Why I Really Am a “Mama Writer”

In the last few months, I’ve started to push myself to write about things other than, well, parenthood. There are a few reasons for this, one of them being the simple (but somehow hard to believe) truth that I’m a complex human being and I’m interested in lots and lots of things. Another was that I had been writing about parenting and parenthood at such a high volume that I pretty well burned myself out, and my life became a cyclical trap of writing about my parenting experiences almost as fast as I could, so that I could have just enough money to continue said parenting. Another is that I am not impervious to cultural pressures (again, I’m a human) and we as a culture just don’t hold a lot of respect for mama writers.

To be a mother and to write is already a bit of a challenge, and one you won’t find much support for in the world. Our culture’s attitudes about what motherhood should be (selfless, endlessly living, 24/7) aren’t exactly congruent with creative expressions. A mother’s time belongs to her children, and to take the time needed to write anything is to rob them of the precious time they are owed.

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Behold, my neglected first-born.

But to be a mother who writes about mothering is something else. Not only is this particular brand of mother selfish and horrible (just look at her poor children, cursed with a writer for a mother!) the writing itself is also the lowest of the low. Writing about parenting (but especially mothering) is considered to be of low importance and low quality both. I’ve experienced this, I’ve watched at parties as I answer the question “what do you do?” with “oh I’m a writer!” only to answer the question “what do you write about?” with “parenting, feminism, and queer issues” and watch peoples’ impressed expression turn to disinterest and even pity. I’ve had to essentially beg editors not to count me out just because the majority of my published work is about parenting and parenthood. I’ve dealt with even the most feminist of publications assuming that any writing about mothering is far too niche, and without substance. To announce that you are a mama writer (or worse, a mommy blogger) is like saying “I’m a writer, but not a real writer, not about anything that matters.” Writing about parenting (and again, particularly motherhood) is devalued at every single level. It is considered less creative, less work, and it fucking pays less than other writing. To identify as a person who writes about motherhood has been, frankly, demoralizing and discouraging.

And there are reasons for this devaluing! A lot of them come down to good old fashioned capitalism and sexism. Parenting is generally considered feminine labor, and it is generally unpaid, and therefore it is without value. This inability to assign a number value trickles into the way our culture assigns other types of value as well. Parenting just isn’t interesting, as far as our dominant culture is concerned. It’s on par with cleaning a toilet, only other people currently cleaning a toilet might have any interest in it, otherwise is is the unsightly work best left unseen.

(I’m simplifying, a little, here. Of course there is also the ever present force of benevolent sexism, which sanctifies motherhood in order to demand even more free labor from mothers and demean them in the rest of the world.)

Which brings me back to my own personal experience with parenting and parenting writing. I was burned out and exhausted and underpaid. I was under a lot of pressure to write more, and faster, and that pressure started to more and more often threaten my child’s privacy, which is something I closely guard to the best of my ability. So, I started writing about other things. I wrote about dinosaurs, and Harry Potter, and fine art, and it was honestly a relief. And as much as I told myself that it was just my own personal burn out, there was also the cultural pressure to be a “real” writer. I had watched colleagues ditch mama writing for other topics, watched their careers move faster than mine, watch the way they were valued more for their work that was about anything but raising up babies and kids.

Then, a funny thing happened.

Once I stopped forcing myself to write about parenting… once it wasn’t the only thing I was doing… I started to think about it differently. I stopped dreading it, I stopped resenting it, and I started to write parenting essays… for myself. Suddenly, I wanted to talk about motherhood and parenting and how we are trying to exist in the world with our babies. Because well, we do exist, don’t we?

On a macro level, it’s important to respect mothers who write and mothers who write about mothering. Just because capitalism is in love with devaluing us doesn’t mean it’s right, and it doesn’t mean we have to play along. Parenting happens to be a rich, complicated, and varied topic, and there is so much writing done about it that is high quality, creative, and beautiful. Furthermore, a lot of the writing that seems to be lower quality isn’t always because of lazy or incompetent writers… it’s because of a system that favors fast, emotional, sloppy, writing over everything else. The machine needs to crank it out and get eyes on it, and so it does. I’ve had thoughtful and nuanced pieces I’ve written chopped up and edited to become overblown, hyperbolic, and nearly unreadable. This is business, and this is how business gets done. But we don’t have to be complicit, we can choose not to follow their lead, we can give respect and take respect for the labor that we do (both parenting and writing).

On a teeny tiny personal level, I can’t help but think about how I became a writer. I wrote once that having a child made me into a writer, and that’s true in a purely technical sense. I gave birth, I lost my job, and four months later I got my first freelancing gig. I had an opportunity to write for money, and I desperately needed money, so I took it.

But there is something else. Something that ties me to the idea of giving respect to this work, something that makes me angry that I ever wanted to divorce myself from it for greater respect from the world.

I have always wanted to mother. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you, because we hadn’t been dating more than a month when I explained my intentions (which were to have a baby, and kind of soon). This isn’t something that all women feel, of course, but for me I was a little girl pretending to breastfeed a doll under a bush, and then I was a young woman angry that I would have to wait to become a parent. I was the type of person who read parenting blogs for literal years before I was a parent myself, and I even wrote two essays for Mutha Magazine before my wife and I started trying to conceive. Parenting wasn’t just something that I did, or something that I wanted to do, it was my dream.

Is it any wonder, then, that’s I’m a mama writer?

It wasn’t just that I started writing because I was broke (although it was also that). I started this blog while I was pregnant, because I found that I needed to write about pregnancy in a way I didn’t need to write before. Making new life made me reflective, it made me need to parse out the complexities of life, and it made me angry about injustice. It utterly and completely changed my relationship to the written word, and it gave me things to say that I never could have had before. So, I started writing about it.

First, I wrote here. Then, I starting taking $50 an essay for my thoughts on motherhood, in order to enable my family to afford the luxury of a terrible apartment. I’ve grown as a writer since then, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve written about a lot more than “just” mothering and parenting. But first and foremost, that is probably the kind of writer I am.

Even if it isn’t worth very much to the world.

Being a working class queer woman, I’m already used to not being worth very much to the world. I can deal with this. I can deal with being a mama writer in a world that assumes that means that I’m lazy and incompetent and somehow not “real.” Patriarchy’s gonna patriarchy, and the dismantling is slow and grueling work, and I’m doing it anyway.

What I cannot deal with, what actually hurts, is watching other mother writers sing right along with the patriarchal line about this work being meaningless. If someone doesn’t want to write about parenthood, obviously that is fine for them. But let us please be careful not to degrade each other for doing the work that our world considers less important. Us mama writers are getting plenty of shit already, we don’t need it from our colleagues as well.

 

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Capitalism Offers Solutions For Imaginary Problems: Baby Clothes Edition

This morning, when I observed my morning ritual of trying to drink the coffee faster while checking social media (I know, I know) I saw a video being shared about baby clothes. The video documents Vigga, a Danish company that rents out baby clothes in order to reduce waste. The owner of the company (also named Vigga) explains that when parents have a child, they are forced to participate in the “buy and throw away society” because babies grow so very quickly and constantly need new clothes. Renting out the clothes seems like a positive solution, and is presented as both eco-friendly and money saving. Notably, while I saw it shared by a handful of people on my personal feed, none of the people who I saw sharing it happen to be parents themselves.

I mean, obviously some parents do like it, because parents do use this company. If they didn’t, it would have already folded.

(FOLDED, clothes, get it????)

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But most of the parents I know would have no use for such a service, and it certainly wouldn’t save them any money. The reason is that while we’re all aware that our kids (especially the really young babies) only use clothing a handful of times, we’re not throwing them away when they’ve outgrown them, and most of us aren’t stashing them in the attic forever either. Instead, we pass them around our communities. In a weird coincidence, I learned about this company on the same morning that a piece I wrote on the joys of handed-down kids’ clothes went up. In that piece, I took for granted that swapping baby clothes was a practical solution that parents would engage in, and focused on the less obvious emotional elements of taking part in that kind of community.

But let’s please talk about the practical aspect for a quick minute.

Reusing baby clothes isn’t new. Once upon a time, mothers made most of their babies’ outfits by hand, and you can best believe that with successive children they weren’t about to sew new ones if the old ones would do. To my knowledge, this has always been the norm. In my own experience, I’ve spent very little on clothing for my kid. When I was pregnant, we received a mix of used clothes from folks with older babies, and new things from family members who went out and bought stuff because they really wanted to. During my pregnancy, we had very little money, and we purchased one onesie, which we found on clearance, because we happened to have three dollars and it was very cute. That’s it. The next time we bought clothes for him, it was because we wanted to, and it was at a thrift store. I believe he was three months old, and we spent about fifteen bucks on a bag of baby essentials in his current size.

15+3= $18 over a three month time period.

In contrast, after watching a more detailed BBC video, I learned that Vigga charges $55 per month for their service.

55×3= $165 over a three month period.

I don’t bring this up to shame anyone who finds a service like this attractive. I don’t bring it up to shame people who saw the video and thought “what a cool idea!” and his share. I bring it up because this is a perfect example of a thing that global capitalism does that ties into everything this blog is about. Because here is a place where communities have — and have always had — a perfectly good way of addressing the issue that babies, in fact, grow out of everything too damn fast. Communities are so good at addressing it that it in fact is functionally not really a problem. As long as parents are connected with other parents, as long as we’re willing to talk to each other and share resources, we’ve got the baby clothes issue pretty well handled. But of course, that isn’t profitable.

Capitalism is about placing profits over people, always. Capitalism pushes us to buy new clothes for our children when used ones will do just fine, and then it turns around and markets used clothing to us as “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” as long as we are willing to pay for it. It presents this as a solution to the problem of our constant purchasing and tossing of baby clothes, as though it were a new innovation to reuse things that aren’t worn out. In fact, what this is actually doing is attempting to replace the community with yet another monetary exchange.

Which both benefits from, and feeds into, nuclear isolation. It is saying “you don’t want to buy brand new clothes, because that would be wasteful. Don’t reach out to other parents though, instead pay $55 and this company will clothe your infant.” There is nothing innovative about that, it’s just a shift. The same way that childcare has been shifted out of our communities and packaged and sold to us (and no, I’m not shaming anyone who puts their kids in dare care, we all have to live in this world, you do what you have to) they are now trying to sell us the very idea of sharing.

I can hear the objections now. “Well, what if you don’t have any friends or family with older children from which to get clothes?” First of all, if that is the case for you, I’m extremely sorry. This level of isolation is, I believe, dangerous. It’s also constructed in order to keep you in a nuclear family unit that makes it easier to sell you shit, which is basically the thesis of my entire blog. Building communities is hard work, but it’s our only defense. But even if a hypothetical parent just logistically couldn’t find community to lean on for clothing in that way (let’s say you are the very first of your friend group to have a child, and you’re a stay-at-home-parent, and you don’t have the energy to try to meet anyone new right now, and you’re estranged from your family of origin) there would still be other, practical, “sustainable,” solutions. Buying the kid’s clothes at a thrift store and then donating them would probably be cheaper, and they could be donated at a shelter, thus helping a family in an even tighter spot. There are also mom2mom sales, which literally exist for this purpose.

If people are buying all of their infant’s clothes brand new, and then throwing them away, it is because they chose to do so. Maybe they chose to do so because they were comfortable enough financially to do so, and felt it gave them some sort of status. Maybe they chose to do so because they’d be too embarrassed to ask their friends and family for used clothing and no one in their circle has offered anything. Maybe they chose to do so because they enjoy hand picking each and every item of clothing. But ultimately, this is a choice that some people are making, and it’s a choice that is made because capitalism has sold us the idea that new is best, used is shameful.

A few points that are important to mention: Vigga is a clothing company, they make the clothes. Apparently they’re committed to using more eco-friendly methods of garment production, and so for them this is them shifting to a more eco-friendly distribution method as well. From that perspective (the perspective of the company trying to make a profit) it is a solution, and it’s a little bit better than the alternative. It is also possible that by highly systematizing clothes sharing, they’re getting more total wears out of a particular garment before it is discarded… but I feel like we can’t know that for sure (I’ve received hand-me-down clothing for my child that were literally older than I am). Also, because they make the clothes (and they’re cute as heck) what they’re selling isn’t just the idea of sharing clothing, it’s a particular aesthetic. This is high end, luxury baby wear, presented in a subscription box system that also implements reusing (which allows them to really use those buzzwords! SUSTAINABLE!). At it’s core, Vigga is a luxury product being sold to privileged parents who have chosen to opt out of community based clothing sharing because they are financially able to do so.

This is exactly the kind of “solution” capitalism loves.