When photographer Ying Ang became a mother, no corner of culture captured the implosion that transformed her world. It demanded a new way of seeing.

Motherhood, of all the stories we possess, is perhaps the most well-known. But for photographer Ying Ang, no corner of culture – no books, films or art – captured the implosion that transformed her world. It demanded a new way of seeing.

This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

Two years ago I walked to the hospital for a routine check-up and was told that I had been having contractions all afternoon without knowing. They told me that the baby was on his way, over a month early, and immediately prepped me for an emergency cesarean.

An hour later, a fragile 2.2kg mewling infant was cut out of my body. Life and breath issuing from the person that I instantly loved most in the world was the most exhilarating sound I had ever heard. With every week since, the twin newborn states – of new motherhood and new life – have gradually fallen away, revealing mother and child. It’s at once the most vulnerable and hardening thing I’ve ever done.

You begin your life in expansion. From rolling to crawling to walking, your reach moves outwards from infancy through to adulthood. And then comes motherhood. In an instant, everything moves in reverse. Your world begins to shrink, to coalesce into the tight sphere of domestic life. What was once the sun is now the light in your living room. What was once the road, becomes the hallway to the bathroom. Every person you once knew and the significance they had in your life becomes the squalling baby in your arms, suddenly unknowable, inconsolable and utterly opaque in their needs and wants.

As the external landscape of your old world shifts, the change also begins within. In increments and then suddenly torrents, you become internally unrecognisable. The task of navigating this new geography, this seismic transformation – the new days and nights, how you eat, how you sleep, how you love – is called ‘matrescence’: the physical, psychological and social transition that happens to women during motherhood. It is a big, wide world collapsing in on itself, pressurised into the diamond-hard core of what I have come to understand as ‘home’.

Bower Bird Blues is about my own experience of the claustrophobia, myopia, paradoxical loneliness and luminance of this transformative time. Motherhood is deeply anchored in the flesh, and also taps into the most animalistic parts of our psyche that responds to the devastating nature of becoming a custodian to absolute vulnerability.

I have lived both in the suffocatingly intimate proximity of this new world – milk breath, stale sweat, minutes that feel like hours and weeks that pass like days – and an almost forgotten old world; the person I’ve always known myself to be, increasingly unclear in its wavering mirage-like quality. I have exploded through limits I never knew I had, breathing thin air, metabolism slowed to famine mode, brain dialed down to pinpoint focus on only one thing: make life endure.

 

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Two years on and it is my first time away from our child. Apparently he woke this morning and asked for me once. I watch on a remote security camera as he is laid down for his nap, listening for a cry, waiting for the guilt of my absence. It never comes… The cry, that is. The guilt hovers.

The separation of our bodies is so strong it tastes metallic in my mouth. The anxiety makes everything seem to lurch from a vertiginous height. At the airport lounge, as I watch people board their flights through the blue illuminated gangways, I sit mutely, alone at night for the first time in two years, unable to comprehend why the lights seem so bright and the shapes that make up the world so exaggerated.  As the plane takes off and the miles between us increase, my vision clears with each passing landmass. I watch people watching movies, I read and comprehend dense words, I sleep with an eye mask and ear plugs. For the first time, in what feels like my whole life, my nervous system switches from vigilance to observation. I am no longer looking through the eyes of a child, surveying potential danger from a height of two feet. I am not anticipating the hunger or sleep deprivation of an infant on the road. I am not planning ahead.

Looking back, I used to live like a visitor, no matter the place. Since having a child, it seems that I have made myself a home. It feels ill-fitting a lot of the time, and also increasingly warm and restorative the more I work at it. Travelling alone again, under the same mantle I wore in the years before I became a mother, I feel even more of an outsider. There is a sense of the fraudulent, of the fugitive.

I did not feel as if I belonged anywhere when I was single and childless, and now, after my metamorphosis – cells joined, doubled, split, secondary human disengaged from my womb – I feel even more alien. I am no longer alone in the world. I am rooted and I have people in my life that need me. And yet here I am, reaching for an old place – to wander amongst strangers and to be tethered at the same time.


This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

See more of Ying Ang’s work on her official website.

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