Five years ago, my literary agent called to tell me that the manuscript of the memoir I was writing had been rejected. “Stop working on your little postpartum project,” he suggested, “and come up with something new.”
My ears buzzed with embarrassment and anger. When I’d sent him pages, I was hoping for developmental feedback on a newborn idea—not a quick (and unauthorized) submission to the publishing house with the right of first refusal.
I was sitting in my hot parked car. This was where I worked and took phone calls when my two small children were at home with a babysitter. Two thoughts entered my head simultaneously:
One: I will finish writing this book.
Two: I will finish writing this book and the first person I will mention in the acknowledgements section will be him.
I could see the lines. I’d like to begin by thanking my former literary agent, Mr. X, who referred to this book as “a little postpartum project.” Guess what, Mr. X, your offensive comment only encouraged me to keep writing.
And it did. It took five more years and one more baby, but I finished the book.
The revenge in the acknowledgements section is proving more difficult. In the past two months, my memoir has been rejected by editors at a dozen publishing houses, large and small. Two editors almost bought it, but didn’t. All of them offered encouraging rejections and the same major critique—they couldn’t figure out how to position the work for breakout success.
So now I’m wondering: Was Mr. X right?
Should I have listened to him, pressed delete, and moved on?
Or should I have done what I did, keep writing?
When I began writing in early 2013, the manuscript was a book about my mother-in-law, Ruth, and the difficult relationship we had up until she died three months before I gave birth to my first child, a daughter. But over the years, the book spiraled and shifted in focus. It became, at different points, a story about a new marriage; a book about illness, birth, and death; a book that used the ocean and wayfinding as a metaphor for understanding motherhood; a book about the cult of femininity and domesticity; the story of my “perfect” childhood and growing up surrounded by members of the LDS Church; a book that interrogated good mothering and bad mothering, maternal ambivalence, and the influence of mothering on the internet.
I wanted to write a good book, one that would find readers like me. But writing motherhood—and writing myself as a subject—was more difficult and circuitous than expected, especially since my identity as a new mother was constantly shifting. Each new reader wanted me to add the elusive “more.” I want to see more of you as a mother. I want to see more happiness. I want more rage, weren’t you ever angry? Is there a subplot, should you write one? What about the pandemic?
I finished the final draft of my memoir—now called The Waves—in early January 2022. My brilliant new agent, a woman, prepared to send out the manuscript. But when a new friend asked what The Waves was about, I had a hard time composing an easy answer. Motherhood? I said tentatively. What I meant was: The Waves is about losing and finding myself in the role of motherhood, and how other mothers I knew helped shape that identity.
As I spoke, I worried something big and dramatic needed to happen on the pages of my book in order to make the story I’d written worthwhile. Marital discord, a mental break, injury or illness. The story of mother (as subject) and motherhood (as plot) wasn’t enough to drive a book-length narrative.
Or was it? In The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem, published in April 2022, author Julie Phillips argues for motherhood as subject and plot. The hero-mother, she writes, is “the story of a central figure who goes on a journey of self-discovery. Someone who follows a trail of breadcrumbs (and anecdotes and incoherent moments). Someone who descends into the underworld and comes back. A heroine—the protagonist of her own life story—who gets lost in the forest and finds her way.”
As many other feminist critics have, Phillips articulates that to write the female, maternal experience is complicated. It is a narrative that is interrupted by pregnancy and birth, by the maligned postpartum experience, by the difficulties and frustrations of busy, needy children.
But, Phillips guesses, maybe the complications are the point: “Maybe the stories aren’t meant to come together. If it’s so hard to move beyond anecdote and discord onto some higher plane of maternal theorizing, maybe it’s because the interruptions are what I’m meant to be noticing. Perhaps interruption and disruption are not what keep me from seeing mothering clearly, but are the conditions of maternal creativity.”
I always knew that I wanted to be a mother and in college became interested in the craft of memoir writing, particularly how women made sense of lives that were disrupted by pregnancy and parenting. I remember furtively reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott in my early twenties and, a few years later, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After A Lifetime of Ambivalence by Rebecca Walker. I picked them not because I felt ready to have a child, but because I wanted to understand what having a child was really like. Both books frightened me. Motherhood, in my mind, was a Mary Cassatt painting: lullabies and soft pastels. No difficulty, no mess, only love. Later, while getting my master’s in women’s studies, I underlined so much in Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich, that the pages of the book turned hot pink. I had discovered feminism, and the subtitle of Rich’s book seemed to say it best: Mothering as Experience and Institution. “Before we were mothers,” Rich wrote, “we have been, first of all, women, with actual bodies and actual minds.” When I was ready, I believed I would enter into the role willingly and with agency.
But it’s the modern canon of writing about motherhood, the books I read while pregnant and mothering very young children, that were the most influential on my mothering and creative life. I wanted to read them all. I tried (I still try) to read them all. Some of my favorites: MOTHERs by Rachel Zucker, Increase by Lia Purpura, and A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. But none of them seemed to exactly define or describe my experience of mothering. I set out to write my own, though maybe I should have listened to Cusk. “The experience of motherhood,” she writes, “loses nearly everything in its translation to the outside world.”
What makes published memoirs of motherhood work? Part of it, you could argue, is timing, of being the first to write about a commonplace experience.
Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich first arrived in bookstores in 1976. The most widely reviewed of Rich’s books at the time, it was revolutionary in its unflinching depiction of motherhood. But it was not seen as a celebration of the role. Instead, it was interpreted as a cautionary tale: let’s not become our mothers. In the 1990s, the book was rediscovered and hit a different nerve. Alongside Rich’s feminist wisdom were enduring and nearly universal truths about what it meant to mother. Of Woman Born became a narrative that helped define thinking and writing about contemporary motherhood. It undoubtedly paved the way for the first motherhood memoirs I read—and the hundreds that came after. Today, honest and unsentimental portrayals of motherhood—particularly privileged white motherhood—have become the norm in print and online.
A defined structure may also be a clue to the success of a motherhood memoir. Julie Phillips notes that most narratives about motherhood are not focused on the experience of raising older children or the long game of raising children into young adulthood. This may be because older kids are more challenging, but also because they possess their own identities and flaws, traits that mothers are less likely to expose publicly. In contrast, Operating Instructions, A Life’s Work, and Increase are all narratives focused on a short yet specific time: the early years of raising a child. The voice is that of a woman who has survived mothering and lived to write beautifully about the experience. She is here to remind you how fleeting it is, even though some days it feels endlessly monotonous. (She details those days too). In Increase, Lia Purpura writes poetically about the everyday experience of bathing an infant: “From a small, green cup, bath water pours out in a silver scarf, a magic scarf that breaks into bits on the surface of itself and disappears. Rinse water lifts his fine hair in a wave like sea grass that clings to the jetty’s boulders and rolls out with the tide, then settles over the outcrops of the ears, the soft fontanel, that imprint in sand, already disappearing.” The days are long, as the saying goes, but the years are short. You will look back on them with fondness.
My attempts to contain my experience of motherhood on the page were not so neat. I have three small children and have been pregnant or breastfeeding continuously for nine years. It has taken all those years to understand motherhood and my identity as a mother—if I understand it at all. In The Baby On The Fire Escape, Julie Phillips describes the conditions of maternal creativity as “all description and no story.” A critique that rings true to my experience of trying to impose structure onto a narrative that has been, essentially, the story of being lost in the forest of motherhood and finding my way out with new insights and abilities.
Rachel Zucker’s book, MOTHERs, may align best with my experience to date. The book is slim, only 152 pages, and is part essay, part memoir, part poem. Zucker is also the mother of three, and the book is grounded in that experience: “I am the mother who asks, “Are you hungry?” I hold regular mealtimes and bedtimes and maintain household rules. I try to make sure their snow boots arrive before the snow. I go, early, to parent conferences. I referee their soccer games.” But there is another truth in Zucker’s life: “I am a poet.” This duality—the domesticity and nurturing coupled with the desire to make meaning of that experience through writing—is always in conflict. There is never enough time.
As the title suggests, the influence of other women looms large in MOTHERs. Zucker wants to be different (especially different from her own mother), to find her own path through the thicket. “I have three sons,” Zucker writes. “I am a poet, teacher, and doula, and am studying to be a childbirth educator. I attend births and teach poetry. I write books. I cook dinner. I often feel radical, witchy, wild, restless. ‘How does it all come together?’ a student interviewer asks me. ‘It doesn’t,’ I write back.”
I began my book as a biography. What I thought I wanted was to understand my ambivalence for Ruth—my “selfish” and “difficult” mother-in-law. I wanted to see her more clearly as a parent to two sons (one of whom is my husband), and to understand her ambitions and the difficult choices she made. But I quickly realized that what I really wanted was to understand my own experience.
In MOTHERs, Rachel Zucker writes about labor as a narrative, with the laboring mother as subject and story: “One of the hallmarks of labor is that you don’t know where you are in the story of it. You don’t know how long it will take or how far along you are. . . . The intensity of the contractions is undeniable, but often a woman will forget what’s happening and needs to be reminded, ‘You’re having a baby.’ That’s the name of the story, and it helps her to feel not alone, to contextualize the pain. The storyifying helps put the self back together but does not accurately describe the experience.”
I had to write in order to understand the kind of mother I wanted to be. To make sense of the ambivalence I felt about the myriad of expectations—and the woeful lack of support—heaped on parents today. I wrote The Waves because my story felt important and because that’s what I tell my mostly female writing students: that their stories, even their quiet, domestic stories about caring for parents and children and pets and plants, are important.
I feel this truth deep in my bones. That the recording of ordinary lived experiences is vital; that the mild frustrations and everyday bliss of parenthood and caregiving are essential to understanding the women and mothers in our society and our collective humanity. Or, as a student named Viviana said recently: “I just want to write about my parents. In an ordinary way, they were quite extraordinary.” For this reason, my former agent was wrong. Writing a book about my experience of mothering was not a little postpartum project. It was my hero’s tale.
As I finished this essay, I went to see Julie Phillips read from The Baby On The Fire Escape. An older woman behind me asked: what advice would she give to a young woman who wanted to be a mother and to write? Based on her research, Phillips said there were two things a creative mother had to have. One was time. The second was self. The woman-mother-artist must have boundaries and the deep conviction that she has the right to make her art. She needs to not give away too many pieces of her being.
I suppose my book still might sell. If it doesn’t, I have started to think about what I will do with the manuscript. Will I delete it, burn it—as some do? Or will I print it and hide it for my adult children to find someday, maybe with a copy of this essay and a note that reads: Look how much I love you.