I was a writer long before I became a mother, but in 1998, with the birth of my daughter, Sophia, my writing self changed with the emergence of my mother self. I exploded with energy and creativity—and new material. I wrote about Sophia often, and she remains a source of inspiration. By 2002, a mother of three children under the age of four, I wrote in any spots I could find (haven’t we all tried to escape to a closet?), sometimes for only fifteen minutes at a clip. My writing became as primal to me as my desire to have children had been. My view of the world was forever changed; I looked at every situation and everything I read through my mother self.
At the time, I was eager to share my writing but was aware of only one literary magazine publishing essays, fiction, and poetry related specifically to parenting. One literary magazine that talked about issues I cared about. Brain, Child became my lifeline; in its pages, I found my tribe. It was a magazine that did not focus on “How to Install a Car Seat.” Nor did it focus on experts providing parental advice. It was a place where women talked about things that mattered to them—and to me. When I read Brain, Child, I felt less alone, less crazy. Not at all judged.
In 2012, a mother of five, I went to Brain, Child’s website to submit an essay, only to find a notice saying the magazine was no longer taking submissions; they were ceasing publication. I crumbled. Actually, I cried. And in almost the same keystroke, I e-mailed the founders and asked, “Can I buy it?” A month later, my husband, Eric, and I rented a U-Haul and drove to Lexington, Virginia, where Brain, Child was then based. I came back to Connecticut with several thousand back issues, a dozen filing cabinets, and more boxes than could actually fit in the truck.
People asked, “Why would you buy a literary magazine for mothers?” The short answer was because I believed in the work of mother writers. I wanted to keep publishing it. I wanted to help mothers of all different circumstances and backgrounds connect through personal stories. I believed “mother literature” deserved to be elevated and preserved as its own art form. But there is still a long way to go before the subject of motherhood in writing is as valued as it should be.
More and more, I see that writers (both mothers and fathers) are exploring the darker truths of parenting: the failures and the mistakes, the challenges. They wonder. And worry. And hope.
Now, as the owner and editor of Brain, Child, I read hundreds of essays each month. I read stories that hurt and stories that heal. I laugh, I cry, and I connect. More and more, I see that writers (both mothers and fathers) are exploring the darker truths of parenting: the failures and the mistakes, the challenges. They wonder. And worry. And hope. There are many of us who, through exploration and crafted language, are finding out how the experience of mothering impacts our personas, both in real life and on the page. This makes for intriguing reading. I love what I do as both a writer and a publisher. I am awed by mothers’ willingness to reveal their deepest personal stories—an autism diagnosis, the loss of a child, a five-year infertility struggle—and create stunning writing in the process. Such stories need to be read, shared, and saved for posterity.
Recently, I asked our Brain, Child writers’ group how writing about motherhood has changed. The overwhelming majority said the writing has changed for the better; it is “much more honest.” Many agree there is solidarity among us and that moms feel less alone because there is more willingness to share stories and express vulnerability.
“Writers today share the realistic details of difficult situations; they don’t whitewash the experiences of motherhood,” says Milda M. De Voe, author and founder of Pen Parentis, a nonprofit organization that serves as a resource for writers who are also parents. “And parents seem to have found comfort in this new type of community, which talks about substantive parenting issues. We write and we connect even more now due to social media. Social media has changed the way parents connect and how we see ourselves, and others, as parents.”
As the writing has evolved, so have the publications that publish parenting narratives. When Brain, Child began, there were only a handful of parenting essay markets, but now, even mainstream publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times publish parenting narratives. Both of those papers have popular, well-respected parenting blogs. And there are literally hundreds of thousands of magazines, websites, blogs, and books that publish parenting narratives. Twenty years ago, our mothers would never have thought about reading a blog—let alone writing one. Today, in my circles at least, it is the norm for a mom to have a blog. As of 2014, according to eMarketer, 4.4 million American moms blog regularly, whether about parenting or some other subject.
Twenty years ago, our mothers would never have thought about reading a blog—let alone writing one.
In the early days of Brain, Child, mothers met over coffee or in playgroups—and, of course, they still do. But now, with the Internet and social media, our opportunities to connect 24/7 have grown exponentially. In our efforts to develop Brain, Child’s online community, we’ve grown from 7,000 Facebook fans in 2012 to almost 250,000 fans today. There is, indeed, a market for literature of and about motherhood.
And yet, how many of us admit that mothering is our primary subject matter? Even as parenting websites and blogs burst onto the Internet, one after another, creating a huge opportunity for writers whose themes include parenting, it’s still a struggle to convince people to value such writing and see it as real writing. In a 2014 essay, “The Mother As She Writes,” Andrea Lani confessed her resistance to telling people she writes about motherhood:
I imagine that, to other people, motherhood lacks the narrative weight of war and social upheaval, the excitement of werewolves and zombies, the sensuality of erotica and romance. On a deeper level, I am embarrassed to say I write about motherhood because I think people won’t take me seriously, as a person and as a writer.
Today, Lani says she is less reluctant to say that her primary writing topic is motherhood, although she doesn’t necessarily “shout it from the rooftops.” “As more mothers put pen to page and write about the joys and challenges of raising children, eventually, the writing will attain the status of art,” she says.
Or will it? In a recent essay published by Vela, Rufi Thorpe writes, “I get annoyed when women’s magazines try to edit my motherhood out of my work. I get depressed when they won’t run a piece unless I take out any mention of my having children.” In my own life, when asked, I say I publish a magazine. Only if pressed do I say I publish a literary magazine for mothers.
There still seems to be a need to dismiss motherhood as a subject worthy of real literature. “I think it’s still an upward battle for literature about motherhood to be taken seriously. In many reviews, the genre of motherhood literature is gutted before the reviewer grudgingly acknowledges what works well about the book at hand,” says Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood.
I have built my life around writing and publishing personal narratives about motherhood because I think that this genre is important, that the dark sides need to be shown with the light sides, and that our stories need to be told in order to advance the canon of literature written by mothers. In addition, I believe this writing heals and helps, and provides a conduit for meaningful connections. Early on, I was a lonely mother. I wrote about my children in small spiral-bound notebooks, which I stuffed in my dresser drawer. I never valued the essays I was writing or tried to publish them. It has been an honor to see mothers’ stories come out of such notebooks all over the world and arrive in my e-mail. I love to find the next best story. Because of this, now as a mother, I am far from alone; I have handfuls of incredible women whose words I read and relate to. I am proud to publish the work of these women.
These days, I tell myself I write and publish essays about love and loss, pressure and postpartum, siblings and sexuality. I write about shame, about despair, about depression. I consider myself a writer writing about the human condition, a writer who also happens to be a mother, and that makes me the lucky one.
*Illustration by Stephen Knezovich