Blood, tears, boredom, rage, regret… “There is,” says photographer Diana Karklin, “a B-side to the story of motherhood that is rarely talked about.”
After centuries of being either ignored or romanticised in art, recent years have brought an upsurge in visual representations of motherhood from a female perspective – Elinor Carucci’s 2013 series Mother or Carmen Winant’s My Birth in 2018, for example. In public discourse, whispered conversations about the decision of whether or not to become a mother have become louder too. This is due in part to novels such as Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Maternal regret, however, remains a largely taboo subject.
Karklin’s latest book, Undo Motherhood, published by Schilt, weaves together stories of seven women from seven countries who each wish they could take back the decision to have children. Here, she talks to BJP about what leads women to feel entrapped by the lives they have created.
How did you meet the women in the book? Was it difficult given this is a taboo topic?
Different ways – from a friend’s suggestion to research across anonymous forums on the internet. You wouldn’t believe how many mothers feel like this! Apart from regret, I was looking for specific profiles of stories and had a list of countries. I was keen to highlight that these women do not regret their children as such, they regret that they had signed up for a job which has robbed them of their own existence. Ironically, they are excellent mothers and adore their children, but if they could, they wouldn’t choose to be mothers again in the same conditions.
You use an array of visual strategies alongside text. What did you seek to portray?
I use my images – discussed with the mothers – and their direct testimonies as two different languages. I combined them to create a narrative divided into seven chapters, each built around one main feeling that prevails in this mother’s life – fear, isolation, exhaustion, resignation, anger, guilt and acceptance. I included blank space and silence in between these for readers to reflect and draw their own conclusions. I used documentary-style photography, the only appropriate way to talk about this subject in my opinion. I wanted to be invisible and serve as a vehicle for my protagonists to express themselves and their realities.
“There would be fewer exhausted and unhappy mothers if fathers did their half of the job properly”
Many of the women survived domestic violence or pressure from pro-life authority figures. Are patriarchal expectations of motherhood the root problem?
Of course, there are women who even in the best conditions and with a fully involved second parent would still regret their decision. But in my research they are a minority. Most feel regret because they were either pressured into motherhood or abandoned in this role. It was the US writer and feminist Adrienne Rich in the 1970s who first made the distinction between motherhood as a human relationship and motherhood as an institution in her groundbreaking book Of Woman Born. Her idea was that as much as motherhood means a love-based bond with your child, it is also a conservative oppressive ideology with moral rules that prescribe how you must feel, think and behave. Nonconformity is punished by society.
Fathers do not feature much. What did you conclude from that?
Women are still expected to be caregivers and men breadwinners, but most women today also want to work. So, either they end up with second shifts at home or give up their jobs and lives altogether. The problem is women have had their revolution, but men have not. They continue to protect their privileged position without realising that they too are socialised according to rigid gender roles which don’t allow them to fulfil their human potential and explore their nurturing side. I want people to ask: where is the father? There would be fewer exhausted and unhappy mothers if fathers did their half of the job properly.
There is such limited cultural exploration of motherhood, which is shocking given that women are half the population. How did you relate to prior visual representations of mothers?
Undo Motherhood is meant to undermine the highly idealised imagery of normative motherhood. The special edition of the book contains a handmade pop-up created out of stock images of pregnancy and motherhood widely used in ads and media. This is my only – sarcastic – statement as an author in this project. If people see only this representation, they get a false idea of what it means to raise a child. I see these images as a contemporary version of age-old male fantasies about motherhood, starting with depictions of the Virgin Mary, an image I hate. It’s great to see more and more female photographers showing motherhood as it is – a complex, multilayered human experience.
Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in photography and visual culture, for art magazines, book publishers, national press, awards, agencies and brands. Since 2018, she’s been contributing editor for the Royal Photographic Society Journal, is a regular writer for Aesthetica and author of Unseen London, published by Hoxton Mini Press.