The Motherhood Literature Paradox
What we know about motherhood is written by women with time and resources
I am a writer. I am a mother. I am a writer who has written extensively on motherhood, starting fitfully when my daughter was six months old, for several years, culminating in the publication of a memoir, in July of 2018, when my daughter was four and a half. It wasn’t easy. Writers love to complain about how hard writing is, and it is hard: I sit and stare for days, sometimes, and nothing comes out. I bang the keys writing emails and chatting with friends only to find that it’s now time to pick my daughter up from school, my work day has concluded, and I’ve written… 13 words. The motherhood part is hard, too. My daughter, who is now nearly six, has needs, both physical and emotional. She asks, with no warning, if God is real and poof! twenty minutes are gone. She wants to see me, to be near me, to smell me, and I want to spend all of my time with her. And then I don’t want to. It is complicated, as all things worth doing are. My daughter is and always will be more important than my work, but I wouldn’t be the me she knows, not quite, without the work.
I’m mostly over the days of writing about motherhood. This tends to happen, one can only spend so many years wrestling with that particular demon before you say, “Okay, I’ve done my best, now let’s just LIVE.” I use my work time on other things. I might be happier for it, no longer examining myself or my daughter quite so fiercely. Some days I’m not sure.
But one thing is absolutely true: I don’t miss some of the feedback.
Here’s the thing: many or most of the comments, tweets, and emails I got responding to my hundreds of pieces about motherhood were effusively positive. People wrote to me about themselves, their own lives. They told me that reading my words made them feel better about their own conflicted feelings. They told me that I gave voice to their worries, their sorrows. This was deeply moving and it made me want to continue, in spite of the other, not so great feedback I sometimes got.
When I began writing about motherhood, I’d already been writing online for many years, so, it’s possible that I was uniquely placed to continue in the face of what often seemed to be people simply trolling for reactions, for engagement. Because I was an old hand at “the internet” by then, I forged on, ignoring the vocal minority (and it was truly a small sliver) who told me that I should have never had a child, that all I wrote about seemed depressing, a litany of complaints about my personal difficulties. That I was lucky to have her, that I was over-thinking, that motherhood wasn’t really that hard.
They had a point, but they didn’t.
Writing about motherhood, the kind of motherhood we all know exists in the modern world, especially in the US where support, childcare, leave, all these things are expensive and complex, has become more commonplace. Many, many parents have written in the past few years about their struggles, their overwhelming struggles, their pre- and postpartum depressions, their wins and their losses. This was not the case even a decade ago, and so, the common wisdom would tell us that this equals progress. And, so it does. But really, just because the volume of writing on a topic increases, doesn’t mean that it suddenly becomes easier to either parent or to write about it. There are problems with that way of thinking. The vocal minority, who prey on the comments sections and on Twitter are still there to tell the “complaining” mother that she sucks for speaking up. Mothers, we know, are held to a very high standard. You can’t really say it “sucks to be a mother sometimes” more than once or twice without people talking about you behind your back, wondering if you’re a criminal, a monster. And who gets to complain — the writers on motherhood — well, the deck is still stacked.
This week, there‘s been a classic Twitter pile on. This time, it was British writer Lucy Ellman, who has a new novel out, Ducks, Newburyport, that she is promoting. Ellman was interviewed for the Guardian books section by writer Sian Cain, and in a much-cited (on Twitter) answer to a question about motherhood said, “You watch people get pregnant and know they’ll be emotionally and intellectually absent for 20 years. Thought, knowledge, adult conversation and vital political action are all put on hold while this needless perpetuation of the species is prioritized. Having babies is a strong impulse, a forgivable one, but it’s also just a habit, a tradition, like weddings or putting butter on popcorn.”
The outrage was fast and voluminous, as regular citizens and writers stepped up to say “Look at me! I wrote a book, or ten, AND I had three kids to boot! Fuck you Lucy!” (I made this quote up, and I do not want to call out specific tweets because that’s just rude). There were many, many of these responses that cascaded past my eyes before I clicked on a link to the full piece quoted. Once I did, I found that, first, Lucy Ellman is a mother herself, in addition to being a writer. I found that her novel, which is apparently 1,000 pages long, is about motherhood . And I found that, in context, her comments read quite differently than I might have assumed:
Q: In Ducks, our narrator — a mother — thinks: “I’m scared of all young women now, because when I look at them I see another potential mother-hater, the fact that I always wonder now how they treat their own moms.” You’re a mother, and both a great defender and critic of motherhood. How do you balance these positions?
A: What worries me is the big divide I’ve occasionally observed between mothers and daughters. I suspect patriarchy is behind this hostility. When women turn on each other, you have to look for the source of that, who benefits. It’s a great pity, because all this woman-on-woman anger could be better directed against our oppressors.
I was very close to my own mother, and feel the power and meaning of motherhood are widely overlooked — again, in service to patriarchy. But now that we’re in a climate emergency, the closer we can get to zero births, the better. I do admire women who decide to not have children for the environment. I think it’s touching and noble and generous. It’s also incredibly sensible. People don’t talk enough about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive and thankless parenthood is. Why must we keep pretending it’s a joy? Sure, there are delightful elements: children are endearing and fascinating, and if you have some, you get to play with toys again and read children’s books and remember your childhood. But illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence — these are big deterrents.
Okay, I thought. Nothing to see here. Let me move on to other topics, other Tweets more worthy of my time.
When I was a younger mother, when my daughter was just three or so, I used to sometimes wake up, gripped by a sort of paradox: I write, for a living, about motherhood. I did this at first freelance, a weekly column, and then finally, I did it full-time as a parenting editor at a website. While I wrote away, first a few hours a week, then 40 hours a week, then eventually, wrote my book, someone else was taking care of my daughter. First a nanny, then a pre-school. What troubled me was this: Who was I to write about motherhood when so much of the time I needed someone else to take care of her so that I could get all this goddamned writing done?
The answer is, of course, that every parent who works needs those other people. But that didn’t stop me from seeing the strangeness of my own existence, writing and editing work about parenting — when I wasn’t parenting — which I could not do if I was parenting. This ate at me a bit. More than it should have, because working made me a better mother, no question. Time away from what you love most always makes you better at loving, especially when the thing you love is an extremely needy 2-year-old.
What to do with Ellman’s comments? The Twitter complaints seemed to focus their ire on her statement that motherhood makes one a sort of mindless robot incapable of rational thought, or of making art. UNTRUE! The masses wept.
I sympathize with the masses: here I am. Having my daughter gave me a different vocation than I’d previously had. I was a writer before my daughter, but I wasn’t a Writer with a Voice. Once she was born, I found something To Say. I was mad, and overjoyed, and loved and I wrote more than I’d ever written, all about and because of her. She inspired me to excavate my relationships, with my family, my father, my dead mother, my husband, and yes, with myself and her. So I get the uproar.
But that tiny midnight voice from long ago whispered to me: “And how did you do that, Laura?”
I did it with the help of other people. Yes, there were nights when I put her to bed and typed away while she slept, me holding down two jobs, mother and writer at once. That’s what I’m doing now. But, to be perfectly honest, for the first four years of my daughter’s life, the ones that were most fruitful in the Annals of Motherhood, by Me, I did it with *help.* And I knew, as I thought of this, what Ellman means. I was not a robot without sense or incapable of human communications because I had other people to step in help me with my daughter when I needed, or wanted, to work. A father. A grandparent. A nanny.
A mother with a 0 to 4 year old, alone, at home, for the duration, will accomplish next to nothing but the raising of a child, the meals, the laundry. It is a lot. And yet, there will be no voice in public, no writings.
In 2001, the British novelist Rachel Cusk wrote, in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (a non-fiction memoir), “In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify.” With that, she began again the literature of Motherhood (as recognized by the canon, the literary elite, who seem to recognize only a certain, straight, white, birth mother-type) which has been begun many times. Writers, mostly women but not always, (you don’t have to be a woman to be a Mother, let’s get that straight), have been trying as long as literature has existed to give voice to this voiceless, impermanent space, this bit of time in a life where one matters less than what one is simply trying to keep alive.
Since Cusk, the literature of motherhood, like the literature of many other things (because of the internet) has grown immeasurably. And yet, as the Guardian review of A Life’s Work noted, mothers often say, “You’d think she was the first person in the world to have a baby.” Each mother is, in some way, some intangible, horrifically personal way, the first person to have a baby.
What keeps me awake at night now isn’t that there isn’t enough volume of literature about the difficulties of parenting. It’s that we don’t get to hear enough range. This is true of almost every genre: who gets to speak is always, always gate-kept by gate-keepers who don’t know what we want to read and do not speak for us. With motherhood, it’s even more true: countless mothers, not like me, can’t afford the help to make time to sit down for two hours in the middle of the day to write out their thoughts on motherhood. It is no accident that most of “the literature” “on motherhood” is cis white straight and middle or upper-middle class women who give birth to their kids. It is a choice of editors yes, but also of the circumstances of the parents who do not check those boxes. In order to “write about motherhood” one needs the room of one’s own we’ve heard so much about. And most people, some of them with thoughts yet unthinkable, simply do not have the room or the time.
I think sometimes about my own mother, a straight white Catholic woman with four kids before the age of 30, who in my mind was brilliant and funny and well-organized, before she fell prey to addiction. If she had something to say, she never had a moment to write it down. And it is, I think, our loss and maybe, my gain.