Motherhood & Words

On Sunday afternoon I went to see The Mother Project at the Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis. It was a six woman production, directed by Augsburg College theater professor Darcey Engen, in which the women’s stories about motherhood, relationships, identity, grief, their careers, and how they balance art and work and motherhood were woven together on stage. Their stories were often funny and often moving, and the response to the performance was so heartening. The darkened theater was packed, and after the show, Nanci Olesen, one of the performers and MOMbo founder, conducted a Q & A. So many of the audience’s responses began with “I could totally relate to this…” and “Thank you for your honest portrayal of motherhood.” Over and over again people said how much they appreciated the actors’ honesty and nuanced look at parenting and life.

What I came away with was a great sense of validation: yes, people need to hear the real stories of motherhood—the dark ones, the ambivalent ones, the deliciously touching ones. (This selfishly translated into: see, there is a market for my book.)

How disappointing it was to then read the recent Newsweek article by Kathleen Deveny. A friend had mentioned the article to me, saying that the author had bagged motherhood literature, and unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. How harsh critics are when the personal becomes public, when women write against the norm and debunk those glorious myths of motherhood. Blah.

In her article, Deveny seems to trash all motherhood literature, all at once. She says, “I am bored to death with talking, hearing and reading about motherhood.” Oh gag me with a spoon, Kathleen.

She bags researched nonfiction and the summer’s “mommy-lit” novels (her language, not mine). She doesn’t mention memoir, specifically, but you get the impression that it’s included in her rant, as well. But this is where Deveny’s article really falls short. Is she not reading the same literature (and I spell that word out, dammit) that I am?

Almost all the motherhood literature I’ve read (and though I certainly haven’t read it all, I’ve read enough to make some generalized statements about it), is about more than the minutiae of daily life with an infant or toddler or teenager. It is about more than what an average parent does on a day-to-day basis. Most of the motherhood literature I’ve read, like the pieces in The Motherhood Project, deal with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy (the things of life). These pieces are about transformation and how we see ourselves in relation to the world in which we live. Oh I’m sorry, did it sound like I was talking about something universal, like I was talking about “regular” literature? Uh, yeah.

Finding in one’s own experience something universal and being able to turn that into art is not narcissistic (which is how Deveny characterizes women writing about motherhood). It’s the work of writers. I love what memoirist Patricia Hampl says: “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

But when your subject has do with motherhood, people assume that there is no story other than changing diapers, nursing, and tackling toddler challenges. This reminds me of what the poet Deborah Garrison said when I interviewed her for mamazine. When I asked her whether she thought her second collection, which is focused around parenting themes, was taken as seriously as her first collection, she said, “I think that motherhood as a subject can blind people. They are distracted by it—they have ideas about what motherhood poetry should or shouldn’t be—and sometimes they can’t get past this to really see the way a poem was constructed.” I’m afraid the same thing is true for all motherhood literature. People have ideas about what it is or will be and dismiss it out of hand.

But how hard must you look to find really amazing writing that has to do with motherhood? Um, not very far. If you’ve read 1/4 of the essays or stories or poems I’ve posted about on this blog, you know. And I’m wondering now, should I send Kathleen Deveny the essays of my favorite mama writers? Could it be that she hasn’t read them?

Sadly, she would probably stack them with her other “mommy-lit,” thinking, erroneously, that she’d read it all before.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. **camera shy momma** on August 23, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    well said! “gag me with a spoon!”

    that must be especially frustrating for you. i see you in that middle space, bridging the gap between the world of mothers and the world of writers, editors and publishers. you see it from both sides. and you know how important good writing, reading, creating, and expressing is for everyone all around. (to be the giver AND the receiver)

    how can her eyes be so closed to something as simple as a damn good writer? i wish she could open her mind and look past the label of ‘mother’ with her judgments. it’s causing her to miss valuable pieces of what ties us all together as humans, not just as mothers.

  2. Gaijin Mama on August 24, 2007 at 4:12 am

    Well, I for one am going to continue writing (and reading) about motherhood, dammit!

  3. jennifergg on August 25, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    I suppose I should go check out the article (gag ME with a spoon) but before I go, I’ll say this: everyone had a mother. It’s a universal experience, whether you write about it AS a mother, or as a child, or both. It’s right up there with birth, death, love, war. Why do we need to defend it? (I know, I know, that’s the point of your post. I agree!!!)