A Maternal Haunting

By Anna Johnson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Meet the Mother House: A Creative Space for Mother Artists

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

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

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

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

About the Procreate Project:

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

On Equality and Childbirth

By Ozan Kamiloglu

I just had a child. What a weird use this is of the verb “have”. There hasn’t been any physical connection between me and the child until now. My partner changed with the child, carried her, fed her, changed her life style, daily routine, diet, and she has passed through a difficult labour. I didn’t do any of these things. When they gave me the baby in the operating theatre, I thought “whose baby is this one now?” Her experience of having a baby and mine are shockingly different. Apart from the commitment to undertake certain responsibilities in relation to the child, there is nothing that makes the “child” mine. When I was in the ward with my partner, observing her experience during labour demonstrated this to me in a very striking way. And even more curious, is how we continue as if the labour, and pain, and commitment, and risk, and passing through very acute physical and psychological changes do not exist. Nobody prepared me for this. Rather, I was told that I have some responsibilities, like reminding my partner to go to the loo every hour during labour and keeping an eye on the frequency of the contractions. Fulfilling these responsibilities was enough to be a part of the birth experience. I did what I needed to do, and she did her part. Now we have a baby

I think this forgetting of the differences in our experiences during pregnancy and birth, and perhaps until the baby reaches a certain age (although this may not necessarily be so) is the peace treaty between two people (at least one of who still tends to be a birthing woman) in order to be a functional family. As in all peace processes, a consensus can be reached only after both parties agree over acknowledging the pain experienced by the other party (like in South Africa or Northern Ireland) and forgetting the disproportionality of it. To be a functional family (in the name of a bright future, for peace that will bring prosperity to a society, for new generations to flourish), parties make an agreement over forgetting, and reach a consensus about what to remember. From this perspective women’s experiences during pregnancy and labour are reduced to a ‘necessary commitment’ on her behalf, in order that the family continue. Men must acknowledge her struggle and be grateful to her whilst continuing to expect women not to talk and think about it too much. Now the experience of my partner has to be forgotten (of course apart from my praises of her courage and greatness) and we should claim ownership of the baby equally. We have a baby. Peace! Now we can be a family.

There is a history of using the metaphor of war in order to define labor. Jacqueline Rose quotes from Plutarch, according to whom ‘the only exceptions to the rule against naming the dead on Sparta’s tombstones were men who fell in battle and women who died in childbirth: the woman, the producer of the future citizens of the city state, bore childbirth ‘just as the warrior bears the enemy’s assault, by struggling against pain: giving birth is a battle.’1 In many countries governments in different historical periods have used taxes or other financial manipulation to promote reproduction, and making kids become a national duty for women in totalitarian states. My argument is this; it is not only totalitarian states like Sparta or Mussolini’s Italy, but also a western liberal patriarchal mind-set that considers birth as a war, and the child as the agreement that comes after. Walter Benjamin in his well-known article Critique of Violence underlines how law-making violence becomes institutionalized with the establishment of borders after a war.2 Labour understood as war, with the peace agreement that comes after – the baby – becomes law-making violence. New territories of women that are not in reach of man are colonized, and this colonization is inscribed through the baby. The artificial borders, in this agreement, also conditions what is to be remembered and what is not. Benjamin quotes Anatole France who expressed: “Rich and poor are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges”. Forgetting of the experience of woman, the changes in her psyche, the pain she experiences, the scars she has to carry, becomes something nobody wants to remember. Instead society creates the figure of the mother in the way it makes martyrs: people whose heroic efforts are acknowledged, whose sacrifice is monumentalized and turned into myths, therefore stripped of reality.

The birth of a baby always sparks  new relations of power. It can easily be an emancipatory moment, because of the very sacrifice women endure and the sheer uselessness of men. Therefore, the moment of birth has to be oppressed, dominated and domesticated by men. It has to be turned into the moment of mythic violence through the peace agreement that accompanies it. The peace that is offered by patriarchal society to women serves exactly this end. It is not surprising at all why depression is common, when that opening for new relations between men and women is smashed by the reactionary hordes of society. The baby becomes the written law to be obeyed. What the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, which we could read as a form of submission of the mother to the baby is submission to this new law. A kind of trauma that we saw when a revolution is crashed by reactionary forces: the woman soothes herself with devotion or depression.

So, the well-known feminist critique against the virtues of motherhood is very understandable but at the same time misses the point. ‘I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman,’ Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born.Such an approach does not take into account the importance of the loss and defeat. Loss of a hope that comes with the striking experience of childbirth. After observing day-by-day changes in my partner’s body and psyche, her life, daily routine, joys, and finally the birth, I am very much convinced that this feminist approach that equates all the women with each other serves rather than challenges the ‘normal’. All these changes are not normal, this sacrifice is not normal, the peace agreement with the world on the normalcy of this experience is not normal, to claim that after giving birth women become what they were before is not normal. This is not a struggle between the normal and the myth of the virtuous mother, but more a clash between the norm and the abnormality of childbirth. Taking a stand against the myth of virtuous mother shouldn’t makes us forget the experience of hope, hope for a new distribution of the sensible in Jacques Ranciere’s words.4 The woman has to show her obedience to the equality of parties, her return to normal life as if nothing apart from a medical intervention happened. I do understand the hesitation around the use of words with religious connotations like sacrifice or miracle, but again, hesitations shouldn’t reign over us while acknowledging the potential of birth to break the claim of equality in the eye patriarchy.

I am very happy to say after what I experienced, woman and man are not equals. And I do not accept the equality under the law, that forbids sleeping under the bridge for both poor and the rich. This is a law that threatens women if they refuse to be a part of a functional family with shared responsibilities, for being a single mother, a bad mother, an evil woman, and who knows what else. One more note; my mother always tried to talk to me about her labour, but I never wanted to listen. Because no man would want to listen to such an experience that can strike at the claim of equality. But then, she told my partner after the birth, ‘don’t worry it is all passed’. It didn’t pass. It will never pass.

1 In ‘Le lit, la guerre’, L’Homme 21, January – March 1981.

2 Walter Benjamin. Critique of ViolenceSelected Writings; Volume 1;1913-1926. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

3 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, W. W. Norton & Company , 1976.

4 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Ozan Kamiloglu

Ozan is a doctoral candidate and associate lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck University of London. He teaches Criminal Law,  and his research focuses on the ethics of Human Rights, questions surrounding violence and revolt, and relations between depoliticization and rights struggle.

Affordable Mothering and Respectability

By Agatha Lisiak

The low total fertility rate in Poland (1.3) has repeatedly been juxtaposed, in Polish and British media alike (often in an alarmed tone), with the apparently much higher (2.13) total fertility rate of Polish women living in Britain (ONS 2014). As analysts from Polityka Insight have cautioned, these numbers tend to be taken out of context: if we consider the overrepresentation of young women (20-39) among Polish migrants, Polish women in the UK give birth to only 15% children more children than their counterparts in the same age group in Poland. And yet, it remains a fact that the birth rate in Poland sank considerably from 2.0 in 1990 (GUS 2014), and the new government is set on reversing this trend.

The campaign program of Poland’s conservative party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who won last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, included a proposal to introduce a universal child benefit. The campaign promise has recently materialized in the form of the Family 500+ program, which, in a nutshell, is a monthly child benefit of 500 PLN (£90) for all parents or legal guardians (irrespective of their income) who have two or more children and for parents of only children if their monthly income per family member does not exceed 800 PLN (£140). The program has raised much controversy as economically flawed and socially unfair and has been criticized as discriminatory for single parents. For example, whereas a wealthy couple with three children will be legible for 1000 PLN a month, a single mother of an only child, whose monthly income even marginally exceeds 1600 PLN (£280) per month (the minimum wage in 2016 is 1850 PLN, or £330), will not receive any support within the new framework.

As feminist researchers have argued, women in Poland (and elsewhere as well, for that matter) are reluctant to have (more) children not, as it has often been alleged by the conservatives, because they are career-obsessed selfish monsters, but primarily because they simply cannot afford them. Job insecurity, unemployment, low salaries, precarious living conditions, and underdeveloped childcare infrastructure paired, in a perverse manner, with exorbitant costs of childcare are among most often cited reasons for not having children among Poles who declare desire to have them. Aside from these very concrete structural problems, another factor impeding women in Poland from having (more) children is, as we learn from talking to Polish mothers living in the UK and Germany, a general sense of unaffordability of life as a mother in Poland. What exactly then makes mothering affordable?

In my research project Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, I ask Polish women living in British and German cities about how mothering works for them in their adopted homes. The narrative and visual responses I have gathered so far point to the importance of the ability to satisfy family’s basic needs through an income that, even if minimal, allows for renting an apartment, keeping the fridge full, and even saving a little for trips to Poland or vacations in a warm country. What is also much appreciated is the partially free childcare (for kids older than 3), free medication for children, and financial support for single mothers. It comes as a big relief to the Polish mothers I have talked to that they can not only borrow, but also afford to buy everything they think their children need: clothes, shoes, diapers, strollers, toys, etc.

I see the danger of my findings being misinterpreted by those who oppose state support for low-income families on the grounds that benefits recipients are irrational and bound to spend the money on excessive consumption. Imogen TylerLes BackOwen Jones, among many others, have addressed such misguided views and repeatedly debunked the myths that emerged around them. And yet, it suffices to leaf through The Daily Mail, or to listen to politicians of the governing party, to realize that these misconceptions obstinately prevail in Britain. I, therefore, find it important to stress that the Polish mothers I have talked to in Birmingham and London do not think they found themselves in a welfare paradise, they are not set on having more children only so that they claim benefits on which they will then live extravagantly. What they undoubtedly cherish, however, is the kind of social security they lacked in Poland. As Paulina put it:

I simply feel free because we have a place to live, we have a car, and we don’t have to worry about money, which is very important when you have kids, it saves you a lot of stress. … I feel safe here, as a mother. It’s nice.

Paulina is a single mother who works as a waitress and attends college to be able to qualify for a better job. Her house is mold-infested (and the landlord refuses to do anything about it), her brother’s second-hand car was bought only after a long period of saving, and yet Paulina claims to be better off than in Poland where an independent place to live and a used car were beyond her reach.

Paulina feels safe in Birmingham because her basic needs are fulfilled. And basic needs, especially for low-income families, include the need to look respectable.

I wouldn’t say I buy a lot, and I don’t spend much money on it, but I buy nice things that don’t cost I-don’t-know-how-much, but I like it that they have… I like to buy only nice clothes for [my sons], I don’t like ‘home clothes’ — not even at home. I don’t mind if they get them dirty. I don’t care. I can always wash them. And here clothes don’t cost a fortune.

Clothes, as Virginia Woolf famously noticed, have “more important offices than to merely keep us warm”. In the absence of other forms of social recognition, investing in children’s clothes may be the only measure of achieving respectability available to low-income parents.

As austerity policies in Britain have disproportionately targeted women and children, it may seem surprising that recent immigrants feel safe there. It is important to remember, however, that Poland and other not-so-new-anymore EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of communist regimes in 1989-1991 – and that it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminization of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern Europe and South East Europe as Slavenka Drakulicdiscloses in her essay evocatively titled How Women Survived Post-Communism (And Didn’t Laugh). To those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in postcommunist countries, having children in the UK appears to be a much easier task – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, even despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing.

Dr. Agata Lisiak is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute of Social Sciences and Lecturer at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Urban Cultures in (Post)Colonial Central Europe (Purdue University Press 2010), as well as articles and book chapters on gender and migration, everyday life in the city, media representations of the city and cultural memory. She has published in City, Forum Qualitative Social Research, View, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Journal of Urban History, and other peer-reviewed journals. Agata is interested in visual cultures, everyday urban cultures, spatialities and visualities of migration and developing methodologies for researching said issues (http://vmw.bard.berlin).

10,000 Refugee Children Missing: Historical Coincidences and Historical Symptoms

By Marita Vyrgioti

In the Greek language, the word coincidence shares the same root with the word symptom; which creates a paradox. This sharing implies that when a coincidence (σύμπτωση) is repeated, it then becomes a symptom (σύμπτωμα).

On the 30th of January, Brian Donald, Europol’s chief of staff told the Observer that: “one of the most worrying aspects of the migrant crisis […] is that thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities’. It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”.

There is an oxymoron about the above statement. One of the leading members, of one of the greatest European organizations for investigating and prosecuting criminal networks, publicly and shamelessly announces that during his service as Chief of Staff in Europol, 10.000 children are missing in Europe. 10.000 minors that we “just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”. His words have no trace of guilt, personal incompetence, and professional failure. Quite the opposite, his over dramatic tone echoes an individual responsibility disclaimer, and is being projected upon us readers as our collective responsibility: “It is our fault that those children have gone missing. We are all responsible for them”.

Moreover, there is a shocking coincidence in Donald’s statement: there is an implicit association with Videla’s statement in 1979. “They are neither dead nor alive. They are missing (Desaparecidos)”. Videla, the Argentinian dictator, in a quite similar fashion, refused all responsibility for the 30.000 men, women and children “missing” during his dictatorship. Desaparecidos was the word used to describe what these people went through, which actually translates into imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, murder and disposal of their dead bodies in mass graves. Certainly, such historical comparisons will take us no further than declaring the European Union a dictatorship. However, for the moment, let’s stick to the fact that historical coincidences (συμπτώσεις) sooner or later become historical symptoms (συμπτώματα).

Such a historical coincidence is Brian Donald’s statement (on the 30th of January 2016) with the debut of the film Spotlight in cinemas, in the UK (on the 29th of January). Spotlight, which is nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, is a film about the exposure of the scandal of repeated child abuse by 296 Catholic priests in Boston. In the film, a team of reporters from the Boston Globe newspaper reveal that the Archbishop of Boston’s Catholic Church, Bernard Francis Law, along with a small number of lawyers and newspaper editors, were aware of the incidents of child sexual abuse by priests, had evidence of paedophilia from members of the Catholic Church and did nothing. In fact, when the scandal burst, in 2001, Archbishop Law resigned from Boston and was appointed, by the Pope John Paul II, as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, until his retirement in 2011.

The most grotesque element in this coincidence is that in early November 2015, Brian Donald had advocated that migrants and refugees in Europe are “identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, and the unaccompanied”. By exploitation, he meant prostitution and illegal labour as the most likely outcomes. Funnily, this statement took place at a conference organized by the Santa Maria Group, set up by Pope Francis, and was officially organized by the Catholic Church.

Writing about the 10.000 missing children in Europe is a particularly difficult task. When a child loses their parent, the child becomes an orphan. On the contrary, there is no word to describe what happens to a parent that loses their child; language does not permit such sorrow to be symbolised. It remains ineffable, unspeakable, indescribable[1]. There is no collective responsibility for the disappearance of these children. There is only collective sorrow, grief, desolation and despair. Facing such a tragedy, the Europol’s Chief of Staff, like Pontius Pilate, washes his hands, but the future’s film industry will not vindicate him. In the same way, it did not vindicate the Archbishop Bernard Francis Law. In the far ahead 2046, we might be lucky to see the testimonies of Syrian children that were abused by trafficking networks in  Europe on the big screen. Those that they will have survived will describe, in every detail, the physical and bodily violence they experienced, the misery and abjection of the world they were brought up. And we will run to the cinemas to watch them, because their movie will be nominated for 6 Oscar Awards, and the actor playing Brian Donald for best supporting actor.

[1] For a more detailed discussion about the profound lack of symbolic representation and the dislocation of time, sensed by bereaved parents, see: Denise Riley, Time Lived, without Its Flow, Capsule Editions, 2012.

Marita Vyrgioti is a Ph.D student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies and an Anniversary Scholarship Holder from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, at Birkbeck University, London. She currently works under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh, on a thesis titled: ‘Devouring: a Psychosocial Critique of Sovereignty’. Before joining MaMSIE as an intern, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Common Ground Publishing and as a Researcher in Educational Programs at the European Public Law Organization (EPLO).

Centralization of Obstetric Units: (Austerity) Challenges to Maternity Care

By Marita Vyrgioti

Last week, the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Dr David Richmond, made quite a controversial proposal, one that would create a “public and political furore”, in his own words[1]. The British National Health System (NHS) has been dealing with a serious shortage of middle-grade obstetricians and therefore has suffered a general drop in the quality of maternity services offered, due to exhausting shifts and antisocial-hours of work, and to doctors’ burnout. In his recent interview in Guardian, Dr Richmond suggested a merger of the current 147 obstetric units into 118; a reduction of 20%. He supported his view saying that the concentration of obstetric experts in central units can result in high-quality maternity care and 24/7 consultancy, which would be impossible otherwise. The centralization of obstetric units will be combined with the boosting of midwife-led units, suitable for women who have a low-risk pregnancy.

There is nothing new in the claims of an ailing national health system. According to a survey conducted by the Japan Medical Association in 2008, UK obstetricians and gynaecologists are indeed hyper-productive, delivering the highest number of births among their fellow professionals across 15 countries: 468.1 births per doctor, a figure almost double than that in Canada, the second in terms of numbers of births[2]. The same report reveals that the UK maternity system is highly dependent on the support of 31,186 full-time midwives to 1,600 obstetricians and gynaecologists. A similar shortage is highlighted in a 2011 OECD report on the health workforce, which shows that between 2000 and 2009, there were 22.1 gynaecologists/ obstetricians per 100,000 females; with an OECD average of 26.8[3].

Five years and a Tory government later, these figures indicate that perhaps some of NHS’s weaknesses are structural: there is a long-term shortage of obstetricians and a significant reliance on midwives for childbirth. However, a question seems to emerge; ‘Do arguments about merging and centralizing obstetric units actually deal with the current problem or merely attempt to institutionalise it’?

Published almost four years ago, MaMSIE’s special issue on ‘Austerity Parenting’ seems particularly pertinent to these emerging questions. In the editorial note, the guest editors Tracey Jensen and Imogen Tyler argue that changes in the welfare system affect first and foremost mothers; rendering them one of the most vulnerable and precarious social groups. They also trace the so-called ‘interpellations of impossibility’ that inform parenthood in austerity regimes: ‘to be at once held more responsible than ever before for the future successes (and failures) of your children and yet at the same time to be increasingly vulnerable (through the retreat of state support, public services and welfare benefits) to the conditionalities and precarities of late capitalism’[4]. In a sense, Jensen and Tyler claim that policies or measures advanced to deal with austerity, make parents more precarious through a twofold process: less welfare support and more personal, individual responsibility. In other words, such policies render parenthood a strictly personal matter. So, does the same happen with childbirth as well?

Having said this, how can we—academics and researchers working on the maternal, mothers or future-mothers—evaluate the Dr Richmond’s proposals, through the lens of ‘Austerity Parenthood’? For instance, closing down 29 maternity units appears as a promise to pregnant women and future parents in general: to purge a malfunctioning, wasteful and inefficient system. However, at the same time, this narrative conceals the multiple implications mothers will have to deal with: traveling further to give birth, squeezing themselves into fewer maternity units, or resorting to private clinics, just to name a few. Moreover, what seems to be at stake in establishing segregation between an ‘expert-led centralized clinic’ and a ‘local midwife- unit’?

Perhaps, Dr Richmond was right in one thing: these proposals should, indeed, create a ‘public and political debate’ (and not a furore) on the current inadequacies of NHS’ Maternity Services and open-up a dialogue on the possible ways to deal with them, beyond, austerity solutions.

[1] Denis Campbell, ‘Doctor’s chief calls for string of maternity unit closures’, The Guardian, 21 January 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/21/dozens-of-maternity-units-should-be-closed-down-says-doctors-chief

[2] Narumi Eguchi, ‘Do We Have Enough Obstetricians?–A survey by the Japan Medical Association in 15 countries’, JMAJ, 52:3 (2009), 150-157.

[3] OECD, Gynaecologists and obstetricians per 100,000 females, 2009 and change between 2000 and 2009, Health at a Glance (2011), http://goo.gl/d8bLB9.

[4] Tracey Jensen, Imogen Tyler, ‘Austerity Parenting: new economies of parent-citizenship’, Studies in the Maternal, 4:2 (2012), http://doi.org/10.16995/sim.34

Marita Vyrgioti is a Ph.D student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies and an Anniversary Scholarship Holder from the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, at Birkbeck University, London. She currently works under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh, on a thesis titled: ‘Devouring: a Psychosocial Critique of Sovereignty’. Before joining MaMSIE as an intern, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Common Ground Publishing and as a Researcher in Educational Programs at the European Public Law Organization (EPLO).

Writing Maternal Ambivalence (and How we Love to Hate it…)

By Rosalind Howell

I’m not the only one who, since having children, has had an urge to write about the experience. There are many blogs, as well as memoirs and whole parenting magazines often written by mothers, for mothers. Amongst this body of writing there can be very distinct tones; one is the confessional style memoir which tries to capture the difficult thoughts and feelings that assail the author in early motherhood, such as Rachel Cusk’s 2001 book, A Life’s Work. Another is the ‘how-to’ article which shares with the reader a particular parenting secret or skill that the author has recently become convinced of and wishes for us to join her in. I received one of these recently from the Huffington Post, `The blog` initially assured me that its aim was to ‘soothe my frazzled parent brain’, the title of the article then screaming warningly at me, “The single most important parenting action we can take today!” Both of these popular styles of writing originate in some way from the writers’ own rich and complex lived experience of being a mother and/or mothering. Yet, what ends up on the page can often be perceived as either excessively shocking and provocative or excessively bossy and tyrannical. Both in their own way perhaps also wish, anxiously, to seek reassurance.

Despite praise for A Life’s Work, Cusk has said there have been times when she wishes she had never written it. Her story of the bewilderment, loss and rage she felt on becoming a new mother provoked in some readers a corresponding rage. She became the mother that other mothers loved to hate. One Mum­netter (not alone in her strength of feeling) described with relish, how she ‘wakes up most days feeling like slapping her’. Cusk mentioned she has been stopped in the street whilst with her children and shouted at by other outraged mothers with children. Whilst there is something in Cusk’s outpouring of feeling that can feel rather relentless to read, I was also struck, as I read it for the first time recently, by her vulnerability, the sensitivity of her observations of her daughter, and her tenderness for her. Why then were such excessive feelings of hate and rage stirred up in Cusk’s female readers?

“Nothing”, according to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips “makes people more excessive than when talking about excess”. He suggests a child will tantrum in order to find out if his parents are robust enough to withstand his hatred, rage and frustration. Likewise, as adults, our intense, overwhelming feelings and extreme reactions can leave us fearful of being rejected by others for being ‘too much’ for them. Our reactions to other people’s excess then, can give us a clue about our own fears, longings and internal conflicts. Phillips goes on to say that, our knee jerk reaction to someone else’s perceived excessiveness is often because of a wish to punish them, “and often excessively”. Certainly such violent reactions, as from the mums­netter above do seem to have put Cusk’s detractors into the role of sadistic and punitive parents.

But what of the intensity and extremity of feeling that mothers feel for their own children? Rozsika Parker has suggested in her book Torn in Two, that there can be a collusion among women to deny maternal ambivalence. Ambivalence in this Freudian sense describes the coexistence of opposing feelings of love and hate. These come from a common source within us and are independent of the object of our attention. Mixed feelings, rather, are a more realistic weighing up of an external situation, and are therefore much less emotionally charged. Love and hate (or ambivalence) are interdependent feelings; they inform one another and can be a good indicator of what is important to us. We are ambivalent about those things that matter most to us. D.W Winnicott said famously that the acknowledgement of maternal ambivalence is necessary for an infant’s emotional development. In a seminal, and now much quoted paper, “Hate in the countertransference” he suggests that the mother’s acceptance of her own complexity of feeling has a pivotal role in helping the baby learn to tolerate her own hate, loss and disappointment in relationships. What Parker does is to reverse this idea and focus on the mother’s experience. She says, maternal ambivalence, ‘if remaining manageable’, can increase a mother’s creative capacity for thought and therefore aid her development and growth. So, being able to bear and then perhaps put words to the complex mix of feelings involved in being a mother, and mothering, could be good for everyone.

But theory like this might soothe the woman in the mother but not the baby in her. Before having children I have read Winnicott in a smug, rather envious way. Winnicott describes the mother baby relationship from the point of view of the baby, and emphasises that a ‘good enough’ mother creates an environment (or not) from which the baby can grow and thrive. The deprived baby part of me was certainly drawn to this Winnicottian view, pre­having children anyway. As Lisa Baraitser has said in a talk on feminist interpretations of psychoanalysis we read Winnicott when we are in a good mood and for me it felt good to read when I was a potentially, more­than­good­enough­mother but not so good immediately afterwards when faced with the complexity and vulnerability of being in the position of mother as well as that of needy baby. Rachel Cusk’s book put some people in a very bad mood partly because the bad or the difficult was perceived as outweighing the ‘good enough’. Perhaps too, there was a more general difficulty in hearing the story of mother’s experience as part of a complex picture, and not simply experiencing it as a further attack on our wounded baby selves ­ many of Cusk’s critics , for example, were angry on behalf of her children.

I didn’t read A Life’s Work earlier in my mothering career partly I think, because I feared my own ‘excess’ of feelings would be stirred up uncontrollably and interfere with my being able to cope with life as a new mum. Although my new mother feelings are now not so raw, I seem to revisit them again and again in different guises. My very dissatisfactory experience of breastfeeding, for example, overwhelms me at times now when I experience my children as insatiable in their demands from me for food, time, love or energy. When my daughter recently started a new school, a part of me suddenly felt engulfed with fears that the world was hostile, unsafe and rejecting, much like the reaction I had as a new mum to some midwives, health visitors and other mothers of newborns. Like Cusk, my anxieties made it difficult for me to find solidarity with other women, simply because they were in the same boat (with a newborn). This perceived lack of support and connection to other mothers is not, I would suggest, something that we find it easy to read about. Perhaps it’s as hard to accept that mothers are ambivalent about each other as it is to accept that mothers are ambivalent about their children.

On the other hand, Naomi Stadlen in her book What Mothers Do, challenges the idea of maternal ambivalence in both Winnicott and Parker. She says it is unfounded presumption by these theorists that all mothers are ambivalent about their children, and suggests that the Winnicott paper on this subject has been taken on as a truth despite containing no actual evidence. Her experience of talking to groups of mothers over many years has left her with the sense that it is the love and joy within motherhood that is somehow not allowed a voice in our culture, not the difficult feelings that get plenty of air­time from published writers. These women, who are prevented from writing by the demands of motherhood, she suggests, may experience higher than average levels of resentment. In some ways it feels like Stadlen can’t tolerate the expressions of overwhelming feeling in writers such as Cusk. That she too, finds it all a bit excessive. She may also be hinting though, that there’s an opportunity here for a different kind of writing.

So one question might be, in what other ways could maternal experience be put into words? And, what other kinds of conversations about being a mother/and or mothering that felt more satisfying and more complex, could then be opened up rather than shut down? What are some of the effects of mothers writing about mothering? For example, did the process of writing helps to render, in Parker’s terms, maternal ambivalence manageable for Cusk? Did it have the same effect for some of her readers? Perhaps others simply felt that, she evacuated her difficult feelings into them via the page, and left them feeling angry and hopeless.

There may be a cultural presumption that there is something inherently excessive about autobiographical writing, as if it is necessarily unchecked, unrestrained and undigested. The popularity of the parenting blog attests how we can be used to a very edited, polished and censored form of writing where difficult feelings are omitted and easy answers given. Those difficult feelings may not just be omitted from the writing but possibly even from the mind, emerging only as bullying imperatives for other mothers (The single most important parenting action we can take today!)

Where then does the messiness go? The excessive mess of overwhelming feeling, unarticulated thoughts, bodily felt experiences and violent and guilty resentments. One cultural place that acts as a dustbin for these disavowed feelings is the car­crash stories of celebrity parental failure that we love to hate. And Cusk’s story was partly read like this, (“at least my hateful feelings aren’t as bad as hers!”)

In Stadlen’s story our culture has rendered the pleasures of motherhood a guilty secret. In Cusk’s, those same pleasures are often hijacked into a bullying agenda from mother to mother to ‘Be Happy’. Parker, though suggests there is an episodic nature in these difficult and joyful experiences of motherhood. Both pleasure and pain can be acute and intense, less likely to be consistently one thing or the other. In order to understand this more, we may have to read and write maternal experience rather differently. If, as Parker has suggested, maternal ambivalence can be born and digested within individual women to produce creativity and growth, maybe the writing of it can benefit a wider group of mothers and even influence the cultural representations of motherhood that exert such pressure on women. Our own maternal ambivalence being of course inextricably entwined with societies deeply ambivalent relationship to mothers and what they represent .

Finding words for those intense experiences of motherhood, often which start out so raw and un­articulated, and are such sources of pleasure and pain, does, i think have the potential to offer alternative stories to mothers that are infinitely more digestible and altogether more hopeful. More than soothe or reassure they may, to paraphrase Jacqueline Rose, in her article ‘Mothers’, help make the writing, reading and living of maternal experience, more than worth it.


Cusk, R.( 2008) A Life’s Work. Faber and Faber

Parker, R (2005) Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence. Virago.

Phillips, A (2011) On Balance. Penguin

Rose, J. Mothers (2014) In: The London Review of Books, Vol. 36, no. 12

Stadlen, N (2004) What Mothers Do: Especially when it Looks like Nothing. Piatkus

Winnicott D.W (1958) Hate in the Countertransference. In Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. Karnac.



youtube.com The Maternal in Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Feminist Thought

Rosalind Howell is a trained Movement Psychotherapist. She currently facilitates workshops for staff teams who wish to develop their reflective skills. She also holds quarterly women’s talking circles at her home. Since giving birth to her three children she has also given birth in herself a passionate desire to express her ideas in writing. Her articles have appeared in E-Motion journal and Juno magazine.

Becoming Oneself: The Problem of Gendered Complicity

Becoming Oneself: The Problem of Gendered Complicity

Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities and the Department of Philosophy

Tuesday 23rd June 2015

Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HX

Main Building Room 612

9.30am – 5.30pm



9.30am – 10am: Registration

10am – 10.30am: Susan James (Birkbeck College): Welcome and Introduction

10.30 – 12.15pm: Charlotte Knowles (Birkbeck College): Falling and Fleeing: A Heideggerean Analysis of Complicity

Response: Sacha Golob (Kings College London)

12.15 – 1.15pm: Lunch


1.15pm – 3pm: Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck College): Mothering Freedom: Some Thoughts on Natality and the New Visual Culture of Childbirth

Response: Ruth Cain (University of Kent)


3 – 3.15pm: Break

3.15 – 5pm: Nancy Bauer (Tufts University): Simone de Beauvoir on Motherhood and Destiny
Response: Clare Chambers (University of Cambridge)


5 – 5.30pm: Alison Stone (University of Lancaster)

Closing Remarks and Discussion

Maternal Readings of Pregnancy and Childbirth on the Small Screen


Extant literature on ‘reality’ programmes such as A Baby Story (1998), Maternity Ward (2001) and One Born Every Minute (2010- ) make reference to the various ways in which representations of pregnancy and childbirth on television can be seen to either romanticise or demonise the birth experience in relation to notions of authenticity, reality and rigid stereotyping (Maher 2004, Stephens 2004, Morris and McInerney 2010). At a time when women are said to be ill-informed about the birth experience (Maushart 1999) and naïve in relation to notions of age related infertility (Bonifazi 2003), the role and responsibility of ‘reality’ programming might be understood as a key player in educating a future or expectant mother about the experience of childbirth. Therefore, examining the depiction of pregnancy and childbirth in factual and fictional programming is an important part of both media and motherhood studies because the medium has the power and scope to inform and educate alongside its ability to entertain a contemporary audience.

Rather than offer what Joke Hermes refers to as an ‘exceptionally knowledgeable’ (1995) reading of such television texts, it is crucial that we take as our starting point, the voice of the actual rather than assumed, imagined or hypothetical audience here. In this way, and only in this way will we be able to understand the pleasures, frustrations and public health messages on offer on the small screen. As one mother in the audience stated:

Given how much we unconsciously learn or assume is true from the depictions (of pregnancy and childbirth programming), I think they contribute significantly to the myths about pregnancy and childbirth that may only be dispelled via good antenatal classes or the experience of one’s own pregnancy and childbirth.

In order to identify the ways in which mothers in the television audience respond to representations of pregnancy and childbirth on television I created an online questionnaire, and requested responses through a number of social, charitable and networking associations including the NCT, Media Parents, Mumsnet, NetMums, nursery chains and women’s networks (Feasey 2013a). The questionnaire asked mothers in the audience to speak about their preferred, favourite, admired and more negative depictions of motherhood on television, spanning different decades, channels, genres, factual and fictional categories, presenters, pundits, actors and characters, and much of these responses inform the book length study Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television (forthcoming). However, it is the question that relates specifically to pregnancy and childbirth programming that was overlooked in that volume that I seek to address here.

I asked mothers in the audience if they ‘liked to watch reality shows or television drama about pregnancy and childbirth?’ with the added guidance, should they chose to read it asking if ‘programmes such as One Born Every Minute and The Midwives are educational, entertaining, nostalgic or frustrating to watch? And querying why they ‘like to watch fictional television drama such as Call the Midwife about expecting mothers and labour?’

Reality programming: sensationalism, fear and the nostalgia of childbirth

Just under half of the respondents made it clear that they do not watch any form of factual programming that focuses on the experiences of pregnancy or childbirth, but what is fascinating here is their reasons. These women did not simply state ‘no’ or leave the section blank but they took the time to give brief or extended reasons for their lack of engagement with such texts.

The notion that these programmes are ‘too dramatic’ and ‘unnecessarily affected’ or ‘theatrical’ is interesting here, especially given that shows such as Channel 4s One Born Every Minute are made, marketed and oft applauded as ‘reality’ by the shows creators, midwives and contributors. One Born Every Minute is a British reality pregnancy and childbirth programme that focuses on the late pregnancy and childbirth narratives of a number of women in a busy maternity unit. The series is referred to as ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in line with the documentary tradition because it is filmed by 40 small, fixed, remote-controlled cameras in the maternity unit, including reception, the neonatal ward, the operating theatre and birthing pool, which, although not invisible, are not intrusive as they seem to blend in with the other technological paraphernalia that adorns each room in the ward (Feasey 2013b). Indeed, the programme has been commended for its natural depiction of late pregnancy and childbirth by Sue Macdonald, the education manager of the Royal College of Midwives. Macdonald tells us that the programme gives an accurate portrayal of childbirth that can be both ‘natural’ and in need of intervention. She goes on to say that the show can act as an educator for pregnant women because ‘it does help women think about what it’s going to be like and help them plan what they want for their birth’ (Macdonald cited in Saner 2011). However, this is not necessarily how the show is read by many mothers in the audience:

I found them irritating and obviously picking the parents for the drama and entertainment factor.

 I can’t stand One Born Every Minute, it picks the difficult or sensationalist birth stories, which is frightening or saddening.

This refusal to watch what were seen as dramatic birth stories was even more pronounced for those mothers in the audience who were already scared by the idea of childbirth or who had themselves experienced first hand or knew of a traumatic, or what Naomi Wolf refers to as an ‘ordinary bad birth’ experience (Wolf 2002).

I used to watch One Born Every Minute but now that I’m pregnant for the first time I find it slightly scary to watch, as I’m apprehensive about the process of giving birth.

I watched One Born Every Minute before I had my baby, before I even got pregnant. Once I got pregnant I couldn’t watch it. I also had quite a traumatic birth, so I find I can’t watch it any more really.

Some audiences refuse to watch because of what they view as the over-dramatisation of the birth-experience; others find the traumatic births realistic, but it is then this realism that prevents them from watching the show in case of what one mothers refers to as ‘flashbacks’ to her own traumatic experiences. Several women here make the point that shows such as One Born Every Minute have the power to inform a generation of new mothers, but that they are instead, misinforming them about the lived experience of pregnancy and labour. Another group again, comprising mothers, midwives and other health professionals shun the programme for its lack of verisimilitude to the lived reality of childbirth.

I cannot stand One Born Every Minute. The midwives consistently show poor practice and it does not show birth in a good light.

The portrayal of midwifes isn’t realistic. In the programme they sit round chatting with the mums-to-be for ages. In my experience I’d press the buzzer and have to wait around 20 minutes for attention and the midwives were way too busy to sit around chatting.

Other criticisms of the show take the form of its over representation of the socio-economically disadvantaged mother, based on the assumption that maternal participants are paid for their pregnancy and child-birth ‘performance’ in front of the camera. And even though Channel 4 does not offer a financial reward to mothers who appear on the show, this does not mean that there is not a working class bias to the women included in the production, or what one mother refers to as a ‘skewed picture of society and birth’. Another respondent echoed this comment as she tells us that ‘I do think that the show attracts a certain type of participant, typically lower socio-economic status, lower education and therefore I don’t believe this show is fully representative of the whole variety of experiences and reactions to childbirth’. One might well wonder what would convince any woman to agree to be filmed during labour, and the sentiment behind appearing on the programme is overwhelmingly that families want a professional, yet still personal ‘record’ of their baby’s birth, while also using the show to inform and educate other women about the possibilities of childbirth. For example one couple who appeared on the show announced that:

We were apprehensive, because it is a very private thing … But we thought it would be a good memento for the babies. We also wanted to promote neonatal care … Everyone on the programme was so supportive, so it never felt intrusive. It’s emotional for both of us looking back and seeing those intimate moments. At the time you’re so wrapped up in it that it’s nice to be able to replay it later …  Because we had tried for a long time to get pregnant, I think it was important to show people that through all the heartache good things can happen (cited in Saner 2011).

In terms of criticisms of reality pregnancy and childbirth programming, one mother speaks of the role and responsibility of the maternal cliché, making the point that while One Born Every Minute plays to ‘lots of clichés, e.g. the surge of love or elation on seeing your baby for the first time’ this may ‘not be the case for all women as some feel calm, others panic, others feel numb’. And this sentiment echoes the work of maternal scholars and sociologists who have previously suggested that not only is the ‘good’ mother (one who blossoms during pregnancy, bonds with her baby on contact and then spends every waking moment tending to the diverse needs of a baby, then toddler, then infant, adolescent and adult with no thought to her own needs, wants or desires) a romanticised ideal for some mothers, but that the continued cultural power and pervasiveness of this ideal is harmful to those women who do not or cannot conform to this ‘accepted’ image of contemporary motherhood (Oakley 1979/81, Maushart 1999, Arnold 2003, Green 2004, Borisoff 2005, Douglas and Michaels 2005, Warner 2007, Feasey 2013b).

Although a number of women in the audience have diverse reasons for overlooking or critiquing One Born Every Minute, just over half of those who responded to my questionnaire were entertained and in some cases, informed by, and took comfort in the programme in question. We are told that several women prefer pregnancy and childbirth reality shows to their scripted counter-parts because programmes such as One Born Every Minute ‘don’t try to gloss over the realities of actually having a baby’. Rather, they were said to ‘give a good insight into the reality of childbirth in all its guises’ and therefore ‘demystify the whole experience’ of childbirth. And likewise, ‘I appreciate that it is heavily edited as a Docudrama, but expectant parents do watch it, and it does show some interesting aspects of birth’. However, when this self-same respondent notes that she only ‘sometimes watches … less than I used to’ she echoes a significant number of comments as many women made the point that they were only committed to the show for the duration of their own pregnancies and that due to their own lived experiences, they no longer needed the life lesson or reassurances that these programmes offered:

I suppose I now feel that now I’ve ‘done it’ myself I don’t need to watch anyone else or gain any more information!

I enjoyed watching for a short time, mainly when I was pregnant or shortly after I had my children, but I no longer watch them much. I now have enough reality in my life not to need any more!

For those women who continue to watch pregnancy and childbirth reality programmes after pregnancy, the overwhelming motivation for doing so is nostalgia, to use the programme as a reason to think back to their own pregnancy and birthing experiences, be it days, weeks, years or decades previously:

Yes I love the reality shows, it brings beck memories of my own labour and births.

Reminds me of the pain of labour and the indescribable joy of the birth of your child.

For those who continue to watch the show long after their own pregnancies and childbirth experiences, there are those who speak less of a specific nostalgic experience, and more of an enjoyment of what can be generally understood as ‘the human condition’:

My husband and I love to watch One Born Every Minute because it’s the beauty and wonderfulness of human life with all the possibilities of life and love.

Reality television programmes (such as One Born Every Minute) are interesting and entertaining (emotion and sharing a very special moment in somebodies life) – both before and after I had children.

While mothers in the audience were enthralled by the depiction of new life and growing families in reality programming, so too, they took pleasure in watching the minutia of family interaction and the funny ‘silly’ or amusing behaviours of the pregnant women, midwives and the revolving door of family, friends and birth partners. But another set of voices emerged, they were in the minority, but I wonder how much of this is to do with female self-censure and notions of ‘appropriate’ feminine dialogue. Some women spoke of envy, a sense of missing out, in part to do with primary or secondary infertility struggles, or on the back of their experiences as adoptive mothers or lesbian co-mothers.

I do watch, I probably shouldn’t, I am always torn between joy for those women on screen and my own desperation to be in their shoes.

 I have the joy of my own family, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but as an adoptive mother I never went through the highs and lows of pregnancy and childbirth and I have often watched programmes like One Born Every Minute and wondered about what could have been …

Women habitually watch, refuse to watch or view pregnancy and childbirth reality programming for a limited time due to a relatively small number of reasons, education and childbirth instruction, vicarious and nostalgic experiences, a broader sense of the human condition or a veiled notion of envy. What was clear however in all responses, be they applauding or critiquing the reality genre, the notion of the real (or lack thereof) was crucial to their commentary. With this in mind then, it is enlightening to see the ways in which these same women respond to depictions of pregnancy and childcare when removed from the genre codes of realism and verisimilitude.

The fictional drama: pregnancy, childcare and the role of the midwife

Call the Midwife (2012- ) is a BBC drama based on books written by Jennifer Worth, a midwife working in the 1950s East End and supplementary testimonials from others midwives from the period. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that respondents remarked on the quality of the production, irrespective of their comment concerning pregnancy and childbirth on the small screen. In short, there were three key reasons given for watching the show and they are inextricable linked, namely: historical interest, feelings of nostalgia for a personally experienced or more hypothetical time, and the ability to compare pregnancy, childbirth and health practices from the 1950s to the present day. In terms of historical interest we are told that:

I like the dramas as they show us what pregnancy and childbirth was like before and the challenges they faced.

I watch Call the Midwife sometimes … it’s really well done and fascinating/interesting again to see the way things were done in a different era.

While these mothers spoke of their historical interest in a by-gone era of health and medicine, the majority of women who spoke favourably about the show found entertainment and emotion in their ability to not only look back, but in comparing the 1950s depictions with more contemporary health, medicine and social norms:

I like Call the Midwife for historical interest. I read the books before the series was made and it was fascinating to see what has changed – and what hasn’t – in the past 50 years.

Drama is different as its obviously going to be a little unrealistic for dramatic purposes or for the storyline. Call the Midwife is good as its enjoyable seeing how things have moved on.

Although many women spoke of notions of historical interest and a fascination for charting different healthcare practices over previous decades, there were also those women who spoke of a more specific feeling of nostalgia. More mature mothers in the audience used the word nostalgia rather than more general terms of historical interest as the programme both harked back to a bygone era and spoke to them about their own lived experiences of family life during the period in question:

I love Call the Midwife because of its nostalgic era. It’s a gentle programme that’s endearing to watch, no swearing or violence. But wonderful characters and relationships.

Watching Call the Midwife gave me such pleasure. I was born in 1947, so the time is nostalgic. I remember well the child health clinic, the Virol, orange juice and brewers yeast tablets; having a friend who contacted polio wearing callipers. His mother gave birth to twins and they were placed in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe until a wicker washing basket could be bought, as money was tight. The washing basket could be used later and money was well spent. Washing nappies has become a thing of the past.

The programme can be said to remind audiences of a different period, when norms of etiquette and domesticity were understood to be safer and more chaste. In this way the programme can be seen to offer a ‘romanticized nostalgia for the good old days’ (Grainge 2003). However, the show might perhaps be less a yearning for a preferred but irretrievable past and more a ‘fabricated approximation of the past’ (Drake 2003) so that those selectively stylised clothes, home furnishings and hospital rooms ‘operate as catalysts for recollection’ (ibid) and mobilise a feeling of a past security, reassurance and comfort. The feeling of comfort for a by-gone era tended to be experienced by younger mothers watching the programme, while more mature mothers and grandmothers in the audience vocalised nostalgia based on their own lived experiences, memories and recollections. This is not to say that their own memories are not in some way rose-tinted, but this is a different viewing position than those looking at the programme as an initial introduction to the historical period.

While most mothers watching Call the Midwife were fascinated and enthralled by the notion of difference and change between 1950s birthing practices and those of today, a small number of women made the point that pregnancy and birthing is a universal, timeless experience, unchanged since time immemorial:

I loved Call the Midwife … although since having a baby it has been a more emotional watch. I like it more because of the historical and universality of motherhood/giving birth.

As fictional drama, albeit based on the accounts of a practising midwife, the programme is removed from the genre codes and conventions of reality programming. And yet one mother notes that the programme ‘is actually sometimes more realistic about childbirth, despite it being fiction’. That said, like its reality counterparts, the show is held up to similar audience critiques, in that it is simultaneously too dramatic and too sentimental according to different women in the television audience. In terms of traditional notions of romanticism and sentimentality we find:

Call the Midwife I felt was in a way romanticised even with some negative endings. The drama series was ultimately a drama and was meant to make you feel.

I enjoy fictional programmes such as Call the Midwife … they are nostalgic and well written, I’m often ‘sucked in’ and find myself cheering for a character or crying when an emotional scene is aired! I suppose I quite like the fact that child birth on these shows is rather romanticized … reality being rather less attractive.

While one mother applauds the show for its ‘sympathetic depiction of birth’ that presents childbirth ‘as a part of life as opposed to a dramatic medical emergency as normally depicted’, another suggested that the show was, like its reality predecessor, too sensationalistic. In terms of being too sensationalistic, we are told that ‘I did enjoy Call the Midwife as it focused on the midwives and what they could do with limited resources. However, as the series went on it did get frustrating that every episode seemed to include a rare and catastrophic event’.

While both factual and fictional programming are accused of both dramatising and romanticising representations of late pregnancy and childbirth on the small screen, both were understood, according to different maternal audiences, to be at times, frustrating, educational, emotional and entertaining. What was interesting here however is what these shows contribute to mass media depictions of feminism, femininity and a woman’s role, as several mothers made the point that One Born Every Minute and Call the Midwife depict strong, courageous and resourceful women, removed from predictable notions of objectification and stereotypical sex-role stereotyping. Those women who spoke of their interest in watching the eponymous midwives routinely spoke of the ‘strength, courage and capabilities’ of these women in what are deemed ‘adverse & challenging situations … the midwives are strong female role models’. In my desire to learn a little more about why mothers watch, or refuse to watch, depictions of pregnancy and childbirth on screen, I have discovered something perhaps even more significant to the field of film, television and media studies, and that is that powerful women exist on television, just perhaps not in the genres and programmes that we might routinely expect. Much recent feminist scholarship examines, unmasks and interrogates the representation of women in contemporary television, including the depiction of the matriarch in the prime-time soap opera, the single girl in the situation comedy format, female empowerment in adult animation, the kick-ass heroine in the fantasy teen and science fiction text, the abrasive female detective in the cop show and the exhibitionism of women in reality programming, and yet it is here, in depictions of midwives and medical professionals that we find female strength and stamina.


While Channel 4s One Born Every Minute and the reality pregnancy and childbirth genre was critiqued for both scaremongering and reassuring women about the ‘reality’ of childbirth, the long-running show continues to be most popular with new mothers and younger mothers when compared to those who spoke favourably about the BBC One Drama, Call the Midwife. And although there were a small number of concerns about the routine over-dramatisation of problematic births in the latter production, most middle aged and more mature mothers in the audience spoke with enthusiasm about the period production both because of and in spite of its commitment to pregnancy and childbirth through the midwives of the period[i].

Although there is limited evidence here of the ways in which pregnant women watch the reality genre for pregnancy advice and childbirth instruction, perhaps we should look to the fictional drama as the most important educator. In the final episode of the fourth series, Doctor Turner/ Stephen McGann prescribed the sedative thalidomide to a pregnant mother[ii]. And while many women in the audience are now prepared for much of the drama that will no doubt make up the fifth series of the show in question, there are many who will be shocked and surprised at the outcome of a seemingly innocent prescription. And it is for this reason that Call the Midwife is essential viewing, not just for new or existing mothers, but to a generation of young women unaware of the outcome of taking that seemingly harmless drug.


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[i] For a more detailed version of this research, please see:


[ii] Originally devised in 1957 by the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal as a risk-free sedative designed to combat morning sickness in pregnant women, thalidomide was first licensed in the UK in 1958 by the drinks company Distillers, under the brand name Distaval. Despite anecdotal evidence from 1959 that suggested a surge in rare birth defects, the heavily marketed but insufficiently tested drug remained on sale in 46 countries. Altogether 180 million tablets were sold until it was withdrawn in the winter of 1961, after irrefutable evidence linking its use to a dramatic global spike in the birth of deformed babies (McGrath 2014).

 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:http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/).

Project AfterBirth: International open call opens on 6th April


International Open Call for Artist Parents

 On Monday 6th April 2015, Project AfterBirth launches an international open call inviting professional contemporary artists of any gender working in any visual, performing, text, film or digital art discipline to submit work they created in response to their own or their partner’s pregnancy, birth and/or early parenthood experiences. Submission deadline is Friday 15th May.

By the end of June 2015, a dedicated panel of international arts professionals will announce a selection from submissions which will feature in an exhibition about the impact of early parenthood on the artist. This exhibition will launch at White Moose gallery in the South West of the UK on 2nd October 2015 with the aim to tour to a number of UK, European and USA art spaces in 2016-18.

The Project AfterBirth selection panel comprises founding artists/curators Kris Jager & Mila Oshin(Joy Experiment, Exeter, UK), Stella Levy and Julie Gavin (White Moose, Devon, UK), Joy Rose(Museum of Motherhood, New York, USA), Helen Knowles (The Birth Rites Collection, Manchester, UK) and Francesca Pinto (The Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK).

The panel will be looking for high quality and engaging work, reflecting a variety of personal perspectives on 21st century pregnancy, birth and early parenthood experiences by a mix of emerging and established professional contemporary artists working in traditional and new media.

Submitted work may also contribute to an interdisciplinary research initiative led by Project AfterBirthand a team of academics from the fields of obstetrics, mental health, midwifery, media studies, social justice, and women and gender studies, which aims to shed light on current Western pregnancy & birth practices, to investigate their impact on early parenthood experiences, and to inform their future. A further objective is to present submitted work on a new online archive dedicated to contemporary art, social activism and research on the subject of new parenthood.

For more information or to join the mailing list, visit: http://www.projectafterbirth.com.

Please also LIKE Project AfterBirth on Facebook and/or follow developments on Twitter.

For all PRESS ENQUIRIES please email projectafterbirth@lionartprojects.co.uk.

Project AfterBirth is supported by:

 Logo image credit: Hilary Paynter, ‘Another Life’, 1977, reproduced with kind permission from the artist.