It’s dark. I can hear the whirr of the heater and an eager bird outside. The others are still asleep and I have sneaked down here to write. I recently described my tiredness as desperate. There are very few things I would give up sleep for at the moment, but one of them is writing. When I do it right, it gives me energy, rather than taking it away.
Writing that feels good to do is full-bodied. It comes from my slippered ankles, my warm insides, the space between my fingers, my chilly nape. It plants words that are alive on the page. Writing that feels bad to do – the kind that gives me a neck ache – feels like forming boring biscuits from just my brain.
Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” Hélène Cixous.
Ursula is nearly one now and my body has been ballooning out, birthing, spouting milk, withering, coming back to life. All I have is the time before she wakes up to do this, so I’m going to have to just let it slip out somehow. Speak, body!
I have been exploring, creating, provoking, and living what expressive arts therapy has to offer new mothers by making art as a new mother. This process is hard to write about. It has been strange, tangled, and divergent. Capturing it in a conventional narrative is like trying to wrangle a live octopus into a jar. You can get it in there for a moment, but it’s not going to live in there. Have you seen the Youtube video? The octopus undoes the lid from the inside.
I have been putting a plaster cast of my torso into a sleeping bag on the lounge room floor. I have been brushing my teeth, trying to say something worthwhile, sinking back into a chair and crying, dancing like a stone statue that came to life in a rubbish dump, metabolising words and images and mess, feeding my baby, putting her to sleep over and over and over and over again.
In my research I’ve employed multiple art forms including creative writing, painting, collage, body-casting, textiles and dance to explore my experiences as a new mother. I questioned, interrogated, and played with the taken-for-granted and imposed ideas related to gender and motherhood. I re-established a sense of agency amid anxieties and hopes about the wider world into which I am bringing my child. I returned to my experiences of giving birth and near-death, and in doing so I returned to my body. I practised tuning into my felt sense and listening deeply to my own needs. I practised writing from my body, let myself be led astray by words, and I rested in darkness.
The essential condition of motherhood isn’t pleasure or wonderment or even terror — although there’s plenty of that. The essential condition is absurdity.” J. Newman.
The relative sizes and significances of things change. A dropped pin has become a large, terrible item, and yellow clothes pegs in an ice cream container are the most interesting and faithful friends. The wet tongues of dogs are magnetic, and peeing in peace is bliss.
Victoria Scotti says the experiences of motherhood are beyond words. This makes it sound like mothering happens in a faraway valley, out past the town with words and a petrol station. Mothering happens right here, and words are here too. My own conversing selves are here, my conviction, my doubt; and so is the literature that has accompanied me on this journey. How do words mingle with motherhood?
Poiesis is the act of transforming something – psychological or social – through engaging creatively with it:
Poiesis happens not in accordance with intellect and will but through the experience of surrender to a process which I can neither understand nor control in advance.” Paolo Knill.
Poiesis is at the centre of my arts-making process and my research process.
Macaroni fingers hold my thumb. Everything goes furry when I’m tired.
My creative impulses and trains of thought are constantly interrupted and diverted to accommodate my baby’s needs. She’s like a kitten knotting up the ball of wool as I try to knit. Finding enough flow to make this intelligible feels hard. Sometimes the parts just need to cohabit, rather than connect. Here she is now at my knee, asking for my attention.
Motherhood is weird. Pregnancy entails, writes Maggie Nelson, a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body. Similar to adolescence, the physiological and other changes associated with new motherhood can feel disorienting and destabilising. A word has been coined for this transition: matrescence.
Anna Livesey says, after her first child was born:
I felt as though I’d had one layer of skin removed. Everything in the world – the beauty and the horror – felt so much more acute.” Anna Livesey.
My own skin has become as thin as a tadpole’s. I feel a renewed sense of urgency to help repair humanity’s disconnection from the natural world and each other. But I now feel as if I have less capacity to address these issues outside of my domestic sphere.
There is also the issue of telling stories. There are so many ways to tell a story. I recently found myself googling what evidence there is that the Big Bang didn’t actually happen. The answer I got: it is not impossible, but it is inconceivable. The glimmer of mystery and possibility lives in the place where we aren’t thinking so hard. That place is interesting to me. I like it there.
Sometimes I need to drift off somewhere completely different: to read away from the topic or go for a walk, just to see where it takes me. I need, as Knill puts it, to decenter: to intentionally disrupt the logic of everyday life and stray into the logic of the imagination. Turning off on tangents can surprisingly land me in the right waters. Like here:
In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the sea floor. It was beautiful but it was nerve-racking too, being that close to the future. Then a bloom of moon jellies drifted in, their tentacles dragging behind them like purses.” Jess Arndt.
Making art, like dreaming, entails a sense of losing control, but as with daydreaming, the artist retains agency. What emerges in the imaginal space can impact on the narratives of everyday life.
Rata Gordon is a poet, embodiment teacher and arts therapist-in-training. Her first book of poetry is due out in May 2020 with Victoria University Press. This article is Part 1 of 2 (the second will be published on Corpus on 2 December 2019), and draws on her thesis, Dreaming with my Body: Arts-Based Research, Expressive Arts Therapy and New Motherhood, which was completed as part of a Masters in Arts Therapy through Whitecliffe College. To read the full report, contact Rata via her website.
Also on Corpus by Rata Gordon: Art can handle us.
- Arndt, J. (2017). Large animals. New York, NY: Catapult Press. “Macaroni fingers“, P. 3.
- Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the medusa. Signs,1(4), 875-893.
- Hill, P. (2010). Wrestling the octopus.
- Knill, P. (2017). “The essence in a therapeutic process, an alternative experience of worlding?”. In E. Levine and S. Levine (Eds.), New developments in expressive arts therapy: The play of poiesis (pp. 31-47). London, UK; Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
- Knill, P., Levine, E. & Levine, S. (2005). Principles and practice of expressive arts therapy: Towards a therapeutic aesthetics. London, UK; Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
- Levine, E. & Levine, S. (Eds.) (2017). New developments in expressive arts therapy: The play of poiesis (pp. 31-47). London, UK; Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
- Livesey, A. (2017). The crucible of life: A mother returns to writing. (K. McDougall, Interviewer). The Spinoff.
- Nelson, M. (2015). The Argonauts. London, UK: Melville House.
- Newman, J. (2012). The consequences of motherhood. The New York Times.
- Powell, C. (2019). Could the big bang be wrong? Discover Magazine.
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- Sacks, A. (2017, May 8). The birth of a mother. The New York Times.
- Scotti, V. (2016). Beyond_words: Making meaning of transitioning to motherhood using montage portraiture: An arts-based research study (Doctor of Philosophy, Drexel University).