Writing and Not Writing Motherhood and the Self
After my poetry reading, my daughter Simone, who had listened attentively, looking up at me from the front row, told me that she’d enjoyed my poems, especially the ones about her. This made me happy. And then, almost immediately, sad.
I wanted to have written more about her; I wanted my work to reflect my love. But my poems about Simone were mostly about my pregnancy with her 15 years ago.
She shows up again in my poems in snippets: a girl holding a bucket, drawing a flower. But the live, dynamic person that she is, my kind, spunky, thoughtful daughter with her blue-gray eyes, the girl who ran around the house putting on elaborate acting shows, who I held in my arms, who now goes about the world with such grace and surety, but whom I still lie down next to at night to check in about her day—that person who means more to me than language can ever express hardly appears in my writing at all.
Pregnancy turned me into a writer four years before Simone was born, when I was pregnant with her brother.
My changing body turned me inward. The more my belly protruded, the deeper I went and the more I wanted to translate that inner life into language.
I wanted to write partly to represent myself on the page. At twenty-six, in New York City, in 1999, I’d read few accounts of motherhood. And the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, famous poet mothers who had killed themselves, scared me.
I thought I wanted to create a new story of motherhood, a new story of what it means to birth and nurture life, a new story of what it means to be creative.
My early poems were about pregnancy and motherhood. Later, I wrote a memoir about the first year of mothering my son. But when memories of an early childhood sexual assault started to surface, I pulled the memoir from my agent: in part writing about motherhood had made me start to remember pieces of my own childhood, and I didn’t want to publish a story that I myself only vaguely understood.
Now my son is off at his freshman year of college; Simone is in her freshman year of high school. And I’ve hardly written about being a mother.
What if when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t important to me because I don’t write about them? What if they make the mistake of thinking that the real me is the me on the page?
I want to burn all my writing when I have this thought. I feel an old disembodied despair of not being seen in my wholeness. Of being only part of me, of being fragmented.
When I teach writing, sometimes my students say that they are scared to share their writing because they feel like they’re sharing all of themselves. They’re worried that their deepest, innermost selves are on display. I know that feeling all too well.
But I also know that this fear comes from a misequation between our writing and ourselves. It’s the ego speaking, that wishes we could have a stable, monolithic self that could be seen, understood, praised; it’s the bruised parts of ourselves that are afraid of rejection.
We can put parts of ourselves on the page and leave whole other parts off. We can be seen and also not seen at the same time.
For women it is particularly hard to be fully seen. It was Walt Whitman who wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But it was Emily Dickinson who said, “I dwell in possibility.”
For women, it’s that hard to feel that we are large enough—that the space around is large enough—to hold all our identities at once. We’re expected to be one thing, but we are so many. And then we worry that if it’s not all on the page, it’s lost—not important, not given the weight that it deserves.
But then I remembered again for the hundredth, the thousandth time: my writing is not me.
Just as my trauma is not me. Just as motherhood, too, is not me, just part of the experiences that have made me who I am.
Thinking about the ways in which I have—and haven’t—written about motherhood helps me reconsider and see more clearly the role writing plays in my life.
I had thought that I wrote to represent myself, to give voice to what is important, to explore what means the most to me and what I work hardest at, but none of this is so simply the case.
If I wrote to represent myself on the page, certainly I’d have written more about motherhood.
If I wrote to give voice to what I think is important, certainly, too, I’d have written more about motherhood—because I think nothing is more important for us individually or as a society than how we raise our young.
If I wrote from the parts of my life that I worked hardest at, then, too, I’d have written more about motherhood. Sometimes people—who have not, perhaps, themselves had children—think that writing about motherhood is sentimental, clichéd, easy, a story we’ve already heard, but nothing is more demanding than mothering and nothing more particular.
And what’s kept me from writing about motherhood isn’t, either, that I haven’t wanted to intrude on my children’s boundaries. I could have written about them but not published it. After all, I have hundreds of pages of unpublished writings on other topics but not on motherhood and my children.
So my basic assumptions about why I write are undone.
Why, then, do I write?
I write, ultimately, not to express myself in any kind of static way, but to explore possibilities.
I write from the part of myself that can’t be actualized in other ways.
I write from the places I do not know myself and need to meet myself again.
I write from silence, from the place language does not yet go, to try to put into language what I do not understand.
I write from confusion, from the inchoate, that place of becoming that has not yet become. I write from the place of potential, coaxing possibility into words.
My writing—like my meditation practice—teaches me again and again that there is no fixed location for my identity, for myself. And also that I can’t depend on other people to see me or for my worth. I need to see myself—on the page and off, in all my many dimensions, in all my multitudes and all my possibilities.
I wrote about motherhood as a young mother, I realize now, because motherhood turned my world upside down, upended my identity, startled me in ways that I couldn’t work out only by living.
Now that my children are growing up, are moving away from me, I find myself wanting to write more about motherhood again perhaps exactly because I’m somersaulted again in and through my own understanding of myself, another transformation under way.
In the end, I realize, I write my creative work to encounter parts of myself that I do not encounter in other ways. I write not for the people I love or for any abstract public or judge, but for myself and also for some reader I don’t know and will probably never meet who might stumble across what I write and find in it something that she begins to recognize, some part of herself that she didn’t even know she had.
And truth be told, though Simone liked the poems I wrote about her, when I gave her my book, she smiled, thanked me, gave me a hug, and put it on her shelf where it still sits, unopened.
And that’s okay. She and I have a different way of communicating, and we share so much more than what’s on the page.
10 replies on “Writing and Not Writing Motherhood and the Self”
Reading this beautiful piece brought calm to my anxieties that I was nursing prior to reading it. I had several moments of feeling totally relieved of my inner conflicts I have held about my writing life. The messages nestled in this reflection piece has given me the courage to continue writing – no matter what.
Thank you so much Tawona! I’m so honored to be able to encourage your writing!
Thank you Nadia, how beautiful this was to read.
I think about why I want to write, what I will write about. There are many things I’d like to write about. A children’s book, maybe a book about moving on in life after trauma, maybe a book about my life experiences, a book about my best friend, my Grandma who passed away.
For me just sitting down and trying to figure out in which direction I want to go is tough. Feeling like I am not as good to write.
The more I am a part of this group I hope to grow and find that path.
This was a beautiful piece to read. Thank you.
I feel I have found a kindred spirit when I read your words. Writing for me has also been a discovery of myself, an attempt to create meaning behind the unexplainable things that happen in life. Thank you for your honesty and openness in sharing your experiences. I am continuing to write and am exploring the reasons why I write as well. I am so inspired by your work!
Thanks for this. A year ago, the daughter I gave up for adoption found me. Since then, she and I have continued to grapple with what it means to be mother and daughter, without really knowing each other. Our first means of communication was through writing. I’ve been writing most of my life, journals mostly, so writing about this, and how it has affected my life and the lives of my family has been extremely beneficial. I am contemplating a memoir because of this. Thanks for sharing.
My husband says this is good for me, the writing. I have been writing most of my life, bits and pieces, articles, a column or two, class notes for my students, novelettes, a kind of historical fiction based on the lives of various family members – Christmas gifts, and two collections of poetry.
But I missed being on the other side of the desk, being in the “room” where I could learn, be guided in my writing, or allowed to take something and “run with it.” I missed being in the room with other women who “get it.”
So thank you Nadia, for all of it.
Nadia, your essay is so helpful to me because I periodically ask myself why I write, beyond the pleasure of the creative process itself. What resonates most with me from your piece is that I write “to encounter parts of myself that I don’t encounter in other ways” and “to explore possibilities,” not just “to express myself in any kind of static way.”
This is certainly true for me during the triple pandemics of COVID-19, rampant racial injustice, and climate crisis. Writing is helping me sort out who I am and what I “plan to do with my one wild and precious life” now that the familiar societal/cultural props and myths have been knocked out from under me.
I always hold out the hope as well that something I write may strike a chord for someone who reads it, like what your essay here did for me. Thank you!
Felt like you were speaking directly to me, thank you, this is one I will read many times.
I’ve similar feelings about what I what and don’t write, and what may be discovered by family and friends. They are all pieces that are a part of me, and like you, I worry what they may think. But as I think of that, I need to think less of it, and release the stories that need to be told. You inspire me to keep going, and to share bits and pieces, collections that make me feel whole just by sharing. You hold the light, so that I may too. Thank You for inspring me to write, and compose as I go.
I remember one day when I went to a museum with my husband and my son, and we were standing in front of a piece of abstract artwork, trying to figure out what it was. We looked; I looked. And I don’t know why I said, “the moment when you begin to name the what-is, the what-is-not, the infinity of what-i- not is immediately diminished.” I was shocked that I said it. It was too true at the moment, too true for my creative life, writing, for example.
Thank you for writing something that resonates with me, and with the moment I was in the museum, so deeply.
Let’s keep writing.