Nollaig na mBhan, or Women’s Christmas, occurs on the 6th of January, when women across Ireland traditionally gather in homes and pubs for a little festive cheer. We gather around a table strewn with drinks and dark chocolate salted caramels in a pub on Main Street. Ten women, all in their forties. Some are artists, others have artistic aspirations. I’m not sure which camp I’m in. Most of the women are mothers. I meet Avril, who admires my earrings, tiny snakes, while we stand at the bar. She looks like something out of The Fifth Element: electric blue-dyed bob and metal collar, tall and lean in her slinky satin dress and short black faux-fur coat. Trailing the hothouse scent of jasmine oil and drawing the eye with her extravagant gestures and strong Cockney accent. The women shift around her uneasily.
The husband, later: “She’s dangerous.” Her ex was our neighbour, who used to deal drugs to the clientele of the pub across the road (the pub we were in), until he was jailed for several years. She has three children. One is shy and studious, another has gone the way of his father, and the youngest one she left behind once in our pub and no one could reach her, so her neighbour had to take him in. The neighbours, I’m told, look after her children. The mother-in-law says she’s a mad one, “off her head on drugs.” She doesn’t care what other people in this small town think about her. Maybe she can do so because she’s protected by her beauty, sensuality, and appetite for novelty.
Of late, I’ve been reading about motherhood. Terrible mothers: Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar and K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary. Women who want to become mothers: Meiko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. Women who refuse to become mothers: Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind. Women who chafe at or altogether reject the bounds of conventional motherhood: Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch and Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. Avril’s “dangerous” because she’s a terrible mother; defying the social norms of motherhood, she’s “monstrous”.
The Life of the Mind starts, ironically, with the main character on the toilet shitting and miscarrying during a medical abortion. On the cover: detail of Elisabetta Sirani’s Portia Wounding her Thigh, painted in 1664. From an online description of the painting: “This was a political painting for Sirani, meant to show the lengths women must go to in order to be taken seriously.”
In Nightbitch the main character is an artist and a mother; in both capacities she is frustrated. “Now the mother did not want another thing needing her, needing to be cuddled, fed, washed, cooed at, and doted over. Now she wanted only silence and not be touched.”
In the same week I read these sentences, I watched Desperately Seeking Susan. I'm fascinated by the Susan character: sly, insolent, confident in her powers of charisma and manipulation. Of course we sympathise more with yearning "every woman" Roberta Glass, but wouldn’t you like to be Susan, if only for a day? She’s almost mythological, like Athena emerging fully formed, already a goddess, the sole possessor of her undeniable powers. Untouchable.