If the institution of motherhood were a building,
it would be a maze-like indoor playground. Grown women would sit
around the periphery falling apart. There would be a bench for mothers
who clean too much, or those who don’t clean at all, or those
who work impossible hours, or others who lie in bed with a limp
Elmo and a rolled up wet diaper. There would be the raging mothers,
spewing cruelties, and the ones who bake sheet after sheet of cookies.
I would be among the mothers shackled to a heavy thing, about to
take my foot off from the force with which I am attempting to flee.
It’s not that I don’t adore my kid. I just don’t
like being trapped in the neon and pastel maternal labyrinth.
The folks who run this institution of motherhood have implanted
some chip in me that makes me stick around despite the lousy hours
and worse pay. This same chip also filters my words. When I try
to type the word mother, out comes the words carnations,
snicker doodles, and milk.
I was trying to write chip, but child came out
instead. You would think they had implanted some child in me, shocked
as I was that the condom didn’t work. I’m surprised
that women enter motherhood voluntarily. Once you’re inside,
heartbreak is the only way out.
I am not the voluntary mother. I am kicking and screaming. I whine,
cajole, rage, cry, and fall into strained preciousness. I can’t
take this motherhood gig quietly. I have to remark loudly and crassly
about every miserable minutiae of mothering. I have to flip motherhood
over front to back and prod, vaselined thermometer in hand.
Few of my favorite writers were mothers. Emily Dickinson never
breastfed. Virginia Woolf didn’t change nappies. The writers
who were mothers were mad, both angry and crazy. Motherhood didn’t
seem the stuff of a writer’s life, and the maternal experience
Despite this ominous silence of my literary foremothers, a friend
and I agreed someone needs to write a book about writing about motherhood.
Everyone seemed to be writing about motherhood now, so why not us?
Why didn’t we write a guide to writing about “it”
-- some brilliantly timed meta-textual momoir-writing advice book?
My friend had already published a critically acclaimed book of mommy-lit,
about childbirth, and I had edited a mothering webzine. We were
perfect for this job. We shuttled our four year olds around the
local zoo one fall day, each child alternately crying, whining,
or running away, looked in each others eyes, and said “Okay.”
“Okay” soon sounded like “Oh God, not us.”
We regularly ranted to each other in email and over the phone, “How
can I write about mothering when all I want to do is run away and
come back with the kids are old enough to drink bourbon?”
Like other mothers, we felt guilty when we worked, guilty when
we didn’t. We mourned the lives we could have lived. We held
onto the lives we have, the lives we love, with a nervous grip,
waking up in the night afraid they will be lost. We thought we could
be witnesses to our mothering lives, to this wild dance of ambivalence,
frustration and the evolution of love. We thought we could help
other women witness: we invited mothers to workshops so we could
write together about mothering.
My writing partner decided she needed to channel Julia Cameron.
I decided it would be much better if I channeled Sylvia Plath. We
had a good writer/bad writer shtick going on.
“Why don’t we make the first exercise an obituary?”
I suggested, looking in the oven. “Let’s celebrate all
the selves that died the moment we gave birth.”
“Um, Anne, isn’t that a little morbid?”
“So is motherhood.” I answered, pouring my fifteenth
cup of coffee of the day and staring at the Drano.
We made our writing mothers metaphorically off themselves as they
sat around my tiny, dark living room. Everyone cried, left angry,
ready to pummel their partners or kids or themselves about what
the lives they had left behind.
Every time we mothers got together to write, we cried. It didn’t
matter if their kids were leaving high school or sucking on a nipple,
these mothers cried. I was certain I didn’t want to continue
torturing other women with painful self-reflection. I became certain
I didn’t want to torture myself with my own meta-mothering
My brain went Hamlet, in permanent soliloquy: I’m a fraud.
My daughter will hate me. She’ll know I’m crazy. She’ll
know I don’t always want to be married to her father, or clean
her house, or play dolls with her. My poor child, to have such a
mother who would tell the world these things!
I wanted to craft a clean and elegant record. I wanted my daughter
to think it was all organic baby food and laughter, a family romance.
I wanted to forget the worst parts of mothering, the endless nights
of infancy, the perpetuity of panic. My problem was that forgetting
the worst of it I might forget the best too, the smell of a newborn,
the dimpled fingers. If I wrote about the worst of it, I could give
myself a generous permission to lapse into mothering bliss, the
moment my child first said star and pointed me towards
In theory, at least, there is a need for all this literary self-reflection.
If we can see where we are, run for the doors with the kid in tow,
maybe we can break out of this crazy place. We could look at the
grand grimy maze of motherhood with curious detachment, and say
to daughters and granddaughters: “That’s where we have
been together, little ones. I will describe this for you so you
won’t go in there blind.”
In practice, I’m not tough enough. I’m limping, hobbled,
practically blind, still chained in intricate ways. The meta-mothering
writing project is in its death throes now, my partner and I trying
to divvy up its estate.
I realized I wasn’t tough enough to write about my experience
in the institution of motherhood or to guide anyone else through.
I’ve convinced myself that there is also an honesty in being
a mother and writing about everything else: land, or people, or
The mothers still
write in my living room, but I’ve told them I’m not
going to torture them anymore. Next time we write, no tears allowed,
just cookies and whining kids.
mmo : 2004