Book Review: The Mother in Me

Margaret mentioned the Segullah staff’s excellent essay collection, The Mother in Me in her post on Mother’s Day talks. I also liked the book a great deal–here’s my review.

I am inclined to approach a book from Deseret Book with the word “mother” in the title somewhat warily. It is therefore both a happy surprise and a bit of a relief to open such a volume and find the honest and articulate musings of women whose experience of motherhood does not seem consistently appropriate for a Hallmark card. These are women who seem real and quite likeable; I could imagine spending a pleasant afternoon with them exchanging shop talk about the business of motherhood.

Indeed, the editor, Kathryn Lynard Soper, opens the book with a welcome to such a conversation:

We’re happy you’re here to laugh, cry, think, and rejoice with us. To fellow mothers, we offer our companionship. To future mothers, we offer a warm invitation to join us in due time. …In these writings we look at the miracles of pregnancy, birth, and adoption; the sorrows of infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth. We smile and groan over toddler antics and preschool adventures. We speak frankly about health crises, identity crises, and sanity crises. …We delve into the messy richness of the domestic realm and find great beauty and meaning therein.

Even the acknowledgment that the richness of the domestic realm is messy is rare enough in LDS discourse on motherhood—the fact that the authors do, in fact, “delve into” it candidly makes this book an important contribution to that discourse, and a great gift to its readers. These authors give voice to a range of feelings much wider than the ones spoken over the pulpit on Mother’s Day—there is frustration, grief, anger, confusion, fatigue, and boredom mingled with the deep joy and yearning love of bearing and raising babies. Maralise Peterson comes closest to openly challenging the discourse of women’s “natural” instinct and talent for mothering, in describing the difficult nurturing of her sons, one who presents behavioral challenges, and one who has physical challenges that make even the most basic of mothering tasks—offering nourishment—an uphill climb:

This is not the way a “natural” mother would feed her kids. Maybe a better term would be a hard-working mom, a perseverant mom, or more accurately, an imperfect mom raising imperfect kids.

A very average mother growing stalks of wheat out of the broken ground of her greatest fears.

Sparkling jewels of prose like this image of the “broken ground of … fears” appear with some regularity in this collection, and all of the writing is skillful. A strange syntactic unity emerges from the chorus of otherwise distinct voices: over and over, mothering is described as “x, but also y,” or “both x and also y,” the contradictions precariously held on the horns of the conjunctions:

“On those days when we do nothing but wipe bottoms and cook Ramen noodles, significance can be hard to find. But it’s here.”

“I try so hard, but I feel so inadequate. I want to be an angel mother, too, but right now I don’t even know how I’m going to make it through the rest of today.”

“Before you were born, I thought that if I worked hard enough, I’d be able to do everything right. But my expectations for myself as a mother have changed.”

“After the birth of each of my children, I’ve asked myself ‘How can I make it? How can I get through this?’ But my past experiences give me reassurance…”

“Grief now expands my awareness, but the bite of knowledge has bittered my tongue. …The peace of inexperience would never return. Yet with that loss came new perspective.”

“I gave up part of myself to be a mother, a part I’ve never seen since. …It is the part that, if I’d done things differently, would be right there on Google. …I still miss the student side of me; I plan to let her resurface on Google at some point. But nurturing, my primary focus right now, does not belong there. …If my nurturing lost its privacy, it would lose its identity. By embracing the inheritance of Eve’s mothering birthright, I received a sacred anonymity: a private, holy grace.”

The privacy of that grace, paradoxically revealed by the book, is affirmed in each essay, and even more by the effect of the collection as a whole. Over and over in these essays, motherhood is presented in the form of unresolved conflict—conflict between career aspirations and the longing for time to nurture children, conflict between limited capacity and unlimited hopes, conflict between savoring one baby and making room for another, conflict between a woman and her own infertile or pregnant body. All of these conflicts are resolved privately, always by a mother at home with her children, almost always within the private space of a mother’s psyche. Virtually every essay comes to the conclusion that the self can be (even must be) reinvented as “mother” and that this reinvention is the key to finding meaning, fulfillment, or the “significance” promised in the introduction. There is never a re-assertion of the old, known self, or a resolution that requires the reinvention of a marriage relationship, a career path, a childcare arrangement, a public policy, a theological understanding, or a community. The result is a nearly solipsistic sense that motherhood is entirely and individually constructed by each woman who undertakes it, although children (or occasionally a husband, or God) serve as a vehicle for the revelation of the true mother-self.

Oddly, despite the “companionship” so generously offered in Soper’s introduction, the essence of motherhood distilled in these pages left me feeling lonely, somehow. I found myself wishing for a book about the mothers in us, some sense that motherhood is a shared project and a contribution to a world not contained in the four walls of a nuclear family’s home. Of course, this is not a criticism of any of the essays, or even of the book itself, which succeeds admirably at its aim of presenting honest voices describing the personal experience of early motherhood. If there is a criticism, it is only that the chorus of those voices is too perfectly tuned—the suspensions all resolve into major chords, and there are neither discordant notes nor complex harmonies from women whose experience of motherhood includes poverty, a decision to have only one child, abuse, divorce, an unwanted pregnancy, or painful confrontation with the limits prescribed for women by Mormon doctrine or culture.

The Mother in Me feels like the beginning of a richer discourse about Mormon motherhood—these essays are brave and forthright and resonant. But it is still just a beginning. I find myself concluding in the book’s syntax: this, but that; both this and that. The Mother in Me is a rich, but narrow slice of mothers’ lives; it is both a bold venture into the psychological terrain of motherhood, and a retreat into a pastoral corner of that vast and complicated country.

Comments

  1. Wonderful thoughts, Kristine. Your comments and review in many ways parallel Rosalynde Welch’s (I think slightly less sympathetic, if I remember correctly) review for Dialogue. I’ll have to pick up a copy of the book one of these days.

  2. Kristine says:

    Yeah, it’s a little hard to have an original thought after you’ve absorbed Rosalynde’s–but everyone else will have to subscribe to Dialogue to see what a pathetic imitation I am. Bwahahahaha!!

  3. “If there is a criticism, it is only that the chorus of those voices is too perfectly tuned”

    Interesting. I had the same thought about a similar anthology Eighteen Months: Sister Missionaries in the Latter Days.

    Very much worth reading and welcome-ingly candid for a book found on the shelves at Deseret Book (although I don’t recall it getting quite the PR it should have). But it seemed as if each sister missionary went through the same process of privately resolved conflicts that reaffirmed their status as a sister missionary.

  4. Thank you for this gorgeously written review Kristine. The book sounds perfect for my Mom on Mother’s day. Also, I would also love to see the book you describe at the end. I do wonder who would publish it though.

  5. Kristine says:

    “I do wonder who would publish it though.”

    No one ever accused me of excessive practicality :)

  6. Thank you, Kristine! A generous and perceptive review. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the anthology’s strengths, and I frankly acknowledge its limitations. There’s a lot of valuable territory the book doesn’t cover. Obviously, some of the topics you mentioned fall outside the publisher’s parameters. A few fall outside my own. But most are topics I’d love to see in Segullah’s inbox.

  7. This book is sitting on my nightstand, and I’m moving it to the top of the pile tonight. Thank you Kristine, for your lovely review.

  8. Very lovely. I’m interested in Soper’s “The Year My Son and I Were Born” as well. I enjoy her prose. Thanks Kristine.

  9. Kristine says:

    Todrobbins,

    I liked that one even better–Kathryn is a terrific writer and I loved the insight into a really great, but also REAL Mormon family.

  10. I have read a couple of the essays, and they are great. I bought three copies for Mothers Day gifts.