. . .
I was taught to doubt that motherhood is as hydra-headed and worthy of investigation as Barton paints it to be. A decade ago, genetic testing revealed my damaged BRCA gene, and my breast tissue was completely removed to pre-empt hereditary cancer. That story was briefly novel, and the media wanted it. Tell me, they said, and the story of my breasts gave way to discussions about women and power, about bodies and beauty. Come again! said the television network, the radio station, the newspapers; and I did. After many years and a baby, I was still talking and writing about women: about dysfunction, dysmorphia, double standards and damaging ideas. Come again! But then a piece I pitch on motherhood is rejected, and I hear the awkward half-beat of embarrassment for me in the slow reply. Motherhood! We already have one or two of these. It’s not really ‘big’ enough. It’s not who we are. The shame of it hits me. Of course. I’ve decided motherhood is interesting just because it’s happened to me – I won’t make this mistake again.
I’m pregnant for the second time when I take my five-year-old to see Del Kathryn Barton’s exhibition in Melbourne. She thinks it’s beautiful and ugly and colourful and crazy and much bigger than things are in the For Real. She is especially impressed and confounded by women depicted with multiple breasts. Mama, that lady has six babies, is her whispered conclusion: one, two, three, four, five, six. I lack the language to tell her that her own mother once created six concurrently lactating breasts, and that such incredible things only make sense to me here in this exhibition, with a high-priestess of womanhood translating and officiating. My breast tissue was donated to scientific research. One day at a fundraising breakfast, I met the woman who had grafted my tissue into mother mice, who then lactated with the human breast milk specific to me. My own six breasts streaming the cosmic honey once meant for the little girl in front of me, for whom such interspecies-Frankenscience lactation could only be as awesome and unsettling as any of the plain facts of motherhood.
In my pregnant self, the delicate pattern of a new woman emerging from the 3D printer of my womb is forming miniature organs and bones, improbably small and accurate like blown-glass teaching specimens, starting from a single cell of mine that was created in the late 1970s. And though she does not technically exist, my second daughter’s unique cells have already travelled the bloodwash- superhighway of pregnancy to my brain in order to lodge there permanently, where they will continue to grow for the rest of my life. Every mother lives as a literal, cellular chimera of all of her infants, born or not, colonising her brain. Yet there’s a sense that there’s only room for one book about pregnancy, one book about motherhood, one article. Like it’s a community service to discuss it, an indulgent pandering to a minority’s shrill entreaty to be seen and heard.
. . .
I carry The Uterus Tapes into my birth suite but don’t get a chance to play them amid the breathlessly fast delivery. Even though I have been here before, I can only understand again that you cannot prepare – it’s like learning about fire from static images and wiki-stubs and reportage, and then finding yourself in the middle of a pyre ablaze. The flames, the flames. I die, she’s born; I slowly reanimate. A minor miracle: like some kind of stigmata or weeping Virgin, my new daughter’s perfect miniature nipples express milk, pure and small as dew drops, during the first month of her life. This is common to babies. She can barely see, but she can create life-giving elixir as a result of deep-soaking for many moons in the hormonal tide of re-creation. The special ability fades as quickly as she grows, in days, like the precious dust falling from a moth’s wings.
Why don’t women catalogue these miracles, broadcast our extraordinary abilities, resurrect the ancient altars to the feminine? How did the galactic energy of motherhood become the pastel bed skirt of modern Western culture? Our sex continues to lag, it’s said, because we continue to put ourselves last; we are ‘too accommodating’. It’s true. Women are accommodating. We literally accommodate you. Everyone is here because a woman they did not know agreed to house them in her own body, next to and at risk of the most sacred and precious and vital of her own organs. Why isn’t that a bigger story? We accommodate you. We accommodated you. There’s a guest book. It’s worth writing in.
Mini Monographs series, including volumes on Del Kathryn Barton and Polixeni Papapetrou are published by Thames & Hudson Australia. They are available for $29.95 online, or at all good bookstores.