When I first began sending around my proposal for "Mother Shock" three years ago, I encountered what were at the time, for me, surprising reactions from publishers.
Mothers don't read.
Mothers don't buy books.
Books on mothering don't sell.
Convincing a publisher to take on a book about motherhood -- specifically a book about the "dark side" of motherhood -- seemed as difficult as convincing someone at a cocktail party that I was actually a real person despite the fact that I'd given birth.
I was surprised at this. After all, didn't any of these publishers watch "Oprah"? Surely they'd heard about her book club. Surely they understood that the people buying all those books were mothers – who presumably did know how to read.
But no. Motherhood was "played out," I was told. "A crowded field." "A tough sell."
Funny. I had been motivated to write my book precisely because I wasn't finding all that much that spoke to me about my own experience as a mother -- my ambivalence, my questioning of the identity suddenly thrust upon me, my reckoning of intense love for my child with intense culture shock at my new life as a mom. Evidently, I was an anomaly. My questions should be answered by what was out there in the played-out, crowded field.
And to be sure, there were a few texts that resonated. Still, a dozen books does not a crowded field make. Motherhood was the most radicalizing experience of my life. The identity shift I was navigating was the kind of transformative, powerful experience that women have been experiencing, well, since there were women. So, really? That's it? A dozen books and the question's answered? The attitude seemed to be, what could be less compelling than the secret life of moms?
In fiction we have been treated to a glimpse of this secret life through books like Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It," and a few others. These books feature fast-paced, frenetic, funny superwomen cutting corners as they juggle career and kids; the narrators are ironic, and often grapple with the fear that motherhood is hobbling them as career women and that their career is negatively affecting their ability to mother. Pearson's book was well-received, but not, I think, as mainstream fiction. Her book, and the books that followed in its wake, sport a new genre title: "mommy lit," maternal big sister to "chick lit."
I was struck, however, by the acclaim with which Tom Perrota's book, "Little Children" was heralded when it was published last summer. The novel, which focuses on the experience of parents in suburbia, was hailed as "literary, suburban fiction" – not "Daddy lit," as you might expect, being a work of fiction written by a father, taking parenting as its subject. No, this was "the great suburban novel." I couldn't help thinking that if a mother had written a book called "Little Children" with goldfish crackers on the front cover, inside snarking about playground politics and playdates, and detailing the interactions between intensive maternal moms and slacker moms, her book definitely would have been called "Mommy Lit."
I also couldn't help remembering what my friend author Faulkner Fox told me about Rachel Cusk's remark after the chilly reception to her lovely book, "A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother." The book, an exploration of her work as a parent, was a departure from Cusk's usual fiction writing, and she is reported to have said, of the book and it's unfavorable response, "Writing a book about motherhood was career suicide."
As Faulkner put it: What does that mean for those of us who write about motherhood at the beginning of our literary careers? Are we committing career homicide?
Thankfully, no. What we are doing, evidently, is writing "momoirs." This is not to be confused with the more respectable "memoir" genre. When mother-writers write about their own personal experience, it's a "momoir." That is, "memoir," with all its literary cachet, plus "mommy," with all its negative connotations.
The ambivalence with which publishers embrace this exploding genre was never more obvious than when I received a book in the mail last month, with a letter from the publisher requesting a blurb from me. The letter began, "When I received this author's manuscript on my desk last summer, I thought I was in for yet another PARENTING book. Instead, I was thrilled to discover an engaging, hilarious, and gorgeously written exploration of motherhood."
I happen to know that this publisher is a new mother herself – one who presumably might be in fact the target audience for a book about the dreaded subject of parenting. It struck me that even the publisher thought it was necessary to persuade me – a writer of a book on motherhood – that it was thrilling to find a parenting book that somehow managed to defy its stereotype by being – wait for it – well written.
Evidently, mothers not only do not read books or buy books or go to bookstores for book readings, they also do not write books very well.
What is a mother to do when the writing she wants to read isn't there? When the only discussion about maternal ambivalence is the one in the glossy magazine about whether to get the Bugaboo or the Frog stroller? When the only real talk of juggling is in reference to the entertainment at the birthday party you must plan for as though it is a royal wedding?
Mothers, as we know, are incredibly resourceful. So mothers who do not find themselves in what they read have begun to create their own narrative and to publish it in a place where anyone with access to a computer can find it: the internet.
Five years ago, when my first child was born, it was all about the bulletin boards --online places like HipMama, Mamatron, Mothering. These boards were contentious; in fact, that was often part of the perverse fun, waiting to see who was going to blow up the breast-feeding board by talking about formula, watching as AP'ers duked it out with working moms with six-week-olds in full-time day care. However fraught with in-fighting these boards were, they were an important connection for many moms who did not have the real-life infrastructure to support them in their day-to-day mothering. Gradually, though, the weblog has begun to supplant the bulletin board as a way for mothers to express their views online.
In the blogs written by mothers, we find women writing about their intensely personal experiences of motherhood. The word BLOG -- it reminds of BLURT – and in fact, sometimes that's what these things turn out to be -- snatches of conversation, quick transcripts of a person's day, a Bridget Jones-like tally of routine events, or even startlingly personal admissions -- the kinds of revelations you might share with only very close friends. The real, gritty, funny, mundane, sometimes boring, sometimes riveting secret life of mothers is the one revealed in these mother's largely unfiltered voices. And it's happening all around us.
The proliferation of shared experience as seen in these blogs is a powerful way to unite women who might not otherwise feel as though they had anything in common. These are the invisible mothers becoming visible before our eyes, these are the silenced voices slowly beginning to articulate what their literary grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers gave voice to in texts from 30 years ago (Erma Bombeck) to 150 years ago (Fanny Fern). These are real mothers turning to literature -- endeavoring to create literature -- to make sense of the secret world they have discovered, where it turns out, in fact, that we can't have it all and do it all, and that the walls we thought had been knocked down prove to be strikingly resistant when we -- suddenly, surprisingly -- bang our heads against them. These are real mothers struggling to create a narrative out of the often disjointed, complex, and simultaneously occurring events of their lives.
There are thousands of mother-bloggers writing today. Some of the writing I like best I've found at a handful of places. Dooce, who famously lost her job due to her blogging, took her thousands of readers with her on her journey through pregnancy, motherhood, and intense post-partum depression. MimiSmartypants, another blogger who blogged pre-motherhood, now often takes motherhood as her subject, writing about her adoptive daughter as well as other decidedly un-mom-like activities. She provides a refreshing representation of a mother who has not been subsumed by her undertaking of motherhood. One of the most well written and amazing discussions of motherhood can be found at ChezMiscarriage, where the anonymous author explores the fundamental identity of women and mothering from the perspective of a woman who is grappling with infertility. Dawn Friedman at ThisWomansWork has been blogging her experience with motherhood, secondary infertility, and open adoption, eloquently writing about subjects traditionally not discussed with such frankness. These are but a few examples of women creating maternal narratives through weblogs.