Facing the onslaught of maternal intimacy

Antonella Gambotto-Burke and her daughter.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke and her daughter.

What would a celebrated writer known for tackling themes as dark and intriguing as suicide, addiction, sexuality and celebrity culture make of something as supposedly tame and ordinary as motherhood? Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s latest book, Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love is part advice for new parents, part a call to arms for change and part memoir.

As you may expect from Gambotto-Burke, while the book includes a banana cake recipe it is far more interested in discussing the bewildering and consuming aspects of motherhood. Such as, how motherhood shatters the myth of independence core to modern womanhood, the unexpected passion of maternal love and the dizzying introspection mothering stirs in oneself.

Antonella, a strong theme running through your book is intimacy. Do you feel we are largely unprepared for intimacy as parents?

Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s latest book, 'Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love'.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s latest book, 'Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love'.

I have not known anyone who was prepared for the onslaught of maternal (or paternal) intimacy. Some recoiled from it, others reclined in it, others enjoyed it on the condition that they could control their exposure to it. The responses fascinated me, as did the reactions of the infants. In the end, the most compelling aspect was, for me, the cultural censorship.


It’s rare to read that motherhood can entail exhilaration and ecstasy. The very use of these two words could make some mothers feel “guilty”. I found this interesting. Since when is guilt a justification for censorship?

Our culture disdains attachment, disdains intimacy. I have received emails from younger mothers – one, a local feminist icon – who have been relentlessly bullied by women who identify as feminists for their decision to devote themselves to their children. This kind of bullying is now acceptable. Why? Because, as one said, these women are “letting the side down”. Since when is the nurturance of a child an anti-feminist act?

The subtext is, of course, that intimacy is now a subversive act. 

As someone who is no longer with the father of my children I was curious about the chapter on separation. How did you come to include this chapter and why the particular direction it took?

Every case is different; I could only generalise as the book is not about separation. I included it because separation is a reality, and I wanted to address the issue of hostility between separated partners and the impact it can have on the partners themselves. Gwyneth Paltrow was ridiculed for her “conscious uncoupling”, but the idea is an important one. You can separate with grace and recognition of your former partner’s role in your life and the lives of your children, rather than struggling to erase it, as so many people do.

As a culture, we don’t do enough to support couples who are going through difficult times; similarly, those who do separate are often made to feel that they should process the separation efficiently, when there is so much emotional detritus involved – if not for the partners, then for their children. Relationships have long tap roots when children are involved.

Again, we’re back to the issue of intimacy. How is it possible to successfully sustain intimacy as parents when both partners work ten to twelve hour days?

Conscious priorities have to be made. As a process, it’s incredibly complicated. Issues have to be negotiated. My observation is that men will frequently retreat into silence or obdurateness, and women will workshop the issue with other women, as we are in this conversation. On some level, you are still struggling with issues relating to your separation, and I am still struggling with issues relating to my marriage (never a natural state for me). We’re both trying to make sense of our lives through each other. But men have trouble with this. Their conditioning makes it difficult, which is why separation is one of the primary triggers for male suicide. A lot of women have told me that they made their husbands read that chapter, which I found interesting.

I love these thoughts on intimacy and I completely agree with you that there was actually something quite sensible and attuned about Paltrow's response to her relationship ending...

I loved Paltrow’s response. One of the things I loved most was that unstaged photographs of them together betray her anger, but she has made a conscious decision to work through it – not simply for her children, but for herself and for Martin. There is maturity in her response, an impressive determination to create order from a situation that could have been chaotic.

The hostility with which her announcement was received was, I think, simply a by-product of jealousy. Paltrow is perceived as having had a perfect life – her beauty, her success, her adoring parents, Brad Pitt, Chris Martin and so on. And she certainly is beautiful – I saw her once on Venice Beach; she was unbelievably lovely – but no life is perfect. She is clearly neurotic about her body, and this alone suggests darker psychological undercurrents.

The yogic ideal of union intrigues me, where every relationship is understood as an extension of the self. Union with a destructive individual indicates a schism in the self. Separation reflects a schism in the self. When relationships flow smoothly, then the self is at peace. I always try to come back to that understanding, but it’s not easy. Relationships are a mirror, which is why they can be terrifying.

Finally, what needs to change?

As a community, we need to start addressing child-rearing in terms of intimacy rather than as merely ministering to a series of developmental stages. We need to ask ourselves whether the family environment fosters intimacy or prevents it, and that applies to everything from the degree of technological use/distraction in the home to the amount of additives consumed by children and, critically, to how emotionally present we are when we are with our children.

As parents, we need to address our own capacity for intimacy, and this can be confronting. Where do you invest the bulk of your mental and physical energy? Is your sex life characterised by sensation or intimacy? What kind of partner are you attracted to, and what does their capacity for intimacy say about yours? How well do you communicate with your children? Are they frequently hostile, detached or defiant?

Answering these questions will tell you about your priorities, because we are so often unaware of our priorities. Life just comes at us, and we react. But we need to do better than that – we need to align our lives with our beliefs, if only for our children. We need to become conscious of our capacity for love on every level, from the individual to the universal.

Find out more about Antonella Gambotto-Burke hereMama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love is published by Arbon Publishing. Out now.