers on screen, they could on occasion learn from reality parenting texts such as the Three Day Nanny (2013- ), again echoing the findings from the original maternal survey.

Birthlight members were then asked to consider if there were any mothers on television that made them laugh, and the majority view was that there were very few humorous maternal figures on the small screen. Moreover, the small number of women that were mentioned such as Roseanne Conner (Roseanne 1988-97), Marge Simpson (The Simpsons 1989- ), Edina Monsoon (Absolutely Fabulous 1992-2012) and Lois Griffin (Family Guy 1999) were all firmly rooted in an earlier period of situation comedy. A few respondents made the point that although they didn’t like ‘laughing at’ other mothers, they felt a ‘frustrated laughter’ at those women who they deemed to be poor mothers, poor mothers by nature of their absence in their children’s lives. These responses blended into my next question that asked mothers in the television audience if they felt negatively towards maternal figures on the small screen, and if so, what was it about these mothers that encouraged ridicule or disapproval. Like the original responses, Birthlight mothers were divided, as some wanted to put an end to the ‘mommy wars’ which encouraged maternal divisions, whilst others spoke of their disapproval of what they deemed selfish mothers: those who put their own needs before and above their children – be it the Kardashian clan or the real desperate housewives.

What was interesting here was the fact that Birthlight members came to the research with the expectation of proposing or presenting an ‘alternative’ maternal voice, based in part on their shared ‘holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). However, it is clear that irrespective of time spent in NHS, NCT, Birthlight or other pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, childbirth or childcare classes, there is little in the way of diversity in these maternal readings. Birthlight members mirrored the broader maternal response when these women spoke of a desire for more maternal diversity on the small screen. They noted that television under-represents disabled mothers, fostering and gay family units, the medium presents very little in the way of racial differences, and when any of these maternal minorities are depicted, it is said to be ‘in a stereotypical fashion’ with ‘exaggerated characteristics assumed by the broader media and society’.


Aström, Berit (2017) The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Birthlight (2016) ‘Welcome to Birthlight: For the Greater Enjoyment of Pregnancy, Birth and Babies,’ Birthlight. Available at: 12/09/2016).

Feasey, Rebecca (2017) ‘Television and the Absent Mother: Why Girls and Young Women Struggle to Find the Maternal Role’ in Berit Aström (ed)The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.tbc.

Feasey, Rebecca (2016a) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television,’, Available at: 12/09/2016).

Feasey, Rebecca (2016b) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television, London: Peter Lang.


Rebecca Feasey is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Communications at Bath Spa University. She has published a range of work on celebrity culture, contemporary Hollywood stardom and the representation of gender in popular media culture. She has published in journals such as the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Journal of Gender Studies,Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. She has written book length studies on masculinity and popular television (EUP, 2008) and motherhood on the small screen (Anthem, 2012). She is currently writing a research monograph on the ways in which women respond to representations of motherhood on television (Pater Lang, 2015:

Brexit and the Maternal Body: Stretching the Skin Until It Breaks

By Rosalind Howell

Upon recently encountering a friend who was in her last few weeks of pregnancy, I found myself saying: “My goodness, surely you can’t get any bigger – you’ll burst!” As someone who considers herself pretty comfortable with pregnancy and birth, I was rather surprised and embarrassed by the strength of my (mostly unconscious) response to encountering her maternal body.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum vote, the metaphor of the body – the maternal body specifically – is a potent and fruitful symbol in helping make sense of the distress and chaos felt by many people. As Psychotherapist Jay Watts has pointed out, since Brexit some of our most deep-seated fantasies of the body have risen menacingly and overwhelmingly to the surface  (Guardian, 2016). The vote exposed divisions in the country that gaped open and leaked rivers of grief, anxiety, rage, and hatred out of the ruptured body of ‘civilised’ British society.

A nation state, as well as a body, contains within it a fantasy of an inside and an outside with a boundary to keep the two separate and distinct and within that idea is embedded a promise of safety and order. Brexit in part exposed some of our deepest fears of the outside getting in and the insides spilling out.

The skin is our primary body boundary – the part that borders with the not-us, and it has a permeability that is both concrete and symbolic. If a pregnant woman exposes her belly to the summer sunshine, some photons of light will make it through the layers of skin and tissue to the baby. If music is played near the mother’s pregnant stomach, some people believe it may positively affect the child’s development. Even the womb is not hermetically sealed. And in some cases – such as in ideas around child development – there is belief that the bodily border can filter successfully to assimilate what is good, nourishing and beneficial.

But the skin of the maternal body can be stretched to its limits during pregnancy and as my response to my friend revealed, threatens to break the contract to keep those insides away and out of sight. Psychoanalyst Esther Bick developed a concept called Second Skin: a very early response to feeling anxiety. She suggested that a pseudo -independent tightening of the musculature by the baby could be felt to psychically protect her or him from feelings of disintegration by holding together the parts that were not yet experienced as having cohesion (Bick, 1968). In some ways, a Brexit vote can be seen as the attempt by a culture, country or political system to create a second skin around its borders. That by simply holding on, holding in, holding up and holding down we can protect ourselves – not just from the other – but also from a fear (crystallised in the Breaking Point campaign poster) that we cannot hold our disparate parts together to form a cohesive whole. That we may literally and symbolically break apart. A most literal example of this was by Donald Trump whose response, exploiting this anxiety, was a type of concrete thinking that came up with the solution of a concrete wall built along the US border with Mexico.

The pregnant and lactating body threatens this fantasy of borders that hermetically seal most of all. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, the maternal body terrifies us with its refusal to stay within its designated borders. During birth and lactation, blood, tissue, milk, even faeces spill, leak or are expelled with the force of the birthing. This breaking down of the borders of the body constitutes for Kristeva a breakdown between what is self and what is other and is experienced by us as a visceral and symbolic repulsion, or an abjection (Kristeva, 1984). Post-Brexit Britain has seen the thin social veneer cracking and the rage and hatred of racist attacks spilling out,  like a poison. Kristeva gives an example of the abject as our experience of the thin skin of warm milk that repulses, she says, precisely because its flimsiness threatens our confidence in our own skin’s ability to create a strong boundary between self and other. The abject refers to this place where the structures and laws that we feel keep us safe are disturbed to such an extent that we truly understand how fragile they are.

For Kristeva, these structures and laws which are defied by the maternal body are the building blocks of a patriarchal society, with its boundaries constructed and enforced by language, and definition. It is this. It is definitely not that. It is inside or outside, it cannot be both. The language of the Brexit campaign with its false promise of taking back control expressed a hopeless longing for an impermeable body, one that doesn’t bleed, ooze, sweat or leak, but as a result may also not be able to absorb, filter, sift, digest and discern. How we allow ourselves to ‘let in’ the consequences of the vote, both good and bad, and digest its ongoing impact on ourselves and others might also help us feel more safe, secure and nourished within our own borders.


Bick, Esther. The experience of the skin in early object-relations. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 49(2-3), 1968, 484-486.

Kristeva, Julia. (1984) The Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press

Watts, Jay. (2016). The E.U Referendum Has Caused A Mental Health Crisis.

Rosalind Howell is a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist and Writer. She has recently co-edited the inaugural issue of the Journal of Mother Studies.



Conceiving Histories: A Project Exploring the History of Pre-Pregnancy

If you begin typing ‘Am I …’ into a Google search box, ‘Am I pregnant?’ is the first offered suggestion, just ahead of ‘Am I registered to vote?’ (a vestige from the Brexit referendum), ‘Am I depressed?’ and ‘Am I insured?’. The internet is externalising and collectivising something that for our mothers’ generation had been private, internal: the ambiguity of early pregnancy. Whether hoping for or fearing pregnancy, the wait to find out can be hard: a time of fantasy and projection, of bitter anxiety or ardent longing. These days, the time before a pregnancy test will give a sure result is referred to as the ‘two week wait’. In practice, because false negatives are likely in the early stages of pregnancy, it often takes a little longer than that for a not-pregnant woman to accept a negative result: more like two and a half to three weeks. What is more, some women and their partners are waiting like this month on month, year on year. They are waiting, too, to try, as well as to test. They are waiting for parenthood, for something that may never be.

The monthly wait to test is speculative territory; people are left only with the option of asking a machine as if it were a fortune teller and which, for all the knowledge on the internet, finally cannot answer the question ‘am I pregnant?’. This wait, before it’s possible to use a pregnancy test, a wait swirling with anxieties and speculation, belief and fantasy, reconstructs in modernity a historical space, before the technology of the home test was available. It’s odd to find that we don’t and can’t know; it doesn’t feel very modern. For the duration of this strange time we exist in the same imaginative spaces our ancestors inhabited: they too tried to know their futures through impossible technologies.

Indeed, like the internet, the archive is full of materials about the difficulties and anxieties of diagnosing early pregnancy and the urgent desires that attended that ambition. The wait to diagnose pregnancy was more protracted in the past, but it was no more tolerable. Women, their partners and their medical practitioners all wanted to know, perhaps for differing and competing reasons, and to be able to solve the mysteries of the reproductive body.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary academic, Isabel Davis, and practising artist, Anna Burel. We will be researching these materials together and we will be presenting our research in different ways: through different kinds of writing but also in new art work, exhibitions and events. Anna’s first artistic responses to the Conceiving Histories collaboration will be on display at the exhibition Ends, being held at the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton 7-24th July. We will also be holding an event there on 21st July at 2pm at which we will be talking more about our project and particularly about one of our case studies: the Experimental Conception Hospital. The Experimental Conceptual Hospital is a strange building imagined in a commentary on an early nineteenth-century legitimacy trial by the botanist Robert Lyall, a place where the mysteries of conception would be solved and the outer limits of gestation fixed for certain. It would have high walls, over which air balloons would be forbidden from flying. Within it women would be imprisoned and visited by ‘healthy physician-accoucheurs of London’ who would, as Lyall euphemistically puts it, ‘administer physic and consolation’. Lyall’s is a bureaucratic vision and he is clear about how and who should keep the careful records which would supply the ‘sure data’ to the British parliament and enable them to ‘construct precise and just laws with regard to the legitimacy and illegitimacy of all children born in these realms’. ‘Nothing,’ he says, ‘should be left to memory’. We will consider this example, thinking through, and contextualising its naked anxieties and dark fantasies about the unknowability of women and their reproductive bodies.

Burel Anna, 2016, De Formatu Foetu, Ends Exhibition, Hundred Years Gallery

Conceiving Histories is a new project, funded by Birkbeck, University of London and the Wellcome Trust, which is looking into these archival materials to investigate two questions: how was the time of pre-pregnancy negotiated, experienced and described in the past, and how might this historical knowledge contribute to questions and debates about the experience of trying to conceive today and in the future? The project is a collaboration between art practice and academic literary research and it looks at the history of nothing happening, of un- and pre-pregnancy, as well as early pregnancy loss. We will consider hidden, misdiagnosed, imagined, feigned and hysterical pregnancies and fashions which simulated pregnancy. Because the time-frame of the project is a long one (from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century), Conceiving Histories will develop and work through case studies, from different historical moments, looking – to give a few examples – at the wishful idea of angel messengers revealing the pregnancies of the saints; the invention and practice of uroscopy, auscultation and other diagnostic tools; cases of false pregnancy like those, famously, of Mary Tudor for whom so much was at stake; strange plans for experiments (see below); questions around pregnant temporalities; the possibly pregnant in scandals, trials and other sensational stories both in historical and literary materials.

Isabel Davis is an academic in the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on medieval literature, gender, temporality and the body.


Anna Burel is an artist based at the Bow Arts Trust in London.She works in a range of different media – photography, drawing, costume and performance art – to think about the body, and particularly the female body, under medical scrutiny. Her work mediates on the properties of skin and viscera, anatomy, surgical examination and pharmacopoeia.