Motherhood, pregnancy, and children have always been topics that make me exceptionally anxious and uncomfortable. I find it absurd that we still live in a society in which it is acceptable to ask people, based on our perception of their sexual organs, when they’re planning on having children. A society in which women are still often viewed as unfulfilled or monstrous if they have no desire to procreate. A society in which, for the most part, it is still viewed as a woman’s duty to have children, and yet the support available to mothers is laughable, and in which the teenage mother is a stereotype associated with lack of education and poverty. Moreover, the thought of giving birth, and subsequently being responsible for a defenceless young mind fills me with bottomless dread. At 26, I can barely look after myself. My sister, 24, has perhaps less desire to have children than I do. Why, then, would I pay money to get us both tickets to a sermon on motherhood, in London by the School of Life, on a Sunday morning?
One reason: Amanda Fucking Palmer. We’d both listened to a fair amount of the Dresden Dolls in our teens, and I’d listened to Evelyn Evelyn a few times, and loved her solo albums. But for both of us, I think, it wasn’t until she released The Art of Asking that we realised we’d stumbled upon something extraordinarily beautiful. Her unique style and methods of making art are so fundamentally a part of her, and she shares it all so openly and eagerly, that you can’t help but feel like part of something wonderful. So we trusted her to create something equally beautiful from something that we would usually avoid.
Still, as we queued, that anxiety was still there. My sister asked me what I thought would happen, what I thought Amanda would talk about. Behind her questions there was a sense of anxiety around attending a sermon about something that felt like a closed circle that we couldn’t, or didn’t want to, break into. The only thing I could say in response was that I don’t know, but it’ll be good, because it didn’t seem possible that AFP could suddenly turn into the figurehead for conservative family values. Her life has been unconventional and refreshing, as is her art, even her marriage. I couldn’t imagine her attitude to motherhood would be any different. And so we queued, we filed, we had our tickets checked, and we entered. The air was electric. Everyone was there for the same reason. And no one would be disappointed.
The first thing we noticed about the venue was its intimacy. The second was a keyboard front and centre on the little stage. I turned to my sister and we smiled at each other. Of course, we couldn’t expect AFP to give a standard talk without music; that would be absurd.
We found a couple of seats near the front, and on them had been placed an ‘order of service’, complete with hymns. I remember my sister becoming awkward at the sight of it. She’d hated church, and hymns were the worst part, being forced to sing something you didn’t want to, and don’t agree with. Hymns were also the part of church services that left me feeling most like an outsider. The rest of the congregation would seem to be possessed by some kind of divine peace, so in the moment, and I was left stranded on the outskirts, unable to feel he solidarity and comfort that everybody else’s faces seemed to suggest.
Our discomfort was cut short by an introduction to Amanda Palmer, if such a thing is possible, and we felt ourselves roused to excitement again. Then, from a little door behind the lectern, she emerged to raucous applause, holding Ash, to even greater applause, and followed by Neil, who took the baby and sat in the congregation to watch. The woman I was standing next to, (everyone was standing to welcome them), turned to me and said, ‘That baby’s already famous,’ and I smiled and agreed. There is something magical that happens when Amanda enters a room, and it happened in that moment. Total strangers turn to each other and start talking like old friends. We all feel safe. We all know that we are among friends we just didn’t realise we knew. We all know that even though we might disagree about some things, we are part of a community that she has created, and that we keep alive.
Amanda asked us to stand for the first hymn. I say hymn, it followed the layout of a sermon, so hymn seemed an appropriate term, but it was the song ‘Mad World’, by Tears for Fears. The lyrics came up on a PowerPoint, and we all sang. Whatever discomfort my sister and I were feeling before that dissipated entirely as we realised that we were singing something freely, together with a bunch of not-really-strangers and Amanda, something that resonated with all of us, and which set the mood for her sort-of-sermon perfectly.
After we were all seated again, Amanda shared with us a song she wrote and released a few months ago, called ‘A Mother’s Confession’, or to those of us already familiar with it, ‘A Mother’s Confession: a song with footnotes’.The footnotes, as she later explained, are integral to the song. Some of the specific details of the song were changed for artistic reasons, and the footnotes explain the reality behind the song, and the reasons for the changes. It is a piece that exemplifies Amanda’s uniquely honest brand of art making, and how she opens her life and her heart to the people she creates art for. The emotion was genuine, the story was perfect, and although specifically about new and uncertain motherhood, is a perfect metaphor for adult life. The refrain that recurs throughout the song is at once humorous and tragic, and she uses it to great effect in both instances. I won’t explain the entire thing here, you should listen and read for yourself, but the events in the song begin as little comic instances of watching the baby roll off a surface, or accidentally stealing a Chapstick that she forgot to pay for with her groceries, but they become more tragic as the song progresses, and the refrain morphs with the mood. The words are simple, but powerful. ‘At least, the baby didn’t die’.
By halfway through, I’m crying. A line in the song goes ‘I’m sorry that this story’s gotten long, and that everybody’s crying in this song’. And it wasn’t just the people in the song. Amanda was crying, I was crying, almost the entire congregation was crying. It was beautiful. And then, she made us a part of it. We as a collective sang the words ‘At least the baby didn’t die’, over and over with her singing above us, and it was magical. I think all of us were feeling the same thing. That sentiment, that whatever happened, at least the baby didn’t die, is how we get through life, with or without children. We don’t know what we’re doing, we question ourselves at every turn, but at the close of day we try to say to ourselves that it could be so much worse, that we’re still here, we got through it. And the way she closed the song with the group singing together is a reminder that we don’t have to go it alone. We can get through it with more joy together, if we share our lives with each other.
So far, so emotional. And she hadn’t even started talking yet. As she got up from the keyboard, Amanda spotted a few babies in the audience, and said hi to them. One, the tiniest baby she said she’d ever seen, was up on the balcony. To his mother, she asked, ‘How old is your baby? Have you dropped him yet?’, which drew laughter from everyone. I’m glad she asked that, and I think a lot of the mothers in the room were too, because it’s not something parents usually get asked, but it is something that happens a lot, and contrary to popular belief, is not the heinous act we think it is. It is human error, accidental, a mother’s confession. She did also ask the audience how many people had dropped their children, and a fair few people raised their hands, as did Amanda herself, which put everyone at ease if they weren’t already. She also said ‘fuck’ a lot. In front of the babies! Conventional motherhood be damned. Neil Gaiman described it as ‘Amanda’s favourite intensifier’ (from his Dresden Dolls review, found in The View From the Cheap Seats), and when you hear her say it, you realise exactly what he means. She uses the word with such pure joy you forget that people would usually respond with ‘not in front of the children’. There’s no malice or intention to harm, and everyone knew it.
The sermon proper was, in true AFP style, personal and honest, and she began with a personal experience that most people would have avoided like the plague, especially in a sermon about motherhood. She began with the topic of abortion. She related her own experiences with abortion, which she also shared a little of in The Art of Asking. It might seem strange, or even taboo, but she had good reason. She related times when she’d be amongst friends, and everyone would seem to skirt difficult topics, and she would barrel in with the topic of abortion. Because someone has to say it. And when someone does, a door opens, and there is a moment of empathy. As Amanda said, ‘if you say nothing, nothing happens’. The other reason she began this way, was because she has wrestled personally with the idea of having or not having children for years. She was very clear that it wasn’t the birth she was afraid of, but she didn’t trust herself to have a child, to keep it, to look after it. And she said she also realised, she would never be celebrated for an abortion. Which always seemed unfair to her. And it is. We will never be celebrated for making the brave decision, the decision to not have children.
Amanda went into some detail about why she was afraid of having children, and one of those reasons was that when you become pregnant, you realise you have to ‘swim in a pool of other people’s clichés’. People will approach you with their baggage. Some of these clichés included things like motherhood is a wonderful fairy blessing, or that motherhood is war, or that it’s the ultimate sacrifice. She did not dismiss these as simply clichés, though. She was adamant that she believed that in these people’s specific instances, all of those things were true. But think about it, they are all cultural clichés about motherhood. And she came to the conclusion that there is no truth about motherhood. You have to shed the clichés to have your own experience. And the same is true of life. There’s no manual, there’s no ‘how it’s done’. You have to feel your way, and wade through all of the endless depictions of what success looks like, or what happiness looks like, and build it for yourself.
The rest of her talk was about her personal experiences of early motherhood. I won’t go into detail, but it included things like her personal experience of childbirth, and the problems she encountered with the inevitable shift in communication with the outside world and how she faced those problems. It also included an amusing anecdote about flying with a baby (Ash has already been on a plane, a lot), and how she creates a community around the baby on the plane by introducing Ash to all the people in the seats around her. The thing that we all took away from it, though, was the point. And that was how she closed. The experience of having children, she said (I’m paraphrasing), reminds us that we’re all here together. Small people see our largeness and run on the assumption that we’re all here to help them. Babies are a fast track to common humanity. They remind us to show the strangers who are not really strangers that we trust them to be good.
It closed with another hymn; a tribute to Prince. Obviously, it was ‘Purple Rain’. It was another stand and sing together deal, except that this time, we got to be the choir. We sang the chords, and Amanda sang the lyrics. She played the piano. She made mistakes, and she acknowledged her mistakes with fucks and giggles, and it made us all remember that mistakes are part of being human, and that we should not be ashamed of them. And as we were singing, being together, and loving what was happening right at that moment, she said ‘Everybody look at the sky and think of Prince’. And we did.