What Do Mothers and Children Owe Each Other?
Courtney Maum and Michele Filgate: Being Loved Is Being Heard
In Michele Filgate’s courageous anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About (Simon & Schuster, April 20, 2019), 15 esteemed writers examine the unsaid in their adult relationships with their mothers in profoundly honest ways, while in Courtney Maum’s new novel Costalegre, a 15-year-old takes to her diary to yearn for her mother’s attention while waiting out WWII with a gaggle of surrealists in the Mexican jungle. Under the pressure of a holiday that can make even well-adjusted adult children feel like they are being swatted in the face with “Mommy-Issue” tulips, Michele and Courtney took to the phone to discuss the detritus that Mother’s Day brings up: what do children owe their mothers, the act of secret-keeping versus the act of being heard, the impact of a mother’s love life on their offspring, and the fantasy of family shopping. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Courtney B. Maum: In What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About you write, “We live in a society where we have holidays that assume a happy relationship.” If you could imagine the greeting line in an honest Mother’s Day card, what do you think it would say?
Michele Filgate: “Thanks for keeping me alive?”
CBM: It depends on the relationship you have with your mother! In Costalegre—which is based on the lives of Peggy and Pegeen Guggenheim—Pegeen’s relationship with her mother killed her. Literally killed her.
MF: There’s also this part in your book where the daughter is hoping that the ship with all the art on it that the mother is so obsessed with will sink, and then she says, There’d be nothing left to fawn over and boast about and move around the world for and maybe she would be emptied enough to finally mother me. That line haunted me—“mothering” is such a loaded term. I guess the ideal Mother’s Day card would say something like, “I wish that you could hear me.”
CBM: In your anthology’s introduction, you admit that, “the core truths behind this essay took me years to articulate.” After working on the different stories your contributors were brave enough to share, what are some core truths you now believe about mother/child relationships?
MF: One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that there are so many different types of mother/child relationships! It was important to me while I was putting the collection together—and my editor felt the same way—that it not be all abuse narratives; we wanted some humorous pieces in there and some pieces about people who are really close with their moms but still have something that they haven’t talked about that they want to get at and know more about. The subtitle of this book is “Fifteen Writers Break the Silence.” I think silence can be so toxic. Even if you have a great relationship with your mom, not being able to articulate something can lead to some dark places.
There are indeed a lot of truths about mother/child relationships, but what links them together is that people want to feel loved, and part of being loved is being heard and being listened to. And it goes both ways! Cathi Hanauer’s essay is about finally getting to talk to her mother one-on-one away from her domineering (but lovable, as I say in the intro) father. In this example, the daughter is getting to listen and the mother is getting to talk.Is the stepmother inherently evil because she didn’t birth the children? Or maybe she stole the man away?
CBM: To what extent is our relationship with our mothers colored by the person whom they share to choose their sensual or romantic lives with?
MF: It’s extremely influenced by that. My particular essay is all about my mom being married to my stepfather and what that has done to our relationship. On a happier note, Leslie Jamison’s essay was about attempting to understand who her mother was before she gave birth to her by reading an unpublished manuscript her mother’s first husband wrote based on their marriage.
CBM: My parents divorced when I was 9, and there was this immediate fleet of suitors around my mother, which is one of the reasons I was driven to write about Pegeen Guggenheim. I really felt for this young girl who saw these men flocking around her mother, and had to negotiate what they were there for. Peggy Guggenheim was obviously rich; she had a lot of influence; she could change people’s lives. In one example, Pegeen sees her mother marry the artist Max Ernst to get him out of a concentration camp, and he hated her mother for that their entire marriage; he hated that he needed her. Peggy Guggenheim had many abusive relationships, abusive in strange ways: in her memoirs she writes that her first husband used to walk on her stomach in front of other people at dinner parties. When I was going over the copyedits, the poor copyeditor was like WTF???!
MF: Wait, so that actually happened?
CBM: This was a re-occurring “move” that her first husband would make. He would require that she be prostrate and walk up and down her stomach. And Peggy’s daughter is watching this, not only watching this but watching her mother stay with these people, yearn to have them with her, throw fits when these men leave.
MF: What is the daughter internalizing from watching that behavior? What is she learning about what a healthy relationship might be?
CBM: Exactly. It made me consider the descriptors “good mother” and “bad mother.” Where do these ideas and images of good/bad mothering come from, do you think?
MF: If you think about fairytales and the stepmother, she was often considered evil . . .
CBM: Which is fascinating to me. Is the stepmother inherently evil because she didn’t birth the children? Or maybe she stole the man away?
MF: It’s not easy to pinpoint what makes a good or a bad mother. One thing I’ll always remember learning from one of my mentors, Jo Ann Beard, is that everyone has light and shadow in them. This really helped me when I was writing my essay about my stepdad because Jo Ann said you never want to make someone seem completely awful; there’s always something about them that makes them human. I think that’s great writing advice and I think it holds true for mothers. Inherently, there is so much more pressure and cultural expectations put on mothers. The mother is the nurturing one, the one responsible for their wellbeing and for showing the child the world. It’s very gendered. We don’t talk as much about fathers.“Honor thy parents?” Do we have to? Is it disrespectful, indefensible if we don’t?
CBM: In my experience both as a mother and as someone who researched and wrote a book that deals with mothering, I think it comes down to availability. Mothers are expected to be 100 percent available for their offspring and I’m not, as a mother, and I refuse to be, and I don’t think I should be, and I find that that feels somewhat revolutionary in my social circle. But full-time availability can lead to self-effacement. We’re not even that available for ourselves!
MF: In Costalegre, you have Lara writing a letter to her best friend, Elizabeth in which she asks, “Did you want to be a daughter? Who gives you the choice?” I wondered whether you were thinking about your own relationship with your mother when you wrote that passage.
CBM: I think about my relationship with my parents all of the time, especially now with “23andMe” being so popular. Most of my life, I’ve felt like maybe I came in to the wrong family. I come from a supportive family, and we have a good relationship, but I couldn’t be more different from them, so I do think that a lot of my struggles center around why I don’t make sense within this unit; why do I have to work so hard for these people to understand me.
It’s crazy to consider, but there isn’t a lot of consent around birth. I mean, you can decide to terminate a pregnancy, but that fetus doesn’t have a lot of agency. They’re not like, You know, I’ve checked this womb out, and I just don’t like the vibe.
MF: You can’t go “shopping” for families.
CBM: Exactly! And you don’t get to have a choice for a long time because you’re so dependent on your family for your physical and financial needs. And then by the time you do have a choice, you might be so messed up by whatever is happening in your family that you can’t make the right one. Have you heard the saying “Honor thy parents?” Do we have to? Is it disrespectful, indefensible if we don’t?
MF: A lot of people would think it is. It was extremely difficult for me to publish my essay when it came out on Longreads because my creative nonfiction students ask me all the time, “How should I handle my family if I want to publish something about them? What is my responsibility?” I know a lot of writers who won’t publish difficult material without telling their family member about it first, and I totally respect that, but in my case, my relationship with my mother was already so complicated that I felt like she would be upset if she found out that I was publishing this essay. I didn’t want to feel further silenced.What writers owe their mothers is the ability to reach a point of clarity and respect where we are able to write an essay like that about them.
CBM: Have you ever read any of the books of the French writer Édouard Louis? He does these polemic interviews where he says you don’t need to honor your parents, you don’t need to love them, and you certainly don’t need to like them. Not so much now, but when I was in my teenage years and my twenties, the motor behind any depression or anxiety I had was, why don’t I have a “better” relationship with my mother and how can I improve it. Louis’ argument is that you find someone else to mother you, you build your own family out of friends, which I think so many of us are doing these days.
MF: I’m working on an essay right now about learning to mother yourself. I think it’s really important that you find nurturing from within and not depend on other people for it. But in terms of what we owe our mothers, I think we should try and see them for who they are. I think of Brandon Taylor’s really haunting essay in my collection, (which was originally published by Lit Hub, actually), in which he writes about an abusive mother with such tenderness. He’s really seeing her. Don’t you feel that way when you read that piece?
CBM: Absolutely. And I think that this would be my answer to my own question: what we owe our mothers—or what writers owe their mothers—is the ability to reach a point of clarity and respect where we are able to write an essay like that about them. I considered this very deeply with Costalegre—what is this girl’s quest in this relationship and what does she owe her mother? Because you know, you can’t get very far saying “I hate you,” that doesn’t actually advance the relationship, it doesn’t help, it doesn’t even hurt the person that much at the end of the day, because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s much harder to say why you hate your mother or to point out a character defect. Your book is about breaking the silence a little in this way, but in my book, my narrator remains silent because it’s supposed to be a diary that isn’t meant to be found. It’s emotional, to talk about our mothers. It makes me quite emotional! Which leads me to wonder, what’s next for you? Have you only scratched the surface of your interest in mother/child relationships or have you scratched the itch?
MF: I’m working on some essays that also have to do with motherhood, the irony being that I am not a mother, but motherhood is something I seem to be consumed by. But I’m also trying to write stuff that’s different as well. I don’t know yet—we’ll see what my first solo project will be! I’m getting my MFA in fiction at NYU, and Joyce Carol Oates—who was my professor last semester— told me, “You are going to be writing about this for a very long time.”
Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre, Touch and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You; the chapbook Notes from Mexico; and the forthcoming handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book. Her writing and essays have been widely published in such outlets as BuzzFeed; the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; and Modern Loss. She is the founder of the learning collaborative, The Cabins, and she also works as a product and cosmetic shade namer from her home in Connecticut. courtneymaum.com
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of the anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. A recipient of the Stein Fellowship at NYU where she is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction, her work has been published widely in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult, and Stanford Continuing Studies and is the founder of the Red Ink series. In 2016, Brooklyn Magazine named her one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture.”