What It Means to Write About Motherhood, Part One

With Kim Brooks, Rumaan Alam, Sheila Heti, Meaghan O'Connell and Jessica Friedmann

By  Literary Hub

In this roundtable, five writers discuss what it means to write about motherhood. Read part two tomorrow.

Rumaan Alam, That Kind of Mother 
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear
Jessica Friedmann, Things That Helped
Sheila Heti, Motherhood
Meaghan O’Connell, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready

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Kim Brooks: In a recent interview for a literary journal, an editor asked the person interviewing me to find out why, since I was “primarily a fiction writer,” I’d decided to write a book about parenting, the assumption being that writing fiction and writing about parenthood were in some sort of opposition. It reminded me of a line in Rivka Galchen’s, Little Labors, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.” Have any of you noticed a similar reluctance on the parts of other writers, editors, or readers, to consider motherhood a subject suitable for serious literary treatment within the broader categories of either fiction or nonfiction? Is there something inherently un-writerly about the subject of motherhood? When and why did you decide to start writing about it?

Jessica Friedmann: I feel as though you’ve really dropped us in the soup. I’ve been sitting at my computer trying to come up with a response that’s more complex and nuanced than, “Yes, and it’s fucked,” but just reading about that question from the editor, I feel assailed by a fresh wave of irritation and fatigue. It makes me realize just how removed the question of parenting is from many peoples’ idea of literary creation.

When I began writing about maternal mental illness, it was because nothing I had read had prepared me for the experience of it, the strangeness and the texture. I think motherhood really shatters your subjectivity, whether you experience it ‘normally’ or not, and I was fascinated by how intent so much of culture seemed to be on smoothing over the psychic wreckage that can occur. There seemed to be a denial at play, that maybe feeds into that broader reluctance you are talking about, to take mother-writing seriously.

In the year or so my book has been out in Australia, I’ve struggled with whether this is something that’s affected its reception; whether before five or six books came out at the same time in the States and we all got swept up into a ‘motherhood’ trend, writing about motherhood really was seen as solipsistic, or naff, and if my work has been tarred with that brush. I’ve had some good reviews but sales have been really slow; I’ve been mostly left out of the festival round; I’m getting shelved in ‘parenting’ at the local library, rather than cultural criticism or feminist literature or memoir.

Probably much of feeling sidelined is just bruised ego, but I do suspect the topic makes this book seem niche to a lot of people, even though motherhood is broad and brutal and kaleidoscopic; it touches on everything. When I am asked to speak, the audience is always almost exclusively women and non-binary people. I’ve had a single review by a man. If we’re talking about gatekeepers in the sense of male literary critics and champions, they aren’t coming to the table for this one, and I can’t help feeling that is explicitly about the motherhood, because women’s mental illness has always been sexy in publishing. It just isn’t sexy with a baby in tow.

Rumaan Alam: Maybe the gatekeepers, whoever they might be, have little interest in babies or mothers. But I think the worst thing one can do in response to a shortsighted gatekeeper is internalize that message. There’s nothing inherently un-writerly about any subject. Nicholson Baker wrote a book about buying shoelaces. I don’t think I decided to write on any subject in deference or resistance to some message I received from the establishment (whatever that is); I think the way I write is more impulsive and far less calculating, though of course as I’m a man, it’s easier for me to hold that message away from myself. I guess I would say that if we really wanted to listen to the gatekeepers, we’d all be writing adult coloring books or trashy political tell-alls. Good writing breaks with received wisdom.

Meaghan O’Connell: I definitely felt some internal resistance to taking it up as a subject early on. But at the same time I felt like here I was with something I wanted to say, and a receptive audience (or, maybe more crucially, paid assignments)—things were working, writing-wise, so I learned not to second-guess it. And figured as a writer I should be able to, in my writing, overcome anybody’s preconceived notions. Or that’s the challenge anyway. But I do still cringe at some of the art that gets paired with my writing, or the headlines. I am sensitive to the “branding” I guess, if confident and comfortable with the subject matter. You can write the most engaging and rigorous thing in the world and then someone will smack a pink rattle on it and give it some reductive headline and you’re just like, Okay I give up. I tried. On the other hand what is it about the pink rattle that makes me so uncomfortable, is that my own shit at work, too? And why is it so important to me to be taken seriously? What does that mean?

I try to stay amused by people’s reactions to my work. “Oh isn’t that interesting that this brought that up in you!” Ha. It does make me feel powerful. I always think I’d prefer to be strictly reviewed on a craft level and have the discussion hew to the writing itself, not me as a person or everybody’s feelings and how much they can or can’t relate but that’s not true either.

It’s rich, fraught territory and it’s deeply (literally!) existential, so of course it’s a writerly subject. Along with death, it might be the writerly subject.

Jessica Friedmann: I wonder, Rumaan, if one of the reasons you feel unscathed by this judgement is that you are writing fiction. There’s an element of perceived detachment there quite aside from the man thing; women’s writing about the self is already regarded as self-indulgent in many quarters, and no one is going to accuse you of having gone soft in the brain when you return to work and only care about babies. Memoir, on the other hand… Meaghan and I had a chat a while ago for The Globe and Mail, and under the little squiggly illustration of our faces in the Facebook preview, right out of the gate, somebody wrote: “The caricature to the left [me] depicts an archetypically smothering, nosy, pushy and overbearing Jewish mother while to the right [Meaghan] we have a hip, pleasant and easygoing but detached and emotionally sterile Toronto WASP.” There is a genuine hostility to motherhood quite aside from the idea of it being ‘un-writerly’ that plays into this conversation, and the much bigger question of the role of parents and children in public life.

“There is a genuine hostility to motherhood quite aside from the idea of it being ‘un-writerly’ that plays into this conversation, and the much bigger question of the role of parents and children in public life.”

Rumaan Alam: Wow. People are awful. You’re probably not wrong. Fiction provides a convenient cover, at least the sort I’ve written (Sheila’s work is more risky, I think, because it seems to pluck at a particular line we’ve always understood as a boundary). And my gender is a big part of it; I could probably write a fatherhood memoir (I am pretty sure I will never, ever do this, unless, of course, I need the money) and it’ll be received differently than what you and Meaghan have done.

Sheila Heti: There is a certain pleasure, also, in being misunderstood. One can always feel slightly victorious at having done something actually serious and interesting, by one’s own standards, in the face of the sorts of stupidities we’re talking about, because it means that you’re part of a moment in culture that is changing (or in the early stages of changing) how it categorizes something like “writing about motherhood,” since clearly you are there, writing and changing it.

I always think about how editors today have prejudices which come from the literature they grew up with, and how it will be different in thirty years, fifty years, a hundred years. Literature is constantly changing, and literature changes culture from within, and writers are part of this “within,” which gives me hope.

Apart from whatever fears you might have had while writing your book—about ending up in the Parenting section or your book not being given serious critical attention—I’m wondering if there was any internal resistance you had while writing about being a parent, or things adjacent to it? What concerns or inner taboos did you have to overcome in order to write your book, if any?

Kim Brooks: The greatest internal challenge I faced was simply that I’d read and thought so little about motherhood before having children. I wasn’t interested in it. Nothing about motherhood as a subject seemed important or sexy or engaging or exciting, maybe because I’m most interested in writing about the world and its workings, and motherhood in our culture still pulls women out of the world, out of public life. I’m reading Jaqueline Rose’s essay, Mothers, right now, and she suggests this segregation happens because “the radical care and visceral mess of child-rearing must neither degrade nor stain the upstanding citizen. The shameful debris of the human body, familiar to any mother, must not enter the domain of public life and spill onto the streets.” A turning point for me might have been reading Grace Paley. She was the first writer I encountered who so seamlessly merged the subjects of motherhood, family life, and city life.

Jessica Friedmann: For me it was about unpacking the invisible knapsack, trying to reconcile my desire to write about my experiences with the fact that women like me are totally overrepresented in publishing: white (or Ashkenazi, anyway), well-educated, middle class. I was writing about a mental health crisis that cuts across all barriers but realistically is compounded by poverty, sexual trauma, racism, homophobia, disability… and I had a stable heterosexual marriage, a loving family, and some access to healthcare. I felt a lot of guilt about the question of whether I should be writing straight reportage instead of filtering it through the lens of my own subjectivity. But on the other hand, I almost died! I am the best-case scenario and I nearly slipped through the cracks, because parenting a newborn child while grappling with suicidal ideation is severely, severely bruising. When I started to do the research, it came up that in Australia the leading cause of death for pregnant women and women in the first year of a child’s life was suicide. It’s somehow both shocking and completely unsurprising.

When I gripe about being consigned to the Parenting section, that’s what I really mean. I had cherished dreams about precipitating a major conversation about maternal mental health that has just never happened. Some days I feel like beating men around the head with the book and screaming, “This is happening to a lot of women you know! At least pretend to give a shit about us!” But the conversation is still being had between women and it’s not getting to the level of funding and policy and I just don’t know what to do about that.

Also, when I say “women,” what I almost always mean is non cis-men, and one thing I’ve had to confront going into writing about parenthood is that tendency towards the conflation of non-binary and genderqueer people into a kind of “woman plus” model. I think about gender a lot, both because of how I experience it (as deeply embodied) and because it’s obviously not just women having babies. But “women” and “men” are the categories in mental health research touching on maternal mental illness that I’ve been able to find, and I don’t want to confuse the statistics even though I know that there are a lot of people experiencing motherhood who would not refer to themselves as mothers in the gender sense. More and more I think of motherhood as a political category. There’s an extent to which I believe that ungendering it is going to be really important.

Sheila Heti: I love what you say about motherhood as a political category that can be ungendered. In my book, I also wanted to include more people in the category of Mother, including women who don’t have children. Mother is a political category, and it is also a symbolic category; there is a lot of energy and complexity in this category, which can be harnessed to act in the world in much more powerful and creative ways than we have seen up till now.

“Mother is a political category, and it is also a symbolic category; there is a lot of energy and complexity in this category, which can be harnessed to act in the world in much more powerful and creative ways than we have seen up till now.”

Kim Brooks: Many writers have documented the difficulties of maintaining an artistic practice while caring for small children. And I think many women writers are asked how they manage to be both mother and writer. These questions tend to annoy me, in that they depart from the assumption that being a mother should be an all-consuming role, if you’re doing both things, you must be doing at least one of them wrong. How much pressure have you personally experienced to bow down before the alter of all-consuming, intensive motherhood or parenthood? Did the competitive, culture of parenting play a role in your decision of whether or not to have children? In what ways do you set boundaries around your writing life to protect time with your children and boundaries around your mothering-life to protect your writing?

Meaghan O’Connell: It’s funny (“funny”) because I think the question is offensive when it’s asked of women in more straightforward work, but am still endlessly curious about parent writers’ routines and childcare arrangements and spousal and spiritual negotiations. Really though, I am not wondering how anyone manages to be a good parent, I am more wondering how they write—as in when, or what they pay for childcare, or what they do on a big deadline, if they’re always the ones to stay home when a kid is sick, and so on.

I’m dreaming of the day both of my kids are in public school. Then I think this whole writing thing will make SOME sense financially. Are those of you with older kids laughing at this delusion?

My youngest is three months and there is something about the postpartum period that makes me absolutely desperate to write. I think because a) it’s impossible and b) my days are meditative and quiet, full of long walks and menial tasks and rocking and big feelings. It’s the perfect environment for inspiration and it’s impossible, logistically, to get any work done. I think this (temporary!) setup is partly why women always seem to write about motherhood + art—it’s when their babies are new and it’s all they can think about. I know that once he’s older or once we can figure out how to afford a few hours of babysitting a week (whichever comes first…), it will feel less urgent. You’ll ask me how I manage both and I’ll just laugh and say, “Childcare??” like it’s obvious.

As for competitiveness I am so competitive/ambitious/judgmental about writing I don’t get that way (very much) about parenting. I feel like the current trend is to compete with other moms about how little we try or care. I care hugely of course but I have managed to internalize the fact that what my kid really needs is to have an emotionally present, stable, compassionate, happy-ish parent, and that if I don’t write, yes your laundry will be done on time but I will lose my shit at you and cry at the dinner table for no apparent reason and take forever to drag myself out of bed. I mean even more than usual. Whenever I feel some inkling of “mom guilt” for some performative thing I say “But I work” in my head, which is judgmental and shitty in its own way! But it works for me.

As for protecting my time, it’s hard because it plays into my own insecurities about writing generally. Sometimes I’m happy to have a reason not to write. I just have to go to the grocery store. I get to be resentful AND procrastinate all at once! It’s convenient. Until it isn’t and I really want to work and my son is sick and my husband leaves for work and I just RAGE. Rage.

Jessica Friedmann: I secretly think that whenever mothers have an easy and gentle time balancing their baby and their art, it’s because their baby is a placid dumpling who is happy to sit and coo at the wall. If a baby is even vaguely aware of its own frustrations, how can you…?! That said, I never wanted to write in the postpartum period, and I do sometimes wonder what life would have been like without the depression fogging it up. I see parents who are thriving on the art front, whose major issues are logistical challenges, and it makes my heart immeasurably glad to know that retaining that creative urge is possible.

It has definitely felt a lot easier for me now that my child is bigger. I didn’t like being the mother of an infant but I feel well-equipped to be the mother of a funny, cheerful, sensitive, inquisitive little stringbean of a boy. What I think about the most is how best to protect his privacy; how to mediate the conversations about my illness, how to make sure I write about parenting in a way that is honest for me but respectful of him; which parts of my book he will be allowed to read and at what ages. It’s a constantly evolving relationship and one that in its way answers its own question; he is the bridge between motherhood and art. I am miles ahead as a writer because of how he’s enriched my life.

Rumaan Alam: Definitely, women field this question more than men, and I’m happy to tackle it. I wrote both of my books while caring for quite small children. I probably did a terrible job of both parenting and writing, but I did it. Men don’t face the same pressure as women to vanish into their child-rearing, to embody that particular role; there’s a kind of novelty around dads showing up at the playground or the parent teacher conferences. But however joyous one finds parenting, whether one is a father or a mother, I think it’s ok to chafe at it and ok to carve out your own time. Plus parenting teaches you this, if nothing else: you can survive on no sleep. My kids are in bed by 7:30, and up at 6, but I can work until midnight and still get six hours sleep. The trick is to have no friends and never watch television or relax, it’s just that easy!

PART TWO OF THIS ROUNDTABLE WILL APPEAR TOMORROW






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