I am standing before a small audience in Columbus, Ohio, apologizing for what I’m going to read. “It’s about motherhood,” I say, then quickly qualify, “but you know, more than that! It’s about stories, and self, and the meaning of home.”
I have been doing this for months, explaining the book I’ve written as something along the lines of “about motherhood but not really,” until finally, in front of this audience, the absurdity of my intellectual scrambling strikes me. What male writer feels the need to atone for essays about, say, war? I imagine him hurrying to clarify: “But really they’re about the human struggle, triumph over adversity, and the meaning of self.”
My worry is that readers will tune out the second they hear “motherhood.” Their brains will be flooded with the beatific white light of diaper commercials, numbed by a singsong voice saying eat-your-peas! My husband once mentioned my book to one of his colleagues, whose response was, “Oh, is it a book of lullabies?” Patriarchal culture has reduced motherhood to an exercise no serious artist would tackle as a subject. The result is not only the marginalization of motherhood as a literary topic but the real-life marginalization of mothers, obscuring the difficulties of childcare, the intensity of birth, the complexities of working and writing as a mother, and the profound ways having a baby changes a woman’s life, body and mind.
I once listened to a podcast with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer I admire who wrote a powerful, popular story about her birth experience. She told the interviewer: “I don’t want to be the person who writes about birth. If you’re the sad birth lady with your pastel-colored book cover, and you’re going around and you’re speaking about it, no one ever says, like, you should write a ‘Shouts and Murmurs.’ ”
Birth is only, after all, the single most important experience in our lives. Like war, sports, medicine, epic travel, it’s a matter of blood and sweat and gore and suffering, of life and death, of triumphing over the limits of body and mind, except: Only women can give birth. So birth is imagined as an ingenuous, icky realm for the dull-minded.
Years after her sad birth story, Brodesser-Akner works for a major men’s magazine, often writing profiles of celebrated white men. She is famous. Her flight from the realm of childbirth has arguably made her career. For the reverse example, take Elizabeth Gilbert, who went from genius tomboy to loathed emblem of chick lit. Gilbert worked at the same men’s magazine. Her first two books have “man” or “men” in the title and won critical acclaim. Then she wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” a memoir of loss and redemption that found an enormous female audience.
“I sort of came out of the closet as a woman,” Gilbert once said. “Whatever acclaim I had in the world, or however I was known, I was not known as a woman who would write a book like that. … Then, of course, I did get typecast. … Like all of a sudden, my whole history disappeared.”
Gilbert’s experience highlights the danger women writers face in exploring female lives, and indicates the larger cultural positioning of personal writing as less serious, important and difficult than journalism.
For a long time, I too evaded the personal as if it were pastel. Reporting was real, thorny, complicated and intellectual, where the first-person essay was touchy-feely, thinky, oozing with female revelations. To write literary journalism was to enter the elite male world of Gay Talese, who made explicit its maleness last year when he was unable to name a single woman writer who’d inspired him. It went without saying that women who wrote nonfiction about themselves, their lives or, God forbid, motherhood, were not within a thousand miles of Talese’s radar.
I watched as one after another of my woman writer friends gave up the essay and ventured into the terrain of literary journalism. We followed falconers, we hiked to base camps of intimidating mountains, we traveled with rodeo riders in remote Mexican villages. This led to some fascinating stories, it taught us the rudiments of reporting, and it made us stronger writers. Yet I can’t help but think that in our determination to turn our talents away from personal writing, and to be taken seriously by men, we strengthened an existing paradigm that elevates the characteristically male, diminishes the characteristically female, and emphasizes the distinction.
Years later, when I’d returned to personal writing after a long stretch of literary journalism, I remembered a grad school nonfiction workshop. We read “The Love of My Life,” an essay of Cheryl Strayed’s that would go on to form part of her book “Wild.” The workshop destroyed it in the haughty, frightened, eager way of MFA students. When we left the class my best friend turned to me and said, baffled, “I used to really love that type of writing.”
If we wanted to be serious we learned to get over that love. It was childish, amateur. Another time, in an English department hiring meeting, a dean held up a CV and said, “Well, she’s got a memoir, but everybody’s got a memoir.” He tossed the CV aside. The room full of female graduate students internalized this. I internalized this. It comes out now when I say, “My book is not really about motherhood.”
Yes, my book is about motherhood. It’s all about motherhood, and home, and family, and birth. It’s about breastfeeding. It’s about pregnancy. It’s about my grandma. My grandma! I am resisting an overwhelming urge here to let loose with a breathless series of qualifiers: but really it’s about the existential nature of waiting and the revolutionary nature of boredom and... But I will own it. It’s a personal book about personal experience and much of that personal experience is traditionally female.
So far, I have managed to juggle what often seem like the oppositional identities of essayist and journalist. Yet I still feel strangely guilty about the former. In the future, I would love to write a deeply researched and reported book of nonfiction about Mexican immigrants. It is depressing, however, to think that a prestigious literary man might one day glance at my CV and say, “Yeah, she wrote that thing about being a mom, but then she went on to do real work.”
In 1976, Adrienne Rich wrote in “Of Woman Born,” “As soon as a woman knows that a child is growing in her body, she falls under the power of theories, ideals, archetypes, descriptions of her new existence, almost none of which have come from other women.” This is beginning to change. I feel immensely indebted to Louise Erdrich and Anne Enright and Beth Ann Fennelly, whose writing about motherhood yanked me out of despair in early pregnancy and showed me the complexity, beauty and nuance inherent in the experience. To do that for other women, I have realized, means not only writing my book but standing up for it.
“I’m on the birth beat,” I imagine saying, to a male professor or interviewer or audience member, as if I’d just been awarded a coveted literary prize. “It took me years of work to get here, and what an honor it is to have arrived.”
Sarah Menkedick’s first book, “Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm,” will be published in May.
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