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Respecting Differences: A Response to Lynn Harris’ article, “Everybody Hates Mommy”

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I’m sure many of you have read Lynn Harris’ Salon article “Everybody Hates Mommy,” in which Harris tries to unpack why there is so much anger and downright hatred directed towards mothers, particularly white, middle-class mothers (and particularly those that live in Park Slope).

Whoa, people. The comments that this article elicited are incredible—so many are full of such vitriol that I stopped reading after two pages.

But I’m interested in what Harris has to say. I think one of the important points she makes is that mothers are judged no matter what they do or don’t do. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a “good” mother, and if the mother in front of you isn’t fulfilling the role, well, hell, let her have it.

Another point she makes has to do with the fact that women—and especially women who are mothers—are supposed to be invisible. She says, “Women—still—are not ‘supposed’ to take up space. Mothers, in particular. We are—still—supposed to remain in the background, doing whatever it is mothers do, smiling. We grow a belly, we need a seat, we say ‘excuse me, please,’ we speak up (or, God forbid, blog), and we’ve crossed the line, said or asked too much, become ‘entitled.’”

The reason I do what I do—write about motherhood literature, teach my Mother Words class, host an annual Mother Words reading, work for Literary Mama—is to help create a space where literature (and yes, it is worthy of that word) about motherhood—the varied and complex, often stunning and often heartbreaking writing by women who are mothers, is taken seriously as art. Because of course it’s often not taken seriously for the very reasons that Harris states in her article. Women are still supposed to be quiet. Mothers, especially, should be quiet. We should not write about the truth of our experiences. We should definitely not write against the myths of motherhood.

Motherhood writing is often discarded (or ignored or not published at all) because of its subject matter. But memoir is never so much about its subject matter as it is about, as Brett Lott says, the relationship between the writer and the subject at hand. I don’t like boxing, but I love Toure’s “What’s Inside You, Brother?” and Gay Talese’s “Ali in Havana.” William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says, “Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”

But it’s funny—and not in a ha-ha sort of way—that when the subject is motherhood, people don’t seem to be as willing to read, to let themselves be drawn in.

One of the people who commented (early, before I stopped reading) on Harris’ article posed this question: “When are people going to start treating respect as if it mattered?” When indeed?

I forwarded the link to Harris’ article to my current Mother Words students, and one of my wonderful students responded with a link to an article in the new online literary journal Candor.

It was "Women Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation Between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker," and in this conversation, writers Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker discuss what they have in common and what they don’t, and both are very honest about what kinds of stereotypes they’ve bought into and what kind of judgments they’ve made about mothers and women who chose not to be mothers. This is a long conversation, but it’s worth the read, and I think it adds another dimension to Harris’ article about the way mothers and nonmothers are pitted against each other. (Which on some level has to do with the cultural myths of motherhood still perpetuated in our society…)

I very much like the way this conversation ends. Rachel Zucker says, “I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.”

I wonder what would happen if people were truly interested in exploring differences and similarities rather than pointing fingers and slinging insults at one another. Could we come to some understanding? Could we learn to be kind, to respect each other? Could we—please—learn to respect each other’s writing?

Kate Hopper
This is cross-posted at Kate Hopper's blog, Mother Words: Mothers Who Write.

Kate Hopper teaches creative writing online and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Brevity, Literary Mama, Mamazine, and The New York Times online. She is the author of two books: Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers (2012) and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, forthcoming fall 2013 from University of Minnesota Press. She writes about reading, writing, teaching and motherhood on her blog, Motherhood & Words. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two daughters.

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