An Honest look at Motherhood and Postpartum Identity
Emily Rose Larsen
+May 14, 2019
The creation of life is violent, destructive and so common place that we are supposed to partake in the process with ease. Women are expected to suddenly cast aside who we have been and care for our children with tunnel like vision and self-sacrificial zeal. Perhaps, almost more devastating, is the unspoken understanding that society doesn’t want to hear about the traumatic transition (physically, mentally and emotionally) and the accompanying loss of self. We seem to create a specific space in the cultural dialogue for mothers and it is both removed from the everyday and harshly scrutinized. When I gave birth to my first child in 2017 I was over the moon to meet him. Within seconds of having his slippery, wet, screaming body dropped into my shaking and exhausted arms, I knew I was in for a ride. Instead of being excited to hold him and meet him I was angry. Angry that they felt I was, after hours of unmedicated labor, the most capable person to keep him from falling onto the floor. It was clear in that moment that motherhood had arrived with all its baggage. In the days ahead, as I figured out how to transform my breasts into food funnels and learned how to function with torture grade levels of sleep, a great sense of loss begun to build. I could feel my sense of self and who I understood myself to be fading away. People kept saying, “you’re a mother now,” as if everything else about me ceased to matter. And in some ways it was true, especially as my more primal instincts kicked in and I became hypersensitive to his needs. But why should this new relationship so heavily define me now and in such a heavy handed way?
We spend most of our lives developing a sense of identity. We build on it, experiment with it and change it as we grow to suit our evolving ideas. It is the lens with which we interpret our place in the world and understand how the world sees us. This new identity quickly feels more like a loss of identity as the idea of mother is projected onto you. Motherhood, for the most part, has very standardized societal expectations that women are expected to adhere to or face a never-ending onslaught of scrutiny and judgement. Motherhood is, at its core, a performance of what we have learned it is. It should come as no surprise that this struggle with postpartum identity and motherhood is a topic more and more frequently discussed by women through photography. As I began exploring motherhood in my own work, I began to seek out what other women photographers were doing on the subject as well. One of my favorite discoveries is Megan Wynne, whose work is “a critical engagement with the voice and agency of the maternal in society and taboos surrounding it.” Her work portrays various aspects of maternity and child rearing with an intimate, playful and unglamorized eye.
She often collaborates with her children to better explore the relationship between child-mother identity, which are inexplicably linked. In Third Child, for instance, we see a close crop of a naked, pregnant body whose bellies have been drawn on by a child with marker. Here the idea of mother becomes abstracted as it is used by one child to explore the idea of a future child. The body becomes an object both as an incubator and the object through which the existing child interprets the world. Wynne’s work also features a theme of older children being “born” underneath her clothes, making the point that just because they no longer need her womb, she is still an integral part of helping them grow. An excellent example of how she uses her “maternal body as a site for exploring the intense physical, emotional, and psychological interdependence of the mother-child relationship.”
Sarah Sudhoff takes a different approach in her work around motherhood in her projects Maternity Ward and Supply and Demand. In Maternity Ward, Sudhoff explores her “role as a new mother and references [her] continued dependence on medical intervention.” While experiencing an anxiety ridden pregnancy due to prior medical concerns, she staged self portraits to reveal and narrate her changing body and attitude towards the idea of motherhood. Her work often reflects a fascination with medical environments and she remained true to that by shooting in an abandoned hospital. Sudhoff interacts very differently with her environment in Maternity Ward, trading sterility, crisp light and scientific precision for dilapidation, introspection and ambiance.
In Supply and Demand she reclaims her scientific approach to the study of motherhood in her discussion of breastfeeding. She uses breast milk to serve “as both subject and a metaphor for the feelings of loss and failure that [she] and so many other mothers have experienced”. By using measuring tools to literally measure her ability or inability to produce enough milk she also engages the sense of cultural judgement so present in modern society when discussing breastfeeding and motherhood identity.
Anna Ogier-Bloomer’s work Let Down, focuses more on the day to day reality of life in the first two years of motherhood, often pointing the lens at how physical discomfort and emotional joy interact during this time. In Nursing and Peeing we get an intimate portrait of motherhood that is rarely portrayed outside of the home and unimaginable until confronted with the reality of a hungry child and a full bladder.
Simultaneously, she captures the discomfort of being a human food source as well as the love of the child-mother relationship. Ogier-Bloomer also incorporates the presence of her own mother in the work reminding us not only of her own future role as mother to an adult, but also to the importance of intergenerational support. A reminder that each mother is partly a result of the generations of mothering before her. Through her intimate images she strives to confront the unique “ways in which women feel the pull of motherhood, their children, and their physical self and appearance”. Let Down, as a body of work, is an honest exploration of the relationship between the love and dedication mothers feel towards their children and the painful side effects both on and underneath the surface.
Coping with the sudden and overwhelming demands of motherhood is difficult with no clear path to success. One of the most daunting tasks is the reality of day to day living and working. Alice Proujansky’s project Women's Work aims to tackle this very subject as she was confronted with the “sudden shift in identity” she experienced after her son was born. Proujansky’s own experiences drove the project: “I was frightened by his potential to consume me, and I struggled to maintain a separate self. So I began to photograph other working mothers negotiating their entangled identities.” The images show women pumping at work, giving birth in their homes, at work and at home with their children. Each woman depicted is living a separate story in the same book. They are making it work. They have to. Women’s Work provides a peek into the added cognitive, physical, and emotional baggage childrearing adds to a woman's life. There is still much to be said about the twists and turns of motherhood and postpartum identity. It is an issue that will persist indefinitely, but by listening to the women experiencing it we can begin to make large scale changes that can alleviate some of the unnecessary burden. And maybe start to begin to understand what “motherhood” actually means.