We are women, we embody the multitude
Actors Koh Wan Ching (left) and Karen Tan (right) will bring to life, via a radio play, The Book of Mothers, which explores the challenges of modern motherhood. (Photo: Crispian Chan)

We are women, we embody the multitude

It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist, so I jumped at it – a chance to speak with playwright Eleanor Tan about her work, The Book of Mothers, which spotlights the challenges of modern womanhood.

As a young woman who chooses to prioritise career over marriage and starting a family, I struggle with the guilt that I might, just might, be making the “wrong” choice. At family gatherings, when I share about my career achievements with relatives, their praises always end with, “but it’s time you find a man and start a family.” It is almost as if nothing else about me matters as a woman, unless I am a wife – to a successful man, no less – and a mother.

Would speaking with Tan, who writes about such issues in her play, provide answers to nagging doubts about my self-worth? I wasn’t sure, but the chance felt like kismet.

Tan’s play explores issues of womanhood and motherhood from the perspective of the protagonist, Louise. The character’s complicated relationship with her mother leaves her ambivalent about her own pregnancy, but fearful of the changes it will bring.

The work is being staged as a radio play as part of the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020. The festival, which takes place virtually, is presented by T:>Works and it runs until 2 Aug. Initiated by theatre artist and arts educator Noorlinah Mohamed, the festival champions the work of women creatives and change-makers, and it seeks to advance issues that affect women.

Tan’s play resonates with the festival’s purpose, and what makes it particularly compelling is that it gives voice to real dilemmas faced by women like myself. Indeed, there is fact in the fiction. Tan says: “A couple of the scenes, I won’t say which ones, are practically a word-for-word account of my own experiences.”

Tan is both a wife and mother. For her, that was a plot twist. When she was younger, she never imagined herself getting married or having a family, but both happened before she turned 27. She felt ill-prepared for her new roles and struggled to adjust to them.

She wondered if she was ready for the changes that motherhood would bring, and if there was a “right way” to balance the responsibilities of career and parenting, without either taking a back seat. Eventually, she realised that “every woman has to find her own answers to juggling work and family,” and everyone’s definition of success is different.

What she said struck a chord with me. Why should we let others – society, strangers, or someone else, dictate our personal life choices and define what success means for each of us?

Yet I still have unanswered questions about myself and my future. Am I giving in to society’s demands if I decide to have children? What is it like to be successful as both a mother and a career woman at the same time? Perhaps The Book of Mothers will lead me to some answers. Regardless, one thing is clear – these choices are mine to make and guilt has no part to play in them.

The Book of Mothers will play on the T:>Works SoundCloud channel from 30 July till 2 Aug. Find out more about the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020 here.

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