Narratives of motherhood

Motherhood is a topic that’s very close to my heart – it’s one of those corridors of life where women not only enjoy the luxury of being different to men, they get to be different in a very special way.  It’s also the world where, even within the confines of biological instincts, artificial rules, and cultural norms, you can still choose to shape your destiny and live the experience with a mind of your own. Which is why when artist Michelle Gialanze, known as Mixa, a successful woman and proud mother herself, asked me to join her for a debate on motherhood, at the Malta Society of Arts at Palazzo De La Salle in Valletta, where her exhibition of paintings entitled ‘Motherhood’ was taking place, I was grateful.

In preparation for the debate, we reflected on how to steer a conversation that would resonate with the audience, a wonderful mix of modern mothers who braved the cold weather characterising this January to participate in the enjoyment of talk and art. We instantly agreed to focus on the narratives of motherhood, travelling along the same lines as the exhibition itself and how it takes the viewer on a journey of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. The debate would be an opportunity to break the silence, speak out loud, and share some of the stories that are woven around motherhood, in all their glorious colours of truths and myths.

I also took the opportunity myself to look inwards in search of my personal story. My first thought was on how permanent motherhood is, like a chemical reaction that cannot be reversed. Looking backwards, I could not help but think about all the mistakes I had made, first as an inexperienced mother, and later as one with more knowledge and greater fear. Inevitably, I also dwelled on the anger, the anger that comes unannounced each time things fall outside of my carefully guarded ‘zone of control’, and how, without any superpowers, I am unable to fix the world and make things perfectly right.

As we had imagined, this massive power of feelings, and how they dominate our motherhoods, made some of the loudest noise during the debate – there is guilt, resting on our shoulders like a heavy cape, on whether we should have stayed home instead of flying around the world; there is fear of what might happen to our young when we close our eyes to sleep while they still need to drive back home safely in the darkness of the night; there is the pride we feel when they are rewarded with the excellent results that give them the keys to move ahead; there is the helplessness in front of situations such as the past two years of COVID-19 pandemic that completely disrupted our children’s social lives; and there is so much more.  

Before the debate, I had posted on social media on how much of a happy coincidence it was that over the past few weeks I had the immense pleasure to read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book ‘Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species’, and to let Hrdy’s exceptional take on motherhood shape my reasoning at just the right time. Mother Nature is that one-of-a-kind narrative that challenges traditional views and shows that successful mothers are, by nature, caring and nurturing, but also quite ambitious and enterprising.

And, speaking of coincidences, I also had, during a lecture on parenting just a few days earlier, engaged in a very interesting conversation about how we tend to over-estimate the influence we have on who our children grow up to be. The whole idea, very controversial, is based upon Judith Rich Harris’ book ‘The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do’, and basically states that, compared to the influence of genes and that of peers, the effect of parenting, or what we would call the ‘home’ or ‘shared’ environment, is next to nothing.

This is not something that usually goes down well with listeners. Instead, this time, in class, one father completely agreed and also added his own proof of how unfortunate, but true, this is, and during the debate, one of the mothers was actually relieved.

Only it had quite the opposite effect on myself. Later that weekend, while cooking and thinking about what had been said in and out of the debate, it dawned on me that, with her ability to support the growth of another human being, as a leader, and her willingness to invest in such a precious relationship with her child, as a model for relationships to come, the mother is indeed a woman of great power and enormous influence. Superhuman, nearly.

If you are in search of inspiration for a more powerful narrative of motherhood, Mixa’s lovely portrayals of mothers and the conversation created around it is a good place to start.

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