I’ve never met my tribe. They come to the circle from east and west, north and south. I’ve listened to their stories, and they to mine. I’ve pored over their heartache, followed along as they’ve grown as mothers, wives, and friends, but never once reached in with a hand. Another mother writer introduced us, our mentor and guide. She pulled us together, stumbling through winter into the light of spring. At first we were hesitant, wondering who would go first, who would speak their truth and set the tone for our gatherings. We worried we’d shared too much, that we’d shown up to the circle naked without so much as a blanket to cover our fears.
It’s better that we’ve never met, at least to start. Had we been introduced in person, no doubt we all would have brought our heaviest quilts and goose down comforters to hide the truths lurking behind our smiling eyes. We might have spent weeks getting through the awkward small talk and uncomfortable pleasantries required of new friendships. Instead, hidden behind our computer screens and with miles between us, we met online with a teacher who urged us to write about two things we share so intimately: motherhood and words. You are mothers and you are writers, she told us, let’s get started. And so we did, even if we did not entirely believe we could call ourselves writers. Still, from the beginning, we have shared our stories with the candor that accompanies anonymity. We wear our invisibility cloaks, remaining faceless and formless except for our souls. Those we bare with an honesty permissible because of the privacy settings to which we’ve all agreed.
After ten weeks, we were not ready for our class to end. We had only just begun to poke at the scabs holding in our secrets. And so we began our sequel. In another online space, we called our new group “Mothers and Words Continue” and we kept our pens moving.
For now, we remain a collective hodgepodge of mother writers meeting late at night, or sometimes early in the morning. Stealing hours, sometimes under covers, sometimes in our basements, in the writing spaces we’ve fashioned out of crates, or laundry tables, or closets. We come because we are called to the page, because we need to share our stories. But now we call each other. I sit down, in part, because my friends ask how my story ends, or how it continues, why it started, and where I’ll take it.
I sometimes share more with this tribe than I do with my husband. I don’t ask him to read my work anymore. Not because I don’t value his opinion. In fact, I do. But because he reads without question, he doesn’t ask me to dig deeper, or to figure out why I said what I said, in that tone, with that look in my eye. If, or rather when, the time comes, he will be first in line at my book signing and he will buy out the entire store if no one else should come. He is my biggest fan, but he is not my reader.
For that, I need my tribe. Strangers across states and continents, who come to my pages between soccer practices and science fairs, in coffee shops and carpool lines. Each month they bring an I wonder, a perhaps you, and a what if to my writing. They open my eyes to a stance I’d forgotten to take, a curiosity I’d ignored, or a truth I tried to conceal. Occasionally, they’ll show me where a comma can change a sentence completely and a story entirely.
Their stories stay with me, sometimes haunting me, as I move through my days. When I should be folding laundry in the quiet of an afternoon nap, I am captivated on my kitchen stool while their lives unfold on my screen. When my sons wake and call me to collect them, I find myself frustrated that they should invade this sacred space of mine.
Though our stories are different, we ask the same questions. No matter that we’ve each come to motherhood riding our own wave, surfing into the shore with ease or great fear or gasping for air, tangled in seaweed. We are here. We are all here. And that is what unites us. Who am I? We wonder through our prose, and how did I come to be this way?
I have worked up the courage to call myself a writer since joining this circle of mother writers. Inspired by the valiant among us who’ve already found their voice on the page, I practice saying the words aloud without my eyes shifting towards the sky or an awkward laugh escaping my mouth. I haven’t perfected the cadence and it still sounds strange, but slowly, slowly, it is becoming. Each time I open my computer to find a response to my writing, I am reminded that I am allowed to own the title. Brava, they say, keep going. And so I do.
Mostly we write about our children. They gave us permission to sign up for a class called Motherhood & Words and they continue to inspire our work. And so we share our stories across the spectrum of needs our children bring to us. From adoption to autism, Down syndrome to depression, infertility to insomnia, we write our children and our stories with the raw and tender strokes oft reserved for secret diaries. Unlike our annual Christmas cards or status updates where we show the world our best selves, on the page our fear and shame do not hide. On the page, we are real, honest, mean, dirty, and spiteful. We bring our doubts, our mistakes, our embarrassments, and our regrets. But in bringing our worst to light, we also bring our best.
When my tribe of mothers allows me to see their worst, I begin to understand who they are, what motivates them, what they believe, what makes them hurt, and how they come up for air. I see that they are human, they are real. In connecting with them on the page, I see my own truths. They give me permission to honor that which is real in my own story.
At first I compared our stories. I wondered whether I had the right to write if I hadn’t suffered as much as my friends had. I wondered whether I had a story at all, since my plot twists weren’t nearly as harrowing or life-altering as theirs. At first it felt like I had no plot at all, like I was simply meandering, mostly blessed, with an occasional side dish of heartache. Yet week after week, our teacher prompted us to share our truths, and each time I shared, I was surprised to hear that my words resonated. You could have been writing about me, they would say.
More than once I’ve shared my work and immediately felt regret, wishing I could take it back and start the piece again. I worried that instead of connecting with my friends on the page, I was isolating myself, or worse, offending them. Once I can remember writing about my own anxieties, and realizing that several of my friends inhabit these fears every minute of every day, though have settled into them with tenacity and grace. They have listened as doctors struggled uncomfortably to explain the new realities of a child with special needs. They have slept upright in the stiff plastic hospital chairs with heartbeat monitors lulling them into broken sleep. They’ve taken on the mantle of nurse as well as mother in the wee hours of the morning. They have woken to phone calls telling them to come now, come quickly. And they have lived with the low grade fear of always being a step behind, a step too late. The intimate stories they share are sometimes the precise stories I hope never to tell. And yet, somehow they understand and allow my fears to exist inside our circle around the page. Your fears are real, they say, we understand. Their compassion stretches my own definition of motherhood and friendship.
It doesn’t matter that our pace has slowed since we shifted away from the formalities of a class and into our writing circle. Without the weight of a deadline, we no longer share each week, or even every month. We share when the words come, when we are moved to the page, when we have time. If a story is painful to write, we take breaks, returning to it when we feel ready to begin again, when we’ve rested enough to carry on. And when we return, we are welcomed back like an old friend. We missed you, so glad you’re here.
We won’t always be writing about motherhood. Like our children, our stories will change too. One day, perhaps sooner than we’d like, we’ll find ourselves connecting over heartaches and backaches, empty nests and endings. But I hope that in watching them through their words, and eavesdropping on their pages, I will continue to see my own reflection and find my strength as the mother, writer, and woman that I am.
And so, to my tribe, I thank you. For showing up. For meeting me on the page. For sharing your truths so that mine might also be illuminated. Though we’ve never met in the flesh, I honor you and your dedication to this craft to which we’ve all been so humbly called.