On Reading Motherhood

In a new series on the blog, we explore the joys and the tribulations of being both a graduate student and a parent. Over the next several weeks, we will post pieces by graduate students from all stages of our program. Each has a unique perspective on parenting and academia. It is our hope that this series will speak to graduate students everywhere, who have either entered graduate school with children, have had children as graduate students, or are contemplating it. We also think it will speak to any and all parents and prospective parents, regardless of whether they are students or not, who simply want to hear the perspectives of other parents.

First in the series is a post by Mia You, who helps run the website a.bradstreet, which publishes pieces on motherhood and poetics.


Some ideas are not really new but keep having to be affirmed from the ground up, over and over.

I read this sentence on the bus, heading to a lecture on poetry and translation, a couple months after my daughter was born. I made a little checkmark in the book’s margins, stuck in my pencil to hold my place, closed the book upon my lap, and completely fell apart. How many reading mothers have had this experience? Poet Anna Ross has described crying on the Boston subway while reading Sylvia Plath. I was reading Adrienne Rich.

Published in 1976, Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution was groundbreaking not only in its sustained examination of motherhood, which ironically had been mostly overlooked and unvoiced as a form of labor. Of Woman Born was also a revelation of what literary criticism could be. Bringing together close-readings of literature and philosophy, alongside personal memoir and policy proposals, Rich shows that the power of the reading mother might lie precisely in her own porousness. A mother knows too well, for instance, that personal boundaries are mostly a convenient illusion.

One of the ideas Rich affirms over and over again is that women are not “merely the enlargement of a contact sheet of genetic encoding, biological givens.” This is important, because as a person who so much defines herself as a reader and a writer, the transition into a mother presented, for me, a dual-sided crisis. First, why did being a mother feel so unreasonably unnatural? Why was I so certainly failing, on a daily basis, what so many women do and always have done? Second, suddenly I could no longer read or write. For so long, I had lived a life carefully geared toward the cerebral. My turn to poetry was, frankly, an escape from my physical, material givens. But now everything was about my body—my body doing things it had never done before and being out of my control in ways it had never been before—and, above all, the terrifyingly vulnerable body of my child.

The idea that any of us are innately mothers is a fiction. As Rich writes, “Experience shapes us, randomness shapes us, the stars and weather, our own accommodations and rebellions, above all, the social order around us.” Motherhood is a condition. It is a situation. It is a form of labor. It is an art. It can be both an institution and an experience. Motherhood, in any event, is a definition that extends beyond genetic encoding and biological givens.

And I, being as intrinsically human as Adrienne Rich or Gertrude Stein or Charles Altieri, have a definition that extends beyond motherhood. As a literature graduate student, so much of my training has been in both generating and troubling definitions. It has been in parsing the peculiar languages of others in order to construct my own. I came to realize that, to accept and to get beyond myself as a mother, I would have to learn to read motherhood.

Reading mothers! I will tell you this now: there is an underground community of us! We are here, there, everywhere, hiding behind the conference panel-trenches, creeping through the hallways of venerated academic buildings, grabbing armfuls of books from library stacks, abusing our Amazon Mom subscriptions for Free 2-Day Shipping on poetry collections! We are here, and when you need us, we will come to meet you!

I met Chloe Garcia-Roberts, associate curator of the Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room, when I stopped into the Poetry Room with my son—then almost 18 months old and inseparable from my side. She has a son as well, a year younger, and we discussed how much we appreciated poets engaging with motherhood in their writing. We gave each other reading recommendations (Karen Weiser’s To Light Out, Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents, even John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet), and it was clear how much we needed this kind of reading list and how much we would enjoy discussing these books together. Eventually, we decided to create a website called A. BRADSTREET (our own homage to Mistress Bradstreet), which would both help introduce literature dealing with motherhood to readers, as well as explore how our ways of thinking about and understanding poetry and language have changed since having children.

Anne Bradstreet (2)
Anne Bradsteet

A. BRADSTREET features reviews, essays and interviews done in the spirit of how motherhood’s conditions can lead to an innovative redefinition of boundaries and to new writing practices. At last year’s MLA Convention, Hillary Gravendyk, who completed her PhD in this department and now teaches at Pomona, organized a panel on “The Poet-Scholar.” Among the speakers was Julie Carr, another Berkeley English PhD, co-founder/editor of Counterpath Press, and associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Julie spoke about how she became a poet-scholar because she “entered the academy pregnant,” and she did so through a brilliant mélange of memoir, scholarly presentation and poetic manifesto. We were lucky to publish her talk’s transcript as A. BRADSTREET’s inaugural post.

My own essay for A. BRADSTREET focuses on Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. This was the first book I opened after becoming a mother, partly because I had encountered it originally in a seminar taught by Lyn Hejinian. Lyn doesn’t often talk publicly about being a mother, but many poet/scholar/mothers (and fathers) from Berkeley will talk publicly about how Lyn was the first to firmly, warmly, patiently extend her hand when they struggled to get through. Soon after my daughter—my second child—was born, Lyn and I were on the phone, and she asked me what my daughter was like. I said she was mostly easy but could get very angry very quickly. Lyn laughed and said, “Good! I like it when a girl has a temper!”

Adrienne Rich recounts how in her own girlhood she was taught that her temper “was a dark, wicked blotch in me, not a response to events in the outer world.” Then later, “as a young mother, I remember feeling guilt that my explosions of anger were a ‘bad example’ for my children, as if they, too, should be taught that ‘temper’ is a defect of character, having nothing to do with what happens in the world outside one’s flaming skin.” But if becoming a mother pulled me out of my cerebral safety zone, it also made me confront head-on how angry I could be. As Rich points out, we are told constantly that “female anger threatens the institution of motherhood,” and yet it is the institutionalization of motherhood itself, the ways in which motherhood is imposed upon us, that warrants our anger.

The academy participates in this institutionalization. So what can the academy do differently for the intrinsically human young mothers within it?

  1. Remember that the university campus is both a workplace and a home.
  2. Stop telling us that having a family is our own “lifestyle choice.”
  3. Give fathers a parental leave, as well as mothers.
  4. Consider that a graduate student hardly makes enough through fellowships to afford rent and food in places like Berkeley, let alone childcare for writing.
  5. Consider that a graduate student must pay for childcare in order to teach—and she earns far less as a GSI than an average nanny earns.
  6. Consider that the only option, both financially and for finishing the dissertation, might not be for a young mother to teach, but to cancel registration for a year or more, and not pay tuition. But then she loses her library privileges, her email and her official standing in the university.  During the time she’s away, why not let her hold onto these with the expectation that she still will work whenever she can—and will be back as soon as she can.
  7. Never ask a young mother, “Are you still going to finish your dissertation?”
  8. Recognize that a young mother has spent more years in academic buildings and libraries than being a mother. When she needs to bring her baby with her, she’s more concerned about it than you are.
  9. Trust her judgment. Believe in her. Just as you did before she became a mother.

A friend recently suggested that my newfound anger comes alongside a newfound passion. I write this, sitting on my bed, with my now three-year-old son napping next to me. He will only sleep if I stay with him, and this is my time to work. My commitments have realigned. I cry in buses. I make angry lists. I type quietly in bed. But still I am a reader and a writer. Gradually I am a mother. Some ideas are not really new but keep having to be affirmed from the ground up, over and over.

Written by Mia You

Posted by Jeffrey Blevins

5 Responses

  1. I am so excited to see this. I was lucky enough to become a new mother (and a suddenly, unexpectedly, single new mother) at a time when there were women faculty (Elizabeth Abel, Janet Adelman, and more) who taught me to see my daughter and my experience of mothering/parenting as a resource– not least but not just for the new understanding it brought to our singular and collective work in the academy. I will never forget the day I ran out of my usual childcare supports and just ran down the Eng Dept faculty phone list looking for somebody to watch my sick toddler while I was on someone’s orals or some task that meant I couldn’t bring her along (my usual emergency mode). Sam Otter stepped up for me that day and helped shore up my sense that being a parent in this workplace is a fine way of revealing and building a community. Thank you for the news of A. Bradstreet, and let me know if you ever need backup. Sue Schweik

  2. Things have not changed much since i was a single mother of two attending graduate school in an art, in the 80’s. At the University of Washington, there was no day care, or any kind of care. I had moved from New Mexico to Seattle for the program with my 2 and 6 year old children. I attended my first graduate seminar with my two year old son on my lap, male professors huffing.. No female teachers in the painting department. I chose Seattle over Santa Barbara- where there was supportive female faculty, because Seattle was more affordable, and very family friendly. I never wanted my children to suffer for my career- even though I had every reason to believe it would benefit us all. I had my books open too, reading cramming,, (for MFA scholarship), in the ferrys, the acquarium, parks- wherever my kids could entertain themselves safely, while I studied. That first year culminated in a painting entitled “Equanimity”- as that is what I clung to- my Equanimity. This painting developed over the entire year, along side others. You can see it, and the writing about that time on my website, if you are interested. It is http://www.joanrobertsgarciart.com
    Thank you for letting me share this. Your mothers went through the same. Right Chloe?

  3. Thanks so much for this wonderfully warm and frank comment, Sue. It helps so much to hear about your experiences, and to have professional role models that can also be personal ones. I think what’s been strange for me is feeling that, upon becoming a mother, the professional and personal have to be clearly delineated, when they never were before! My expectation going into the academy was that it would reward mostly as a labor of love– if I wanted other rewards, I would have, and could have, gone elsewhere. So it’s heartening to read that you had enough confidence and faith in your colleagues to call them when you needed backup, and that they (i.e., the lovely Sam Otter) had enough respect and admiration for you to respond and to help you be where you were needed.

  4. Thank you for this blog post, it’s a perennial topic across cultures which bears reiteration as the rate of change, particularly institutional change, lags so far behind the pace and changing dynamic of mothers’ everyday experience. As a mother with babies and young children participating in conferences, seminars, meetings and doing readings, festivals and other public events I brought my children along rather than be excluded from what I had been asked to do due to lack of finances and childcare. It was always a new experience, prevalent attitudes in Irish, UK, continental and US locations largely only sharing some measure of disbelief. The degree to which this was enacted and ways in which it was expressed varied. The most divisive stances both unavoidably noticeable, and that I was told about, were in the UK and US. Of course, meeting this kind of friction, it’s always important to remember that only the most vociferous go the full mile. Most people don’t mind once you don’t expect them to make significant changes in what they do, or ask them to do anything for you. That’s not news. And what kind of grip on life would we have without a little friction? Some people are wonderful in these situations, Tom Raworth stands out, as do Charles Bernstein, Romana Huk, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, Jim and Marianne Mays. I do know that in cases where I had to turn something down or ask for other dates/years, I ‘lost’ opportunities, in most terms anyway. In mine,if something was not more holistically sustainable, if it required pretending to be something I wasn’t, enacting a role no longer tenable for me or taking on one which denied my then status as the young mother of small children; I saw it as a cul de sac. Inevitably limiting, slowing development. How much of this view was a survival mechanism and how much impatience and verve to crack on with things is too tangled to know. My eldest child is now probably nearer to your age than I am, what, if anything, has changed? I see only a tiny percentage of women, Irish, Spanish, Polish trying to do similar things. Most are content to follow the patterns their parents had or more recently here, with more inclusive health and education sectors, that their parents could only aspire to theoretically. I understand this and fully comprehend the economic constraints of those societies which make such choices seem inevitable. However I cannot condone the constrictions which persist as inherent bias in many ordinary contexts, varying from one culture to another. Why should anybody be upset that one of the reader’s children is quietly drawing a world in maps on the backs of discarded programmes at the back? That one is sitting in the audience avidly reading adventure stories? Or sleeping? That babies may well say the mother’s name when they realise it’s her voice coming through the speaker? Though being so familiar with it they zone out almost immediately, that hasn’t changed much either! Surely the line should only be drawn so decisively where there is a full support system in operation? I am glad to see this conversation resuming more publicly for students/writers who are the coming faculties and readers/speakers, thanks.

  5. Joan and Catherine, thank you so much for your comments. In just the last few weeks, I’ve been to two readings where the poets had their children in the audience. This was great not just in how it transversed the boundary between “life” and “art” and how it allowed the poet to be present for both, but in how the children’s presence shook up staid routine of readings. It made me rethink what I was there to hear and to experience– am I just trying to listen for the words, one by one, as they come out of the poet’s mouth, or should I welcome and appreciate the whole environment the enfolds during the reading as part of the performance? I guess this is an obvious question, once it’s phrased like this, but I do think that, unthinkingly, we expect and even depend on the first version and feel disrupted by the second. Saskia Hamilton gave a reading at Tufts and brought her young baby– and yes, sometimes we heard the baby cry and, yes, Hamilton’s own mother walked around soothing him. But Hamilton made no big deal about it, as if this were as perfectly natural and unremarkable as someone coughing. AND I APPRECIATED THAT SO MUCH. Babies cry! But you can still hear the poet read! And the poet can be a mother and a performer without apologizing, without falling apart, without feeling like the visibility of her children takes anything away from her professional position. The other reading I went to was at the Belmont Public Library, where Stephen Burt read from his new collection, “Belmont.” Burt’s older son was an active participant at the reading– with Burt frequently selecting to read poems that came as “commissions” from his children or talking directly to his son while introducing other poems. Burt, unlike Hamilton, was very explicit in a making a point about his parenthood here, and this was also totally appropriate, as an event at a public library, as a thing to bring together a full community, and as a way to open up his work, which deals so much with parenthood. And how great– and hopeful– to see an elementary school-age kid enjoying a poetry reading? I guess I just want to write this down, because I want parent-poets to know this can happen, and that there are many of us in the audience who really appreciate it, even if we mostly keep silent about it.