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How I cope with motherhood being everywhere, just not with women like me

November 2, 2013
English is impregnated with the language of motherhood.

English is impregnated with the language of motherhood.

As I’ve told you often enough by now, I’ve long since failed to have a child, preferably a boy; and in this long, sad haul through the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I find myself, with a dull ache, flinching at the maternal images that loom up at me through the rolling fog of the figurative English language, of course common in speech and writing. Not helped by the fact that I did Latin at school – so the undercover meanings even of the roots of words can suddenly, without warning, occasionally twist and turn the knife.

‘Fruitfulness’: there’s one word that does it to me. Then, in their figurative, oh-so-off-the-cuff uses, there are the words conceive, conception, concept; barren, fertile; seminal, and the verb to disseminate; impregnated, and in scientific settings, to impregnate; to nurse, to nurture; to cradle, to baby; to incubate; to bear, to carry; to mother someone, or to baby them; to brood, and of course to breed; expecting, to expect; to engender, to reproduce, to generate; generation; brainchild; to labour, and labour pains; and those failure words and phrases: abortive, to miscarry, and miscarriage, as in a miscarriage of justice. When I’m feeling weak and vulnerable and someone utters some item from this list, it’s like a silent detonation somewhere deep.

I feel pitiful confessing this, but do you know what the worst explosion can be, given my desire for a boy child? The innocent homophone ‘sun’ from someone’s lips, often taking me unawares.

But then, the imagery of motherhood is everywhere, not just in language.

Where are their disappeared children? The Madres de la Plaza Mayo, Argentina.

Where are their disappeared children? The Madres de la Plaza Mayo, Argentina.

Images from the heartbreaking stories of the mothers of Argentina, and their protest movement, the Madres de la Plaza Mayo, have haunted me ever since I heard about them. Their tragedies arose out of the coup d’etat by the military junta that deposed President Isabel Peron in 1976. Full of suspicion and mistrust, the new government was determined to eradicate – by kidnap, interrogation and torture – not just members of what it considered subversive organisations, but their friends, family and sympathisers: ‘anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life’. The covert tactics used were horrific.

First, over the years some five hundred mothers-to-be were taken from their homes or off the streets and kept alive long enough to give birth in a labour that was sometimes deliberately induced in their captivity; their babies were then taken away at once and given to families of high-ranking military officers and their associates, thereafter being brought up with no knowledge of their true identities and origins. Of course, few of these mothers ever saw them again.

Next, more than thirty thousand people were ‘disappeared’, many into some 350 concentration camps and detention centres, the majority never to be seen again. You can find just one such story at, the tale of ‘Taty’ Uranga Almeida, whose son Alejandro left the family home one day saying he’d only be a minute, and never came back.

The potency of this story of stolen motherhoods lies also, though, in what those mothers did. Forbidden from speaking out, and banned from participating in official protests, these amazing women began to gather in the vast Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to console each other over their shared losses and to compare notes, and hit on an inspired means of eloquence. They linked arms, at first in groups of two or three, and began to circuit the square in counterclockwise circles, as if promenading: there was no law against that. Gradually, their numbers grew from some thirteen women to hundreds, and their supporters, meeting and walking in the square every Thursday.

This was breaking new ground for women, mothers, in Latin America in those days. Traditionally, motherhood had been seen in Argentina as a private realm: ‘public’ women were assumed to be prostitutes, or mad; non-mothers – even anti-mothers. Now, though, they had found a new role and a new, untrodden sphere: the role of mourning mothers, demonstrating an aspect of ‘good’ motherhood within a public space.

But then the crackdowns started. These mothers began to ‘disappear’ as well. Many were detained and tortured, never to be seen again; significant numbers were killed and thrown out of planes into the sea – another image of motherhood deprived and lost that I can’t get out of my head. And yet the movement, and other such movements, thrived and survived. There is still a maternal organisation, known now as the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Of course, their sufferings put my lack of motherhood in perspective, shame me, even. But the images they have bestowed on me also now have almost the power of legend, at least for me. They speak not only of the stolen motherhoods that I feel we share but of the fact that there are always means of articulating that theft or lack, outside whatever is the ‘norm’. Because there’s one final thing they did which has really stayed with me. They sewed the names of the children they’d lost on to white baby blankets and shawls and tied them round their heads as scarves, so that as they walked they didn’t even need to speak. And so, once more, we’re back to the power of the written word.

At last childless women are finding more ways, in our society, to have a voice. Jody Day has started a fantastic online community for women childless by circumstance at The site is growing exponentially, the publicity for us women snowballing; and she’s just brought out a book,Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 weeks to your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children. In America there are equivalent sites to Gateway Women, with free subscription, at, Childless Mothers Connect and Mother without Baby.

And now, at last, I’ve got interest from a publisher in my novel about the childlessness of a woman. If the English language can sometimes sabotage us, then at least in print, we can try to sabotage it back.

The eloquence of embroidered headscarves with a difference. The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

The eloquence of embroidered headscarves with a difference. The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

  1. Paula.What a fantastic and powerful article. The connections you make resounded with as a childless mother……I have never heard about these women in Argentina. Cruelty and judgment against motherhood seems to have done a massive U turn in the last 50 years, well in West !…It reminds me of the stories of the Convents and homes here in the 50 and 60’s that took away the babies of teenage girls and unmarried mothers, many without trace..
    Our losses bind us and give us power…yes the written word is far more powerful than we realise…The internet has given the opportunity tp spread it, like never before..yet the power of those simple head scarves have the desired impact…So much so, they were deemed a threat..I look forward to reading more of you writing…Thankyou

  2. Duncan permalink

    Powerful indeed. I was deeply touched by this, Paula. I understand the new film Philomena concerns the issues Louise raises, too. My fingers are firmly crossed that your ‘interest from a publisher’ turns into the real thing.

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