The images coming from Gaza at the moment show mutilated and dying children. It would be tempting to say that as a parent you feel the horror more, but this is smug nonsense: people without children are just as capable of compassion. What a parent feels is, instead, perhaps more complicated – my compassion is mixed with fear, because I cannot help but picture my own child in that situation. Which is not to feel greater empathy for the actual child, but my own child in some kind of nightmare fancy-dress.
I have always suspected love was very close to fear, but now I am a mother I know it is.
The language of parenthood is steeped in fear. From the moment you get pregnant there is nothing but an endless list of don’ts – lying on your back, feeling stressed, gardening, eating cheese – all of which might lead in some vague, dark way towards the one unthinkable, unspeakable thing: pain coming to your child. Yet looking through anthologies of baby-poems recently I found mainly sweetness and light; joyful epiphanies. Pink and blue Books-to-say-Hello don’t lend themselves to fearful content perhaps, but there might also be another reason for the limited range of the poems – the fear that the very act of being a poet itself might harm your child.
It is understandable. Joan Didion calls all writing ‘a hostile act’ as we are imposing our truth on the world. By writing about our children, aren’t we forcing our own perspective and memories upon their childhoods? If we are meant to protect our children, isn’t writing about them exposing them? Might we injure them if we suggest that we felt anything but joy in their presence? Or hurt them, even, just by laying bare the complicated relationships in their families; their mother and father’s messy inner lives? Was Ted Hughes right to destroy some of Sylvia Plath’s writing to protect her children? And then there are the simply embarrassing poems –like Rita Dove’s ‘After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed’, about her daughter spreading her legs to ‘find her vagina.’ Do I have a right to put my baby’s dirty bum in my work?
I don’t know the answers. But the parenthood poems I’ve recently read that have stuck with me have said difficult things. Anne Sexton’s poems of post-natal depression. Weldon Kees in ‘For my Daughter’ seeing ‘the night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland’ beneath the innocent flesh of the child. Mimi Khalvati exploring motherhood’s tedium in her sestina of the same name. Daljit Nagra’s ‘On the Birth of a Daughter’ bravely plunging into the politics of parenthood with the first line:
It wasn’t that I found out
on the day you were released
your mother’s subterfuge
in coming off the pill
And most recently, Fiona Benson’s stunning ‘Demeter’ in Bright Travellers, where her child appears to vanish in a cornfield and the speaker goes wild with fear:
…Demeter will be screaming soon,
cutting her wrists with broken glass,
rubbing in dirt, turning the world to darkness and ice –
she misses her daughter so much (pathological) –
black ice on the school run, shuddering cars,
bodies through glass – she can’t bear it and I
can’t stand it – not that small smashed body on the road
nor the germs – septicaemia, meningitis –
her small blotched body in my arms…
Using the Demeter myth means it feels like Benson is tapping into something primal, pagan – the hysteria of mothers since ancient times; the sense Gods wanted to snatch our babies back.
I’m glad these poets have written about parenthood. Whatever struggles they have had to have with their own consciences, the fact these poems exist enlarge our sense of what being a parent is; what being mortal means. In the media, depictions of children seem to veer ridiculously between the sickly sweet and the panic-inducing – in the best poems of parenthood, a more complicated, messy kind of reality can be acknowledged.
Book your place on The Poetry of Parenthood with Clare Pollard via the Poetry School website or ring 0207 582 1679.