Writing Through Motherhood
Motherhood has been the subject of my writing now for almost a decade. In September of 2003, my daughter, Stella, was born two months prematurely. She spent a month in the hospital, and the long winter months that followed home with me. At the time I was in the 3rd year of the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, and I had to withdraw from school in order to stay home and care for my fragile and extremely fussy daughter. Up until that point, writing had been the way I processed what was happening in my life. But I couldn’t think much less write in those early months.
Stella was five months old when I finally realized I needed to find my way back into words. I went to the coffee shop near our house one afternoon and pulled out paper and a pen. But instead of returning to the half-finished pieces I had been writing before Stella’s birth, I started to write about the single most life-changing experience of my life: becoming a mother. The images of my daughter—a miniature thing on an open warming bed, her legs splayed like a frog’s, a white ventilator tube taped over her mouth, purple veins tracking across her skull like spider webs—came spilling out. After an hour, and for the first time since my daughter was born, I felt grounded, and the world felt a little bigger.
I’m often surprised by the way that the solitary action of putting words on the page makes me feel more connected to the world. But it always does. And as an isolated new mother, writing allowed me to process some of the fundamental ways that my life had changed.
Those few hours a week at the coffee shop were the beginning of my work on my memoir, Ready for Air. A year later, I was back in graduate school and halfway through the first draft of my book.
But when I began to talk about my new project, I encountered a number of raised eyebrows and glazed eyes. One person even said, “Oh, you’re writing about your baby? How, um, sweet.” I realized how few people take writing about motherhood seriously, how few think it is a subject worthy of real literature.
When you say you’re writing about “motherhood” some people assume that the story—if indeed there is any story at all—will consist only of sleepless nights, diapers changes, nursing debacles, and tantruming toddler. They assume if they opened your book they would be sucked into the minutiae of daily life with children.
This reminds me of something the poet Deborah Garrison said: “I think that motherhood as a subject can blind people. They are distracted by it—they have ideas about what motherhood poetry should or shouldn’t be—and sometimes they can’t get past this to really see the way a poem [and here I would insert a memoir or a novel] was constructed.”
But Ready for Air was a book I was passionate about writing, a story I felt deserved to be out in the world. So I kept at it, and I also developed my Motherhood & Words class, which I have been teaching at the Loft since 2006. I wanted to create place where other mothers could come to craft their stories into art, a place where their writing would be taken seriously, and where their subject matter would be treated as one worthy of literature.
And this is what I always find in class: powerful writing—some of it really extraordinary—that uses motherhood as a lens through which to see the world. My students are crafting essays that deal with issues of identity, with loss and longing, neurosis and fear, ambivalence and joy. They are writing about transformation and how we see ourselves in relation to the world in which we live—the stuff of which real literature is made.
Motherhood is a time of transition and sometimes a period of intense identity struggle, which is why, as a subject, it lends itself to memoir. I’m drawn to these memoirs because I am interested in the different ways that women process the challenges and joys of motherhood, and how they write about life in general through their mother eyes.
I love what Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, says about motherhood memoir: “A well-written book [about motherhood] is going to say something profound about the human condition, and we need to hear the voices of women who can express the plight we’re all in as humans.” I couldn’t agree more.
Kate Hopper holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, and a Sustainable Arts Grant. She is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Brevity, Literary Mama, and The New York Times online. She is an editor at Literary Mama. For more information about Kate's writing and classes, visit www.katehopper.com. She’ll teach the in-person course "Motherhood & Words" February 12-April 16, 2013.