Writing Motherhood

Several years ago at a friend’s wedding reception, the mother of the groom said to me, “I hope someday you get to experience the joy of a child.” She paused for a moment, then followed up: “Or perhaps you don’t need to, since you’re a writer.” Though many might object to the idea that a book and a child are interchangeable, there’s a long history of comparing—and conflating—these two creations. (After all, what was Ulysses if not Joyce’s attempt to rival parturition in linguistic form?) Writers, both those who are mothers and those who aren’t, have long sought to demonstrate how caring for children informs, inspires, and often threatens their creative work. Writing, like mothering, is work, as much as it may also be a labor of love. Below is a selection of works that examine the dilemma.

Silences by Tillie Olsen (1978)
Olsen, a fiction writer, didn’t set out to rewrite literary history—but that’s what she accomplished in Silences, a book Sandra Cisneros once compared to the Bible. Silences is a scrapbook of sorts: a compilation of reading lists, conference talks, journal entries, and “jottings”—the kind of writing Olsen was able to accomplish in between working day jobs and caring for her family. A lifelong leftist activist, Olsen understood that material circumstances enabled creative work; in “Silences,” the essay first conveived as a 1963 seminar talk that gives the book its title, she lamented those “mute inglorious Miltons”—“the barely educated; the illiterate; women”—who never obtained the resources or education to needed write, but who nonetheless possessed “genius of a sort.” A mother of four daughters, Olsen also recognized the particular challenges that motherhood posed to writers, who need solitude for their work. She’s at her most powerful when writing about her day-to-day challenges, as when she describes the “brutal impulse” to push her daughter away from her typewriter, and the constant struggle to reconcile her artistic ambitions and her maternal role: “I keep on dividing myself and flow apart, I who want to run in one river and become great.”

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker (1983)
First delivered as a talk at a Radcliffe College symposium in 1973, the title essay from this nonfiction collection redefines creativity and locates it in unlikely places. Like Olsen, Walker wondered how working-class and enslaved people, particularly women, expressed their creative ambitions. She found that “these grandmothers and mothers of ours were . . . Artists,” who were driven insane by the “strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent.” Still, she sees evidence of their artistry in their domestic lives: in their quilts, their songs, their flower bouquets. In other essays, such as “Looking for Zora,” Walker recovers the work of underrecognized Black women writers—“mothers” of a kind—and ensures that their legacies will endure.

A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk (2001)
Prior to having children, Cusk, an acclaimed novelist, had not thought of herself as oppressed by her sex. That all changed when she had the first of her two daughters. As described in this memoir, “birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.” Like Olsen, Cusk suggests that there is a fundamental conflict between attending to one’s children and pursuing one’s writing: no matter which activity you’re doing, you feel incomplete and only half-present. A Life’s Work was lambasted by many readers in the UK when it was published, but, reading it almost twenty years later, one might think that Cusk’s crime was publishing the book roughly a decade too early; the memoir fits easily within the now-vibrant tradition of ambivalent writing about motherhood. Seven years after it was published, Cusk wrote an essay on her memoir’s reception. Its headline read: “I was only being honest.”

Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason by Anne Roiphe (2011)
Children, like women, are in the background of this memoir of midcentury New York’s literary scene. At times, the book reminded me of Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), another depiction of an artistic bohemia infiltrated by children, but there’s more money in Roiphe’s world than there is in Comyns’s fictional one. The Roiphe of Art and Madness is literary but not yet a writer; instead, she’s positioned herself as a “muse to a man of great talent”—her first husband, the playwright Jack Richardson, who is rarely around for Roiphe and their young daughter. After their divorce, she moves on to the writer and editor Harold L. Humes, who helped found the Paris Review. (Roiphe married her second husband, a psychoanalyst, in 1967.) Reading Roiphe’s memories of alcohol-fueled nights, I found myself less interested in the big names and gossip than in the depictions of children, especially Roiphe’s unnamed daughter, who witnesses writers at their best and their worst. I searched the internet to see what became her and learned that she became a writer herself.

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen (2016)
Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s eleventh-century Japanese text The Pillow Book, Galchen’s memoir is a study of small things: the shape of a baby’s head, torn pieces of toilet paper, an apartment’s interior, a small hand “grasping and ungrasping like a sea anemone.” Having a child has changed Galchen as a writer: She finds the world reenchanted, even as she struggles to find time to write. At one point, she tallies the books published by, and children born to, writers throughout literary history, finding that there’s an inverse relationship between number of children and number of books for women (the pattern doesn’t hold for men). Like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014), Little Labors suggests a relationship between the lived experience of motherhood and short, nonlinear literary forms: the epigram, the fragment, the anecdote.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)
Motherhood can preoccupy a writer even if, or precisely because, she does not have children. This is the case for the unnamed narrator of Motherhood, a work of fiction that is more a meditation on decision-making than a traditional novel. Like How Should a Person Be?, Heti’s 2010 “novel from life,” Motherhood asks how best to live as an artist—the kind of life that the narrator describes as “avant-garde.” As she lives out her late thirties, the narrator consults a psychic, flips coins, and talks to friends and acquaintances about their experiences of motherhood or of its absence. By the novel’s end, she’s confirmed her desire to live child-free, and she’s got something to show for her all her ruminating: this book, which she presents to her own mother as a way to link three generations of women in their family. “It’s magical!” her mother responds. As the narrator puts it, not having a child, like having a child, can “feel like a kind of miracle.”

Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents was published in May. She writes and teaches in Cambridge, Massachusetts.