Marybeth Holleman: My Son is Perfect – How to Write (Honestly) About Our Kids

A recent book review in the New York Times began with this:
“No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.”
That review reminds me that writing about mothering is just
like mothering itself – fraught with judgement, whether it’s from family or
neighbors or the media. It’s right up there with education as media’s go-to
when we’re not in the midst of an election or scandal or disaster or tragedy.
And so, at the Associated Writing Program’s annual
conference in March, I was happy to chair a panel of women who write about
motherhood. Me, Kate HopperCaroline Grant, and Hope Edelman convened
to give insights into how to write honestly about our own kids, about this job
of motherhood.
So, what keeps us from writing honestly? Well, for one
thing, fear. Fear of a reviewer like that. Fear of what others might say or
think about us as writers and as mothers. Fear of what our kids will
think of what we say about them, and what they’ll feel. Could we damage them
for good with our words? And fear of what every mother fears: that we’re bad
Writing honestly about our kids requires, first of all,
overcoming those fears.
Years ago I taught a Literature of Motherhood class that was
rooted in the awareness that until recently most portrayals of mothering have
been written by men. For most of literature’s life, wrote Helene Deutsch,
“mothers don’t write, they are written.” This, says Susan Rubin Suleiman, is
the underlying assumption of most psychoanalytic theories about writing and
about artistic creation in general: the productivity of motherhood is believed
to replace the urge to intellectual and artistic creation. In other words, either
you create kids, or you create art.
The course I taught was a look at how contemporary writers
who are actual mothers portray this most fraught subject. We read “The Language
of the Brag” by Sharon Olds, Intrusions by Ursula Hegi, Mother
Love by Rita Dove. We read Rosellen Brown and Adrienne Rich and Tillie
Olsen. And the roomful of women breathed a sigh of recognition. But that was a
roomful of women, mothers and mothers-to-be. How does it play outside the
cloistered classroom of Women’s Studies in the larger realm of Literature?
So, even as we consider some techniques to write about
motherhood in a way that I hope isn’t as terrible as the New York Times
reviewer would call it (would that I ever had a review in the New York Times!)
I want to first say that I often wonder if the level of critique isn’t biased
when it’s an actual mother writing about mothers and their children.
And especially with nonfiction, it’s part of our cross to
bear, isn’t it, that the critiques often get aimed not only at the writing but
also at ourselves. A recent A
Room of Her O
wn survey on women writers reminded me of a conversation I’ve
had with some fellow mother-writers over the years – we keep having this uneasy
feeling that women writers are judged differently especially when writing about
parenting, that we’re criticized for our parenting rather
than critiqued for our writing.  So I wonder: do we ask
more humility of mother writers than we do of, say, father writers? Is there a
double standard?
And I also want to let you in on a fear that arises when I
read, for example, Meg
essay  in the New York Times Review of Books: “The Second
Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary
fiction?” I fear that writing about motherhood may, as some say about women’s
writing in general (think chick lit), become simply a novelty, a lesser
subcategory not taken seriously in the world of literature with a capital L.
That being said, we do have a habit, us mothers, of loving
our children so unconditionally that we cannot see them as anything other than
perfect. Ten fingers, ten toes, pure miracle. When writing about our kids, it’s
hard not to brag. After all, one’s child is perfect, by definition of
unconditional love. So as writers we need to pay special attention.
The first time I had a lesson in this was from a peer
reviewer of my first memoir, The Heart of the Sound. During the
course of the narrative, my son is born and grows to be five years old. I met
up with a peer reviewer at a conference, and she came up to me and, in a
whisper, said, “You know, Marybeth, you don’t have to keep telling us how
precious James is. We get it.” And I had been overebullient in my prose about
his perfect baby self, his curly blond locks and cherubic cheeks. Honest,
maybe, but too ebullient. She was right.
So, beyond bravery, I’ve found that writing honestly and
well about my kid is a matter, mostly, of space: a combination of closeness and
Closeness is important because it’s essential to write
it down as it happens. what they say and do. We think we’re going to remember,
but we may not. This holds true for any writer of any subject, but parents in
particular seem to believe they will always remember the way their toddler says
helicopter for the first time, or the way their teenager looks when she first
falls in love. But maybe not.
I can’t, for example, remember my son’s first steps. I know
I was there, but I just don’t remember it. So we need to record the immediacy
of the moment. As well, as Patricia Hampl so beautifully wrote in “Memory and
Imagination,” memory is not terribly honest, and less so as time goes by.
Distance is equally vital. For their sake, and for our
ability to see the forest rather than the trees, it’s best to let some time go
by before writing about a certain period or event in our children’s lives. With
time, it’s less likely that we’ll embarrass or otherwise harm our children.
I talked to a friend’s stepson at his high school
graduation. My friend had just published a memoir in which his 6-7-8-year-old
self featured prominently. I asked him what he thought and he said, “Oh, that
was when I was just a little kid.” In other words, I’m not that person anymore.
In other words, time moves differently for our kids than for us parents. Time moves
more quickly away from who they no longer are.
That said, it is important to let our unconditional love
guide us and talk to them (if they’re older) about what we’re up to, and be
willing to let go of writing about something if they’re uncomfortable with it.
Writing about our kids, said Hope Edelman, “doesn’t trump but increases our
need to protect them.”
Still, time is our best friend. If they say no, we just
might ask them again in a few years.

Caroline Grant’s son was happy to see his name in print and
was “apparently proud to have given his mother so much material.” Another child
might feel differently. “One’s children,” she said, “are very unpredictable. So
know your child.”
With time, we can see more clearly ourselves; we can put the
event in context of what else was happening in our lives, the bigger picture.
This alone makes us more honest.

In the early stages of writing, said Kate Hopper, it’s best
to pretend that no one else will ever read what we’re writing. She often
advises her students, “No one needs to see this.” We need to dive in, no holds
barred, the blinking red light of the editor eye turned off, to get to the heat
of the story – no matter how uncomfortable.
Often we find that our frames shift, and things that we
worried about including don’t even make it into the final story. So, not until
it is poised to be published do we need to carefully decide what is ethically
safe to include. As Caroline said, “Write with freedom but edit with care.”
But when writing about our kids, we’re really writing about
our relationship to them, that is, our mothering. “Ultimately,” said Caroline,
“the person you expose in your writing is yourself.” And Kate noted that,
“Motherhood writing that doesn’t work is often too focused on the child and
doesn’t reflect on the relationship.”
So, besides overcoming those fears and letting closeness and
distance do their magic, another important thing is to write honestly
about ourselves as mothers.
Working on my new memoir about homeschooling and traveling
with my son, I realized the book was missing what Terry Tempest Williams has
called the story’s “underbelly.” That is, why was I the kind of mother I was?
What drove me, what were my underlying motivations, the unconscious ones? I
needed to explore my relationship with my own mother, even if none of that
makes it into the memoir. So now I’m at work teasing this out, like a strand of
a thin gold necklace at the bottom of a jewelry box, carefully, patiently.
Finally, it helps to remember that we are only writing our
perspectives of the story. It’s not, says Hope, an absolute truth; it’s just
our story. And we should also be prepared that our children may, as Hope
experienced, start writing about us.
So we might be patient and kind to ourselves, especially
considering the level of critique aimed at mothering books. That New York Times
reviewer, who actually liked the book she was reviewing because it focused on
the negative aspects of child-rearing, wrote: “To be fair, writing well about
children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is
interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95
percent of child rearing, we continue to have them.”
Well, THAT feels like an uphill climb. Yes, there’s a craft
to writing honestly (and not romantically) about our children, but there’s also
the double standard that I suspect makes mother writers either shy away from
writing about certain things, or write about them more brusquely, with a layer
of protective armor (often in the guise of humor) hiding the heart’s truth.
I’d like to offer a challenge. I think there is in this an
opportunity to carve out new territory – and the source is mothering itself.
 “The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist,”
wrote Alicia Ostriker in her essay “A Wild Surmise,” “is that it
puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death,
beauty, growth, corruption.”
In this immediate and inescapable contact, we can see what
Fanny Howe called “the lock of dualism (it’s this or that)” as the illusion it
is. We know, as mothers, from our daily reality, that life doesn’t always work
that way. Sometimes we have to hold two seemingly opposing things at the same
time. We have to embrace “this AND that.” We don’t live in an either/or world,
but a both/and world.
This is a rich vein. In my memoir, I’m trying to work it.
I’m melding mothering and the natural world, trying to get my words around this
both/and world, trying to reawaken a sense of wonder in a 14-year-old boy
through the lens of nature.
We might go back to Sharon Olds
and Alicia Ostriker. To Tillie Olsen’s“I Stand Here Ironing.” To Adrienne Rich.
There’s nothing boring about giving birth. Nothing mind-numbing about dealing
with your troubled teenager.  Sure, there are moments of boredom in parenting,
but even firefighters spend lots of hours sitting around playing cards.
We can do this. There are strengths we gain as mothers that
can be Herculean. Here’s what Barbara Washburn, who in 1947 became the first
woman to ascend North America’s highest peak, Mount
, had to say:
“Over the years many people have asked me how I trained for
such a major climb. I tell them I didn’t train. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t
run. I pushed a baby carriage. That’s how I got in shape for Mount
Marybeth Holleman’s next
book, Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most
Misunderstood Animal, will be out next October. She is also author
of The Heart of the Sound and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Pushcart-prize
nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in such venues
as Orion, Christian Science Monitor, The Future of Nature, and on
National Public Radio. This post comes from her new blog, Art and Nature, and was also posted at She Writes.

2 thoughts on “Marybeth Holleman: My Son is Perfect – How to Write (Honestly) About Our Kids”

  1. Kaylene Johnson

    I loved this essay by Marybeth Holleman. She strikes a cord, especially as I re-examine my book A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising my Sons in Alaska. The careful balance of unconditional love and honesty in writing is a fine-edged endeavor. A Tender Distance is about motherhood and our leave-taking from one another, a journey that began with that first toddling step of a one-year-old. Writing about motherhood is a precarious journey in itself, especially in light of a new and unexpected configuration of family. Thanks for an excellent read, Marybeth.

  2. Interesting post, I felt like I'd read it before, is that possible? Or maybe I've just come across the references to others. Anyway, fertile ground, so to speak.

    Two things to add. As a non-parent, I am most interested in writing by parents (mothers and fathers) that evokes all of the complicated ambivalences of parenthood. Most mothers that I know don't struggle with "loving our children so unconditionally that we cannot see them as anything other than perfect." The mothers I love best–and whose thoughts on parenting I trust most–know that their kids aren't perfect, and neither are they, as parents, and that's exactly what makes it all interesting. Nothing boring about those tensions, human ones, really. The magazine Brain, Child is a great example of writing like this–as a person who loves kids but doesn't have my own, there's much in it that resonates for me.

    Also, this phrase in the essay caught me: "After all, one’s child is perfect, by definition of unconditional love." My understanding of unconditional love is love that loves despite imperfections, even very obvious, persistent ones. It says, I love you so much that I will love you no matter what. It doesn't need to make anything perfect. This strikes me as what is so profound about it.

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