The word “mother” appears 282 times, roughly every other page, in the 512-page “Oxford Companion to World Mythology” by David Leeming. In an interview with NPR in 2005, he described the Sumerian goddess Nammu who gave birth to the Earth; the old mother goddess of Babylon who became a monster named Tiamat, out of whose dismembered limbs the patriarchal god Marduk created the world; and the Zuni Earth Mother who lay with Sky Father and gave birth to the first peoples. Aztec and Māori creation stories also include mothers, and even in Christianity, a clearly patriarchal religion, a human woman, Mary, is the one who births and cares for the Son of God. Mothers are culturally universal, their roles proportionately mythical. How could any human being live up to that?
The answer, of course, is that they can’t.
“Mothers are idealized as protectors: a person who is caring and giving and who builds a person up rather than knocking them down. But very few of us can say that our mothers check all of these boxes,” Michele Filgate writes in her introduction to the anthology she edited, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” which is the title of her own Longreads essay that went viral in 2017. “In many ways,” she continues, “a mother is set up to fail.” This generous, mature recognition of the ways in which so many of us overestimate the capacities of mothers — who were people with lives and loves and wants and hurts and complexities before they ever gave birth — colors many of the stunning essays in this anthology.
Though no two essays feel even remotely alike, there are recurring themes. Violence is one, often paired with silence: Filgate’s essay deals with her mother’s refusal to address, or even believe, that her new husband was abusing her daughter. In “Xanadu,” Alexander Chee writes about the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of a trusted adult, and how, for years, he hid it from his mother, attempting to protect her. Nayomi Munaweera’s “Her Body / My Body” examines her mother’s volatile moods, her self-harm and harm of others, and tries to understand and contextualize them through cultural stigmas, the stresses of immigration, and the lens of mental illness. Brandon Taylor’s “All About My Mother” explores the complex grief for his abusive mother who died some years ago, whom he couldn’t love, exactly, but for whom he has developed ever-more compassion and understanding as his life marches forward and hers halted.
Heritage, of course, is present as well, with many of the authors explicitly addressing the ways in which their mothers influenced who they are and how they have become so, whether positively or negatively. In Bernice McFadden’s piece, “Fifteen,” which addresses her mother directly, she writes of her own daughter’s birth: “I had brought her into this world, but we would raise her together — she belonged to both of us — me and you, Mommy — she was my daughter, but she was our girl.” Carmen Maria Machado, on the other hand, recognizes the similarities more ambivalently with the mother she has needed to cut off contact with in order to retain her own sense of self-worth and sanity: “The stereotype of Midwestern passive-aggressiveness has never really suited my mother; she needs to say something about everything, needs to fight. It’s something I’ve inherited from her, actually. It’s one of my worst, and best, traits.”
Another theme running through these essays is intimacy, either yearned for — as in Cathi Hanauer’s attempts to break through her overbearing father’s constant “thereness” in order to get to know her mother on her own terms — or achieved — as in Melissa Febos’ finally learning, through years of experience as well as hard work, that her mother will continue loving her no matter what.
While each essay is its own beast, containing its own wild, wonderful, woeful, willful or warring mother figure, the collection as a whole holds together precisely because there is something recognizable in each and every piece. Leslie Jamison writes that “[t]o talk about [my mother’s] love for me, or mine for her, would feel almost tautological; she has always defined my notion of what love is.” While in Jamison’s case this refers to an incredibly close, intimate relationship between her and her mother, the sentiment holds true also for the painful relationships, because everyone first learns what love is through how our parents or guardians relate to it. As Taylor writes, “to some people [love] is expressed via touch or via words or some other means of affection. In my family, love was the slow accumulation of moments in which I was not subjected to great harm.”
In a few essays, we’re given access to the mother’s own voice, and one striking example is in Kiese Laymon’s “While These Things/Feel American to Me.” When his mother finished reading his memoir, “Heavy,” she wrote to him about all the good she remembers about their relationship, but also admits to her fear of losing him, either to a bullet or to his own decision to leave: “I lived in fear, when, perhaps, I should have willed myself to live with more courage, less tough love, and more conviction. I took some of the wrong chances.” While some of the authors in “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About” forgive their mothers and others cut themselves away, each and every one comes to recognize this fact: that every mother is human first, mother second — and all humans are destined to take the wrong chances at times.
Simon & Schuster, 288 pps., $26
Masad is a writer, book critic and PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.