Writing Motherhood Taught Me About My Emotional and Psychic Inheritance
I felt abandoned and alone. I was told that it was at odds with what mothers should feel, do feel, after childbirth.
I light a fire in your mouth and whisper: burn me.
And there we all were in the maternity ward at Park Lane Clinic, sobbing on day three.
As if there was a vacuum in her middle, something missing in her core.Gillian is a Miracle Wonder: Gillian Maclear, 2lb, 1oz at birth, sleeps contentedly in the arms of her mother, Mrs Valerie Maclear, when they left a Johannesburg nursing home yesterday. Gillian, who now weighs 5lb, 1oz, was born prematurely seven weeks ago.
And what of your baby
This isn’t him
She’d wake up Grampa Keith and tell him something terrible was on its way.
Bro, it was fucking terrifying. I was in the house, her mom’s house, and I knew something was terribly wrong. I looked around me: saw bookcases, plants; but I knew something was off, you know, I just knew.
I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. And the thing fucking stopped.And something evil filled the room.And then I was being held up by my throat in the corner of the room. And I knew, I knew. It’s not the house, bro, it’s her.
When female babies are born, they enter the world with every ovum perfectly formed inside their new ovaries. If you think about it, the potential children of a baby girl already exist inside of her. She is born carrying her possible biological descendants. And if you think about this even more, it seems possible that, in a way, her mother, who carried this child for nine months, has, in doing so, if only in their beginnings, met and kept her possible future grandchildren as well. Blood crosses the placental barrier in an exchange of cells that nourish and irrevocably change both bodies.
When I am pregnant with my son, I realize that his beginnings was in me when I was born and so in a beautiful twist, he, too, lived inside my mother. In pregnancy, she held me. She held her grandchild, just as I slowly realized, my Granny Valerie, who has existed to me only in polaroids and the faint whiff of her perfume in old clothes my mother kept, held me. These aren’t my memories, or my dreams. They enter me through my mother, as they did through her own. Loss is a bomb and I have been feeling for its heat. Hoping I could transcend the absence of Valerie and Marcia, somehow step over it to the glassy lake where my lost foremothers might have been swimming all along in characteristic poise and grace. I write the last poem in my collection and when it ends I have somehow convinced myself that I am exorcizing something of the memories that aren’t mine and in their place, summoning the flesh and love of real women. Expecting oceans, I was met instead with desert. Terrible, shimmering desert.
In writing, I wanted to fill this hollow with words. I wanted to build a cathedral where girls danced with their mamas and mamas sang them songs. I thought I could locate the genesis of this emptiness and follow its trail right back into the bellies of my foremothers. Maybe I thought I could erase their pain, at least some of it, or transport myself into their arms and be held and feel their love entering me in the warmth of their bodies and not the fond, detached gaze of family photos.
But I was writing about women in absentia. Piecing together personalities from familial myth and legend; painting with negative space and hoping it would birth portraits.
I have been writing about my son and my own motherhood, yet, unbeknownst to me, I have been trying to find the part of me that begins with one woman and the edge where I flow into another. Perhaps in defining what isn’t me I will trace an outline around the place where I might be. Where all of them are, where they still exist in me.
I was writing about my son, about myself, but as I have always done, I was unpacking emptiness, and finding that it contained centuries. Silence speaks volumes and absence can manifest a universe of joy, of pain, of inherited ghosts and intergenerational haunting.
Maybe it was my imagination, but my post-birth pain, elation, confusion—also contained a dead thing. A frightened thing. Nebulous and inorganic, it was the opposite of a seed. It contained no life. Held zero potential. And yet, there was something in this word corpse that spurred me on to write a complete poem, and then another, and another, until Milk Fever, a collection, was born.
Where will all my nothing go?
What began as poems to explore my own motherhood became a time machine I commandeered back into the murky waters of my mother, and her mother, and our line of women who have seemed, through blood or birth or coincidence, to harvest under their skins a homing beacon for haunting. How terrible this is, how strangely perfect, too? Parts ancestral, paranormal, biological.
Haunted, afflicted, addicted, yes, but how my foremothers loved and were loved in turn. These women who I call my own. These women who bore me, and continue to do so.
Where will all my nothing go?
Onwards, forwards, in blood and teaching and words. In the ways that I am able to send it on, because the nothingness, the emptiness, was never anything to be afraid of. Our earth was formed in the belly of darkness, in a universe black with night. Beneath the earth, seeds germinate in damp night, and break through the ground to receive the sun. Humans, like other mammals, grow round and warm in our mother’s wombs: a place of no sight, the place before.
The universe sprang forth from nothing. As do we. Each living creature echoes these patterns of creation, birthed from emptiness into a world of beauty and grit and gore. Maybe all we can do to survive whatever private afflictions are ours, whichever ghosts we inherit, whichever monster haunts our nights, is to honor the life-giving hollow. Flame, serpent, beast. Let it swallow us, and all our beautiful monsters. •
A version of this essay originally appeared in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.
Megan Ross was born in Johannesburg in 1989. She is a writer, journalist and designer. She has won the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction as well as the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. Her first book, a collection of poems called Milk Fever, was published by uHlanga earlier this year to critical acclaim. Megan lives in East London (South Africa) with her partner and son, and is working on her first novel.