Motherhood & Words

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday and didn’t eat beyond capacity, something I seemed to do. Two meals, spaced five hours apart = too much food.

I’m sure many of you have read Lynn Harris’ Salon article “Everybody Hates Mommy,” in which Harris tries to unpack why there is so much anger and downright hatred directed towards mothers, particularly white, middle-class mothers (and particularly those that live in Park Slope).

Whoa, people. The comments that this article elicited are incredible—so many are full of such vitriol that I stopped reading after two pages.

But I’m interested in what Harris has to say. I think one of the important points she makes is that mothers are judged no matter what they do or don’t do. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a “good” mother, and if the mother in front of you isn’t fulfilling the role, well, hell, let her have it.

Another point she makes has to do with the fact that women—and especially women who are mothers—are supposed to be invisible. She says, “Women—still—are not ‘supposed’ to take up space. Mothers, in particular. We are—still—supposed to remain in the background, doing whatever it is mothers do, smiling. We grow a belly, we need a seat, we say ‘excuse me, please,’ we speak up (or, God forbid, blog), and we’ve crossed the line, said or asked too much, become ‘entitled.’”

The reason I do what I do—write about motherhood literature, teach my Mother Words class, host an annual Mother Words reading, work for Literary Mama—is to help create a space where literature (and yes, it is worthy of that word) about motherhood—the varied and complex, often stunning and often heartbreaking writing by women who are mothers, is taken seriously as art. Because of course it’s often not taken seriously for the very reasons that Harris states in her article. Women are still supposed to be quiet. Mothers, especially, should be quiet. We should not write about the truth of our experiences. We should definitely not write against the myths of motherhood.

Motherhood writing is often discarded (or ignored or not published at all) because of its subject matter. But memoir is never so much about its subject matter as it is about, as Brett Lott says, the relationship between the writer and the subject at hand. I don’t like boxing, but I love Toure’s “What’s Inside You, Brother?” and Gay Talese’s “Ali in Havana.” William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says, “Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”

But it’s funny—and not in a ha-ha sort of way—that when the subject is motherhood, people don’t seem to be as willing to read, to let themselves be drawn in.

One of the people who commented (early, before I stopped reading) on Harris’ article posed this question: “When are people going to start treating respect as if it mattered?” When indeed?

I forwarded the link to Harris’ article to my current Mother Words students, and one of my wonderful students responded with a link to an article in the new online literary journal Candor.

It was Women Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation Between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker, and in this conversation, writers Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker discuss what they have in common and what they don’t, and both are very honest about what kinds of stereotypes they’ve bought into and what kind of judgments they’ve made about mothers and women who chose not to be mothers. This is a long conversation, but it’s worth the read, and I think it adds another dimension to Harris’ article about the way mothers and nonmothers are pitted against each other. (Which on some level has to do with the cultural myths of motherhood still perpetuated in our society…)

I very much like the way this conversation ends. Rachel Zucker says, “I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.”

I wonder what would happen if people were truly interested in exploring differences and similarities rather than pointing fingers and slinging insults at one another. Could we come to some understanding? Could we learn to be kind, to respect each other? Could we—please—learn to respect each other’s writing?

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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. cath c on November 27, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    thank you. very well stated. the question still begs, when we matter really so very much as no one would be here at all if it weren't for us bringing them to the world, why are we supposed to sit back and say nothing?

  2. Elizabeth on November 28, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and I look forward to reading through the links you gave. I have always found the debate between working and non-working mothers endless and boring, but this sounds more intense.

    And Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  3. Andrea on November 30, 2009 at 7:37 am

    I wonder if people carry so much baggage about their own mothers that they don't want to read anything from the point of view of a woman who is a mother–it would force them to feel empathy for this person who supposedly damaged them so much.

  4. Charlotte on November 30, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    As a mother of a "large" family (I have 4 kids), I am quite accustomed to people airing all kinds of grievances about mothers to me. I read the Salon article when it came out and wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Mothers are easy targets, I think, because everyone has one.

    Keep up the good work promoting mom-lit! You are totally right about the importance of it.

  5. 6512andgrowing on December 2, 2009 at 11:30 am

    After becoming a mother almost 5 years ago I've been boggled by all the debates, dogma and vitriol.

    I love reading about other mothers' experiences through blogs, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, etc. I find these diverse points of view always illuminating.

    After my son was born premature and spent almost 4 months hospitalized, at which time I was staying at The Ronald McDonald House with 30 other families of hospitalized children, it seemed very clear: Love is what matters, the rest is details.

  6. Andria on December 5, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    The Salon piece was a fascinating read to me. Even more fascinating were the comments, not because they were well-written or insightful (for the most part), but just because the level of antipathy for mothers/young families kind of blew me away. Perhaps living in the "heartland" & being in the military these past couple of years has really distanced me from the single/childless/highly educated/self-important/hyper-politically-correct demographic that commented so viciously on the article.

    I got all worked up reading some comments aloud to my husband, esp. one particularly cruel comment that asserted some b.s. like, "Having children what highly uncreative women do to fill their time" (OH, YEAH??? HAVE YOU MET MY FRIEND KATE, YOU ASSHAT?!). But Dave calmed me down. He reminded me that most of the commenters who do not have children by choice probably feel defensive about it, on some level. And we started talking about how maybe some of the reason that mothers are such easy targets these days is that never before in our history has having children been such a *choice*. You can be nearly infertile but, through a miracle of science, give birth to six children; or you can be a very fertile person but remain childless by choice because of a teensy little pill. Maybe this sheer level of choice is what leads some people to think we should have absolutely no complaints about our lives.

    Also, I agree with Andrea who commented here — to think that motehrs today are occasionally dissatisfied would be to realize that your own mother might have been dissatisfied, yes, even while raising you [mean commenters], and that's not very comfortable, is it?

  7. The Blue Suitcase on December 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Powerful post. I'm so glad you wrote this. I can relax a little now because you spoke so much of what was still lodged in my throat after reading the comments following the Salon piece. Whoa, people, indeed.