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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