Surprising Delight: Pragya Agarwal on (m)othering

The Demented Goddess [DG]: Pragya, why the parenthesis in the title of your book, (M)otherhood? Is motherhood an otherly state of being?

The book is about the otherhood in motherhood, the states that we often feel as a separation from our own self when we become mothers. Sometimes the way we are perceived and treated by others, it’s as we have become others, seen as a faceless homogenous mass.

It is also the otherhood of those who do not lie within the narrow limits that society sets on women and mothers, those who do not fit the idealised notions of bodies, those who lie at the fringes of society due to their state of otherness, in terms of sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, and so on, and those who choose not to be mothers. I wanted to draw attention to these states of otherness through my book, to say that motherhood (and mothering), and womanhood, although it is treated as a homogenised experience, it is not so. It is very different for those who are already othered because mothering for them is fraught with anxieties and any choices they have on offer and are able to make are also situated in their specific contexts. It is also to say that any discourse about motherhood has to be intersectional, and that motherhood does not have to be othering from ourselves, that it does not have to come at the cost of our own selves. It is also to say that women cannot be defined by their identities as mothers, and whether they choose motherhood or not.

DG: In the opening to your book, you write that it’s tricky to write a memoir, since there is no single, defining self. You speak of “the selves we have misplaced along the way.” Were there any selves you feared losing, when considering motherhood?

Of course, yes. All the time. There is this deep fear of losing myself in mothering. I know because I have done this. I let myself be subsumed by motherhood, believing that it has to come at the cost of my own self, that I cannot be a good mother, a perfect mother until I sacrificed myself and my own interests. This is often what we saw modelled in our mothers, and other women in the family. This is often what we were told motherhood involved. `And so we start believing in this model of motherhood.

The first time, it all happened so suddenly, I was so very young that I did not have time to consider the loss of any self, and so it all came as a shock, at how much society expected from me, and how much I expected from myself. I put all the pressure on myself, and overcompensated for all the guilt by punishing myself. But then there will always be selves we lose along the way as we grow older, as we change and evolve. And as we take on any new roles, across space and time. And this is ok too. It is ok to shed skins, parts of ourselves to grow into new versions of ourselves, ones that we are more comfortable and at ease with. All the losses do not have to come with fear. If we don’t change, how do we create space for new experiences?

DG: In the book, you discuss the medical language that demeans a woman’s body and crushes the spirit. Women are commonly told, for example, that we have an “inhospitable uterus” or “incompetent cervix.” What language or art, in any genre, about motherhood do you find most comradely, and why?

Language is situated in our societal biases and in turn reinforces existing biases and creates new prejudices. I have included many poems in my book that really resonated with me as a writer and a mother, these dualities that I vacillate between.

Sylvia Plath is one of these many writers who gave a lot of solace when I was feeling alienated in my own body, carrying the burden of infertility through to the sleepless mornings and nights tending to newborns, where you feel that even a little whimper is an urgent demand.

For instance, Sylvia Plath writes in her poem ‘The Disquieting Muses’, an allegory to the painting of the same name by the metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico, of women whose ‘arms frame a bulging stomach hollowed out by a shadowed void’ and are ‘mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head’. I felt like one of these maternal effigies, these forlorn figures, collecting together in a barren landscape of maternal desire, hollow-wombed and inhumanely mutilated, stitched together into some sort of mutated notion of femininity.

I also find Louise Bourgeois’ art very comforting in the way she represents womanhood and femininity. I talk about one of the prints of her paintings that I bought from MOMA in New York in (M)otherhood.

Pragya’s print by Louise Bourgeois: “the rage, fear and frustration; the dehumanising facelessless that makes individuation impossible.”

It is from a series called Femme Maison done in oils and inks around 1946. In this a woman is depicted with a house instead of her head and upper part of the body but exposing her genitals to all. Much like most of Bourgeois’s work, it is sensuous and provocative, as well as gruesome. I often sit quietly and stare at this image of a woman who seems trapped within her body, which can be both a refuge from the outside world and a trap that is difficult to escape from. It is admittedly a bizarre choice of art to look at every day. It evokes such an intense feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia in this seemingly simple and naïve image: the rage, fear and frustration associated with being a woman so palpable in these lines and formless forms; the dehumanising facelessness that makes individuation impossible. I also recently created an Instagram account ‘motherhood_otherhood’ where I share some of these artworks that say something to me about the common but also the very specific individual experiences of being a woman, and a mother.

DG: Reflecting on your challenging and often literally bloody road to having your twins, you write interestingly on how the deification of motherhood seeks to diminish women’s suffering. We’re encouraged to think that if we’re ‘real’ women and mothers, we should pop out babies without any prolonged fuss. At the same time, you make an important point about how even privileged women, with access to abortion, tech, and fertility tests, lack a true affinity with our bodies. What physical discoveries about yourself, post-birth, have you found to be surprising or enjoyable?

I think that as I have grown older, I have become more aware of my own body’s distinctiveness, as well as its limitations. We become aware of how strong our bodies are, whether we give birth or not, but in raising children, in going through sleepless days and nights, in staying calm when the force of tantrum from a toddler hits in unexpected ways.

I have become calmer in a lot of ways, more patient, more creative, more flexible and adaptable to the chaos in my life. Our bodies are marvellous things. And, it is the most enjoyable discovery when we become more attuned to the rhythms of our own bodies, at ease with the bumps and curves, with the lines and warts. We look at ourselves in the mirror and find surprising delight in what we see, rather than berate ourselves because we don’t fit some notion of idealised beauty that society tells us to conform to. I see lines around my eyes because I have laughed and giggled, crinkles around my nose that I see reflected back in my children, and I see my mother’s and my father’s face in mine, and I see this thread running through generations from me to my children. And this gives me joy.

Main picture from a portrait of Pragya by Simon Songhurst

Pragya was talking to our editor, Soma Ghosh.

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