When people ask me what I write about, I brush them off with a self-deprecating, “Just stories about mothers.” I imagine that, to other people, motherhood lacks the narrative weight of war and social upheaval, the excitement of werewolves and zombies, the sensuality of erotica and romance. On a deeper level I am embarrassed to say I write about motherhood because I think people won’t take me seriously, as a person and as a writer, and I feel uneasy admitting the extent to which my own identity is wrapped up in motherhood. Yet, without my children, I would not be a writer at all.
Although I had wanted to write all my life, it was not until I had infant twins that I felt that I had something worth writing about. I made a hesitant return to creative writing ten years ago, when my oldest son was three, but it was after the birth of my second and third children a year later that I truly began to find my literary voice. I had discovered motherhood literature shortly before their birth and spent the early months of their lives devouring literary magazines written by and for mothers, memoirs of motherhood both hilarious and heartbreaking, handmade mama zines, photocopied, stapled, and mailed directly from the writer, and online mommy-blogs, written and read real-time in the harried and harrowing moments of mothering, unedited and unhindered by the publishing establishment.
Faced with the overwhelming task of caring for infant twins and their disenchanted older brother, I found reading and writing about the extreme highs and lows of motherhood a way to cope with my situation and connect with other women whose experiences informed my own. At all hours of the day and night, I found myself perched at our arthritic laptop, at least one baby in my lap and my older son standing at my elbow saying, “Can I type? When can I type? Do you want to play one of my computer games?” as I tapped out pithy essays and humorous sketches that I compiled in self-published zines and distributed to my mother friends. My main medium in my initial forays into motherhood writing was the personal essay, but I soon began to experiment with fiction, and my subject––motherhood––followed me into the realm of the short story. I did not know at the time that I was stepping into a new era in literary history.
As I began to write fiction, I sought out short stories written by mothers from the mother’s perspective, reading all the short stories archived on Literary Mama, in my collection of Brain, Child Magazine back issues, and in the anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, whose short stories date from the 1980s through the early 1990s. But when I began an MFA program, which required that a portion of the books read each semester date from before the twentieth century, I found mother protagonists nearly absent from classic literature. My search yielded only one pre-twentieth century short story with a mother protagonist––the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper”––and a mere handful of short stories that date prior to the 1980s––Meridel Le Sueur’s “Annunciation” (1935) and “A Legend of Wilderness Road” (1954); Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing” (1954), “O Yes,” (1957), and “Tell Me a Riddle” (1960); Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” (1966); and several stories by Shirley Jackson (late 1930s -1960s), who arguably deserves the title “Mother of the Mother-Protagonist.”
Very few women who were mothers wrote prior to the mid-twentieth century, as decried by Tillie Olsen in her 1962 lecture, “Silences,” where she writes, “[O]f the women whose achievements endure for us in one way or another . . . I can think of only four . . . who married and had children as young women. All had servants.”[i] Even as mothers began to take their place among writers, writing about motherhood from the point of view of the mother remained a challenge. In her 1993 lecture “Can Mothers Think?” novelist Jane Smiley blames the dearth of the mother’s voice in literature on not only practical and psychological obstacles, but also literary ones. “Writing as a mother is simply too hard, even for mothers,” she writes. “For the paradox of literary composition is that our work, even our most ‘realistic’ work, is based on literary models.”[ii] Susan Rubin Suleiman, in her 1979 essay “Writing and Motherhood” writes of the consequences of this deficiency, “. . . we know very little about the inner discourse of a mother; and as long as our own emphasis, encouraged by psychoanalytic theory and by the looming presence of (mostly male) mother-fixated writers, continues to be on the-mother-as-she-is-written rather than on the-mother-as-she-writes, we shall continue in our ignorance.”[iii]
Today, twenty years after the publication of Smiley’s lecture, literature of motherhood has earned its own shelf in the book store as more mothers put their pen to page and the challenge of raising children attains the status of art. Much of this writing takes place in the creative nonfiction realm, but is making inroads into fiction as well. Tucked into collections whose topics vary widely, mother-driven stories appear in the work of Ann Hood, Lorrie Moore, Barbara Kingsolver, Laura Pritchett, Stefanie Freele, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Claire Vaye Watkins. If I expanded my search beyond the short story, I would find even more mothers populating the pages of novels.
While these stories represent progress toward developing literary models that fill the void Smiley lamented, challenges remain for the mother-writer. The plots in many mother-protagonist stories are subtle, sometimes hidden in backstory, often taking place in the main character’s head, driven more by internal conflict––a mother’s struggles with her fears and insecurities—than by antagonistic characters. Even when there are external opposing forces, they often symbolize the main characters’ conflict within herself, such as rebellious teens confirming the mother’s fear that she has failed her children. A mother can be her own worst enemy, both protagonist and antagonist. My challenge, as I have developed mother-driven stories, has been how to depict the internal struggles of motherhood in a way that is interesting on the page. In writing workshops, fellow writers often wish to see the conflicts in the character’s head manifest as fights with the husband, but I do not want to write about domestic squabbles. While a spouse may land more heavily on one side of a mother’s inner conflict than the other, most often the mother struggles within herself between society’s expectations, her own wants, desires, and fears, her insecurities, and her sense of ultimate responsibility for her children’s well-being.
Another challenge facing mother writers is how to address the terrible issues in the world. In her 1995 essay, “Novels and Navels,” Nancy Huston elucidates this challenge: “Mothers tend to want everything to be beautiful for their children . . . but if [novelists] paint a world in which human existence is hunky-dory, their readers’ response will be not hope but boredom. To write a meaningful story, one must be prepared to accept meaninglessness; face ugliness; describe horror; comprehend betrayal and loss.”[iv] Louise Erdrich, on the other hand, sees a mother’s ability to face the ugly world as both heightened and an asset. In her motherhood memoir A Blue Jay’s Dance, she writes, “A writer’s sympathies, like forced blooms, enlarge in the hothouse of an infant’s need. The ability to look at social reality with an unflinching mother’s eye, while at the same time guarding a helpless life, gives the best of women’s work a savage coherence.”[v] Motherhood, Erdrich seems to argue, gives us the power to be both more compassionate and more unforgiving, in life and on the page.
Mother writers also face challenges in portraying their own emotional extremes. In her essay “Talking about Mothers,” Sara Ruddick addresses this danger: “In writing as in living, it is difficult to describe the pleasures of motherhood without sentimentality, to discuss the inevitable pain without false pathos, to balance the grim and the satisfying aspects and to speak of each honestly.”[vi] Having been accused of “sweetness” and “sentimentality” in my work, I am acutely aware of this balancing act, and have found in others’ work that one way to avoid the perception of sentimentality when writing about the heart-moving aspects of motherhood is to use fresh imagery and figurative language, to say things in a way that no other writer has before.
Despite the challenges mother writers face, it is exciting to be writing at the cusp of this wave of literature. Jane Smiley compares the emergence of literature by mothers to that of other “previously ‘voiceless’ classes, nationalities, races and affinity groups” in the past. She writes, “Each of these changed the perception of ‘what is true’ by giving eloquent voice to individual members of groups that had not been heard before . . . . [N]arrative literature highlights the experience of the individual, offers intimate contact with another experience, and circumvents the social differences that inspire hatred and alienation.”[vii] While mothers today are not marginalized or vilified in the way many ethnic groups and cultures have been, they do face discrimination in hiring, in earnings, and in housing, with single mothers faring even worse, while violence against all women continues to pervade society. Mothers often feel alienated––from childless peers, from other mothers, and even from their own spouses and children. Our culture’s tendency to hold mothers up to an impossibly high standard, while at the same time holding them accountable for every flaw and foible in their children’s lives in perpetuity, strongly resembles hatred.
Can a literature of motherhood, a voice and vision of motherhood articulated by mothers, rather than the projections of those who view motherhood from the outside, change not only literature, but the world? Alicia Ostriker, in her essay “A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry,” seems to endorse this possibility: “As our knowledge begins to accumulate, we can imagine what it would signify to all women, and men, to live in a culture where childbirth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last five hundred years, or the kind of position that warfare has occupied since literature began.”[viii] Jane Smiley envisions what this kind of counter to the historically masculine literature would look like: “. . . a picture of many women in a room, exchanging anecdotes of pregnancy and childbirth, all anecdotes simultaneously the same and different, the multifarious and simple, the One and the many. . . . It is a vision that, if we can insert it into the stream of literature, may help our country to pause so we can save ourselves and the world that cradles us after all.”[ix]
The prospect of motherhood literature as a world-altering force inspires me to stop shrugging bashfully when asked what I write about, but rather claim my topic loudly and proudly. Not only are my children my muse, but motherhood just might confer an advantage, as discovered by Louise Erdrich: “One day as I am holding my baby and feeding her, I realize that this is exactly the state of mind and heart that so many writers from Thomas Mann to James Joyce describe with yearning . . . . Perhaps we owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand that they wanted to be women nursing babies.”[x]
I hope to take my place among those women in that room Smiley describes, adding my voice to the conversation. While the stories I write could be described as being about motherhood, they are really about alienation, identity, judgment, connection with nature, love, loss, and the ways life does not turn out as planned. In short, they are stories about what it means to be human.
[i]Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: The Feminist Press, 2003, 16.
[ii] Smiley, Jane. “Can Mothers Think?” The True Subject: Writers on Life and Craft. Kurt Brown, ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1993, 10.
[iii]Davey, Moyra, ed. Mother Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001, 118.
[v]Erdrich, Louise. The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, 147.
[viii]Ostriker, Alicia. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983, 131.