Mother Writers and the Hostile Reader

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It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a class/workshop situation not heavily populated by mothers. Most of my classes, if not entirely made up of mother writers, are at least populated by a significant numbers of mothers. And that’s because that’s what I do: I help mothers write the stories they need to write. And I do what I do because I know that outside my little haven and the other havens that have been created with the help of pro-mother literary journals and magazines, the world can be hard on mothers. And hard on mother writers.  

I’m excited to have my friend and former student, Andrea Lani, here at Motherhood & Words today with a post that addresses this very issue. Welcome, Andrea!

 Facing—and Learning from—an Audience Hostile to Moms

I recently attended my first ten-day residency of a low-residency MFA in creative writing program. Before I went, I was afraid that I would be the lone old lady among a roomful of twenty-two-year-old recent college grads that I would not be able to relate to, but when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see a wide range of ages among the students. Several of the people I met on the first day were also moms in their 30s and 40s, and right away I felt comfortable among “my people.”

It took me a while longer to notice that among the members of my first four-day workshop group, there was only one other mom, and that most of the others were much younger. It seems the older women I had seen were in creative nonfiction, popular fiction and poetry, while fiction—my genre—tended toward the younger end of the spectrum. This didn’t bother me at all at first; I was enjoying getting to know people from various walks of life with a range of life experiences behind them and the only issue that I thought would arise from my being a mother of three children would be how in the heck would I squeeze 25 hours of writing time in around my job and my kids.

My piece—a short story starring a mother not entirely unlike myself—was workshopped on the last day. The critique went well at first; a number of positive things were said about the writing, and a lot of valuable and valid criticism was leveled at the story’s shortcomings. Then the conversation took a different turn, and three childless young women began to discuss my character. They went on the attack against her parenting choices and skills, her intellect, the validity of her claims of feminism, and, basically, the big gaping void that is her life because she’s spending a day at the lake with her children while her husband is at work.

I walked out of the room feeling as if I’d been kicked in the gut. The character had certain autobiographical elements, so the attack felt personal. But even if she had nothing in common with me, the hostility toward motherhood in general shook me to the core. Motherhood was a major theme in all of my writing—fiction, nonfiction and poetry—in fact, I would venture to say that motherhood had made me, finally, after 30-odd years of dithering, into a writer. And now I was confronted with an audience that questioned not only the validity of my subject, but also my worth as a human because I had children. For the rest of the day, I went through the motions of all of the presentations, readings, and social events but this event played itself over and over in my mind, making me sicker and sicker with each turn.

When I got back to my hotel room that night, I sent Kate an email telling her what happened; I knew she was just the person I needed to seek words of wisdom and comfort from. [Thanks, Andrea!] I woke at four in the morning, this earworm still churning in my brain, and wrote my evaluation for the workshop. I woke again at five and wrote a blog post. By the time I got out of bed an hour later, I was seriously questioning whether to continue with the program. I was angry at those women, and also at myself for letting them hijack my entire MFA experience.

Fortunately, that day was a day off from workshops and presentations. I skipped the scheduled discussions and drove home, where I took a nap, read to my children all afternoon while they tried to burrow into me, and cooked dinner. I found the simple act of chopping vegetables for soup—normally a hectic and draining event—to be soothing and nourishing. In addition to my family’s love that day, I received a wonderfully supportive email from Kate and sympathetic and encouraging comments from my blog readers. I returned to my hotel late that night feeling replenished and determined to start over fresh the next day.

Happily, my second workshop went much, much better. My group was still young, but somehow the personalities clicked as they had not in the first workshop (it should also be noted that my story for the second workshop starred not a mother but a woman facing infertility), I was matched with a great mentor for my first semester (and, no, she’s not a mom, but I’m willing to give her a try anyway) and, finally, on the last day, I met two women in the fiction genre who are older with children.

As for that awful workshop day, while I would much rather it never happened, I learned four valuable lessons from the experience which I think will make me a better writer (and, possibly, a better person) in the long run:

  1. Develop my characters. No wonder those women thought my character was a doormat—I had written her flat, while her children were round and robust. The one other mom in the room could relate to her by filling in her curves with her own experience. Those without that experience had nothing to work with, and so felt nothing but contempt. If I want to connect to people through literature, I need to write characters with depth that can elicit empathy in my readers.
  2. Take care of myself. One of the first things we learn as new mothers is that if we don’t take care of our own needs, we’re not at our best for others. Somehow this has always been hard for me to put into practice. I went into that workshop after five days of sleeping too little, eating and drinking too much, spending too much time in the company of other people and too little on my own. I was in no shape to react moderately to adversity.
  3. Be kind. I went into my second workshop resolved to take extra care in critiquing others’ work, to ensure my comments were fair, tempered and directed at the work, not any element of the writer’s (or her characters’) character.
  4. Use them. Oh, yes. I can guarantee there will be a couple of mean, nasty anti-mother characters in a story coming soon.

Andrea Lani is a mom, a writer and public servant living in rural Maine. See her dispatches on all of the above topics at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.

Thanks so much for your post, Andrea. I love how you were able to turn an unsavory situation into something that will make your writing even stronger. And I also want to say what I’ve said a hundred times: Motherhood literature (by and about mothers) is literary. It is a subject worthy of literature. It can change lives. There, I said it.

Friends, I’m curious how your writing has been reviewed/critiqued/criticized by audiences not friendly to mother writers? How did you feel? What have you done about it?

12 Comments

  1. I’m sorry you had this experience!

    Just keep in mind that the opinions of young women without kids are … the opinions of young women without kids. You get to decide whether their opinions on motherhood, while valid and interesting in their own way, are worth a lot of weight in your eyes.

    I say this as someone who at 23 thought most SAHMs were wasting their lives and brains.

    Now that I’m 33 and have 2 kids, I can’t imagine a better use of my time than being a SAHM.

    … and I’m a little ashamed of the things I said about moms when I was younger and didn’t know better. Ah, perspective!

  2. Great post, Andrea! That sort of thing is very hard to deal with.

  3. Women are notorious at showing real cruelty towards other women. This is such a tired and time-tested scenario and nothing seems to bring it as much to the fore as the decision to have children v the decision not to. Next in line would sadly be the SAHM v working mother debate.
    I’m starting to fear that it’s impossible to truly discuss these issues, as women on both sides of the spectrum seem to bring so much emotional baggage to the table. It’s so hard to express one’s views without seeming to be directly critical of those women who’ve taken another path, or feeling judged for the decisions we’ve made.
    Regardless of our life choices, all the issues around motherhood (including not procreating) are so weighty and we can be so fierce in defending those choices that it’s very hard to find even ground on which to exchange opinions.
    This is a great pity, and I can’t see how/when we’ll find that space.
    Guess we all need to just keep writing …

  4. I love what this writer takes from the experience. I thought that was truly self-aware. The experience of waking up in the middle of the night, playing in your head all the things you wanted to say and didn’t, is something we can all relate to.

    I think the advice is good – we need to dig deeper sometimes on our mother characters, take feedback, throw away the crap, keep what’s worth keeping, and continue to write.

  5. What an interesting and inspiring story, Kate and Andrea. This is the thing, I feel that I could had been that young-er student that criticizes a maybe older woman with children (I had children after 35). I feel that part of the confusion is a disconnect of lack of understanding what life becomes after a woman becomes a mother. This in no way excuses unkind behavior, of course. Now, being the mother woman I can say that I understand much better that younger version of myself. I am so glad, Andrea you were able to look at the experience and transform it. Thank you also for making me aware of your blog, I will add it to my reader.

  6. I love these comments. I totally agree, Ines, that there is a lack of understanding about how a woman’s life changes after becoming a mother. (Which is why you all need to be writing about it!)

    I also love the way Andrea was able to transform the experience and come out of it a better writer. It’s what we’re all striving for.

  7. I appreciated reading about this, and am sorry to hear it happened. (I suspect I maybe know where you’re going to school, Andrea, based on the schedule of a friend also doing a low-res MFA right now. A hunch, and I hope most of the experience proves better than this!). I had a recent experience with a reader (a powerful reader, someone who was supposed to be a mentor) who was hostile like this (or strongly, willfully ignorant, to put it in a little bit kinder way) to writing about motherhood. It was the pits.

    After thinking about your post for a few days, I thought of this: there is huge value in bringing our writing about motherhood to critical audiences of non-mothers. As important and wonderful as it is to have supportive and sympathetic writing peers and mentors who are moms, it can also be too easy to nod and agree with one another, and too hard to see what’s missing. A group of non-mom writers (I hope kinder ones than you encountered!) can help us figure out whether we’re communicating beyond our circle or not.

    • Caro, I think that’s a great point.

      I DO remember when your powerful reader made the belittling comment about your work, and how that made you feel. So though I think it’s important for us to stretch beyond the mother audience, I also think it’s always important for mother writers to be vocal about the need for motherhood literature. So many people still think of it as a subject not worthy of real literature.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience and your learnings. I am a much older mother (54) of a 16 year old, and I still feel some of the “oh, mothering…hmmm” condescension when I tell people what I write about. It’s hard enough to tell people that I am a writer (“oh, what have you published?…”) let alone tell them what I write about.

    Carry on ladies! The world needs to hear from all of us.

  9. I remember feeling very similarly after my first grad school workshop. The difference was that I wasn’t writing about motherhood (I wasn’t a mother yet) and I was writing nonfiction. But, yes, afterwards I wanted to curl up in a ball and never leave my apartment again. Kudos to you for getting back out there and for taking away so many great lessons. I think learning how (and when) to take criticism (and when to leave it) to improve yur writing is one of the greatest lessons of an MFA/ workshop, no matter what the subject matter.

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