I did not really know what it meant to be a mother until I became one two years ago. And what I learned, in those first desperate weeks, was that motherhood was muteness. After my daughter was born, I did not write for months. My head was choked with silence, broken only by her squalls. Trapped by her, my infant, my tyrant, I was tethered forever to someone.
She nursed always — night, day, night — and that is no exaggeration. Even to use the bathroom I had to tear my nipple free from her greedy mouth, and to take a shower was almost out of the question — in those fifteen minutes of separation she would scream the silence in half like paper tearing, struggling in her father’s arms, gnarling up like a living twisting root, seeking earth, me. Entire days vanished in a sleepless fog of breastfeeding, diapering, dressing, undressing, bathing, rocking, lulling, and pacifying.
That’s not to say I didn’t work. I did. Oh, I did. When she was two weeks old, I wrote a paper for a graduate seminar. When she was one month old, I wrote a book review. But these were not my own words. These were words I wrote mechanically at the bidding of others. When she was one month old, I attended a conference. When she was two months old, I edited a book of essays: 700 pages of words written by others. When she was four months old, I taught a class of eighteen and nineteen year olds how to write. I spent hours poring over their work. But these were not my words either. I helped nineteen English professors and twenty-two college freshmen and sophomores to write. But, I did not write.
I was the mother to no poetry, no fiction, no words that were intimately, genuinely my own. I was mother to a baby who cried and slept, who in the beginning didn’t know me, didn’t understand a word I said, but who demanded my presence, always. In a moment of weakness — when she was ten days old, the longest ten days of my life — I said to my husband, “I wish she would just go away.” And in my mind I silently added: because I will never sleep, I will never write, I will never sleep, I will never write again.
And all of this was true, even though my husband was there every moment, even though he cared for her while I worked, while I attended class, while I slept. And if I lost all of my words, I cannot imagine the silence of single motherhood.
The muteness was broken only by fragments here and there — words jotted on scraps of paper, discarded by the side of the bed among clots of dust. Angry plum of a face, I wrote on one. And on another, I jotted, blue-black eyes glinting in splits of puckered skin. I wrote: these thirty years of living without her, gone. Gone. The thoughts remained unfinished, aborted: scattered scraps like the inarticulate calls of some doomed creature underground, the shrieks unheard, muffled, lost on the wind.
And I wondered: why, in all the hundreds of novels that I’ve read in a decade of undergraduate and graduate study, have I never read about this — this. And the answer, I realized, was simple: when you’re here, you don’t write. But what if you could? What if someone did a lucid voice calling out from the madness of the first weeks, the first months of motherhood?
To be a woman and to write: this is one thing. To be a mother and to write: this is another. To be a woman and a mother and to write and to faithfully express not just human experience but specifically a woman’s/mother’s experience: could it be done? This, this was why poetry needed a mother. And this, this was why, through the centuries, it had so many fathers and so few mothers.
I searched back through remembered fragments from my years of literary study. Where were my literary mothers? My models, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers — none of them were mothers themselves. Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein: not mothers. There was Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide with her two babies sleeping in the next room. There was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who after the birth of her only child became so depressed that she was hospitalized and later gave up her daughter to her ex-husband to raise. I clearly remembered the biographical note in a Norton anthology concerning the brilliant Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ: “Her life thereafter was largely uneventful. She married and had nine children.” I had underlined it three times.
But there were mothers who wrote, I reminded myself. Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Barbara Kingsolver, and Kate Moses were mothers. Kate Chopin had six children. Anne Bradstreet had eight. Considered by many to be the first American woman writer, Bradstreet wrote eloquently about her fear of childbirth, her love for her husband, her grief over the deaths of her grandchildren. As a gift to me on our wedding day, my husband gave me a Nambé bowl; on the bottom, he had engraved two lines of a poem in which Bradstreet defends her right to take up a poet’s pen: “I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits.” And though she died more than three hundred years before I was born, she speaks to me still, as a mother, in both senses of the word. In “The Author to Her Book,” she claims her work as a bastard child, but her own: “If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none; / And for thy mother, she alas is poor.” Poor in time, poor in money, poor in energy, but there: a mother, claiming her child. And yet, I still did not know: how to be a mother in both senses?
And I thought of my own flesh-and-blood mother, a literary mother herself, but over a thousand miles away. Her children grown, she engaged now in the other kind of motherhood: teaching, reading, studying, and writing. Growing up, I saw within her the same struggle that now I experienced as my own: to be a mother to language or a mother to children?
An immigrant, my mother came to this country from the Soviet Union at the age of thirty-three. She gave up everything — her career as a university professor and writer, her parents and sister and close circle of friends — because the man she happened to fall in love with was an American. Also — and maybe most importantly — she gave up her language. From a confident, eloquent professor lecturing to a hall of students, she became an uncertain foreigner, stumbling over phrases in broken English, unable to request the simplest things.
And yet, she clung tenaciously to her native language, passing it to her children with ferocity, insisting that we speak only Russian at home, that we learn to read and write it. In those fifteen or twenty years that she gave to us, her children, instead of the work she had set out to do, I intuited glimmers of that tension, just beneath the surface, the question hammering away at every moment: to be a mother to us or a mother to her work?
For those decades, we became her life’s work. Often stern and disapproving, she wanted for us what she did not have.
And yet, as I remember her, she was always reading, always writing in a notebook. She showed me what a literary life was: that it could be carved out of anything, anywhere, that you just dig in and hold on. And so she gave me a love of books, and she gave me the beautiful, sonorous, sharp-edged Russian language: the sounds of it, my mother tongue, still native to my ears, even though I now feel so much more eloquent and fluent in English.
She teaches at a university now, as she had planned, but in another country, in another century, in another language. And so from my mother I learned that language is power, that language is the self. Out of words we hew ourselves; we are like the uncut rough surfaces of gemstones, and each precise word, falling just so, reveals the flash of a brilliant facet. Was it this tenaciousness, passed down to me by my mother that caused me now to still cling to my words like roots to soil?
Yet my own words were being drowned out by the howling of my daughter, by my constant admonition: be a good mother, be a good mother. To be a good mother: this was all the world expected of me now. (But why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?) A good mother. That means — come when she cries. (But she cries all the time!) That means — breastfeed. (But it takes all day! It takes all night! She nurses around the clock!) That means — think of her needs first. That means never think of yourself again.
So it was acceptable to take time to edit a book, to teach a class, because these things paid in cash — hard currency — which we needed for her. To work for money was to think of her first. But it was not acceptable to write words that possibly no one anywhere would ever pay me a cent. Who needed those worthless words — the poetry, the fiction — when there was money to be made, diapers to be changed, bills to be paid, a baby to be rocked to sleep?
For six months she consumed nothing that did not come from me, and I wrote nothing. She gained 10 pounds, 1.2 ounces feeding entirely on my body. It seemed important to keep track of such details, when I was accomplishing so little else.
And now, now she does not need me so desperately, so constantly. She learned to sit, to play with blocks, to crawl, to eat spaghetti sauce and rice, to walk. Her once clouded newborn eyes became bright to the world, seeing all. Her pointer finger indexed the world, asking for the words — window, light, tree, cat — asking for the language, her birthright. And then she made the language her own, speaking the words with such singsong clarity, such mastery. “Bye, mom,” she calls nonchalantly as I head to work, not even looking up from the book she’s reading to her toy kitten.
And so, in all those months when I thought I was not writing, I was writing her — hands that grab, legs that stand, arms that reach for me, a heart that beats and demands, a voice that speaks — writing, with that invisible ink — mother’s milk, mother’s love — a person. I am the author of her, and like a book, she goes out into the world to complete herself, to live. She is the word made flesh. She is the language written by all mothers, everywhere. My sister, brother, and I: we are the books my mother did not write when she was writing us. It is no small feat. The world is full of human beings, and still, it is no small feat.
“One is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.” These words were written by Bâ, the woman whose “uneventful” life included bringing nine children into the world. Yes, she is speaking of a mother’s relationship with a flesh-and-blood child, but isn’t this how we are mothers of language as well? Don’t we tell stories to understand what cannot be explained in any other way? Don’t we lighten the darkness with our words? Don’t we shield and heal, and don’t we love without beginning or end? Isn’t the one act of creation akin to the other? Don’t they both come out of love and toil, and don’t they both leave a trace of ourselves in the world?
Virginia Woolf wrote: “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” And this is true both of literary mothers and the mothers who bear and raise us. My daughter will think back through me. She will look to me to learn how to be a woman, how to be herself. And I learned, in those months of silence, that I could not be myself without my writing, my work, my other children.
And so, I tentatively began to put words down on paper: small things at first, compact poems, composed in one sitting, manageable, and then stories and essays. And then I turned back to my novel again; through the months of silence, it remained within me, tucked away like a seed awaiting spring, awaiting the time to unfurl its strong, sweet buds. I am writing again, yes. Because I have always been a mother — and it took becoming a mother for me to see it. I am the mother of words. I am the mother of words. The ink I put down to paper is just as vital, just as real and necessary, as the invisible ink that nurtured my daughter. I must nurture the words as well, to be fully realized: Myself.
And so I came to the simple truth that I knew all along but did not have the words to say: In order to be her mother — fully, completely — I must also be a mother to language. And I am. With these words, I am.