Mother-Writers, Father-Writers
and the End of a Literary Stigma

By Tanya Angell Allen

To appropriate the title of a blog of interviews with mothers who are also authors (Anna Ingwersen’s Mother Freakin’ Writers): being a parent-who-writes is Mother Freakin’ hard.

I’ve found this out even just from a many-months-long struggle to finish this article while working a full-time job and raising a toddler. From the research I’ve done on other mothers who write, I know that I’m not alone in having to battle to find time for anything that’s not immediately child related. It’s difficult to keep up literary careers while dealing with exhaustion, postpartum depression, identity issues, housework, job stress, weird childhood illnesses like Scarlet Fever and Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease, and general guilt at not spending every moment we can with our adorable but demanding kids.

My own writer-mother had to stop writing all together when my brother and I were young, and I assume similar fall-outs are one factor behind the statistics kept by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts on the depressing discrepancy between the number of women published in literary magazines versus that of men. In an interview by Julianna Baggott at Mother Writers: Interviews with Successful Contemporary Women Writers Who Are Also Moms, she says, “A mother who writes has to demand time. If she isn’t given time, she will not progress as a writer.” But for those who feel most “ourselves” and whose thoughts fall into the best order when we write, demanding this time is essential.

VIDA logo

There is hope, however, as changes in societal norms are now making it possible for many mothers to find more time. In 2011, Time Magazine declared that the “chore wars” are ending, as men and women share childcare and housework more evenly than in the past. According to the 2010 census, men are the primary caretakers in one out of five households with preschool-aged children. There is even a new quarterly called Kindling for fathers who are “active caregivers.” This involvement can make things harder for male writers, though. My husband, also a forty-something freelance writer with a full-time job, has a more difficult time than either of our own writer-fathers did when domestic tasks were performed entirely by our mothers. Though most conversations on childcare and writing center on women, both genders can benefit from the discussions.

The literary climate seems to be making a concerted effort to be more welcoming. For instance, at the recent 2013 AWP conference, there was a panel on “Blurring Boundaries: Motherhood and Writing from Home” and another called “My Son is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids.” Two of the panelists on the latter, Kate Hopper and Hope Edelman, are the writer and preface-writer of an April 2012 book called Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. In her forward, Edelman states that only in the past few decades has the publishing world opened up to writing about motherhood. She cites Erma Bombeck, Anne Lamont, and Anna Quindlen as pioneers in the field. The advent of the blogging culture (See Babble for one hundred of the best “Mommy blogs” of 2012) has had an influence as well, as it allows parents to find audiences for unedited, honest anecdotes about their lives.

Use Your Own Words by Kate Hopper     Babble Mommy Blogs screenshot     Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner cover

Past stigmas against writing about children made writing difficult for parents. Fiction writers fared better than nonfiction writers, as family life could be reaped for character development and drama. Publishers have even recently created a subgenre of chick-lit called “mom lit.” As Lizzie Skurnick reported in The New York Times in 2006, this news is both heartening and troubling for female writers. Some worry that they will lose potential readers if their work is pigeon-holed into this category. If domestic issues continue to become increasingly hot topics in nonfiction, though, perhaps those female authors who draw from it (such as Jennifer Weiner, who has spoken extensively about this subject and whose books take on subjects like surrogate pregnancy and politician’s families) will be taken as seriously as are male authors who do the same.

In poetry, a decades-long stigma against writing about child-related topics has also died. As Annie Finch tells us in The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse, the Modernist movement itself started as a reaction against the extremely popular women’s poetry of the 1890’s. Frances Osgood’s “The Child Playing With a Watch” exemplifies these problematic pieces:

Art thou playing with Time in thy sweet baby-glee?
Will he pause in his pinions to frolic with thee?
Oh, show him these shadowless, innocent eyes,
That smile of bewildere’d and beaming surprise;

Osgood’s piece, like much of the poetry of the time, was well-metered but overly-sentimental. Once Modernism took over, women poets who wished to be taken seriously would not write in this tradition or take on what were considered “women’s subjects.” This didn’t change until the 1960’s, when Sylvia Plath described a pregnant woman as “A melon strolling on two tendrils” and used similarly sharp lines to describe nursing and infants.

In a recent NPR article, “It’s a Genre! The Overdue Poetry of Parenthood,” literary journalist David Orr reports on the growing number of younger poets writing about children. He cites the publication of two baby-related poems in the new Best American Poetry 2012 (guest edited, significantly, by the male poet Mark Doty). One, by Julianna Baggot, is called “For Furious Nursing Baby.” The other, Kevin Young’s “Expecting,” compares hearing his child’s heartbeat on a sonogram to “hearing / hip-hop for the first time.”

About this sort of poem, Nurse-Practitioner-Poet Cortney Davis—editor of Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses—speculated in an email that “With all the emphasis on technology surrounding pregnancy and birth (IVF, frozen embryos, gamete transfer, surrogates, adoption, sperm banks, etc.), expressions of the actual human experience of it become much more urgent.”

The recent inclusion of men in the birthing room has also made the need for the poems more urgent, as they try to understand experiences that members of their sex were previously shielded from. The fact that fertility and child rearing are no longer just “women’s subjects” is also a key factor in the death of the literary stigma against them. Tania Pryputniewicz, who teaches online classes on “The Poetry of Motherhood,” was surprised when male poets asked to join her workshop. There were so many that she began teaching “The Poetry of Fatherhood,” too. David Orr also wrote his NPR article on the poetry of parenthood after the birth of his own daughter. He shared “For Furious Nursing Baby” with his wife. “Frothy and pink as a rabid pig you—a mauler. . . . / squeeze my skin / until blotched nicked.” “Yeah, that’s about right,” said his wife.

Some of the literary publications specifically dedicated to writing on fertility and parenthood include Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined and Stealing Time: A Literary Magazine for Parents, the book publisher Demeter Press and The Fertile Source. The latter was started in 2008 by Jessica Powers who, although she didn’t have children of her own at the time, was fascinated in the lack of literary writing about fertility, infertility, and adoption. The Fertile Source not only publishes work about these topics, it also publishes in-depth interviews with each of its authors, such as this one with Sheila Hageman: Yoga, Body Image, and Motherhood vs. Stripping. Hageman, who went on to publish a memoir called Stripping Down, wrote in an email that being interviewed “definitely boosted my confidence in myself as a writer,” and “I love connecting with other writers and mothers because it makes me feel not so alone.”

As The Fertile Source and its helpful editors (who also run a blog called Mother Writer Mentor) exemplify, those involved in mother-centered literary publications seem to engage less in the traditional competitiveness of editors and more in the spirit of collaboration and resource sharing that mothers naturally employ when talking with other mothers about child-related topics. There is a definite New Girl’s Club of mother-writers, artists, musicians, educators and activists. Though Finch writes that before the pre-Modernism literary stigmas “women’s poetry tended to value accessibility and the building of community over radical innovation,” literary innovation and the building of community don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The excellent magazine The Mom Egg, for instance, which, in editor Marjorie Tessler’s words, is “first and foremost, a literary magazine . . . [whose] most pressing imperative is to publish strong, innovative, skillful, exciting writing,” takes as many risks and is as good as any other mid-level literary magazine on the market. Although it is now independent, when it began it was connected to Momapalooza, a multimedia organization of writers, visual artists, musicians, and so on that sponsors concerts, festivals, conferences, and other projects. The Mom Egg currently partners with another multimedia organization called The Motherhood Foundation for readings and similar activities.

Two other notable communities for mother-writers include MotherWriter (a group on the social networking site SheWrites) and Mom Writers. Writer-parents should also be aware of the Sustainable Arts Foundation which awards grants to “artists and writers with families.”

Those still worried about the old literary stigmas should check out the amount of Pushcart Prizes and re-publications in the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories series awarded to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Hopefully there will be many more to come as writers continue exploring this previously-ignored subject.

Alicia Ostricker writes in “A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry,” (quoted in Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts/An Interview Project) that “the advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption . . . it constitutes an adventure which cannot be duplicated by any other.”

It will be fascinating to see what future writers birth from this source, now that the literary world has opened to it.