Create: The Art of Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond

By Fan Sissoko

A health visitor came to visit a few days after my daughter’s birth. She asked how the birth was. I stayed silent for a couple of minutes unable to answer. What was I to say? Fine? Fantastic? Grand? She only expected a one-word answer: ‘normal’ would have pleased her. But those words don’t come close to describing the textured, multi-layered, hormone-driven web of emotions and sensations that make up the experience of giving birth.

So in the couple of months after the birth, with my daughter asleep on my chest, I knitted a blanket that tells this story through personal data.

“Labour” is a hand-knitted data visualisation. Each square represents one of the 15 hours between my waters breaking and my daughter being born. Different colours, patterns and textures indicate where I was, what emotions I went through, the intensity of the contractions and other sensations, the support I received, and which hormones likely dominated the situation. The blanket is accompanied by a 5mn audio soundscape.

“Labour”, hand-knitted data visualisation

The act of knitting evokes waiting, expectation and hours of hard work. Thus, it becomes an accurate reflection of pre-birth and labour. During the few days preceding and following her birth, all I wanted was to crawl into bed and hide from the outside world. It is likely that my body was craving melatonin, a hormone released in dark, calm and safe situations. Melatonin boosts the production of the birth hormone, oxytocin, which in turns helps to release endorphins, our bodies’ natural pain relief. The blanket represents the place of safety I was craving during that time.

The blanket was shown as part of Create: The Art of Pregnancy, Birth & Beyond, in the Science Gallery in Dublin. Organised by HRB Mother and Baby Clinical Trials Network, the exhibition brought together work from Irish and international artists dealing with topics around pregnancy.

The launch was moving. It is rare to see such honest and diverse representations of that moment in life. A few pieces particularly stuck with me. The Other Side, by Emma Sheridan, is an impressive self-portrait highlighting perinatal mental health issues. A Faint Heart, by Nollaig Crombie, is a slider puzzle representing the hope, waiting and grief of an unsuccessful IVF cycle. Everyday Breastfeeding, by Fiona Carey, is a hanging curtain of delicate drawings of real breastfeeding mothers – they show women’s bodies at work in the chaos of everyday life.

The show felt like a reminder of all the untold stories that our bodies carry.


Fan Sissoko is a social designer and researcher based in London. She works with charities and the public sector to improve health and care systems. She uses participatory storytelling as well as food to encourage empathy and community connections.

To find out more about Fan’s work, see:

Rethinking Reproduction: Reproductive Technologies Reading Group at Market Gallery

By Catalina Barroso-Luque

How do notions regarding gender, motherhood and reproduction emerge from and within new scientific technologies? How does language re-produce and consume these different bodies?

 Reproductive Technologies is a six-month reading group intended as a prolonged conversation towards a sustained event in July 2018. It is being hosted by Market Gallery, an artist-run space in Glasgow’s East End. The project’s participants include Market Gallery’s programming committee, local residents, Scottish-based artists and researchers, and young mothers. The selected texts respond to reproduction in a variety of ways, and explore the position of bodies in systems of production and reproduction.

Getting started with Paul Preciado’s ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ and Antonio Regalado’s ‘A New Way to Reproduce’

The first reading group session sought to construct a platform from which to open up a conversation about the complex relationship between changes in textual bodies; changes in the representation of bodies in literary texts, and technological changes in the biological construction of human bodies. During this session, the group read ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ by Paul B. Preciado, and ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ by Antonio Regalado. Preciado’s text served as an introduction to the ways in which discourse, language and biotechnology are caught up with the engineering, production, and policing of different bodies.

‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’ focuses on how, within sexual, social, and cultural forms of reproduction, we confront the most critical dimensions of power. To explain the relationship between power and technologies as they are utilized by political regimes to regulate the collective ways of capturing, distributing and reproducing life, Preciado describes three historical types of power technologies. First, there is the necropatriarchal power regime, under which only the male body is a fully sovereign body. This is followed by modernity’s heterosexual-colonial regime, during which political and (supposedly) anatomical categories of race and sexual difference were developed, regulated and employed in such a way as to easily transplant social constructions, such as the nuclear family, which function as forms of cultural colonization, and support the development of the the labor force of industrialised nation-states. The third regime is the pharmacopornographic regime, defined by the mapping and manipulation of genomes; the invention of the concept of gender; the use of hormones and surgery to alter the body; and the increasing instances of mass destruction. At the brink of possible mass extinction, Preciado asks for an evaluation of the evolution of linguistic codes of social and cultural reproduction as key elements to consider in any investigation of the uses of power. He advocates learning as the cultural analogue of genetic recombination and as a way of collectively mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.

To contextualize ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, which summarizes recent advancements in biotechnology and the conceptual realm in which they operate. One of the recent biological developments Regalodo describes is the advancement made towards the production of artificial gametes and reprogramming of iPS cells into ovules.

Regalado recounts Reijo Pera’s personal interest in utilizing genetically identical stem cells to solve infertility, having herself become infertile as a result of ovarian cancer. However, Regalado fails to probe deeply into the complex possible implications of such developments. These technologies have led to a heated debate regarding the permissibility of editing human embryos to eliminate serious disease, versus the potential co-option of such technology by bio-medical investment firms.

Read alongside ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group found Regalado’s article highly problematic – especially when he intervenes in the description of scientific research with personal information about particular individuals, with the aim of engaging the reader through empathy. Regalado’s position, language, personal anecdotes, and continuous anthropomorphisation and impartition of subjectivity onto individual bodily components exemplify how traditional (often patriarchal) cultural codes and Western ideals seep into scientific agendas and come to shape research strategies. This is exemplified in Pera’s comment on natural reproduction, with its implicit disregard for non-heterosexual couples: “I might be naïve, but I think the way to have a healthy child is still two people get together and you have wine and dinner.”

The group’s discussion centred particularly on the relationship between gender and reproduction, exploring how new technologies both challenge and discursively produce the natural facts of and assumptions about sex and human reproduction. Here, one participant generously shared her research into the history of gender deconstruction and the disciplining of the female body, as explored through her position and experience as an artist and mother. Another participant recounted how early test trials of the pill in Latin America left many women in her family infertile, prompting her to look into the many adverse effects of hormonal contraception. Case studies in ‘A New Way to Reproduce’, when correlated with the reading group participant’s own histories, raised ethical questions regarding the uses and potential effects of new reproductive technologies, and how power is exercised to produce clashing realities.

Reading Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’

The fraught relationship between gender, reproduction, agency, and family bonds was further discussed during the group’s second meeting. In this session, the group read ‘Bloodchild’, a short story by Octavia Butler about a man who becomes pregnant with an alien, insect-like race. Set on an unknown planet to which humans have emigrated, the story follows Gan (an adolescent human), his family, and extended ties with Gatoi, a member of the ruling alien group. Playing on themes of surrogacy, infertility and gendered identity, Gatoi’s alien species cannot reproduce on their own, so they implant their eggs into male humans, making them into living incubators – a service mankind must provide in order to be able to inhabit the foreign planet. Being close friends with Gan’s mother, Gatoi has requested that Gan become a carrier for eggs. At first, Gan is content with his role as a carrier. However, after watching another man go into labour, he comes to question his own willingness to serve as a carrier.

Butler’s harrowingly violent description of labour resonated greatly with one participant’s overtly carnal experience of giving birth. Comparing such vivid and simultaneously ambiguous imagery with filmic representations, the group turned to sci-fi Hollywood films that feature themes of pregnancy, parasitic infection and technological replication. The group exchanged views about the placement of the body in technology within films such as Alien and The Matrix, looking into how these forms of mass media reproduce, shape and thrive on shared collective fantasies based on a primal fear of the foetus as parasite. Having read ‘A New Way to Reproduce’ and ‘Baroque Technopatriarchy’, the group addressed the conceptual constraints and assumptions about the maternal body that underlie biological theory and that are shared within both Hollywood imagery and a long philosophical tradition that has relegated the mother to the passive agent.

One of the group’s participants, with a background in film studies, noted that Hollywood’s view of pregnancy as a pathologized phenomenon seems to be tied up with mass fears of contamination on personal and national levels, as evidenced during the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and by the current growing xenophobic tensions in Europe and North America. The parasite is presented as a foreign presence that infects its host, thus breaking away from the boundaries of both the human individual and the social body, and problematizing notions of bodily unity, group identity and sovereignty.

Here, the group felt that the idea of community becomes quite important, since the first community – the family – is at stake. The traditional nuclear family unit is one structured through the father’s ownership over the children, ensuring that lineage, property and genetic continuity are maintained. In Butler’s story, this is played out through Gatoi’s relationship with Gan’s family, within which she is positioned simultaneously as a visiting ruling official, a friend and a family member. As Gan describes, “T’Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the preserve” (Butler, p.3). “She parcelled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people.” (p.5). Complicating things further, Gatoi’s egg had once been implanted into Gan’s late father’s body, making her and Gan’s relationship appear both incestuous and reminiscent of customs where marrying within one’s kin allows for property to be kept within the same social group.

The ambiguity over ‘belonging’ and ‘belonging to’ that is played out in the relationship between Gan’s family and Gatoi places notions of family bonds in a murky in-between space of property, affinity, ‘love’ and social construction. Such a position questions Gan’s degree of agency within his prescribed family role and his choice to become a carrier. The group felt that Gan’s resolution to be impregnated ‘out of love’ comes to mirror socio-cultural models, which engender a naturalized view of romantic relationships whose ultimate shared motivation is that of having children. Such models thwart the self-determining nature of ‘choosing’, making the decision to procreate a of consolidating romantic, family and social bonds.

Positioning kinship, and the bodies involved within it, within the shared scope of property and genetic resemblance triggered a conversation regarding the transposition of free-market economics onto scientific agendas, which regulate and reconfigure the human body. For example, Hardy Kagimoto, CEO of Healios a Japanese biotech company, declared to Regalado: “if eggs could be made from human iPS cells, the supply would potentially be limitless, perhaps leading to what is sometimes called ‘embryo farming’.” Much like the humans living in the preserve in Bloodchild, Kagimoto’s statement depicts the biological body as a territory to be colonized, owned, sold and policed. More alarmingly, rendering biotechnology into a service analogous to chicken farming or personalized online shopping platforms, conflates the body into a disposable material and malleable code homologous to low resolution images and mass-produced consumer products.

Within this dizzying topology of interconnective and conflicting forces, which we are all entangled in, the group then asked: how can we find possible ways of rethinking reproduction as a complex, multilayered and heterogeneous phenomenon, which operates between and across bodies, sexes and genetic material? In his article, Preciado suggests, “Learning, a process that could be considered the cultural analogue of genetic recombination, is our individual and collective way of mutating within brief time spans and adapting to rapid change.” With this aim in mind, Reproductive Technologies will next be looking at the way in which power is exercised in liberal democracies through biopolitical forms of governmentality, reading as a cohort ‘Organs Without Bodies’ by Rosi Braidotti.


Braidotti, Rosi, ‘Organs Without Bodies’ in Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2011),  pp. 167–188.

Butler, Octavia, ‘Bloodchild’, in Bloodchild And Other Stories (Seven Stories press, 2005), pp. 1–32.

Preciado, Paul B., ‘BAROQUE TECHNOPATRIARCHY: REPRODUCTION’,  Artforum International, 1 Jan. 2018,

Regalado, Antonio, ‘Synthetic Human Reproduction Could Be a Whole New Way to Make Babies’, MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 29 Jan. 2017,


Catalina Barroso-Luque is a Mexican artist and curator. Her practice revolves around psychology and how distinct technologies of language production suggest different models of subjectivity and initiate new experiences of embodiment. Catalina holds an MFA from the Glasgow School of Art and Fine Arts BA from Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design. She was the 2016 Graduate Fellow at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, and the 2013 Artist Residence at Artspace New Haven (CT. USA). Recent artistic projects include: The Persistence of Type, Glasgow International 2018;, Chalton Gallery (London, 2018); Salón ACME (Mexico City, 2018); Dry Rotting Bodies, Civic Room (Glasgow, 2017); A Loving Aneurysm, Glasgow Woman’s Library (Glasgow, 2017); Fictional Matters, Centre for Contemporary Art (Glasgow, UK. 2016). Catalina is currently Programme Assistant for the Edinburgh Art Festival and a member of Market Gallery’s Programming Committee where she leads the Reproductive Technologies reading group.

A Pregnant Archive Symposium: Tracing Histories of Pregnancy (and Unpregnancy) In the Archives

By Leonie Shanks

In Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s nineteenth-century poem ‘To a Little Invisible Being Who Is Expected Soon to Become Visible’, the narrator describes the titular unborn child as a ‘germ of new life’ and expresses hopes that the ‘little captive’ will soon be ‘free […] from thy living tomb.’ Throughout the poem, words and images that evoke the experience of ‘expecting’, ‘waiting’ and ‘lingering’ contribute to an atmosphere of excited, and yet anxious, anticipation. The mother of the child is described as one who ‘longs to fold to her maternal breast/ Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’, and to be able ‘to see and to salute the stranger guest.’ The poem suggests that the ‘invisible being’ is an unknowable enigma to the anxious mother; long after biological conception, the foetus remains impossible to ‘conceive’ in imaginative terms.

At ‘The Pregnant Archive: Materialising Conception to Birth’, a two-day symposium and collaborative workshop that was held at Birkbeck on the 30th November – 1st December 2017, the tensions that run throughout Barbauld’s poem – between visibility and invisibility; life and death; excitement and anxiety; reality and imagination; intimacy and strangeness – were recurrent themes in discussions about the physical, emotional and psychic experience of conception, pregnancy and birth. Organised by Dr. Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University and Dr. Isabel Davis at Birkbeck, ‘The Pregnant Archive’ symposium sought to explore, uncover and better understand the intimate, private and ephemeral experiences of conception, pregnancy and birth, and the ways in which these experiences have been both shaped and obscured by partial medical knowledge and changing social norms.

Conceiving Histories Exhibition in the Peltz Gallery

Part of a wider portfolio of activities that are currently being organised by the Conceiving Histories project, the symposium ran alongside the Conceiving Histories exhibition, which was hosted in Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery from 8th November – 13th December. It was therefore appropriate that the first day of the symposium should include an introduction to the exhibition by Anna Burel, the artist responsible for creating the artworks that were showcased in the gallery in collaboration with literary historian Dr. Isabel Davis.

Anna Burel, Queen Mary I Pregnant With Herself

Although arranged in a relatively small exhibition space, Burel’s artworks and sculptural forms powerfully captured the sense of surrealism and strangeness that can attend the multifarious experiences and imaginations of maternity. Burel and Davis are particularly engaged in unearthing stories and developing case studies that relate to the notion of ‘unpregnancy’. One case study, for instance, concerns the hysterical pregnancies of Queen Mary I, who is said to have felt a ‘quickening’ in her womb after being greeted by the Cardinal Reginald Pole in 1554 with the words ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’, and falsely believed that she was pregnant. The announcement of her pregnancy was greeted with widespread fanfare, and extensive preparations were made for the birth – but no baby ever arrived. Another case study looks at the odd, fleeting and widely satirized eighteenth-century fashion for false padded stomachs that imitated pregnancy.

Bringing these case studies to life through a diverse range of visual and sculptural forms, the Conceiving Histories exhibition included an image of Queen Mary I pregnant with herself, curled in a foetal position within a dark womb. In another corner of the space, a set of disembodied, differently-sized wombs dangled and spun from the ceiling like semi-deflated balloons – poignant visual symbols of the affective experiences of disappointment, loss, yearning and grief associated with the difficulty of conceiving, or inability to do so.

Anna Burel, Conceiving Histories Exhibition, Peltz Gallery 2017

A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day One

The haunting, multilayered, ambiguous and at times comedic artistic creations that populated the Conceiving Histories exhibition, then, provided a fitting counterpart to the Pregnant Archive Symposium, which brought together an extraordinary range of perspectives and expertise to examine the archival materials, spaces and traces that have defined and been left behind by maternity.

On Day One, the Symposium began with a session on the theme of Questions of Conception. Shrikant Botre, from the University of Warwick, explored the role of early twentieth century Marathi Hindu sex-educators in shaping Marathi modernity in western India, and the various ways in which they helped to redefine the act of sexual intercourse in the ‘modern’ light of sexual science. Dr. Sarah Read, from Loughbourough University, analysed manuscript poems in order to gain insight into ways in which women living in the highly religious society of early modern England – in which abortion was strictly prohibited – nevertheless were able to gain access to medicinal recipes that could bring about the termination of unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, from the University of Cambridge, was the last speaker of panel one, giving a paper on ‘Lot 37’, the original prototype of ‘Predictor’, which was the world’s first home pregnancy test. While principally arguing that the powerfully transformative processes of commercialisation and direct-to-consumer marketing should be more central to histories of medicalization, legislative reform and cultural change, his paper also told the little-known story of Lot 37’s inventor Margaret Crane, declared dead by Wikipedia until she updated the page to state that she was alive and well, and living and working as a graphic designer in New Jersey.

One of the strengths of the Symposium was undoubtedly the way in which academic explorations of conception and pregnancy were interleaved with artistic responses to the same themes. The second session of day one featured excellent presentations from artists Helen Sergeant, Nikki Davidson-Bowman and Sreyashi Tinni Bhattacharyya, who each reiterated the important topics and questions that were already emerging, whether through Sargeant’s work on representations of the pregnant body and pregnancy testing, or though Davidson-Bowman’s project that looks at the kinds of archival absences and silences that invite storytelling and the recuperation of marginalised female experiences.

The final panel of the day moved from conception to birth, with a panel on the subject of Birth Spaces. Hermione Wiltshire, an artist and lecturer at the Royal College of Art, gave a richly visually illustrated talk to explore the question of whether images of the baby’s head crowing in labour – principally seen only by midwives – can be used to ascertain whether perspective itself is a gendered system of representation. Dr. Sarah Fox drew upon eighteenth-century midwifery manuals, letters and diaries, court records and collections of folklore to examine the sensory and material environment in which women gave birth, especially using these archival materials to explore the temporary practical, emotional and medicinal transformations that took place within the domestic space before, during and after birth.

Next up was Dr. Edwina Attlee, who used Yvonne Verdier’s 1970 oral history of the French village of Minot to investigate the figure of the ‘woman-who-helps’ during labour. She described the shift away from labour as a communal, predominantly female event to the circumscribed space of the clinic, and looks at the ways in which the ‘woman-who-helps’ survives and negotiates this shift into a more medicalised and disempowering clinical setting. Finally, Dr. Cathy McClive, from Florida State University, presented a fascinating paper on her study of the papers of Marie Magdalene Grand, a self-styled apothecary who operated in France in the eighteenth century and was eventually arrested for the illegal practice of medicine. In particular, McClive’s discovery of a baby boy’s caul, or amniotic sac, amongst Grand’s papers prompted McClive to mediate upon her own affective response to this archival find only shortly after herself returning from maternity leave.

A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day Two

Day Two of the Symposium investigated the subject of Materials of Pregnancy. In the first panel of the morning, doctoral student Rebecca Whiteley examined print images of the foetus in the uterine membranes produced for anatomists and midwives in the seventeeth and eighteenth century, followed by Professor Rosemary Betterton, from Lancaster University, who used close readings of two passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex alongside recent works by female artists both to analyse and find ways of repairing Beauvoir’s flawed vision of the maternal body.

The following panel continued with the theme of Materials of Pregnancy, and began with Anne Carruthers, from Newcastle University, who used films such as ‘Juno’ and ‘Baby Mama’ to look at filmic representations of the ultrasound, and analyse the material components and technologies that are hidden or obscured in the screened pregnancy narrative. Professor Karen Harvey, from the University of Birmingham, then used the eighteenth-century letters of the Stutterd family to ask about the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth were perceived and imagined during this time, pointing out that – despite accounts of multiple pregnancies in these letters – there is a notable absence of the kinds of objects that might be associated with pregnancy, birth and new motherhood, whether linen, caudle pots or infant and maternity clothing. Harvey argued that the eighteenth-century lacked the kind of material culture that has developed in contemporary times, in which objects play a significant role in the transitioning identities of mothers and the ‘making real’ of pregnancies as yet unseen or babies who are lost. Finally, Dr. Magdalena Ohaja, from Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper that looked at Nigerian women’s accounts of the food preferences and restrictions that shape their experiences of pregnancy, using these accounts to trace the relationship between food, social relations and power which underpins the experience of maternity.

Artistic responses from Lana Locke, Leah Lovett and Jessa Fairbrother provided a lively and poignant end to the Symposium. Some of Locke’s works were inspired by her own initial failed attempts to procreate, followed – after the birth of her children – with her interest in reclaiming the idea of the feral in representations of pregnancy and birth, and the idea that fluids related to the experience of maternity – from mother’s milk to oozing nappies – can represent transformative matter that transgresses prescribed disciplines, spaces and identities. Lovett shared with Locke a similar interest in asking how motherhood might be claimed as a political identity, and particularly focused on the way in which the body can be instrumentalized by labour. She screened a short film, ‘Support’, in which male choral singers made noises that imitated the sounds that their partners made during labour. Both powerful and deliberately comedic, the film provoked interesting discussions both about male experiences of labour, and about the ways in which, during labour, the female body can take on a power, life and time of its own that is not necessarily coterminous with one’s sense of self.

Concluding the Symposium, Jessa Fairbrother’s presentation was a poignant reflection on the powerful cultural urge for women to perform happy endings through marriage and motherhood, questioning what happens when the cultural narratives that are provided to women who fulfill these conventional milestones prove unavailable or get ruptured. She explored the significance of the wedding dress – a powerful visual symbol of a narrative – and, conversely, the lack of objects available to define the lives and experiences of those who do not get married or have children. In particular, Fairbrother investigated these questions of identity, narrative and object through her project ‘Conversations with my Mother’, developed while her mother was dying from cancer. You can find out more about this work here.

A consistent theme throughout the Symposium was that of absences, silences and lack – what is missing from the experience and history of pregnancy and maternity is often just as interesting as that which is visible, revealing much about gender and sexual politics, as well as constantly evolving social and cultural norms. Conceiving Histories will continue to investigate this topic, and MaMSIE looks forward to hearing more about the outcomes of the project, and to following the work of the academics and artists who contributed to this brilliant, thought-provoking event.


Leonie Shanks is completing a PhD in the English department at Birkbeck under the supervision of Dr. Joanne Winning. Her thesis focuses on the epistolary correspondence and modernist networks of the marginal modernist Dorothy Richardson, and her research interests include modernist space and place, feminism, psychoanalysis, materiality, network theory and life writing. She also works as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before beginning her PhD, Leonie trained and worked as a social ethnographer, working with a range of local authorities and other public organisations to gather qualitative data and insights into the ways in which people lead their everyday lives. In this role she particularly specialised in working with families, young people and children across a range of different settings.

Dislocated Maternal Bodies: Dance Movement Psychotherapy with Refugee Mothers

By Rosalind Howell
 When I Googled ‘refugee mothers’ the other week, this came up on the first page: “Refugee Mothers”. Try as it might, Google could not find any resource that contained both words – the refugee mother somehow could not be located. She was missing.

In a weekly Dance Movement Psychotherapy group for refugee mothers and their preschool children that I facilitate, a participant tells me that at a party in her accommodation recently, someone was taking photographs. The next day, pictures of her appeared, printed out, and pinned up along the street with the word ‘Missing’ emblazoned across them: her image had been turned into a missing persons poster. But, as the woman said to me, genuinely bewildered: “I wasn’t missing?!”

Refugees lose many significant things when they leave their home, including possessions, loved ones, even honor and prestige. All that might remain after their flight from danger is their body and mind, but trauma can make even these feel somehow unreachable or dislocated. As another woman noted in the group: “It’s just my body that is tired, not me”. This feeling of being separate from one’s body may remain even when the refugee is in “in safety”, and it can become a normal way of experiencing the self.

Rediscovering one’s lost body might involve what Psychotherapist Susie Orbach has called ‘daring to be comfortable’ – that is, turning our attention inwards and using this as a place from which to meet the world, rather than colluding with a view of our body based on an objectifying gaze. But trying to ‘get comfortable’ in this way is not easy. In this group, the bodies of the refugee women are often galvanised in tension, ready to fight or flee, or they are quick to collapse, like  formless pools without bone or muscle. When the women choose to perch on a wobbly pile of chairs, feet far from the ground, they seem to be conflating the notion of being comfortable with being ‘safe’ and ‘separate.’  Perhaps it feels too dangerous to lie on the floor, unless curled up in a foetal position. How then to make small physical adjustments that might help tolerate the challenges of the present moment, however uncertain, and from there to move into the future?

As another woman says to me of some casual racism she experienced earlier that day: “I have to let it slide over me, I can’t let it touch me otherwise it will hold me back.” As she spoke, she moved her hand quickly over her body, so that I could imagine something sliding off a surface that nothing could stick to or penetrate. She then leapt up and moved quickly from the spot, engaging in a practical task. This idea of a border that aims, like skin,  to keep out the unwanted is a familiar one to us all these days, whether we are a refugee or host country.

Many psychotherapy interventions for mothers and their infants are based on improving the attachment relationship. But as some have noted, Bowlby’s attachment theory has been in part co-opted by an individualistic, mother-blaming and very Western-centric culture, or misunderstood as the need for a mother to be literally stuck to her baby at all times. Likewise, the use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ often leaves out the crucial point that a mother needs to be well resourced to emotionally care for a baby, and it is the wider environment’s responsibility to ensure that. In the case of refugee mothers, resources are scant, and trauma has been immense.  Refugee women are among those most vulnerable to gender-based violence. They are likely to have experienced rape, domestic violence, FGM, trafficking, or some combination of all of these. It is thus dangerous to foist more blame onto her for the trauma she has experienced. It makes her responsible for the impact of war, geopolitics and  patriarchal violence on subsequent generations, when these forms of violence have been literally acted out on her body.

So how does the political manifest in the physical body? What does it look like, what are its postures, its movements and its bodily felt sensations as it intertwines with personal history? How does the political animate the body of a refugee that has travelled perhaps thousands of miles, but now has no clear way forward and no path back?  And how ‘comfortable’ can these mothers be in their bodies, in a kind of limbo with an uncertain future, but with a child who must be somehow delivered to the future? For the refugee mother, what can her next move be?

A version of this piece was read at the conference Oxytocin, birthing the world, The Royal College of Art, in June 2017.

Rosalind Howell is a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, writer and editor. She has three children.