“Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed,” Rachel Cusk wrote in A Life’s Work. Her book offers a brutally honest account of the early experiences of motherhood, bearing witness to the full spectrum of the experience. When it came out in 2001, it inspired enormous vitriol, often from other women who believed it to be a threat to the future of the human race.
This extreme response illustrates the extent to which our society favours shrinking down the motherhood experience to only one emotion, preferably a positive one. Photography is complicit in this emotional distancing. We need to look no further than our family albums, bursting with only smiles and joy. They evidence a past rewritten, burying all the messy, complicated stuff that lingers in our memories. While the discussion of motherhood remains fairly shallow in mainstream culture, a new generation of photographers are using the camera to tackle the complex and often contradictory emotions of family life.
In Ying Ang’s latest book, The Quickening: A Memoir on Matrescence, she explores her transition to motherhood, charting the shift of biological, psychological and social identity. ‘The quickening’ is a medical term used to describe the moment in pregnancy when the baby’s movements are felt for the first time – a surreal and otherworldly experience, and an apt metaphor for the destabilising sensation of motherhood. Making the project was a lifeline for the Melbourne-based photographer, who felt blindsided by the reality of motherhood, a life change still shrouded in so much mystery.