When We Remember to Breathe: Mess, magic and mothering by Michele Powles and Renee Liang (Magpie Pulp, 2019), 211pp, $25
This is a love-addled, baby-brained, hormone soup of a book. And I could not be using those compounds in a more positive way. Billed as ‘a conversation by Michele Powles and Renee Liang’, this textual, maternal exchange between two gifted authors is one of radical honesty and vulnerability. Composed of emails exchanged during their second pregnancies (and beyond), this conversation feels easy, fluid and mutually beneficial. They thrilled and enthralled one another with the entropy of motherhood. To new parents, but mothers especially, there must be something deeply cathartic to this. Even for childless readers (myself included), there’s something reassuring about this creative kinship and solidarity through maternity.
Reciprocity is the essential ingredient of this alchemy. Powles and Liang have, through compassionate and ceaseless communication, woven something more than the sum of their word-parts: there are endless feedback loops between the two writers’ choices of topics, metaphors and framing devices. They have woven a ‘glittering tapestry where the stitches bounce and hop and take on the other’s sheen’.
Prepositions are important here. Powles and Liang are in conversation, but also distantly ‘emailing chunks of [their] lives at each other’, and with an eye towards their babies. They are writing towards and around their children (‘about them, to them, of them, for them’). Both writers are struck with the impulse to record the early days, months, years of their children’s lives because ‘poetry and prose are so much more accurate than digital sensors’, such as film or social media. As a result, this is intensely other-oriented writing, which has nice parallels with the other-alignment of pregnancy, childbirth and childcare.
It helps that both authors are independently excellent writers. Whether Powles is writing about the pure vertigo experienced in conception and pregnancy, the pitfalls of self-diagnosis via Dr Google, the ‘bare-boned physicality of birth’, or post-partum psychosis (shockingly underdiscussed in New Zealand), she is a brilliant, open stylist. Somehow, she also conjures up multi-hyphenates that are miraculously unclunky: see, for example, the ‘irreversible affliction-ailment-gift-joy’ of parenthood. Liang is non-stop hilarious. Everything from fart jokes to snippets of conversations (à la ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’) to boob-centric banter is on her side-splitting radar, and it proves welcome comic relief throughout an emotional rollercoaster. But Liang is not just the class clown. A practising paediatrician, she provides fascinating takes on the neural development of her children and debunks the myth of ‘non-natural birth’. She also gently collapses proverbial ‘home truths’ and accepted knowledge about families, dismissing ‘wisdoms’ proclaiming special and inherent father–daughter or mother–son bonds in favour of experience: ‘we are all just people learning to be a family’. Dazed and yet crisp, occasionally clinical, but unabashedly emotional, Powles and Liang combine paradoxes of substance and style, successfully walking the tightrope between parental infatuation and literary craft.
Let’s consider this book in the context of other writing on the topic of family, motherhood and feminism. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir savagely described women’s confinement in various spheres as ‘a dull gynacceum’. De Beauvoir saw motherhood as ‘the original of women’s oppression’ and lamented women’s ‘misfortune to have been biologically destined for the repetition of Life’, to be perpetually ‘in bondage to the species’.1 The Second Sex provides a grim diagnosis of the endless evils (psychological, cultural, physical, etc.) of motherhood, including: ‘The great danger which threatens the infant in our culture lies in the fact that the mother … is almost always a discontented woman.’ In When We Remember to Breathe Powles and Liang salvage pregnancy and motherhood from this highbrow dismissal, making manifest their own happiness (through the inevitable mess and disorder). They depict art and motherhood as not only compatible but even functioning in a beautiful symbiosis. Their collaborative, conversational work is devoted to smashing myths about motherhood, feminine character and destiny—gently but compellingly. Without ever mentioning The Second Sex, this book rejects de Beauvoir’s pessimism around the possibility of liberation for mothers. I hope it spurs many more such collaborations.
In considering the compatibility of writing and mothering, When We Remember to Breathe begs comparison to The Cost of Living, the second instalment of Deborah Levy’s living memoir, which engages deeply and explicitly with de Beauvoir’s severe, explosive manifesto. Instead of responding to de Beauvoir as Levy does, Powles and Liang respond to one another. Levy felt trapped and could not reconcile the performance of wifely and motherly roles with intellectual and creative liberty, penning a manifesto for what she calls ‘a new way of living’ in the post-familial world. By contrast, Powles and Liang are simply, beautifully familial—and much more positive about children, partners and retaining selfhood throughout family-building.
There’s a similar project here to the literary criticism of Lorna Sage, who ‘wanted to reconfigure the “we” women could use’ and thus looked for the polymorphous possibilities of female freedom in women who wrote.2 Powles and Liang are themselves such women, exploring female freedom and identity-in-family in twenty-first-century New Zealand. They are both mothers and writers committed to their literary craft, to recording the memories and emotions, the first and last times, the faux pas and delights of motherhood and infancy—for their children, for each other, for themselves and for an audience. Both writers love the lilt and sway of language and have found a way to combine what is supposed to be the loneliest, most essentially isolated craft with the most intimate—motherhood. They successfully merge these two ways of being other-oriented. And in doing so, they present a vast field of women’s experience as worth recording. They see, for example, ‘baby brain’ as catalyst in the forging of text, of memoir and of literature worth sharing. Liang indulges in scary punning about baby brain: ‘that slow mummification … of the brain, the layer-on-thin-layer of fog’ that never quite recedes. (Terrifying, but not quite as terrifying as the doctor later musing, ‘is “baby brain” the first flutterings of dementia?’) Powles then jumps on the living-dead vibes, likening baby brain to zombification, having a mind that is ‘Rotting. Decayed. Deadened.’ Thus, not all the reverberations within the text are golden. Some are positively morbid. There is a frightening honesty here.
With more embodied, emotional honesty than Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the book also reflects on the meaning(lessness) of time, as inflected and destroyed by childbearing, childbirth and child-rearing. Powles writes of the ‘intangible no-time time’ of birth, the elasticity of postnatal time and the confusion as to whether time is running forwards or backwards. Powles and Liang continuously return to the plasticity of time; they come to see it as arbitrary, relative, incomprehensible. Indeed, Powles ultimately concludes: ‘Time isn’t elastic, it’s impossible. I don’t believe in it anymore.’ And whereas the alpha and omega of The Second Sex is repetition and the timelessness of the mundane—‘It is [woman’s] duty to assure the monotonous repetition of life in all its mindless factuality … for time to seem for her to go round and round without ever leading anywhere’—Powles and Liang eschew the idea of maternal drudgery in favour of wonder and possibility, and a fascination with the mercurial nature of time.
If de Beauvoir started the conversation around the drudgery of motherhood, the anti-maternal feminism of Elisabeth Badinter carries it further. A prolific French philosopher, historian and public intellectual who has written controversial works on women’s rights and motherhood, Badinter has been questioning, since the 1980s, whether maternal love is the result of nature or culture, and hers is a fairly assertive anti-child-centric feminism. Modern motherhood, ‘progressive’ and in thrall to all that is ‘natural’, is holding back women’s freedom; natural birth and breastfeeding tether women to the home and family to an extent unparalleled since the 1950s. In short, motherhood is a regressive force. Badinter warns of a stealthy cultural ‘revolution’ premised on the ‘exalted’ mother figure and a regressive, back-to-nature ‘new essentialism’, a green feminism that threatens all women by demanding they embrace their motherly instincts, ‘constituting a supreme threat to women’s emancipation and sexual equality’. Powles and Liang, on the other hand, smash the old (très French) chestnut that motherhood is the supreme enemy of both womankind and every individual woman. When they write about what Badinter would call the ‘despotism of an insatiable child’, it is with their own insatiable, all-engrossing love for their children—and humour. Far from being repressed by the ‘tyranny of maternal duty’, these authors are delighted by their crazy, demanding kids, and relish the mess, the overwhelm and the struggle to look after themselves, their work and their babies. In what Badinter would scoff at as ‘green feminism’, a fixation on organic birth and mothering, Powles bravely discusses her disappointment, even hollowed-out sadness, at having an emergency caesarean section instead of a natural birth. And, as noted, Liang challenges the binary between natural and non-natural birth.
In a searing discussion of the ‘You Should Do What’s Best for Baby blogosphere’, Powles engages with the ‘green feminism’ debate that has metastasised in online forums. Discussing the ever-expanding ‘list of things you’re supposed to avoid for fear of harming your baby’ (aka ‘Things You Could Break Your Baby With’), Powles notes that so much of this advice stems from ‘the tropes of womanhood we are supposed to fit into’. More precisely, she points out that most of this ‘concern-soup conforms to that historic practice of isolating women, cloistering them to protect them and … their unborn babies’. Ultimately, it’s a con. Powles urges readers not to let these culturally generated fears ‘stop you from relishing the vastness of your modern-day life choices. No one should feel they need to go into confinement and lose their sense of self because of the miraculous changes going on inside their body.’ This is a far more enjoyable way of reading about procreation, intimate care and love. When We Remember to Breathe is a joint bildungsroman of maternity, a mothers’ ode to joy.
This writing is mostly devoid of sap, though there are over-sentimental, even saccharine, moments. Powles is occasionally heavy-handed with clichéd similes. Labelling children as ‘Mr Two’, ‘Mr Three’, ‘Miss One and a Half’ and so on felt too redolent of back issues of Woman’s Weekly, weakly leafed through in a doctor’s waiting room. But I have never had a child and, looking from the baby-less outside in, I cannot demarcate the line between maternal adoration and insipid gush-fest. When I try to step away from my own confusions about motherhood, I see more plainly that the gushing is beautifully balanced with mess, minor catastrophe and disappointment. There’s an equilibrium here between the romantic bliss of motherhood and the gritty accounts of its occasional mundanity.
When I started this book, I was ambivalent about having children. For self-oriented, goal-oriented reasons, for fearful reasons (baby brain? sutures? postnatal depression stats? vital organ displacement?!) and, relatedly, because I feared loss-of-self, loss of creative time, loss of un-ripped, un-vomited-on books. Since reading When We Remember to Breathe, I’ve been edging myself off the fence. My parents are thrilled.
- Lorna Sage, Moments of Truth: Twelve twentieth-century women writers (Fourth Estate: London, 2002), p. 162.
- Marina Warner in introduction to Sage, Moments of Truth, p. xii.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is doing a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge.