Elspeth feels cheated. No-one warned her that she would no longer recognise herself: physically, mentally, and in every other way too. She looks in the mirror and wonders who that person is with pale skin and massive purple globs under her eyes; lank and greasy hair; and a body that still looks six months pregnant months after birth.
I should admit that I come to this story as someone who is about to have their first child. My son-or-daughter (we don’t know!) is due to arrive in less than two weeks. I’m not a woman, so childbirth and breastfeeding are not immediate personal concerns, but I am anxious about the upcoming challenges my wife will face, and I want to be as participatory as I can.
This story echoes so much of the worries that came from the antenatal classes I recently attended, at times word for word. The sense of true feeling here is strong. I have heard women – my wife – vocalise the thoughts that Elspeth shares with the reader. This reads true.
Elspeth comes across as an everywoman which is, somewhat ironically, exactly who she does not want to come across as. Rather than have everyone’s experience, she wants to be herself, Elspeth, an identity and a person, but instead she is a feeding machine for a baby, endlessly tired, with nothing to say to anyone except endless words about the child. She’s lost herself.
This is a very short story, less than a thousand words, but it carries a lot of emotional weight. In it, Elspeth, 22, young, newly entered into a relationship, is giving and has given birth, and her world changes. Of course, of course, she knew it would, she was told it would, but the experiencing of it is something else. The father is with her, but there is another man, the ‘one that got away’, and she wishes he was the father. And she at times dislikes the baby. And she struggles with hating herself. All things you mustn’t do, but she does them.
You must not tell the mother-to-be that there will be days when she regrets her decision.
What is the measure of a woman? Is it their ability to raise a child when very young? Elspeth wonders. She feels inadequate and weak, though she’s trying hard. Besley’s use of italicised admonitions through the text reinforce this exceptionally well, and she was restrained enough, and clever enough, to avoid ending the piece with one of those sentences. Instead, they offer criticism of the character and the text, and highlight (one of) the struggles of early parenthood.
This is a strong story. In attempting to unpack it, I must of course examine my own current life state. I expect that it resonates strongly because I have been, and am, concerned for my wife, and how she will be when the child is born. She has over a year away from work, which on the one hand is positive, but on the other – what happens to her adult identity How can the two of us remember to be lovers, friends, companions, partners? It’s easy now to say that we will, but what, exactly, will happen?
Eslpeth is a sensitively drawn young woman who is self-aware enough to regret the life she has left without succumbing to the depression of admitting that that life will ever return. She’s committed to her child, though less committed to herself, and her thoughts, though raw, are about what we would expect from a new mother. Everything is new and wrong, and she’s working hard to make it right.
The Motherhood Contract is a short story by British writer Laura Besley You can read the story online at Ellipsis Zine.
|Title||The Motherhood Contract|
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