We Need to Talk About Whiteness in Motherhood Memoirs
White women get to challenge the narrative of child-rearing, but not everyone has that power
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I approached early motherhood like a research project. When I was trying to get pregnant, I read Nina Planck’s Real Food for Mother and Baby and stocked up on salmon, leafy greens, and whole milk. When the baby wouldn’t sleep, I googled relentlessly and read every baby sleep book I could find. Reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, I was taken in by the ease with which the naturally maternal French women get their babies to sleep through the night (faire ses nuits, as her Parisian neighbors say) by two months old. When I tried, as French mothers apparently do instinctually, to observe my baby’s signs so that I might let him learn to sleep on his own, I saw that he was always screaming, nursing, or (occasionally) sleeping, so it was unclear what part of this might be instructive.
I googled and read and researched because I believed that the baby was a fixable problem. Each book, website, and expert promised that if I did the right thing, motherhood would be easy. The more I tried to follow their guidance, the more exhausted and downtrodden I felt. The baby refused all the experts’ advice, all their regimens and strategies, and all of it felt impossible. I had a beautiful, healthy baby, albeit one with strong lungs and a penchant for nighttime wailing. And I was convinced I was a bad mother.
A new crop of motherhood memoirs speaks back to this experience of motherhood as something that one can either fail or master. Against the confident advice-giving of a previous generation of parenting books, these new books — what Parul Sehgal, writing in The New York Times, called “a raft of new books on motherhood” — present a wide range of individual experiences of motherhood. Their approaches and stories vary quite a bit: Molly Caro May’s Body Full of Stars describes a serious birth injury and its aftermath, while Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped is a harrowing account of postpartum depression so severe she fantasized about walking to the river near the house where her infant slept and drowning herself. Laura Jean Baker’s The Motherhood Affidavits, in contrast, characterizes the postpartum period as a source of addictive calm, as, while nursing, “I lulled my babies, and they lulled me,” the oxytocin released by early motherhood counteracting lifelong depression. After spending her twenties trekking across the globe, Sarah Menkedick embarks on the new adventure of settling in one place with a husband and a baby on her family’s Ohio farm, and tells the story in her book Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm. Many of these books also reflect on the new mother’s relationship with her own mother, as in Laura June’s Now My Heart is Full, which follows the birth of June’s daughter and also June’s relationship to her mother, an alcoholic. Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything describes the challenges of an unexpected pregnancy and early motherhood in a manner so engaging and warm and disconcertingly honest that I felt both like I wanted to take her out for post-bedtime cocktails and also like I already had.
What these books have in common is their commitment to capturing the joys and challenges of life with small children in an unvarnished and unglamorous manner. None of these mothers presumes to tell her readers what they should do — how to have an easy pregnancy and birth, how to soothe a child to sleep, how to feed the right foods to ensure early genius. In fact, read together, they seem to reject the entire idea of expertise. Babies are crazy, they seem to be saying. Not one of us knows what we’re doing. Whether the story is somber, as in Friedmann, or occasionally madcap, as in Baker’s recounting of how she, overwhelmed by four, then five children, basically gave up on car seats, telling her children they were “now free to roam about the cabin” as she drove their minivan around their small Wisconsin town, the overall effect is a disavowal of expertise. Together they reassure their reader, likely a fellow anxious new mother: no one really knows how to do this, but we’re doing our best, and we’re muddling through somehow.
These books make an invaluable contribution to the literature on motherhood. The more women are able to speak about the significant challenges of new motherhood, particularly in a country with so little material, medical, social, and emotional support for new mothers (not to mention the shameful lack of parental leave, rampant pregnancy discrimination, and an administration determined to strip maternity care out of health care coverage), the more likely women are to actually get the support that makes early motherhood survivable. Further, these books present a serious challenge to the (still-pervasive, amazingly) idea that motherhood is all saccharine joy, the stuff of Hallmark cards, or beneath the notice of serious writers. They crack open space for women to speak frankly about the rigors of early motherhood, to say both I love my baby and I’m really struggling or maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. If I had read them as a new mother, they would have helped me to feel less like a failure, and less alone. They do that for me now, years after my sons’ infancies.
And yet: every time boundaries are broken, new ones are inscribed.
I perceive these books as radical and brave. I see myself — my struggles and my failures and my wonder at my babies and my new mother-self — in these books. I feel seen. This is in no small part because I, like these writers, am white, straight, married, middle class.
(In case it seems like I’ve cherry picked the books that speak most easily to me, I’ll note that the motherhood books getting the most attention in the press have nearly all been written by white women. All of the memoirs listed in Parul Sehgal’s New York Times review are written by white women, though her list of novels is more diverse. Similarly, the “new canon” of books on motherhood listed in Lauren Elkin’s essay “Why All the Books About Motherhood?” on The Paris Review blog is exceptionally white. Angela Garbes discusses the overwhelming whiteness of this conversation in her recent essay, aptly titled “Why Are We Only Talking About ‘Mom Books’ by White Women?” That essay points toward many excellent books about motherhood by writers of color, and Garbes’s own book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey into the Science and Culture of Pregnancy is essential reading.)
Motherhood’s in the literary zeitgeist for the moment, and these books — along with the reviewers who discuss them as a group — are shaping the contours of a new genre. And currently it’s a genre steeped in largely unexamined whiteness. (I’m using white as a bit of a catch-all here for the normative experience of motherhood captured in these books, all written by women who are white, straight, partnered, middle class, college-educated.)
The two books that might have the clearest occasion for examining the insulating privilege of whiteness and middle class status — Menkedick’s Homing Instincts and Baker’s The Motherhood Affidavits — largely fail to do so. Menkedick spent most of her twenties living abroad and ultimately married a Mexican man. And yet she seems not to have thought a lot about her own white body moving through those spaces in the kind of casual bohemian poverty that’s possible when one’s family of origin can provide a landing space. When, newly pregnant, she and her husband make a trip back to her husband’s family’s village, she finds herself repulsed by her mother in law’s having raised her seven children in poverty, having continued to have children when she couldn’t adequately care for the ones she already had. (I probably don’t need to note for you that the structural forces that allowed Menkedick to live a life so rich in choices and travel — education, access to birth control and abortion, if necessary — were, of course, not equally dispersed to her mother in law during her own girlhood in rural Mexico several decades before.) Baker’s book is built around the conceit that at the same time as she finds motherhood addictive, her husband’s work as a public defender in a small town beset by drugs and the other ills of middle America regularly brings actual addicts and other criminals into their lives. And yet Baker never considers herself against the women — often mothers, sometimes also parents at her children’s school — her husband represents. She leaves largely unexplored the way her own “addiction” leaves her children sometimes vulnerable as, for example, a moment of inattention leads to a trip to the ER. The accident doesn’t make her a bad mother (although I find her admission that she doesn’t use car seats shocking), but black and brown mothers and poor mothers have had their children swept up into protective services for smaller infractions.
It’s striking, really, that not only are these books so white, but that their whiteness has gotten so little attention in what has otherwise been a really rich conversation about these new motherhood memoirs. (Garbes’s essay in The Cut highlights the whiteness of the books that have gotten most of the recent attention, as well as the fact that basically no one’s been talking about that whiteness. But her purpose is primarily to call our attention to books equally deserving of that spotlight, rather than to examine whiteness itself.) The most compelling discussion of whiteness takes place across two reviews of Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, a memoir of a harrowing year in which Levy lost a son, her marriage, and (as one reviewer somewhat mockingly notes) her home on Shelter Island during her divorce. Writing in The New Republic, Charlotte Shane makes a powerful critique of Levy as an exemplar of white feminism, as her book “buys into and therefore reinforces the corrosive lie that feminism was, is, or should be a promise made to each woman that whatever she wants, she can have.” Levy’s shock at her own misfortune is, Shane asserts, linked to her understanding of feminism as a force not for the collective but for the opportunity and happiness of individual (white) women. Judith Levine, writing for Boston Review, critiques the “we” Levy uses to invoke a universal of contemporary womanhood (“We were to use birth control and go to college and if we somehow got pregnant too soon or with the wrong guy, we were to abort,” Levy writes on the expectations for her generation of women), which is of course really a “we” made up primarily of privileged white women. Of course, Levy’s book isn’t precisely a motherhood memoir, and I think her reputation as a serious cultural critic is part of what earned her the additional scrutiny of these reviews. To flip that, the motherhood memoir may have escaped this kind of careful attention from critics because it’s not taken seriously enough as a genre.
Beyond missed opportunities for additional complexity in individual books, the more grievous problem here is the way these books together create a new dominant narrative about motherhood. The very pose — there are no experts here — that I found so appealing is one that’s likely inaccessible to women without the privilege that sustains these writers. The new dominant narrative of motherhood — women feeling like they are allowed to say about motherhood this is hard and sometimes I’m bad at it and sometimes I don’t like it — is inextricably intertwined with race and class. This freedom — to declare one’s self a “bad mommy,” as Ayelet Waldman famously did, following the Modern Love column in which she proclaimed that she loved her husband more than her children, or to admit to having not been ready, as Meaghan O’Connell does in the subtitle to her book — is harder for women without the insulating privileges of whiteness, husbands, middle class status to take up.
Whiteness means that Waldman can call herself a bad mommy and, though she received plenty of internet censure for it, not actually risk having her children taken away from her. Women of color can’t expect the same response. Protective services, including the removal of children and court-mandated parenting classes, acts as a form of surveillance for black and brown mothers, giving rise to the nickname Jane Crow. Women crossing the border seeking asylum have been forcibly separated from their children, and blamed for their own victimization because they put their children in danger. If a woman of color declares herself a bad mother, there’s a very real risk that the state might just believe her.
When women of color face shocking disparities in prenatal care and maternal and infant mortality, as documented in Pro Publica’s excellent series Lost Mothers, which argues that hospitals are failing black mothers; when the trauma of racism itself is linked to higher incidences of maternal and infant mortality; when even Serena Williams is saved from dying after childbirth only because she was able to repeatedly direct her doctor in how to correctly treat the blood clots that settled in her lungs — it’s no wonder women of color aren’t rushing to join a genre in which writers downplay or even reject their own maternal authority.
If we’re building, as Elkins suggests, a “new canon” of books on motherhood, let’s consciously build a bigger canon. Camille Dungy’s excellent Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History and Garbes’s Like a Mother both deserve a space alongside the motherhood memoirs discussed in The New York Times and elsewhere. Neither book fits quite so neatly into the motherhood memoir genre occupied by writers like O’Connell, Friedmann, and June — Dungy’s book engages, as its subtitle indicates, motherhood in the context of history, place, and race, while Garbes’s is as much reporting and research as memoir — but both make rich contributions to our understanding of motherhood. Both also take up notably different postures with respect to mothering. Dungy’s book recounts her work supporting her family through teaching and giving lectures, flying around the country nearly every week to visit campuses with her daughter — at least until she is two and can no longer fly for free — in tow. Dungy’s posture as a mother — calm and authoritative, as insistent on finding a way to navigate the pressures of writing, academia, and motherhood as she is on navigating the urban and natural spaces she travels, both alone and with her daughter — is starkly different from the personae created by the white women writing motherhood, who are often flustered, weepy, at loose ends. Dungy admits to being exhausted by motherhood, particularly by her rigorous schedule of teaching and travel with a small child. But she does not seem burdened by it. She does not seem to have been unprepared.
Garbes’s book is remarkable both for its incredible depth of reporting and for her insistence on seeing pregnant women and mothers as people in their own right, rather than simply vessels for babies. She ranges from the history of prohibitions on alcohol for pregnant women to the science of how a breastfeeding mother’s body adjusts the contents of the milk in response to the baby’s changing needs. I’ve given birth twice, and I had no idea quite how remarkable the placenta was until I read this book. Further, Garbes recounts her postpartum refusal to see her C-section as a failure, arguing that “hating my body remains a waste of my time.” While many of the motherhood memoirs describe the new mother’s profound disconnect from their partner during the baby’s infancy, Garbes’s description of her strong partnership with her husband is one of the most memorable portions of the book. Against the isolation that is a hallmark of many of the motherhood memoirs, Garbes is connected to a web of friends, and she pays tribute to the many women whose texts, visits, and emails helped her navigate the early days of motherhood. Any woman who’s trying to make sense of the complex transformations of pregnancy and early motherhood should read this book.
Other books push against the normative experience of motherhood that’s begun to coalesce in the motherhood memoir genre. Emma Brockes’s An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on My Solo Path to Motherhood describes a somewhat unconventional household setup, as Brockes decides to have a child on her own and raise the baby in an apartment adjacent to her female partner, who is also raising a child on her own. Heather Kirn Lanier, whose Vela essay last year about raising a daughter with a rare genetic syndrome garnered so much attention, has a book under contract with Penguin. (It’s a sign of just how narrow the boundaries of the motherhood memoir as a genre are that these books, both written by white women, feel like they’re pushing against them.)
Looking beyond the genre of the motherhood memoir also reveals a more diverse set of writing mothers. There are really excellent essays being written by a much broader range of women, and The Rumpus’s Mothering Beyond the Margins feature this past May is proof of this. See, for example, Rona Fernandez’s harrowing story of losing her daughter to SIDS, or Serena W. Lim’s meditation on the complexities of wanting a child as a queer woman of color. (The whole series is worth reading.) It’s notable, of course, that The Rumpus’s series arose from a call specifically for stories of motherhood outside the boundaries of the stories we’re already hearing. I hope that we’ll see more of these essays expanded into full-length memoirs. Poets are also telling a much bigger and more complicated story about motherhood, and we’re hearing from a more diverse range of poets. Carmen Giménez Smith’s Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else is a lyric memoir that recounts the challenge of pregnancy and parenting when also engaged in artmaking; it feels to me like the unacknowledged foremother of many of the books getting so much attention now. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic (and her other books) includes poems describing the wonder and joy of motherhood, while Rachel McKibbens’s blud is a stark and unrelenting look at parenting amidst intergenerational trauma and mental illness. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda presents a moving and raw view of parenting a disabled child.
The motherhood memoir is an important reemerging genre. For it to adequately represent and serve the mothers who are ostensibly its audience, I believe we need to see both white writers considering the role of whiteness in their mothering more explicitly, and we should also carefully look beyond the parameters of the genre that reviewers and essayists have begun to establish. I agree with Meaghan O’Connell when she argues in a recent Nylon interview that “personal stories create complexity.” What we need now is even more complexity, through a wider range of personal stories.