Looking at the work of photographer Ana Casas Broda, poet Muriel Rukeyser and musician Sherri Dupree-Bemis, Toni Roberts considers night from the perspectives of mothers, reflecting on their nocturnal experiences and reveries.
We’re frequently told there’s nothing more intrinsically linked to womanhood than motherhood. There’s often talk of biological clocks ticking, the unconditional love you feel for your child when it’s born, and the precarious line women must tread between having a career and raising a family. Women who assert that they never want to be mothers are told they’ll change their mind or they haven’t found the right person to settle down with yet, and women who, for whatever reason, are unable to have children sometimes feel less of a woman. There are many stories about women struggling for years with IVF, which is often crippling and heart-breaking. Although the childfree movement has been gaining traction in recent years, being a mother is still seen as very much an ideal and an aspiration for many women.
Yet, motherhood isn’t easy. It’s tiring, stressful and often talked about in terms of a full-time job. And it’s true: children do need to be looked after at all times of the day and night. The darkness is no longer a period of rest and recuperation for new mothers, but an extension of the daytime routine. This 24-hour occupation is presented starkly and honestly in Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, ‘Night Feeding‘ (1958), Ana Casas Broda’s photography series, Kinderwunsch (2010) and Eisley’s song Louder than a Lion (2017).
Babies are always hungry, it seems, crying for milk on demand 24/7. Speaking to my older sister about her late-night experiences as a new mother, she told me that babies cry for milk every few hours throughout the night. She has three children and her firstborn was breastfed, which she says was harder because you can’t gauge how much milk the baby is getting, so they cry more often. Milk features in various photographs in Kinderwunsch: it leaks from Casas Broda’s breast, her two sons bathe in it and the face of one of her sons is doused in it: here, milk acts as a symbol of motherhood.
Rukeyser’s poem, Night Feeding, also focuses on the act of breastfeeding during the dark hours – evoked with references to darkness: ‘black sleeps’, ‘black in the morning dark’, ‘shadows grew in my veins’. This gloom, representing unconsciousness, contrasts with the conscious, daylight signifying gold that burns. She begins the poem in a state ‘deeper than sleep but not so deep as death’. This first stanza is dream-like, with the narrator moving in and out of acts of remembering and forgetting: ‘[…] On first cry I/ remembered and forgot’. To my mind, this act of remembering and forgetting is linked to the movement in and out of consciousness and the sleeping pattern of new mothers. Your baby cries for milk and you know you must get up to feed it. But maybe your tiredness is so great that you start to drift off again, forgetting along the way. For mothers, the nights are a time of flux, moving in and out of sleep and wakefulness; being aware and unaware. These constant shifts and the cyclical nature of the night – waking up, going to sleep, and then waking up again – is summed up in the final line of the poem: ‘deep as this hour, ready again to sleep.’ After the night’s feeding, the baby and its mother are ready to go back to sleep until hunger wakes them both again.
Some of the most striking and arresting photographs in Kinderwunsch (a German word meaning ‘desire to have children’) are the ones in which Casas Broda sleeps on one of her children’s beds while they play together with their toys and books; or those where she lies asleep behind one of her sons on a bed or a sofa as he sits playing video games (see feature image above). These photographs are dim, depicting night-time settings with light illuminating the bodies of the subjects (a departure from her previous black-and-white work). These images illustrate the exhausting nature of motherhood. The artist takes the opportunity to get the rest she needs while her children are occupied. By including herself in these images (using a remote control to operate the camera), the artist seeks to explore her identity as a mother and a woman.
Many of the photographs in this series show Casas Broda naked. We see how her body changes through pregnancy and after childbirth. She is unflinching in her portrayal of the transformation of the female body and all the things that come with being a mother: tiredness, hormones, anxiety. In a 2015 interview, Casas Broda highlights the fact that there has been little work in photography that focuses on the theme of motherhood. Indeed, at first, her photographs were rejected for being “too real” and “too explicit”. This saddens me, as it shows the taboo that still surrounds the depiction of the female form. There is nothing sexual about the photographs in Kinderwunsch. Although they depict nudity of both the artist and her sons, the pictures simply reflect the subject’s reality. These images are beautifully human and instantly relatable to anyone who has gone through childbirth or been close to someone who has.
For Eisley vocalist and guitarist, Sherri DuPree-Bemis, the nights are fraught with dark loneliness. She struggles with sleep anxiety and has done for many years. The song Louder than a Lion (from the album I’m Only Dreaming) is a love letter to her two daughters, letting them know that they can sleep safely because she will always be awake to watch over them. The song begins on a tender note: ‘Honey baby sleep tight/ Sleep tight/ Baby, precious, those bugs won’t bite’. The great unknown that is the night causes the wonderfully flexible imaginations of children to create monsters, ghouls and demons that dwell in the shadows, waiting to grab you with spindly fingers. Sherri uses the chorus to assert her strength at being ‘louder than a lion’ – an animal associated with dominance and ferociousness – and able to protect her children from the scary creatures their young minds might invent: ‘My hands wipe out the ghosts’. If it’s the darkness that causes fear, then a way to eliminate it would be to introduce light. Sherri reimagines herself as a kind of shining, light-emitting being who is ‘brighter than a diamond’ and whose ‘light will shine the most’. With the second verse, the songwriter shows her daughters she will be there through the good and the bad: ‘If you want to fly we’re able/ If you want to flee I’m stable’. DuPree-Bemis’ soft, lilting voice creates a bedtime lullaby her daughters can drift off to.
My sister describes night-time with a new baby as “sleeping with one eye open”. The instinct to check on the infant and to watch it while it sleeps (an anxiety my mother shares with Dupree-Bemis and arguably many other women) is captured exquisitely in one of Casas Broda’s very moving photographs from her series. The camera looks down from above on the artist and her children on a bed. She sits watching her oldest son, Martín, as he sleeps while a sleeping Lucio (her youngest son) touches his mother’s foot with his hand. The night’s darkness and the deep red of the pillows, duvet and sheet, create the feeling of being in the warm, safe insides of the body – as if we have been transported into the cosy confines of Casas Broda’s womb. The children are safe from whatever fear the night provokes because they have their mother watching over them and ready to protect them when need be. The setting, the colour and the figure of the mother reflect the night in its comforting form, where you crawl into bed and snuggle up, ready for a good night’s sleep.
With the second stanza of Night Feeding comes the second cry of the narrator’s child, which wakes her fully. Although tiring, breastfeeding is a highly rewarding experience – as my mother tells me. It brings you closer to your baby and gives you a sense of accomplishment. We can see this sentiment in the line: ‘[…] and gave to feed and fed on feeding.’ Here, Rukeyser is gaining something from feeding her baby. Whether this is the sense of closeness and accomplishment my mother described or the creative inspiration that caused her to write this poem, it’s as though the mere act of giving to her child is sustaining her.
These three women, through words, photography and music, have captured the fraught, loving and ever-changing nature of motherhood during nights that seem painfully long. Like Casas Broda, Rukeyser noted the lack of exploration of the theme of motherhood in literature, even calling it taboo. To break this ‘silence’, she wrote about childbirth and motherhood frequently in her work. She was an important part of the second-wave feminist movement in 1960s and 70s America, mentoring many young female poets and dealing with political issues in her work. She, together with Casas Broder and DuPree-Bremis, has presented the night as a feminist space, a time to explore her motherhood and womanhood, a zone to connect with the needs of her baby and her own.
About Toni Roberts
Toni Roberts is a writer from and based in London. She primarily writes plays and had a short play performed as part of The Platform at The Bread & Roses Theatre, which ran on 23rd and 24th February 2020. She studied English Language and Spanish at the University of Westminster where she first got into playwriting and has recently expanded her writing range to include poetry and essays. Follow Toni on Twitter @tonihroberts and on Instagram @toniroberts
This piece has been commissioned as part of a mini series, Women of the Night, conceived and written by Toni Roberts
Night has many associations: death, darkness, horror, the supernatural, secrecy, discos, drunkenness, dancing, disorder and dreams. But it is also a time and space associated with women; throughout history, in myth, legend and the everyday, women have looked to night for liberation, even at the risk of incurring violence towards themselves. From nocturnal revels to sex work to Wiccan rituals in a moon-lit forest, women have worked, suffered, triumphed and plotted well into the dead hours of the night. In this mini-series, I will explore women’s relationship to the shifts and changes, turns and oscillations of night, as depicted in film, theatre, visual art, literature and music. Including works by the likes of the playwright Federico García Lorca, the photographer Ana Casa Broda, the poet Muriel Rukeyser and many more, my personal essays will reflect on the role night plays in women’s lives and how, in turn, their lives shape and inform our conception of what night is and could be.
This mini-series is part of our theme Night / Shift, which will be open for submissions until the end of November.
Feature images by Ana Casas Broda, from her series Kinderwunsch (2010).