When my daughter, Stella, was born six years ago, I felt completely unprepared for motherhood. This had to do in part with the circumstances of Stella’s birth — she was born two months premature and spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit followed by five long winter months inside with me, quarantined during Minnesota’s cold and flu season. But my lack of preparedness also had to do with the dearth of diverse and honest accounts of what it is really like to be a mother. Where were the stories about the hard stuff: the difficulty latching on, the constant crying, the seemingly endless hormonal rollercoaster? Why had I believed that motherhood — and everything that went with it — would be the most natural, instinctive thing I would ever do?
I craved real stories from real women navigating their new, often joy-filled, but often overwhelming roles as mothers. I yearned to read about the hard, gritty aspects of motherhood side by side with those tender moments that can make your heart swell with love and pride. Two recent anthologies offer just those stories, real voices from the trenches of motherhood. In Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding, 25 writers capture a wide variety of experiences with nursing, from those who had difficulty to those who loved it to those who decided not to nurse at all. In Who’s Your Mama?: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers, editor Yvonne Bynoe sets out to “reposition motherhood within a spectrum of female identities” offering a collection of 26 essays from women of different races, backgrounds, and classes, including those who are contemplating motherhood and those who have chosen not to become mothers.
By its very nature, the focus of Who’s Your Mama? is much broader than that of Unbuttoned, and the experiences with motherhood contained in this collection are, as a result, more diverse. In one essay, a woman contemplates becoming a single mother through IVF after the sudden death of her husband. In another, a lesbian couple moves through the process of an open adoption. In yet another, a mother of biracial boys wonders whether her sons’ different skin tones will affect their relationships and how they’re treated in the world. Each of the essays in this collection provides a window into the complex lives of women and mothers in America.
There is a great deal of bravery and honesty in this collection, and even though the specific experiences explored in these essays may be different from my own, I found much to which I could relate. The most resonant essays in the collection are those that examine the conflicts women face when they become mothers and the ways their expectations so often do not align with reality. In “Starter Child,” Amy Kalisher writes about becoming a stepmother and describes her ambivalent feelings toward her stepson, an ambivalence exacerbated by her own miscarriage. Kalisher ends the piece with this heartfelt observation about her imperfect relationship with her stepson: “There are blanks we will never be able to fill for each other. In spite of that, in spite of all my failings, Dylan loves me too.”
In “Movement Mamis,” JLove Calderón writes about her struggle to be a good mother and a good activist:
It seems the rites of passage into motherhood come with complexities that many people do not speak of or share. And for my childless activist community, despite their good intentions, most of them simply do not understand my new life. It caused a schism between us that presented different challenges: How do you serve the movement and raise a healthy child? What does ‘balance’ look like, feel like, taste like?
I don’t know any mother who hasn’t sought a similar sense of balance in her life.
In “An Unnatural Woman,” one of my favorite pieces in the collection, Martha Southgate writes about the conflict she experiences in being both a mother and a writer. She describes her reaction to Raymond Carver’s essay “Fires,” in which he says, “There were good times back there of course; certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I’d take poison before I’d go though that time again.” Southgate writes:
When I read those words in a bookstore, I sagged against the shelf, my eyes filled with tears. That’s exactly how I feel, I thought. That the person who had articulated my feelings was a White man, a brilliant writer who revolutionized the short story form, and a recovering alcoholic who left his first wife, was not lost on me. Only a White man whose place was established, and who had nothing to lose, could write with such brutal honesty. For a woman, to talk so is almost unimaginable. I sweat even as I type these words.
I also appreciated Robin Templeton’s “The Mother I Always Wanted,” in which Templeton describes a painful break with her mother when she was six months pregnant. After the final, volatile argument with her mother, Templeton writes, “She was not, never had been, and never would be the mother I’d always wanted. I had to stop wanting otherwise.”
One of the real strengths of Who’s Your Mama? lies in its honesty. For the most part, the writers here are not interested in sugar-coating their lives as women and mothers. I did, however, find myself frustrated by certain pieces in the collection. In the Introduction, editor Yvonne Bynoe states that she wanted to include the writing of women who are not professional writers, “average Janes who would not otherwise have a platform for their views.” I appreciate this and believe in the importance of publishing the lives and experiences of non-professional writers. At the same time, the lack of focus and the repetitive and sometimes confusing prose in a few of these essays made them less accessible to me. Some writers stopped short of what seemed to be the heart of their pieces, meandered so much that the true story became lost, or failed to reflect on their lived experiences. I wish they had been pushed harder to go deeper, to pull meaning from the often-moving stories of their lives. Still, even the pieces that weren’t carefully crafted stayed with me, because they provide glimpses into mothering experiences both different from and similar to my own.
While Who’s Your Mama?‘s broad approach illuminates a diverse set of mothering lifestyles, Unbuttoned focuses on one aspect of motherhood: the decision to breastfeed. Yet, this anthology also encompasses a wide range of honest and often-moving experiences that women have with breastfeeding, and this is no small thing.
The collection is divided into four sections: Latching On, Got Milk?, On Empty, and Letting Go. Essays range from light and funny to lonely and sad. Many explore the difficulties involved in balancing work and nursing, breast pump slung over a shoulder.
Having experienced both the numerous challenges involved with breastfeeding a preemie (and more than a healthy dose of guilt for not being able to successfully nurse her) and an “easy” nursing experience with my second daughter, almost all of the essays in this collection spoke to me. From the devastation and sense of failure that Rebecca Walker describes in “Anti-depressed Milk” when her ill newborn cannot coordinate his sucking and breathing, to the love and sense of loss at giving up the nursing relationship in Catherine Newman‘s “Wean” and Jill Christman‘s “Weaning Ella,” I found myself nodding my head again and again as I turned the pages of this book.
In “Breast-Laid Plans,” former Literary Mama columnist Heidi Raykeil describes how impossible it is to plan the way breastfeeding will unfold, just as it is impossible to plan parenthood. It took weeks for Raykeil’s milk to dry up after her first child died at less than two weeks old. “My body” she writes, “was as shocked by the sudden change of plans as my heart; my rock-hard breasts leaked and cried right along with me. ‘Let me nurture,’ they seemed to shout. ‘Let me mother.’ Losing Johnny was a crash course in mothering, a short, striking lesson in what really matters in life and love and parenting and planning. The minute he was born we let go of all our plans for him and committed ourselves to him as he actually was. And then we had to let go of those plans, too.”
Rachel Zucker’s “Only the Baby Has Nowhere to Go” is a lovely meditation in the form of a nursing diary on what it means to be a mother and writer and live in the moment: “The past three days of writing while nursing have unbalanced me. Part of the joy of having an infant is the permission to enter — the necessity of entering — the nonverbal, preintellectual, animal realm. Nursing is a portal to the mind’s quiet room, to Babyland, where the entertainment is the sunlight moving across the wall, and the only things on the schedule are eating and sleeping. Only the baby has nowhere to go. I’ll put down my pen, watch him suck, and let him take me there.”
The judgment that so many women feel about breastfeeding permeates Unbuttoned. In “Motherhood Made a Liar Out of Me,” Daryn Eller writes about feeling guilty for not breastfeeding her adopted daughter and even finds herself lying to other mothers at the park about the fact she didn’t nurse. In “Anathema Mom,” Alice Elliot Dark describes the guilt she feels after her son’s traumatic birth and difficulty gaining weight. When she develops an infection that requires medication that wouldn’t be safe for a nursing baby, she’s ordered to pump and dump her milk, but her meager milk supply makes this futile. She writes, “It’s over. The decision is made. No breast. First a c-section, now this. My baby can barely suck, but I do, big time. I suck as a mother already. Just as I feared I would. I’m so disappointed I can hardly breathe.”
Even women for whom breastfeeding is a success — the dreamy bonding experience it’s “supposed” to be — sometimes worry about nursing in public or nursing into toddlerhood. Everyone seems to have an opinion about how, where, and how long women should nurse. But parenthood is challenging enough without feeling like you are waging war. I like what editor Dana Sullivan says in her essay “We’re All in This Together”:
Whether a woman has an epidural or delivers her babies without medication, whether she works or stays home, has babysitting help or does it all herself, feeds her babies from the breast or bottle or both, it’s all challenging. I truly believe that we are all doing our best to love our children the best way we know how. What if we made a collective vow to cut each other some slack? Since we’re all in this together, let’s all just lighten up.
In their preface, editors Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly write, “[S]ince breastfeeding is one of those topics that elicits a reaction, an opinion, or a story from almost every woman who has had a child — whether she has nursed or not — we realized that an anthology could allow room for many different points of view.” While the anthology does present a diversity of nursing experiences, the book focuses on a fairly homogeneous demographic — mostly white, upper-middle class — making the reader crave some of the diversity of ethnicity and socioeconomic status in Who’s Your Mama?
Regardless, at the heart of both of these anthologies is a desire to present the scope and complexity that exists in our experiences as mothers, and this is movement in the right direction. As Eileen Flanagan writes in her piece “A Pellet of Poison” in Who’s Your Mama?: “I know that sharing such stories won’t solve the unemployment in the poor neighborhood or make our education system fair. Stories are not enough. But as a writer, I believe honest stories have the power to open hearts, and that’s a start.”
Both of these anthologies do just that: open our hearts and expand the definition of what it means to be a mother in America.