When I was seven months pregnant with my first daughter, Stella, and just beginning the third year of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, I became suddenly and severely ill with preeclampsia, a disease that affects 5–8% of all pregnancies and is responsible for over 77,000 maternal deaths worldwide every year.
My daughter was born via C-section almost eight weeks early, and she spent four weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). While she was hospitalized, growing and learning to breathe and eat, she went into respiratory distress, developed jaundice, anemia, a bowel obstruction, a Grade 1 intraventricular hemorrhage, and sepsis, a systemic blood infection which occurred when the IV line in her arm pulled loose from its vein and filled her tiny shoulder with fluid. She recovered from each of these, and after a month, when she still weighed less than four and a half pounds, we took her home. But because of her immature immune system and the fact that it was cold-and-flu season in Minnesota, we couldn’t take her out in public. I withdrew from graduate school and spent five long months inside with my fragile daughter: I walked my fussy infant around our dining room table for hours and hours each day; I attempted, unsuccessfully, to nurse her; I passed the weeks in an exhausted daze, unable to get my mind around the ways my life had changed. And for the first time in my life, I felt desperate for words, for some way to express the changes I was undergoing as an isolated new mother.
Stella was five months old when I finally began to write again. I went to the coffee shop by our house one evening and pulled out paper and a pen. But instead of returning to the half-finished pieces I had been writing before Stella’s birth, I started to write about the single most life-changing experience of my life: becoming a mother. I began with an image: my daughter, writhing on white blankets, beamed from the NICU into the television set in my hospital room days after she was born. As soon as that image was down on paper, other images followed. After an hour, there were tears in my eyes, and words covering the page. And for the first time since my daughter was born, the world felt a little bigger, and I felt a little less alone. Just getting those memories down on paper made me feel lighter.
In the following weeks, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and hospitalization, and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded; I was doing the only thing I knew how to do to make sense of what happened to me, to us—I was writing again.
When I returned to school in the fall, this writing became my thesis and later a completed manuscript. But when I began to talk about my new project, I encountered a number of raised eyebrows and glazed eyes. One person even said, “Oh, you’re writing about your baby? How, um, sweet.” I began to realize that some people were not taking my writing seriously because my subject matter had to do with motherhood. They didn’t seem to think it was a subject worthy of real literature.
When you say you’re writing about “motherhood” some people assume that the story—if indeed there is any story at all—will consist only of sleepless nights, diaper changes, nursing debacles, and tantruming toddlers. They assume if they opened your book they would be sucked into the minutiae of daily life with children.
This reminds me of something that poet Deborah Garrison said when I interviewed her a few years ago, after her second collection of poetry, The Second Child, was published. I asked whether responses to this collection differed from responses to her first collection, Working Girl, and 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.”
So even while I was writing the first draft of my memoir, I knew I was involved in an uphill battle to get it taken seriously. But this was a book I was passionate about writing, one I felt deserved to be out in the world. My solution was to keep writing, and also to develop a creative nonfiction class for women interested in writing about their experiences as mothers. I wanted to create a place where women could give written expression to their lives as mothers, where motherhood writing would be taken seriously as art, where it would be supported and critiqued. I also started a blog on which I began promoting and reviewing motherhood literature and interviewing authors.
Through my blog and teaching I discovered exactly what I expected: women—mothers—crafting memoirs and essays dealing with issues of identity, loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy. I found stories about transformation and how the authors see themselves in relation to the world in which they live. Last time I checked, this was the stuff of which real literature was made.
Reading about other mothers’ 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. I have gained insight into parenting and the human experience.
The stories I’ve read and listened to have ranged from light and funny to heartbreaking, and there is room for all of these stories as a part of motherhood literature.
In the introduction to their anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, Kathleen Hirsch and Katrina Kenison write, “It takes courage to write about motherhood in a culture that sets women with children on the sidelines, and it takes even greater courage to give voice to the powerful emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface of our daily lives, informing and shaping our relationships with our children and the world at large.”
We all have stories to tell. Whether we tell these stories is another question. It does take courage to write about motherhood, to explore writing about our children and our roles as mothers, to “give voice to the emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface” of our daily lives.
I hope this book will help give you the courage to get your mother stories down on paper. How often have you said, “Use your words!” to your children? How often have you heard other parents utter that phrase? Now it’s your turn. I designed this book to help guide you on your journey as a mother writer and help you find the most effective way to tell the stories you need to tell.
How to use this book
Each chapter focuses on an aspect of craft—character, voice, structure, and so on—or a topic specific to mother writers, and builds on what was discussed in the previous chapters, using the writing of a wide range of mother writers as examples. The readings, writing instruction, and writing exercises included in each chapter are intended to be jumping-off points for your own writing. I encourage you to move through the book at your own pace. Take time to reflect on the readings and try one of the writing exercises before you move on to the next chapter.
Not all of the pieces used in the book will resonate with you, and that’s OK. But try to identify what about the piece worked or didn’t work for you. Identifying the “why” will help you with your own writing. The reading questions (in the Appendix) might be helpful as you think about how certain pieces are crafted.
Writing exercises are embedded in each chapter. There are also additional writing prompts in the Appendix if you feel you need more. You may also find that there is a line or an idea in one of the essays or poems that sparks your interest and sends you to your notebook or computer. Go where you’re drawn. This is your writing.
My hope is that you will get started on a number of pieces as you work your way through this book, and that when you finish it, you will have enough momentum to keep going. It’s wonderful if you can write a little bit each week, but I don’t believe you need to write every day to be a writer, and as a mother, I know that writing can be difficult to fit into your day. But as you begin this journey as a mother writer, think about when and where you can squeeze writing into your life. Maybe you have one hour every Friday morning. Maybe you have 20 minutes three times a week as you wait to pick up your children from preschool or soccer practice. If you work outside the home, maybe you can go somewhere quiet on your lunch break and write twice a week.
Be realistic about planning your writing time and be flexible. If you miss a day or a week, don’t worry; there’s always tomorrow.
Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” I agree. Writing is an act of discovery. Taking the time to sit down with pen and paper (or a laptop) can give you the space you need to discover what you think about the transformations inherent in motherhood. The more you write, the more you will understand what you know. So grab a cup of coffee or herbal tea (or a glass of wine!), find a quiet (or not so quiet) place to sit, and join me on this mother-writing journey.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem