On the Threshold of My Being – Border Autobiographies of Motherhood: A Dialogue Between Feminist Theory and Creative Writing

Souhir Zekri

Motherhood can take various forms and shapes, it is the state of being a mother, the spirit of a mother. It is what a mother is, what she does, a status-quo of constant mutations. Maternity, on the other hand, is more concrete as it may represent the space devoted to the care of women who give birth and of their newborns. Such practical terms as maternity clothes and maternity- leave belong to the everyday, they are not questioned or wondered at. But when and where does motherhood start? Does it ever end? Is motherhood an essence or a construct? My contention is that it is located on the threshold of a woman’s being. The threshold is an in-between space, it is the sill of a doorway which allows access to a hospitable or hostile world, it is a place of entering and beginning. Its second meaning is the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to produce an effect, the effect I’m aiming to focus on is pain, the threshold of pain or the amount of pain a mother can endure, before, during or after childbirth. How and why is pain linked to motherhood? Why has it overwhelmed its very definition? Is it physical, psychical or socially and culturally institutionalized? Like a mother’s guilt, her devotion, her self-abnegation?

Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Adrienne Rich, among other feminists, attempted to provide definitions of motherhood, both as a personal experience and an institution, through socio-historical surveys but also using the autobiographical genre. What ignited my interest in this issue was Margaret Bruzelius’s article, entitled “Mother’s pain, Mother’s voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva and the Mater Dolorosa”, in which the critic claims that these feminist critics could not validate motherhood without systematically associating it with pain and suffering, thus destroying the credibility of their discourse by submitting it to the by now obsolete aspect of the Virgin Mary as the sorrowful mother or the Mater Dolorosa. In this paper, I would like to contend that Bruzelius’s argument is not completely true as motherhood is defined by pain simply because not only is it physically painful to give birth, but also psychically painful to become a mother. This paper is thus divided into three sections: the first one focuses on two intertwined concepts of motherhood: “Mater Dolorosa” as defined in Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex, and Julia Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater” in her essay which bears the same title. The second section will present a brief overview of “personal criticism” in order to clarify the structure and themes of Kristeva’s essay. The third section of the paper will put these aspects of Kristeva’s essay into practice/perspective through my own personal critical and creative response to the latter’s text relying on the concept of the “threshold”. Three motherhood narratives will be presented through an attempt at Plato’s “Maieutic” technique and will be entitled: “threshold of flesh”, “threshold of culture and nature” and “threshold of pain”. The choice of Plato’s technique is based on the definition of maieutics from the Greek “maieutikê” and its dual meaning of the “art of delivery” of maternal bodies and the art of delivery of the spirit/mind.

Motherhood and The Virgin Mary: two inextricable symbols

FLASH – an instant of time or of a dream without time; inordinately swollen atoms of a bond, a vision, a shiver, a yet formless, unnameable embryo. Epiphanies. Photos of what is not yet visible and that language necessarily skims over from afar, allusively. Words that are always too distant, too abstract for this underground swarming of seconds, folding in unimaginable spaces … Let a body venture at last out of its shelter, take a chance with meaning under a veil of words. WORD FLESH.

The previous quotation from Kristeva’s text is an abstract description of a concrete event: human fertilization and the creation of the embryo. Note the final phrase: “Word flesh” as language is flesh, fleshed out and made concrete, physical. This quotation paves the way for physicality and its borders, which this paper will explore in relation to motherhood. Giovanni Bellini’s painting entitled “Pietà” (Italian for pity) portrays the Virgin Mary as she weeps and laments over the dead body of her son after his Crucifixion. In Alone of All Her Sex, Marina Warner meticulously informs the historical and religious roots of the mythology and iconography surrounding the “mother of God”. The book is divided into Mary’s different roles throughout history, not only as a virgin, intercessor, queen, and bride but also as a mother. I will briefly introduce the chapter entitled “Mater Dolorosa” which the painting represents. This cult started in some European countries and in England at the end of the 11th c. It developed and acquired more significance with the outbreak of the plague in the fourteenth century, also called “The Black Death”, because it was thought to be a punishment from God. A wave of “penitential fever”(214-15) ensued and the cult of the Mater Dolorosa gradually moved from “popular fervour towards official recognition”(219). Mary shares the lot and sorrows of the common people and thus becomes at once an increasingly “approachable”, accessible figure and a symbolic idealization of sorrowful mothers who are defined by their suffering for their offspring. In Sexual Subversions, Elizabeth Grosz explains: “She is the receptacle of those socially necessary attributes- humility, self-abnegation, modesty-which are marks of compliance ensuring acceptance of the status quo amongst the oppressed and downtrodden. On the other hand, she also evokes an archaic, primal shelter, the protective maternal harbour.”(83)

Originating in the “Mater Dolorosa” is Stabat Mater, a Latin hymn about the sorrow of the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion. Turned into music by many composers such as Rossini and Pergolesi, its first words are “Stabat mater dolorosa” that is “Stood the Mother, full of grief”. Inspired by this hymn, Julia Kristeva’s text was first published as “Hérethique de l’amour” in Tel Quel (1977), then as “Stabat Mater” in Histoires d’amour (1983). This essay is still pertinent as a feminist issue for two main reasons: its visual organization into two different texts which coexist on the same page. The second reason is related to the different genres to which these two texts belong: one is a psycho-social study of the cult of the Virgin and its influence on Catholic and Western views of motherhood, the other is an autobiographical essay on Kristeva’s own experience of motherhood. The generic border of theory and autobiography, as well as Kristeva’s own private and public border, are continually crossed and re-crossed by the reader.

Kristeva’s fragmented, intimate testimony of her own tragi-sensual experience of childbirth and motherhood is contrasted to one of the most powerful symbols created by Christianity; that is the humanized and humble Virgin mother who “knows she is destined to that eternity (of the spirit or of the species), of which every mother is unconsciously aware, and with regard to which maternal devotion or even sacrifice is but an insignificant price to pay. A price that is borne all the more easily since, contrasted with the love that binds a mother to her son, all other ‘human relationships’ burst like blatant shams.” Kristeva’s autobiographical discourse, however, is not limited to the pain and suffering of childbirth, as she also describes her son in a more positive light which further reinforces the paradox of being a mother “I hover with feet firmly planted on the ground in order to carry him, sure, stable, ineradicable, while he dances in my neck, flutters with my hair, seeks a smooth shoulder on the right, on the left, slips on the breast, swingles, silver vivid blossom of my belly, and finally flies away on my navel in his dream carried by my hands. My son.”

Kristeva parallels the historical, at times satirical, an overview of the evolving iconography related to the Marian cult with a focus on the raw physicality, the suffering and the “jouissance”, both bodily and psychological, of childbirth. The two texts seem to shun and attract each other at the same time. Interestingly enough, Kristeva’s autobiographical text relies, abundantly, on the terminology of borders in her definition of femininity and motherhood by using such terms as “threshold”, “border, crossroads beings”, “unbounded liveliness”, etc.

In the final section, Kristeva critically evaluates Freud’s legacy on the topic of motherhood and declares its simplistic replacement of penis envy or anal drive for women’s desire to be mothers as “a massive nothing”(179). She goes on to delineate the basic methodology for a construction/definition of motherhood that is distanced from inherited patterns of institutionalized guilt: it is simply to listen to mothers telling their stories and narrating their experiences. Her final statement is in a way an anti-feminist one as she criticizes the lack of feminist interest in providing a new definition for motherhood, especially after the death of religion.

Personal Criticism and Border theory: a brief overview

Derrida’s and Barthes’ poststructuralist ideas and autobiographical critical writings (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes – 1977- and “Circumfession -1993-) questioned the so-called “objectivity” of criticism and paved the way for the presence of the critic’s subjectivity in his text. “Personal criticism” as a term was coined in the 1990s. It is linked to the publication of two books: Mary Ann Caw’s Women of Bloomsbury (1990) and Nancy K. Miller’s Getting Personal (1991). The main issues related to writing their books were the problematic use of the personal pronoun “I” and its implications. At the 1996 MLA Forum on the “place, nature, or limits of the personal” in criticism, the issue of the self of the critic and his/her traces in the theoretical text was discussed and it became necessary to accept and revalue it. One of the main arguments was that “personal criticism” could be more “pedagogical” by avoiding a difficult jargon that alienates readers/audiences and exposing the limitations of one’s knowledge and interpretation. Consequently, personal critical narratives would do more than imitate or be silenced by the “authoritative” discourses of theory and criticism. They would allow more various viewpoints to be expressed. This is an opportunity, but also a risky enterprise, thanks to which the border of the personal/autobiographical and the theoretical/critical is going to be crossed. But how much intimacy is allowed to avoid the impersonality and coldness of criticism? What kind of narrative would be suitable to create such a balance? Miller suggests that “‘staging’ the critic’s own relation to the ideas … by turning its authorial voice into spectacle, personal writing theorizes the stakes of its own performance[1]”(Miller 24). Accordingly, my personal creative writing does not claim any authority but only attempts to be temporarily significant to a community of (m)others as a form of testimony. In Testimony, a book co-authored by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Laub explains that “testimonies are not monologues. For the testimonial process to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other.”(70-71) that is the listener or the audience thanks to whom boundaries of subjectivity can be crossed, thanks to whom other meanings are added to the testimony, even when the speaker is silent.

As to Border theory and its pertinence in this paper, I see borders as “processes”, performances and relational spaces rather than static, material lines which only limit and confine by producing rigid “identity narratives”(21). Borders can thus be made (into) fluid, they can be crossed through permeable entrances and be redefined again and again. I will try to enact those borders by crossing three of them: generic, physical and subjective. My narrative from now on will be fragmented in an attempt to mimic Kristeva’s text. In order to make sense of a fragmented experience, I alternate critical and creative writing. I am not using this textual fragmentation to order a chaotic reality but because removing sharp edges allows for the crossing of borders. This brings me to the concept of the threshold. A threshold is defined as “the entrance to a building or room, the floor in this entrance, or, figuratively, as a point/level at which something begins or starts to take effect”. My view of the threshold is a symbolic one, it is mainly its constructed-ness and fluidity which concern me the most. I will attempt to provide a new discourse on motherhood by deconstructing its religious/social borders through three of Kristeva’s key concepts: flesh, nature Vs culture and pain.

Motherhood as Border Narratives: Thresholds

This section uses Plato’s “Maieutics” in its link to motherhood and assisted delivery on the one hand, and to memory as a source of individual knowledge on the other hand. I’m going to attempt to redefine and “remember” what being a mother is and means. The whole dialogue is based on re-presenting my memories which will be verbally “delivered”.

The following creative texts respond to three quotations from Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater” which illustrate and define motherhood as an “identity catastrophe”, a bridge between culture and nature which is “branded by pain”. The second creative text called “Middle Passage” is an allusion to the historical middle passage, in its womb-like portrayal of suffering. “Passage” is also to be taken in its literal senses as both the passage of the baby through the vagina and as a portion or paragraph of a written work. I, therefore, cross the border of my own narrative by poeticizing another woman’s delivery tale and complement the “missing link” of my own.

Rite of passage

“Christianity is doubtless the most refined symbolic construct in which femininity, to the extent that it transpires through it – and it does so incessantly – is focused on Maternality. Let us call ‘maternal’ the ambivalent principle that is bound to the species, on the one hand, and on the other stems from an identity catastrophe that causes the Name to topple over into the unnameable that one imagines as femininity, non-language or body.”(Kristeva 161-2)

In this first extract, I focus on the idea of the unexpected birth of a new identity in relation to pregnancy and motherhood. Kristeva associates this new identity with “catastrophe”, the sudden and overwhelming aspect of an alarming event that takes place before one can understand what is happening.

I know of mother-birth.

Ever since the day I fell pregnant, I have become such an awful motherly monster. I can’t stand the sight of women still trying to conceive. They stink of despair, their hopelessness is infectious and I avoid the look in their eyes…I don’t want to be around them, as if their presence could hurt my present happiness, tear it from my entrails with the full force of their want…I have possessed that want until not long ago, am I being ungrateful?

I had come to hate the very concept of motherhood and even started militating against the so-called “mother instinct” because I had stopped believing in it myself.

Now I try to connect with this upcoming child…I need to begin imagining, loving him or her…I think I have been so scared of losing this baby that I haven’t quite started loving him fully…It’s hard to realize you’ve been bottling up one of the most important loves of your life because you’re so terrified of suffering…I hope I can regain touch with my emotions once this first trimester ends and I get to see my baby’s “picture” and make his/her existence concrete, real.

Am I a mother already? Shouldn’t there be rituals to turn into one? Or is it like a gift to be unwrapped on the day of delivery?
Delivery? Is motherhood temporarily a trap, a seclusion? Not the baby’s but the mother’s…The Arab expression is literally “salvation from entrapment”. Entrapped in belly pain and nausea, merely physical inconveniences, or entrapped in motherhood, a so- called blood link that lasts a lifetime and beyond? Blood or bloody?

I certainly don’t feel entrapment in that manner. I feel released from grief and the pain of desperate expectation, transported into a permanent state of excited anticipation and a stream of future memories continuously traversing my mind.

And now? Now I dont feel exactly trapped but temporarily fighting against time in its meanest shape: a growing fibroid, a blood- sucking, self-centred parasite gnawing at my babys watery bliss and breaching its contours. It has turned it into a time-controlled trap, gradually emptied of its fluid safety. It has turned it into a water bottle, dangerously tipping at each turn of a sinuous desert road. Yes, yet another human fight against the cruelty of time.

I had a miscarriage[2] a year and a half before becoming pregnant again, a traumatic experience which continued to torment me during the first trimester of my second pregnancy. I also found out that the fibroids around my uterus (suspected of having caused the miscarriage) were growing with the baby and threatening to make my pregnancy difficult[3].

The Middle Passage:

“A woman as mother would be, instead, a strange fold that changes culture into nature, the speaking into biology.”(Kristeva 182)

This second part I have constructed creatively from the bits and scraps of a friend’s narrative of her own delivery which she had in the UK and which, being almost unassisted either by doctors or drugs, comes to represent, interestingly, the total opposite of my own delivery by cesarian section filled with complications.

It is an intense experience, beyond pain despite the pain, during which a new consciousness of ones body is regained.

Disconnected, totally, thoroughly, from the outside world. The midwifes words were unintelligible gibberish, only her firm and confident gestures felt like language. We were out of space and time,in a bubble, eternal and temporary. Alone with my beloved one and my imminent baby boy. My own cries stifled the sounds around me.

My whole body and its parts are working simultaneously and instinctively like a highly-experienced machine. I turn into my own body and become limited to it, only assisting in the creation but not creating myself, rhythmically pushing life out myself. My delivery is plot-like, it has its highs and lows until it climaxes into the “fire ring”, the last burning pain one minute before delivery, la délivrance, the transcendental state of orgasm tempered by bodily discharge.

Then, like a beast, like a lioness…It is indescribable, very much like Herberts groan, delivered from my entrails

“grones are quick, and full of wings,

And all their motions upward be;

And ever as they mount, like larks they sing; The note is sad, yet musick for a King.”(Sion)”

This second part has thus striven to deconstruct the binary opposition of body and mind through the return of the body as the fleshed-out origin of birth and all the feelings and sensations associated with it. The groan of pain at delivery also acquires a double meaning, both religious/spiritual and sensual, the former being highlighted by an extract from George Herbert’s poem I was teaching to my students at the time I was writing this piece.

Seuil de douleur, Threshold of Pain

“My body is no longer mine, it doubles up, suffers, bleeds … slobbers, coughs … and it laughs. And yet, when its own joy, my child’s, returns, its smile washes only my eyes. But the pain, its pain – it comes from inside, never remains apart, other, it inflames me at once, without a second’s respite. As if that was what I had given birth to and, not willing to part from me, insisted on coming back, dwelled in me permanently. One does not give birth in pain, one gives birth to pain: the child represents it and henceforth it settles in, it is continuous. Obviously you may close your eyes … run errands … think about objects, subjects. But a mother is always branded by pain, she yields to it.”(Kristeva 167)

This is the final and longest part of my creative text. It builds on Kristeva’s idea that, when it comes to motherhood, pain is so pervasive and insidious that the child is replaced by it. I refer to the physiological meaning of the threshold of pain as defined by the dictionary: “the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect.”(wordreference.com) I’m attempting here to intellectualize physical and mental pain in order to revert it to its original function as a necessary stage of the human condition.

How right is Kristeva when she equates birth with pain or rather replaces it with pain? Pain characterized the final two months of my pregnancy … I was trapped then, trapped in pain to such an extent that I had turned into a formless, dehumanized lump of groaning and moaning. My days were punctuated by brief moments of relative tranquillity after which pain strokes invaded my body and brain.

It is all about the return of the body, a physicality that overwhelms and stifles. What followed was a series of emergency room visits accompanied by incapacitating anguish. The parasite had got the best of my uterus and I had to deliver, be delivered, fast.

I was petrified, arms flailing like a helpless turtle thrown out of balance on its shell.

Besides all the messiness and confusion of birth pangs, anesthesia and extensive bleeding, I woke to an empty crib and a terrible pain. My baby son was torn away from me twice, his first breathing spasms caressed only by the plastic walls of a cold incubator.

When he was finally brought to me in a little straw carrycot in my bedroom. He was already dressed and fed, sleeping peacefully. It was a very strange experience. He was already two-days old and we were meeting for the first time. No skin-to-skin, no miraculous recognition had taken place. Just an indifferently sleeping baby. What made things worse was the fact that I could neither take him in my arms nor lift him because of the side effects of anesthesia which left me with excruciating back pain. I had no control whatsoever, I had to reconnect with my body and with this blonde, fair-skinned little creature. Not being able to perform the most rudimentary tasks of motherhood made me feel useless, pointless. It took a few months before I could “feel” like a mother and take decisions for my babys well-being.

Why would one validate motherhood through the endurance of pain? How is it that, without suffering, motherhood is neither complete nor “true.” Christianity and Mater Dolorosa are foreign, even exotic, concepts to me, so how could this association still invade my discourse? My childbirth by Caesarean section was despised by many other mothers because they wanted to “feel” the natural pain of the babys passage.

I could not understand this “need” for pain at first. Some womens desire to give birth without anesthesia. But after listening to a friends delivery narrative, it suddenly flashed through my mind. Pain is not an enemy, it is a teacher, a companion in all the metamorphoses which mark each of our bodily events. Menstrual and stomach spasms, the uterine contractions that facilitate delivery, and later, the painful bloating and teething of babies, and so on in an endless continuum of utilitarian pains. Pain defines motherhood because it leads to its creation, its construction. We must stop demonizing pain.

Motherhood is not a floating essence, it is a construction in a constant state of becoming. It becomes with the mother or would-be mother, any woman with a desire to give birth. Every mother, in universality of difference. Can motherhood be delimited? Since it is “immeasurable” and “unconfinable”, these border narratives and their thresholds can only temporarily catch it before its fleeting sensuality escapes us anew.

It had come to me gradually, motherhood. It wasnt instinctive, it was within an architecture of love. My son, at once a familiar and a stranger, has now turned into a second c-section scar, a rosy-cheeked pain that tickles and pricks as it heals. And it does heal. Not because of any instinctive feeling or cultural legacy or geographical belonging, but because I have been taking care of the one who used to be me, in me, before becoming an other who will continue to define and redefine me. Her womb has been worn thin by pain, but Sycorax was right “it originates in flesh.”(Warner 109 )

If beauty is indeed in the totality of things, pregnancy and delivery are only the beginning of the story. Motherhood is an experience that needs to be continually informed by narratives from all over the world to reflect this beauty of creation and procreation. As the complexity and nuances of maternity continue to impress my writing, my teaching and my perspective on the world, I will carry the lightest and heaviest of burdens: Once a mother, always a mother.


Kristeva, Julia. “Stabat Mater” in The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva. Moi, Toril, ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Bruzelius, Margaret. “Woman’s Pain, Woman’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva and the Mater Dolorosa” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 215-233. JSTOR.Web. 12 Ap. 2015.

Anderson, Linda. Autobiography. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.Print.

The Ashgate Research Companion To Border Studies, Ed. Doris Wasti-Waiter. Surrey: Ashgate Research Companion,2011. Print.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage, 1976. Print.

Indigo; or Mapping the Waters. London: Vintage, 1993. Print.


[1] The third section of this paper is originally a performance in which various scans, X-rays and ultrasounds of my pregnancy are projected onto me while I alternately listen to Kristeva’s quotations and read my own creative response.

[2]The French medical phrase “grossesse arrêtée” reflects the idea of an unfinished identity formation.

[3]The French medical phrase expresses it beautifully as “grossesse précieuse” or precious pregnancy because of its fragility.

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