To be a “mother writer” seems oxymoronic. How can one raise children, have the space to devote to deep thoughts, and find the necessary silence to parse words together all at the same time? The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, edited by Emily Pérez and Nancy Reddy, addresses this question through poetry and prose written by mother writers from all over the world. With its ivory cover featuring meandering paths in varying shades of red, we know before we even open the book that what lies within won’t contain easy answers. Writing motherhood is rarely a linear process.
The Long Devotion tackles the enormous task of celebrating all of motherhood: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. Somehow the editors have, in only 248 pages, addressed just about every facet of a mother’s life. Not only were they intentional about including all kinds of mothers from different walks of life, but the writing styles are just as varied. Mixed within the diverse forms of poetry and prose, we also find cartoons and flowcharts.
The book is divided into four sections that correlate with four stages of childhood from birth to adulthood: “Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy,” “The Body and the Brain,” “In the World,” and “Transitions.” Each section begins with a collection of poems, continues with a few essays exploring the theme in greater detail, and ends with writing prompts inviting the reader to reflect on life as a mother.
In its first section, “Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy,” The Long Devotion explores the plethora of emotions surrounding conception, pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. The poems and essays in this section boldly challenge stereotypes and misconceptions of what it means to be a mother. In “Intimate Detail,” Heid E. Erdrich uses the metaphor of a honeybee to illustrate society’s presumption that a woman is not fully a woman until she has become a mother. The beginning of the poem portrays a woman, in late summer, drinking tea with pen in hand. Bees fly around her, frantically in search of nectar. Like a woman who has not yet given birth, they know their days of plenty are almost over.
Later in the poem, we feel the pain of this woman who is not a mother when a delivery man asks if she has kids.
He calls the honeybees his girls although
he tells me they’re ungendered workers
who never produce offspring.
. . .
little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir
stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone.
When I was in my twenties, married but not yet ready for children, people asked this question frequently. At the time, I was confident in my decision to not have children, and yet their questioning made me feel inadequate—it inferred that my womanhood hinged on being a mother.
In “Confession,” Kiki Petrosino writes of actively preventing pregnancy, but worrying every month that a baby will come anyway.
Every month I decide not to try
is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself
Still, I worry you’ll come to me anyhow.
Women wrestle with this dichotomy of emotions every day. On the one hand, we are confident in our decision to use birth control; it means more freedom, more financial security, and more abundance for ourselves. On the other hand, we know there’s always a slight chance birth control won’t work. There’s constant fear the pink line will show up on the test. The thought of being responsible for a tiny human brings anxiety over the things we might lose and all of the decisions we will have to make on behalf of someone else. When we decide not to try, we feel a sense of luxury that comes from not having to share our bodies and minds with someone that will forever be intimately a part of us.
This section continues with poems about miscarriage, infant loss, and failure to conceive, as well as poems about bed rest, disappointing birth experiences, raging hormones, and postpartum depression. In “Postpartum: Lullaby,” Chelsea Rathburn captures hundreds of late-night nursing sessions and the exhaustion mothers feel from loving and caring for their children all day. All we want to do is sleep through the night, but we are the nourishment.
By night beneath a callus moon
When she alone can soothe she croons
aloud aloud the unallowed
I want to blow my brains out now
It might seem perverse, but there’s so much truth in that haunting line. In our solitude, when we feel like nothing but a milk cow, there are times when mothers feel completely spent, like we cannot give any more of ourselves. But the poem doesn’t end here. Rathburn ends with a poignant turn:
And still they rock and rock and rock
beside a cold indifferent clock
This first section ends with three essays that show an often overlooked portrait of motherhood: alternative family structures beyond conventional nuclear families. Single mothers, lesbian mothers, blended families, birth mothers who give their babies up for adoption, and foster mothers are celebrated as valuable, worthy, and holy.
The second section of The Long Devotion moves from emotions and hormones surrounding motherhood into the physical demands of mothering. The poems and essays in “The Body and the Brain” depict pregnancy and pre-birth procedures, labor and births of all kinds (including miscarriage, natural birth, and cesarean birth), postpartum recovery, breastfeeding, and mothering through chronic illness, to challenge and encourage mothers to be gracious to themselves. The work of mothering sometimes feels impossible; there’s only so much physical self to give.
This section is full of poems that made me laugh out loud and cry at the same time. In “Pediatric Laboratory Feces Test #1,” Sherine Gilmore has to collect her son’s poop from his diaper for a medical test.
I was given lab instructions and a tiny spoon.
I kneel on the floor, holding my son’s diaper,
and measure the right amount
She’s worried her child has something wrong with him:
Yeast shit, bacterial shit. Neurological impairment. Autism shit.
Possible heavy metal poisoning. Mitochondrial damage.
Could be he contracted something from me? From the hospital?
Poop becomes second nature to us as mothers; if we don’t laugh, we won’t be able to stop the crying. We become intimately aware of our babies’ bodily functions. We continuously worry: Is something wrong with our babies’ shit?
The worry doesn’t go away when our children graduate out of diapers. The third section of the book, “In the World,” portrays mothers’ difficulty when we realize we can’t protect our children from the dangers of the world. The poems and essays in this section wrestle with how mothering changes one’s perspective on a world in the midst of climate change, terrorism, suicide, unemployment, rising costs, racism, war, and more.
And just when we think we have one thing figured out, something changes. The final section covers the “Transitions” of mothering, because, as the editors write, “In parenting the only constant is change.” To be a mother is to be an agent of change. If anything is reliable for a mother, it’s that tomorrow will rarely look exactly like today.
In her essay, “I Stop Writing the Poem: On Motherhood & The Writing Life,” Molly Spencer writes about making a decision to not be a writer in her early twenties. “I sensed that an artistic life would be all-consuming and that motherhood would be all-consuming. I didn’t think I could do both, and I chose motherhood.”
I found myself nodding as I read her words. With all the stresses of motherhood, we begin to wonder if there really is time to write. When we become a mother, we often make a decision to put our own desires on the back burner for the good of our little people. It becomes too hard to find time. Later in the essay, Spencer acknowledges that by doing the work, mother writers set a positive example for their children:
. . . as I persist in trying to make something out of nothing in time and in space my life doesn’t subside for, my children are watching. I want to show them how it is done. I want them to know that a woman is more than a caregiver. And I want them to see that a person can do their life’s work simply by insisting upon doing it.
For many mothers, writing isn’t optional; it’s essential. As Khadijah Queen writes in “Mothering Solo,” “Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary.” The Long Devotion is an encouragement to mother writers everywhere that their experiences matter.