This book emerged from a shared question: what does it mean to be a mother who writes? Both writing and raising children require time, energy, and attention. If you add working to this list — whether in or outside the home —resources become even tighter. We wondered, did writing and mothering have to be in competition, or were there ways the two could inspire and feed one another?
Before we had our own children, before we began writing while mothering, we’d heard years of cautionary tales about the havoc children would wreak on a life of art. The whispered stories went like this: Babies would steal your time, your intellect, your ambition. You’d stop writing, or if you kept it up somehow, your poems would all turn to sentimental goo. These worries were shaped by the tradition we still, in the early twenty-first century, live and write from, one that’s rooted in patriarchy, one in which motherhood and children have been seen as necessarily sentimental subjects. We’d been taught that “sentiment” is the enemy of “quality,” that any writing taking up these subjects could be summarily dismissed as unrelatable to a wider reading audience, or as too niche to be “serious” writing. We both feared writing what Joy Katz, one of our contributors, has called “the bad poem with a baby in it.”
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And yet, other experiences that are not shared by all people have been treated as vital to our understanding of humankind. As poet Sasha West reasons in the essay included in this book, “War Songs: Mothering through Climate Change”: “No one questioned the way war could be a lens. Though the writers were unlike me — mostly male, elsewhere in history and geography — both my teachers and I understood there to be value in experiences that move your body into a different kind of knowing. It was the strangeness of the lives we didn’t share that widened our own. No one expected war poems to be universal or relatable. (We hoped they wouldn’t be.) What was valuable was how they let us see what happens at the edges of humanity.” West continues to liken the strangeness of war, the way it takes the body to “a different kind of knowing,” to motherhood. Motherhood has so much to teach about the human condition.
Once we started looking, we found many mothers taking up that charge. The writing world was full of people managing somehow to write and mother, and often to combine those activities in really interesting ways. Some of the writers we knew rose early or stayed up late, writing while their children slept. Some left home to go on writing residencies (often ad hoc stays in hotels or friends’ homes, since many of the prestigious residencies require stays of two weeks or more that are difficult for parents of young children to manage). And some simply wrote through their children’s disruptions, allowing their children’s voices and bodies and demands to enter the writing. We set out in this book to learn both what mothers were writing and also how they were getting that writing done.
In this book, we’ve gathered a wide range of voices and approaches. We’ve included poems that show the joy of experiencing the world through children’s eyes alongside poems that show the immense challenges of raising children. Our contributors include stepparents, adoptive and foster parents, those struggling with infertility, and those who’ve chosen to remain childless. The writing in this book chronicles postpartum depression, parenting a child with autism, making space for writing while struggling with chronic illness and mental health challenges, and the intensely bodily joys and heartaches of pregnancy, birth, and parenting. These poems and essays present a diverse, frank, and richly varied range of perspectives on motherhood. Together, this writing aims to celebrate motherhood and also create a space for mothers to, as poet Molly Spencer has written, “tell an unlovely truth about family life and not have to take it back.”
“The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood”
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This book consists of four parts, and each part includes poems, essays, and writing prompts. “Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy” takes on motherhood broadly. It includes expressions of ambivalence about having children and poems on infertility, abortion, and miscarriage alongside poems that celebrate pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. “The Body and the Brain” examines the relationship between the bodily work of motherhood and the cerebral work of writing, as well as how illness or chronic conditions impact the work of both mothering and writing. “In the World” considers how motherhood brings people into contact with spaces outside the home — from the neighborhood to global politics, from cross-cultural exchange to racialized violence, from war to wonder at the natural landscape. Finally, “Transitions” looks at how mothering and writing change over time, particularly as children begin to grow up.
During the years we crafted this book, motherhood entered public conversations in a big way. Across the political spectrum, conversations about the necessity of support for working families such as paid family leave and affordable, high-quality childcare seem to have finally gained traction. Celebrities spoke on Twitter and the covers of magazines about a host of formerly taboo topics like infertility, in vitro fertilization, miscarriage, and postpartum depression. And, as the book took shape, our own lives as mothers evolved, and we scheduled calls around our kids’ playdates, naps, crises, and homework. Sometimes we typed and talked with children sitting on our laps and sometimes we kept working while ignoring our children yelling in some other part of the house. And in the final months we spent on the book, our families experienced a whole new level of togetherness and stress as the social distancing and “shelter in place” orders brought on by the coronavirus meant we were mostly confined to our homes.
This book has been the work of years: a truly countless number of emails and phone calls and text messages to set up phone calls and requests for just a couple more minutes while we sent our kids out to play or got them set up with a game or TV show. During the crafting of this book, Nancy’s older son started elementary school and learned to read. Her younger son enrolled in the district pre-K and began to write his name and draw long-limbed stick figures he taped to the wall in her office. Emily’s kids moved toward mid- and late-elementary school, struggling with and adapting to diagnoses of ADHD, dyslexia, and depression. They also learned to do front flips on a trampoline, typed stories about wolves and farting shopping carts, became interested in politics, and composed original music for piano. The work of editing this collection has also been the work of writing/motherhood: fragmented, and alternately enriched and challenged by the work of caring for our children.
We read widely, finding poems we adored that helped us think about motherhood in all kinds of new ways. We wrote to poets whose work inspired us and asked them to become part of this book, and we asked many of them to write essays about their own path through writing and motherhood.
This book has been a journey that has deepened our own understanding of the many ways that writing and motherhood inform each other. We hope you will take up this journey with us through reading, sharing this work with others, and writing your own poems.
Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy
Introduction to Section 1
In parenting, joy and difficulty are inextricably linked. Although our culture often expects mothers to express unmitigated joy (and even a sense of duty) at the prospect of a baby, the path there can be complicated. Whether a child arrives via birth or adoption; whether the baby is planned, unplanned, or conceived via fertility treatments; whether pregnancy and birth are easy or draining; whether a pregnancy ends in miscarriage or abortion or never happens at all, contemplating and perhaps choosing motherhood is often more fraught than sitcoms or Hallmark cards would have it.
The poems in this part explore the powerful emotions — anxiety, euphoria, depression, and even rage — that accompany the work of mothering. It opens with a poem that considers the intense confluence of difficulty, ambivalence, and joy: in Catherine Pierce’s “High Dangerous,” the speaker juxtaposes her children’s glee at spotting hydrangeas and their fear of the bees that buzz around the flowers with the terrors of the world they don’t yet recognize and her desire to protect them from that knowledge. Then, the poems move from early pregnancy, as in Heid E. Erdrich’s “Intimate Detail,” to babyhood, as in Carrie Fountain’s “To White Noise,” and into the tween and teen years with Carmen Giménez Smith’s “Rare Privilege.” Many poems explore how love for one’s child can be intimately coupled with exhaustion and frustration. Emily Mohn-Slate’s “Feed,” for example, demonstrates the sometimes overwhelming work of caring for a newborn.
These poems also examine some of the difficulties of mothering itself, beginning with the choice to become a mother and the many ways that family is made. In “Confession,” Kiki Petrosino speaks to the child she’s considering having, the one she chooses, month after month, not to conceive. Keetje Kuipers celebrates the modern technology that made her a single mother by choice through in vitro fertilization in “The Museum of Trades and Traditions.” Megan Snyder-Camp, a foster mother and biological mother, considers what those identities mean for herself, her family, and the mothers of the children she fosters in “Permanency.” In Remica Bingham-Risher’s “We See The Lion King on Broadway, I Enter the Pride,” a blended family shares a special occasion, after which the stepmother speaker of the poem notes that “everything the light touches is ours.” Even in the midst of ordinary and extraordinary challenges in motherhood, these writers also manage to find joy and transcendence.
The essays in this part consider the difficulties inherent in sustaining a creative life while performing the joyful and demanding work of mothering. In “Mothering Solo,” Khadijah Queen describes how she’s worked to make space for her writing as a single mother, and her assertion that “Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary” is one that rings true for many mothers, regardless of the particulars of their family life. Megan Snyder-Camp’s “Baskets” considers how, as a foster mother, she can write ethically about the children whose place in her family is temporary. Her contemplation of the ethics of writing about children who can’t yet fully speak for themselves is a valuable one for all writers.
We’ve found reading and writing about mothering — the beauty and the hardship, and everything else along the way — to be a vital tool in our own motherhood journeys.
Excerpt from “The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood,” edited by Emily Pérez and Nancy Reddy by permission of the University of Georgia Press.
Emily Pérez is the author of “What Flies Want,” winner of the Iowa Prize and a finalist for a Colorado Book Award; “House of Sugar, House of Stone”; and two chapbooks. She co-edited, with Nancy Reddy, the anthology “The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood,” also a finalist for a Colorado Book Award. A CantoMundo fellow and Ledbury Critic, she’s received support from Hedgebrook, Bread Loaf, The Community of Writers, and others. She teaches high school in Denver, where she lives with her family. Find more at www.emilyperez.org.