Not in front of the men

MOTHERHOOD: From 1920 to the Present Day ed Vivien Devlin, Polygon pounds 11.99
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IN the Church of England's service for the Churching of Women, a now rarely-performed thanksgiving after childbirth, the priest reads a powerful verse from the 116th Psalm: "The snares of death compassed me round about: the pains of hell gat hold of me. I found trouble and heaviness, and I called upon the name of the Lord: 0 Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul." Its use by the compilers of the Prayer Book was inspired: it is such an apposite evocation of the second stage of labour. In truth, only the context makes it so, as the psalm itself (cleverly edited just before the verse where the gender of the speaker - male of course - is revealed) is a song of deliverance from an unspecified peril, probably war.

On the evidence of this new book of oral histories, mothers themselves seem to have difficulty in reaching anything like the Prayer Book's level of eloquence when writing about the defining experience of their lives, and this remains something of a puzzle. Writers, both male and female, generally steer clear of the subjects of childbirth and the hallowed mother- child relationship. Even feminist writers bravely trying to colonise this dark corner of human experience find it hard to avoid becoming mawkish. Rhetoric won't adhere to it; language hardly does, and there is no moral involved. Labour itself may be intensely dramatic and dangerous, but once survived, seems oddly irrelevant. Even to the mother, in retrospect, her time in extremis becomes somehow unbelievable, both too extraordinary and too commonplace to put into words.

Vivien Devlin has attempted to bypass this artistic problem by allowing almost free rein to about 150 "ordinary" mothers, between the ages of 15 and 93, to relate their experience of motherhood. The results are interesting, but garrulous and diffuse, and Devlin intersperses their testimonies with quotes from novels and memoirs by professional writers, not necessarily mothers. As with the stories which Margaret Atwood says her mother "does not tell when there are men present", these monologues are at their most effective when stark and factual, at their worst when rambling on about laundry and baby foods. There are some striking descriptions; an episiotomy: "no one ever told me that cutting me would sound like cutting liver for the cat"; a child born into a toilet: "It was retrieved in time"; a midwife's recollections of home-births in the Gorbals during the 1930s, and the woman who didn't like to disturb her nervous husband on their way to hospital with the news that "[the baby] had been born and was inside my dungarees". All this is in the great tradition of childbed horror with which mothers have been amusing themselves and alarming others for centuries.

The questionnaire Vivien Devlin used as the basis of her research ranges across all aspects of family life, and though this dilutes the material rather too far, an intriguing, if depressing, picture builds up of how the sexual revolution has affected women with children. The resentment and aggression of the older generation towards the younger is striking: modern mothers are wasteful, spoilt, neglectful, lack endurance and sit down too much during pregnancy. They don't have to tolerate bad marriages or unwanted pregnancies and expect not to have their careers disrupted by having a family.

The younger women, the so-called have-it-all generation, harp on in turn about the stresses and guilt of modern mothers, the lack of community support and the feeling that their children, for all the money and attention spent on them, are on the whole "very discontented". Unfortunately, no single example promises a fail-safe formula for happiness. "To be a woman is to have to do without," says one 50-year old. "Whether she does without children, a job or a husband is her choice, but to keep everything on track requires vast amounts of energy and cash, most of which we simply do not have."

More editing and analysis might have clarified the mass of wider social questions raised by the book, without damage to its essentially documentary purpose. In the meantime, motherhood remains firmly on the margins of intellectual life, its message presented by means of "women's voices" segregated from the "real" writers, sub-literary and easily forgotten.