Motherhood is not a widely-explored topic in Lithuanian women’s writing. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that, in the international literary context, mothers’ own voices started to be heard more prominently and consistently only thirty years ago. Furthermore, the Lithuanian literary tradition has been heavily influenced by the prescriptive social realism that permeated both the style and the subject matter. Needless to say, intimate experiences of motherhood did not feature among the topics favored by the Soviet regime, nor does it come across as a suitable theme for elitist, philosophically existential poetry that is generally considered good literature in contemporary Lithuania.
Therefore, the publication of two first books of poetry, in 2013 and 2014, by Jurgita Jasponytė (Šaltupė) and Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė (Kvėpuoju/ I am Breathing), both born in 1981, drew my attention. Without being the main axis of the two collections at hand, motherhood emerges as the culmination of the development of the poetic persona featured in each book. Heavily autobiographical, both collections trace the development of a young woman from a little girl, through to adolescence, early romantic and sexual experiences, culminating with the finding of Mr. Right, “you” (Jasponytė) or “the king” (Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė), which results in sublimating, transformative, cathartic motherhood.
Jasponytė’s poetry is informed by mythology, and draws on the Lithuanian pagan tradition and folklore. The mother figure portrayed in her collection comes across as an inert, instinctual vessel for life.
susiruošia naujas vaikas
and a new child gets ready
to be born
bursts out in rain. [translation mine]
vaikas priglaudžia galvą
ir klausos plakimo
nes mano ranka pasitiki
ir taip moko mane pasikliauti
gyvenimą plukdančia gysla.
a child lays her head
and listens to heartbeat
since my arm trusts
thus teaching me
to trust in
the life driving vein. [translation mine]
The mother is portrayed in both those poems as part of a larger system, solemnly and blissfully fulfilling the destiny mapped out for her.
Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s collection open with a poem entitled “Soul of a Woman.” Its third stanza reads:
moters siela –
kai suglostai vaikus
vyrui padedi eiti į kovą
kai gydai migdai
kai prausi ir prausiesi
kai eini pasivaikščiot
ar lūpas dažai
kai storėji lieknieji meldies
moters siela –
talpi ir kantri kaip pasaulis
The soul of a woman –
while you tuck in the children
help your man go to battle
while you nurse put to sleep
while you wash and get washed
while you wake
while you walk
or put on the lipstick
while you plump out slim down pray
the soul of a woman –
is as spacious, as enduring as the world itself
Again, the discursive split between the soul of a woman and everything that a traditional patriarchal society expects from her, opens up a bottomless entity that the woman in question is able and willing to hold, without ever dropping a ball.
For someone who has mostly worked on contemporary women’s writing in English and French, including on representations of motherhood in those literary and cultural contexts, such trajectories of female character development, and figurations of womanhood and motherhood, appear at the very least surprising. Seriously? And no tongue-in-cheek in sight? I do not honestly remember reading a text by a contemporary woman in any other language (in fairness, I only read in English and in French, but also translations from other languages into English and French) whereby a woman’s subjectivity depended on helping a man to bed, let alone to battle, which presumably stands for work, in this context. The women featured in texts that normally come my way rather worry about getting to both bed and work themselves, children being the complicating factor in that undertaking. In terms of motherhood, most contemporary representations in women’s texts state at least a degree of ambivalence and conflict between the mother’s subjectivity and the overwhelming demands of the new life. Contemporary women’s writing on motherhood often details negotiations between the mother’s own, independent self, and her newly-emerging self as a mother, who has to accommodate the new presence. It also evokes mourning for that autonomous being she used to be. That, of course, does not mean to say that the contemporary representations of motherhood to which I am more accustomed to reading, and with which I more readily identify, lack in rendering the overpowering emotion and love that the arrival of the baby inspires, or in acknowledging the relationship with, and the importance of, the parenting partner in the experience.
The secret to such stark differences in representations of motherhood, in broadly-speaking “Western” and Lithuanian literature, lie in the historical, social, and cultural contexts that shape the different collective consciousness. It is well-known that Soviet, including Soviet Lithuanian, women had no chance to exercise traditional womanhood and motherhood, nor did they have a choice between going to work or looking after the children. They were all subject to compulsive reintegration into the work force, depending on the period, between two weeks and two months after giving birth. The quality of state childcare being shockingly bad, that understandably made many women’s lives miserable to the point of unbearable. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the restauration of the independent Republic of Lithuania in 1990, a series of governments addressed the issue, which resulted in Lithuanian women enjoying one of the longest payed maternity leaves in Europe, for a number of years. Seen in this light, both Jasponytė‘s and Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s poetic rendering of motherhood corresponds to the post-Soviet desire for traditional womanhood and motherhood but, more importantly, the need to symbolically figure the embodied maternal relationship, and translate it into language, to quote the French author of the 1970s, Marie Cardinal, to find “les mots pour le dire” (“the words to say it”). Anecdotally, but importantly, both Jasponytė‘s and Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s are active advocates of home birth rights in Lithuania, that have yet to be officially granted. I still find such figurations of womanhood and motherhood problematic, but do understand the need to reclaim the female body in the Lithuanian language and literature for pleasure, the embodied maternal pleasure constituting an important aspect of it. This is even more significant in the context of previous representations of motherhood in Lithuanian literature, that have been surprisingly negative, conceptualized in terms malediction and featuring pregnant maidens’ suicides, post-natal depression, and so on.
On the other side of the spectrum, and yet part of the same cultural phenomenon, there is Giedrė Kazlauskaitė‘s poetic output. Born in 1980, and in contrast to the two poets discussed above, Kazlauskaitė is a well-established figure of Lithuanian literary life, author of five books, of which three are poetry collections that have won numerous literary awards. She is an editor of one of the major literary newspapers, Šiaurės Atėnai, openly gay and a mother of a daughter whom she brings up with her long-term female partner. Her poetic universe differs from the confessional writing characteristic of the collections discussed earlier in the article, in that it enjoys a strong intellectual and erudite quality, which is reflected in Kazlauskaitė’s formal literary success. Her first collection of poetry, Heterų dainos (Hetaera Songs), evokes the conflict between her sexuality and the desire for motherhood, as well as guilt for having made the transgressive decision to become a mother in the heteronormative society that is contemporary Lithuania. However, the collection of poems entitled Meninos, published in 2014, the same year as Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s debut book, features a very important poem, which can be read as a public coming out, entitled “Silentium.” It is a narrative poem telling the story of the poetic persona’s daughter’s delayed speech acquisition, and its rootedness in the secrecy of her homosexual relationship with the co-mother of the daughter. This is the punch-line of the poem:
Tačiau buvo aišku – ji nekalba, kad
nepapasakotų kam nors ko nereikia,
ir kad mes išgyventume.
We began to understand – she remains silent
To avoid saying what doesn’t need to be said,
Keeping our lives safe.
[Translated by Rimas Užgiris]
The anxiety around the homosexual family relationship becoming public is rendered through the image of a white aggressive dog that threatens “to bite so many in the throat.” The publication of this poem, and the fact that Kazlauskaitė often includes it in her public reading programs, suggests that the poem carries out an important performative function. Although representations of motherhood are not entirely devoid of maternal pleasure in Kazlauskaitė‘s poetry, especially in her latest collection, Singerstraum, written after the declaration of “Silentium,” it stands in stark contrast to the portrayals of idyllic and cathartic motherhood in the collections of Jasponytė and Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė.
Such iterations of motherhood, in the latest Lithuanian poetry by women suggest that contemporary Lithuanian imaginary is dominated by neo-traditionalist attitudes to gender relationships. It also implies Lithuanian women’s authentic and original path in developing and representing female subjectivity and maternal identity.