Search View Archive

Reflections on Motherhood

Moyra Davey, Ed.
Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood 

(Seven Stories Press, 272 pages, 2001)

Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, Eds.

Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers

from the editors of Hip Mama 

(Seal Press, 268 pages, 2001)

Can mothers be creative, ambitious, sexy, and angry—really, really angry—and still be good moms?  The answer is yes, but not all the time. Two recent anthologies on the subject address the conundrum. The first, Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood, gets to the emotional underbelly of mothering and examines why it can be so lonely, anxiety provoking, and just so hard.

Mothers, Davey’s book tells us, fluctuate between extreme emotional highs and lows; between being joyously in love with their children one moment and miserably resentful of them the next. Adrienne Rich’s essay “Anger and Tenderness” articulates those contradictions best:

“No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering and exhausting.”

In that one sentence, she identifies the overwhelming ambivalence that the rest of the book struggles to master, a wave of emotion that starts as soon as the baby is handed over and everything changes.

Rich, writing in the 1970s, begins by examining the bouts of depression she suffered while raising her sons in the 1960s. Her essay develops into a subtle feminist interpretation of her experience as a mother. A passionate writer, she lived for her poetry, and was never certain that she wanted children. Like many women of her day, she felt that motherhood was a woman’s destiny and that she had no alternative but to get pregnant: “Not only have women been told to stick to motherhood, but we have been told that our intellectual or aesthetic creations were inappropriate, inconsequential…an escape from the ‘real’ task of adult womanhood.” As an artist who never fit into the mother role defined for her, Rich had to suppress her emotions; sacrificing her art, and with it, a central part of herself. She likens herself to a traveler in an airport waiting for a delayed flight to take off, busying herself with objects that did not interest her, committing herself to and “outward serenity and profound inner boredom.” This chilling metaphor depicts Rich, an obviously brilliant thinker, as vacant, lost, and almost comatose. Though she doesn’t say it, the essay ultimately suggests the presence of a gag order on motherhood—as if by revealing their true feeling, mothers would ruin their children, their families, and the future of the species.

In an excerpt from Jane Lazarre’s memoir, The Mother Knot, (which I’m tempted to send anonymously to every new mother I know) the same eerie code of silence marks life with baby—this time in a 1970s college campus dormitory. In Lazarre’s case, it is not her, but the other women who are zoned out. “With certain women, I would make one tentative risky statement, and, seeing that either there was no hope or that their condemnation was more than I cared to endure, I would stop, retreating into silence or muted hostility.” When Lazarre is finally able to gather a group of “co-conspirators” in a small confessional meeting, to share her feelings, and hear theirs, she finds that “the wall which had kept her alone, the solitary confinement” falls away. She, unlike Rich—who was mothering a decade earlier—was able to make community her antidote to despair.

Though the writings Davey collects—some of them from big names like Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath, and Grace Paley—are strong, Mother Reader, as a collection, feels disjointed. Many of the pieces are too short to be fully digested, and others are taken out of context, some borrowed from novels. The transitions from one piece to the next are disorienting—I spent too much time wondering not only what I was reading, but why. It’s as if Davey did a “mother” search on Yahoo! and printed everything that came up. But, overall, Mother Reader offers an important social service. It breaks the silence, and brings readers both the bright and the depressing voices of motherhood.

As Davey writes, she read many of the works in the anthology after the birth of her daughter, “to break the isolation, for inspiration to keep going and do better, for the gratification of seeing my own experience so vividly mirrored…and for the unsurpassed enjoyment of extraordinary literature.” To be good literature, would Mother Reader have to appeal to a wider audience that just overwhelmed mothers like me?  I don’t know if I would have gotten though this book before having kids, or identified so wholly with much of the emotion expressed within its pages. But I do know that I might not have picked up Graham Greene before living abroad or J. D. Salinger before 14 either.

Another new anthology on the subject of motherhood tries to answer a more modern question: Can mothers be hip?  Can they be pierced, tattooed, gay, single, or punk anarchists and still get their kids to kindergarten on time?  The editors of Breeder: Real Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers, who also edit Hip Mama, an online parenting zine, claim to represent “real women;” not the “neo-June Cleaver corporate beauties you see in the mainstream parenting magazines,” or the “purer than thou organic earth mamas you see in alternative glossies.” They are “daughters of the 1970s feminist movement” who grew up certain that a woman’s choice was not a question, that sex was not about having babies, and that having a career, a family, and an intimate love relationship was not a dream, but a necessity. So why do they sound so mad?

A lot of what appears in Breeder would have been best left behind in the author’s journals. Someone named China, in the originally titled “On the Road (With Baby),” shares her illusions about the impression that she, her punk rocker friends, and her one-month-old baby make on the small towns they visit while driving across country: “Of course everyone stared at us, Stacey in Doc Martens, tattoos and spikes. I’d turned into a mess and didn’t care. I wore tennis shoes and let green dye wash out of my hair without touching it up.” It’s a good thing she didn’t go to prom, or we might have to hear about that too.

The narrator of learning of “Learning to Surf,” a 22-year-old “single mom/rocker, describes herself stumbling into her daughter’s preschool, hungover from a night of “too many shots during after hours clean up.” She is concerned with what the other moms are thinking. “But I can’t,” she writes, “I don’t how 30-year-old minivan owning brains work.” Ouch. Adolescents can be irritating, but their lack of irony is stupefying. Without so much as a smile or wink to the reader she writes, “I loved her dad. Bobby and I had been together a long time by then, a whole year and a half.”

Most of the essays are short and chattery, more dish than substance, the kind of light stuff you might want to read off a computer screen or e-mail to a friend. Some, however, do deserve credit—not necessarily for their writing, but for their emotional honesty and insight. In “Calls From Another Planet,” Australia, Sims wonders how her mother’s mental illness will affect her own ability to love her child: “I am terrified of carrying my mom’s world in my baby’s life...Clearly I received little mothering; can I expect to be capable of giving it?” In “Feeding,” Marianne Apostolides contemplates, while nursing her baby, the eating disorder she inherited from her controlling father. She examines her history in hopes that understanding her family’s destructive patterns will help her avoid fostering them, and she sees herself as a part of an important shift. “This psychological self-examination is the new element that our generation brings to parenthood.” Sims and Apostolides relay sad stories, but their earnest language of awareness is hopeful. Adrienne Rich wrote that in her day, “most of the literature of infant care and psychology has assumed that the process toward individuation is essentially the child’s drama.” Nowadays, the mother’s emotional development, understanding her own behavior, is more often acknowledged as essential. Middle-class American women are encouraged to have careers, to have relationships, to live on their own, and to know who they are and what they want. While the writers of Mother Reader struggled to find themselves within the confines of their limited role as mother, new generations are struggling to fit motherhood into the identities they have worked hard to create for themselves.

Together, these two compilations trace the effects that the women’s movement has had on the institution of motherhood over the last 30 years. Motherhood has become more a decision and less a mandate, and sometimes I think the previous generation had it easier. I can hear my mother say, “We didn’t think about having babies, we just did it.” Our choice is burdened with responsibility; that is, making a choice requires considering as many aspects and potential consequences as you can stand before coming to decision. Contemporary mothers talk, analyze, and agonize over every aspect of our family lives. We watch family dramas on television, and we read about them in the paper. The gag order is being lifted, but does that really make motherhood any easier?

It is oddly comforting to find that, despite all the social changes documented by both of these anthologies, mothers remain much the same. We still complain about exhaustion, not getting enough help from our mates, not finding the right network of support, not getting a break, and feeling lonely and scared. In spite of what the editors of Hip Mama would like you to believe, June Cleaver and Courtney Love have a lot in common.


Jill Clateman

Jill Clateman is a writer living in Brooklyn Heights.


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues