Writing the Motherhood Uglies

At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home, you think of the work you’ve left unfinished. Such a struggle is unleashed within yourself. Your heart is rent.” — Golda Meir

I suspect that it’s easier to find authentic novels about the difficulty of being a daughter or son than down-and-dirty tales about being a mother.  Great books about being the child of bad parents, evil parents, and crazy parents abound. Rarer are books about the authentic experience of being a mother that don’t explain away negative thoughts moments after putting them on paper. er

I understand this. We writer/mothers fear judgement. What in this world is less revered than a bad mother (and thus the shelves of novels and memoirs devoted to recovering from them.) But how soothing it can be to learn that one is not alone in experiencing the ambivalence of mothering—and that feeling does not mean doing. Inside thoughts that pop up even as one murmurs soothing words to a screeching infant, calms a toddler in midst of a tantrum, and watches one’s words (even as one’s teenager don’t) can terrify the thinker.

Or perhaps Mom is just being tired of it. Perhaps the kids are fine, but Mom is bored to tears. Or maybe she’s too caught up in sparkly sex with a new guy to pay enough attention to the kids. Or she’s had too many drinks. Or maybe she’d like to be anywhere but there.

Which novels are brave enough to capture these moments from the mother’s point of view?

The Good Mother by Sue Miller. I read this book years ago, but I still remember its power. Miller forces the reader to ask themselves whether this woman was so caught up in the frenzy of love and sexual awakening that she lost sight of her child, or if she was punished for her choices by her ex-husband and the court system.

Rosie by Anne Lamott. What happens when your love of whiskey and your love for your child bump into each other? Lamott reaches deep into the well of good intentions not being enough in this book, and she’s never afraid of showing the character’s flaws. With Rosie you can pray for the rescue of everyone.

Before and After by Rosellen Brown. What if your love of your son collides with your moral code—which side will you fall on? And what if this internal battle inside is also a battle with your husband—the father of your son. Brown does a brilliant job of turning the prism of the family to catch the light bending with each character.

Jump at the Sun by Kim McLarin. Grace, the mother at the center of McLarin’s novel doesn’t just wrestle with ambivalence, she’s fighting a family legacy. Her grandmother gave up Grace’s mother. McLarin’s exploration beneath the surface of the seemingly perfect family uncovers the emotions never spoken by mothers.

Writing the motherhood uglies can be the toughest write of all. Women are not forgiven transgressions of motherhood, not even just the sins of the mind. We’re not supposed to say some truths aloud—and not just the truth of motherhood’s obvious downsides—the stretch marks, being bored to tears—but also the harder truth of the terror of being a hostage to motherhood. The health, happiness, and success of our children can make or break us on any given day. Done right, motherhood begs the question, do you mind stepping aside for, um, a lifetime.

Done perhaps not so right, one might ask, can they ever step aside for me?

It takes some brave writers to lead us through this thicket (for who else leads the exploration, but the writer?) I know I came through the early years of motherhood grateful for every woman willing to tell the truth. (I’m talking to you Jane Lazarre, author of The Mother Knot, my own touchstone of my early years of mothering.

All of us mothers, we owe a debt to those willing to take on the mother uglies. Keeps a grown woman from crying sometimes. Sometimes it feels like we have someone to cry with. And it gives a mother a friend in the dark of night.

“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother.  A child is a child.  They get bigger, older, but grown?  What’s that suppose to mean?  In my heart it don’t mean a thing.” Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

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  1. Christiane Alsop
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Great post. This taboo allows the rest of the world to go their undisturbed ways and while ready to assign responsibilities when something goes wrong. But most interesting in your post: us women and mothers buying into this scheme. There is a tempting power, a fake promise in the “holy mother” idol.

  2. Posted August 13, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Randy, you’re so right. It’s daunting to write mothering truths without wrapping them up alittle bit so as not to be misunderstood. I think perhaps the fear is that they will be completely understood. Am trying – have tried – to allow for mothering truths in my work. It’s what makes me cringe when I wonder how it could be perceived — even though it’s fiction. Thank you for a lovely post! Again.

  3. Sharon Bially
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Randy. Interesting. This one’s a little “beyond the margins” of your message here, but interesting: How about Loving Frank. Set in a completely different era, it shows the extremes one mom had to go to to assert her own identity and interests: she had to literally abandon her kids.

    It’s also interesting to note that the blogosphere is filled with “bad mommy” stories — in fact, it seems that millions of moms out there these days are blogging about their not-so-prouid parenting moments and getting a laugh out of reading the same.

  4. Posted August 13, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Three brilliant books:

    Veronique Olmi – By the Sea
    Marie Darrieussecq – Mal de Mer (Breathing Underwater in English)
    Elfriede Jelinek – The Piano Teacher

  5. Posted August 13, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic point. Motherhood is complicated and mothers are…human.
    Great list. Thanks. I think you could add Elizabeth Strout’s
    novel, Amy and Isabelle. Fantastic story and it certainly looks
    at the grimmer side of motherhood.

  6. Posted August 13, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Randy — Great topic for a post. Thanks.

  7. virginia deluca
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant post and wonderful book suggestions. It’s amazing how the mother knot gets unraveled and then retangled at each stage and for each generation.

  8. Posted August 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Great post and very true! That is why I try to tell the “ugly truth” or at least the realistic side of motherhood on my blog. It’s not always perfect or fun. It’s hard! I appreciate you pointing out some great books that will make me feel like I’m not alone in my mothering.

  9. Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I love that Toni Morrison quote. This is such a great post (with great book recommendations, some I haven’t read). Maybe part of it for me is that as a writer it’s hard to face my worst fears and actions as a mother — there’s a dose of guilt that goes along with the ugly (and real) side of motherhood — because you really nailed it when you said that done right motherhood begs the question: do you mind standing aside for a lifetime? It’s hard to shake that regardless of a child’s age…

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nichole Bernier and Alison Wells, Alison Wells. Alison Wells said: RT @nicholebernier: Putting unmotherly thoughts on paper: @randysusanmeyer on writers who've dared to do it. At Word Love http://bit.ly/ayXOJk […]

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