Mothers don’t need clocks. The moment we give birth, in fact before our baby ever leaves the womb, a mysterious makeover of time and space occurs, overriding the habits and desires of our hedonist child-free days. We automatically wake when we are needed (which translates to: early). We arrange our days into segments―not exactly a new structure, but more of a returning to the scope and schedule of our own childhoods. A more constrained version of the circadian rhythm to which all animals and plants on earth sway.
As sleep unfurls to dawn, we mothers begin days ordained by the schedule: breakfast at a reasonable hour to fill stomachs and make way for the bright early stretch of learning; lunch (packed ahead or prepared fresh) timely and logical; the afternoon’s acreage dedicated to the proscribed work of our age (play for children, real work for mothers); the folding into home and family as the sun lowers itself; dinner, a reconnecting; bedtime, a ritual elevated nightly to the holy. This pattern happens regardless of where in the world you mother, impeded only by the interloper of poverty. It happens for mothers who “work” and for those who “stay home.” If you are a mother home all day with your child, you play blocks at eleven in the morning and think about what is for dinner at three. If you work in an office, you arrange for someone else to play blocks with your child at eleven in the morning; you still think about dinner at three.
I wonder if it is this―the recognizable familiarity and universality of a day’s necessary routine―that attracts me, as a mother of two young children and a writer working to make space for her art, to a poetic close chronicling of mothering and domestic daily life from more than 35 years ago?
Bernadette Mayer wrote her book-length epic poem, Midwinter Day, in a single day, on December 22, 1978, before video nursery monitors, before “having it all” became a terrorizing, biased catchphrase, before Ann Taylor designed maternity business suits. Just imagine this for a moment: A mother of three young, hungry, snotty, wild, sleepy, diaper-sagging, all-consuming children, writing a book in one single day.
It is a personal work, this book from the seventies that I have taken as my bible of sorts, chronicling in six sections a life of domesticity and writing, in and around Mayer’s house in Lenox, Massachusetts. Published at a critical point in American feminists’ push for a revolution in culture and country, at a time when many women were rejecting the notion of childbearing and the world of domesticity altogether―rejecting The Angel in the House―and “women’s” topics were marginalized in literature, the text is a radically feminist work. Its very existence, promoting the domestic to legitimate fodder for the traditionally male-dominated epic poem, makes it feminist.
Midwinter Day moves chronologically through the day and across Mayer’s states of consciousness, from a pre-dawn dream state where she roams the realms of familial connections and sexual desire through the motions of child care, daytime outings, meals, chores, bedtime, and then, finally, Mayer’s nighttime book writing as she creates her text. Certainly this segmented domestic rhythm, elevated to such importance that it not only orders Mayer’s life but provides the form of her book, is attractive in its familiarity to anyone who understands what being a parent is like.
But I think it is more than this―a reminder that between the hours of sunrise and 9 a.m., say, millions of us mothers around the world are synchronized in essentially the same ballet of pouring, stirring, serving, caressing, packing, dressing, plaiting, embracing―that draws me to seek a kind of vital artistic mentorship from Midwinter Day. Perhaps counterintuitively, Bernadette Mayer’s voice, a poetic missive from another era, is louder and more logical to me than the current cultural noise around modern motherhood, which as a writer I have been laboring through these recent years. Midwinter Day, and through it Mayer, speaks to me, passing me permission to move beyond my resistance to being a mother on the page. Permission to look at what is, however domestic, however commonplace. To believe it worthy and write of it.
My daughter made her appearance in a very pink but otherwise serviceable maternity room at a university hospital in Seattle one warm August morning in 2005; that same year mommy blogging―the trend of domestic chronicling writ large across the Internet―exploded on the glowing screens of lonely, overwhelmed mothers like me all around the country.
My background was that of a journalist. When I got pregnant, I had been working for seven years at newspapers, telling other people’s stories. It was a career built on a foundation of facts, impartiality, and the rule of never writing “I.” My own work ethic and identity had formed out of the experience of being a particular woman’s daughter. My mother had completed high school and attended two years of art school before dropping out to get married and become a homemaker.
As a teenager, watching my then-divorced mother struggle to find work with a limited set of undeveloped professional skills and a low self-esteem, I determined that neither marriage nor motherhood would restrict my personal goals and my ability to support myself doing something I enjoyed. I considered myself a feminist. I had studied my mother’s experience from the front row and read about the history behind me. Because I was so worried about how to forge a path socially, professionally, and politically as a mother, instead of reading my birthing manuals as I was supposed to during my pregnancy, I read books such as The Price of Motherhood, The Mommy Myth, and Anne Roiphe’s Fruitful, in which she writes of the sixties feminist awakening: “Mothering is daily, all daily, even if the child is tended by someone else for eight hours, the mother’s inner ear is always attuned. . . . You could say that women were sick of the subject of children. Feminism . . . seemed to belong with motherhood like maple syrup on sushi.” Reading these books was a terrifying but intentional self-inoculation of sorts.
When my first baby came, and the next daughter 21 months later, I took maternity leave. Then, as planned all along, I returned to my job. But soon after, feeling increasingly overwhelmed with a baby and a toddler, I made the decision to stop working. The prohibitive cost of child care, the time away from my daughters, the lack of job flexibility―all these factors wore me down. My male counterparts had supportive wives with more flexible jobs or a desire to stay home. I quickly convinced myself that a new life at home was ideal: I had the goal of beginning to write creative nonfiction. I took a poetry class for mothers. I journaled. I began in fits and starts some essays, learning to use the word “I,” and in the process being forced to think about who I was.
But with two small children, laundry piles, runny noses, fairy castles, and cheese sandwiches that needed grilling, my work time came in snippets. My concentration was more distracted than I had expected. Like Bernadette Mayer, I was never far away from the daily domestic constraints that tied me to home and my children―the repetitive acts of caretaking, the requirement to be present entirely through hours of routine. Mayer writes:
What an associative way to live this is, dreams of hearts beating like sudden mountain peaks I can see in my chest like other breasts then in one vertiginous moment I can forget all but the reunion and your original face, two shirts each under overalls over tights under shoes then one sweater, outer suits with legs or leggings, mittens attached, hats and overshoes. Everybody wanting something or nothing to be done to them, then one of the shoes falls off again.
My husband, who was supporting us and moving up in his career, had the freedom to really “work” in dedicated blocks, while I had to cobble. My self-doubt loomed; I often felt lost. Still I knew this challenge was important―to find a new definition of my self, one that was somehow connected to the “I” and the writer―and that it could bring me to a fruitful place.
Like many new mothers I felt isolated. During the days I would wander the aisles of the grocery stores and try to make intelligent conversation with strangers at the mom-and-baby groups. At night I would log onto blogs and, through this still relatively new medium, read what other mothers were thinking, doing, and experiencing. Here were mothers―with untouched laundry piles, drinking problems, craft angst, marital jealousies, tantrumming toddlers, cake recipes, missing orgasms, and kitchen renovations―who were speaking at all hours of the day and night, a roster of 24/7 mommy content. It was the first exposure I had as a mother to contemporary women writing creatively about the realities of their domestic realm and exploring their own roles at home and in society.
Mom blogging seemed to me at first a way to subvert or upset the system that I had thought all along, naively, had been righted since the seventies but that now, after giving birth and pausing my career, I realized was really riddled with many of the same problems mothers in my own mother’s generation faced: lack of child-care options, gender inequality in pay, institutionalized sexism. Mom blogging seemed a way to be writing, expressing, widely―even virally―communicating the experience of motherhood and not just silently living it, ashamed, alone, relegated to our houses, inconsequential to the rest of the world.
Driven to write about my experience in order to process it, to write through the “I,” I tried blogging, too. But after a couple of years of intermittent blogging and reading other mothers’ blogs, I admitted to myself that I had begun to notice something: Many mom bloggers, including me, were either constantly guilt-ridden or endlessly faking an ease of domesticity.
The blogs were not, I realized, making me feel more legitimized or more reflected in the wider culture. They made me embarrassed, frustrated. Was I only a mother? Should my writing, if it reflected the domestic reality of my world, be read only by other mothers, on mothering sites? Was I stuck permanently in an echo chamber? I began to feel that if I was a “real” writer, I would be working with serious topics, not the domestic realm and identity troubles of breeding women. I would not place a flashing sign above my head that read, “Dinner ready; Nothing relevant here.”
I stepped away from writing about domestic realities. When I did undertake topics around motherhood, in the prose and poetry I began to write more and more of, I was hyper-aware of how I sounded as a woman and artist, and paranoid about whether such topics delegitimized me.
Mayer, too, suffered from angst. But what’s refreshing, even radical, for twenty-first century mothers who have been pitted against each other and against every false ideal of motherhood, is this: Mayer’s insecurity swirls not around her mothering abilities or decisions, the version of angst that seems to devour and distract mothers today, but instead around Mayer’s identity as an artist and writer and as a human. There is no big guilt Mayer expresses, no insecurities or distracting anguish, about whether she is a good enough mother, a successful mother (does she work or stay home, does she let the baby cry, does she make homemade food?). Is she a good thinker, a good writer, a diligent creator, a good philosopher, a woman on equal footing with her male counterparts, a sexual being? These are her obsessions, her concerns. And yet as she interrogates herself as an artist, we never forget she is a mother. In Midwinter Day, the dailiness of mothering, its ceaseless presence, is never forgotten or removed. In that one sense, the poem is much like mommy blogging.
It is difficult to escape the differencing, or othering, that motherhood creates. As a 38-year-old mother entering my second year of a MFA program, I am currently in the time of my life when perhaps more than any other my issues around female identity, intellectual responsibility, and artistic drive are clashing. I had kids young by today’s standards. I leave my children in the care of others in order to be able to work for money, and I leave them again in order to write. By seeking to further my education unnecessarily (taking money away from my children’s college funds and my time away from them) I am defying today’s culturally writ and classist job description for motherhood (self-sacrifice, the preparation of homemade organic snacks, endless ferrying to soccer game, and constant helicoptering presence). On a recent night, I left for class as one daughter cried openly, a look of abandonment forming on her face. My other child had just confessed she was being bullied at school. The laundry pile was extreme, a pet chicken had died that afternoon, and dammit did the field trip form get submitted?
It’s guilt, again. “The invisible violence of the institution of motherhood …” Adrienne Rich called it in Of Woman Born. “The guilt, the powerless responsibility for human lives, the judgments and condemnations, the fear of her own power, the guilt, the guilt, the guilt.”
My husband is home often, balancing the load. In this way, in our culture, much has changed. And then some things have not: On another recent night as I leave my evening writing workshop, a fellow male student announces loudly to the group, unsolicited, that I “look tired.” Who of us mothers hasn’t heard that unhelpful observation before? The line itself is tired.
I smile nervously, unsure how to craft a response that can encompass what I need to say about my life, to explain it. That tired is okay, that it is necessary, and that it is my business. So I just laugh it off, say nothing. Then, upon arriving home at midnight, I read and take mordant comfort reading this by Stephanie Brown, from her essay “Not a Perfect Mother”:
With two toddlers, I realized it would be a long time before I could really focus on my career. My only reward was the occasional comment from someone like, “I don’t know how you do it!” or “You have it all together!” or, to us as a couple, “I’m impressed!” with how we had juggled my husband’s graduate school, two jobs, kids. I liked those comments; they were my only remaining reward for what I was doing. I also couldn’t help noticing how I no longer heard compliments I liked and had come to expect: “You look great!” or “That’s a cute outfit!” Now people said to me―complete strangers as well as people I knew―”You look tired” and smiled with pity or, I sometimes suspected, schadenfreude. I decided that hearing that phrase again and again (“You look tired”) was the very worst thing about becoming a mother.”
Amid the doubts about my own identity as an artist, Mayer, my mommy muse, my surrogate artist mother from another era, has illuminated for me so clearly this passed-down truth: There is no identity separation; when I am a mother I am a writer. Now I sit folding socks, pecking away, chicken-scratching, musing on my art, stirring a soup, as Mayer did on that epic-yet-normal day in 1978 and on many other identical days. She did not separate these parts. As she mothered she wrote; she thought to write; she lived to think―about love, yes―and philosophy and mortality and psychology and her daughter’s colossal public tantrum and her own place in the literary canon, alongside all the men who have crafted the epic poem from far less domestic concerns. This, in the end, is what makes Midwinter Day a feminist work so powerful it resonates as fresh cultural wisdom and creative inspiration these many years later.
Reading feminist mother writers like Mayer and those others I have mentioned has pushed me to face my own resistance to approaching my art as a mother, with all the attendant duties, themes, and honesties. To feel around in the dark for where my brief shame about my own mother identity grew from, what outside factors―culture, art, family history, mommy blogosphere overstimulation―encouraged me to want to scrub domesticity from my writing. Mayer’s words undo my fear and present another approach to being an artist and a mother.
To erase one’s mothering experience from one’s stories is to negate one’s identity, to deny one’s creative personhood.
Like all good mothers, Mayer relies heavily on lists, for groceries, yes, but more so for the stream-of-consciousness scaffolding of her text. In a section of Midwinter Day that reads like an alchemic invocation, Mayer summons a cabal of other women and mother artists who struggled (some to early, self-inflicted death), including Anne Sexton, Alice Notley, Maureen Owen, Rich, Fanny Howe and others―women who wrote so “I could know / What she thought about things.”
Together, separately, mirroring one another and for those of us in these next generations, these artists all wrestled with the same complexities and spoke to each other through their work, carrying on a dialogue about what it means to be a mother and a writer. It is a universal labor. Mayer writes, within the poem, of her motivation for Midwinter Day:
I had an idea to write a book that would translate the detail of thought from a day to language like a dream transformed to read as it does, everything, a book that would end before it started in time to prove the day like the dream has everything in it, to do this without remembering like a dream inciting writing continuously for as long as you can stand up till you fall down like in a story to show and possess everything we know because having it all at once is performing a magical service for survival by the use of the mind like memory.
Before “having it all” became a cultural slingshot, Mayer invoked this magical dictum for the writing mother. Be a mother, be a thinker, be a writer―deny none of these selves. With the disciplined tough love only a mother can offer, she urges me, Do not look away.