Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reader Response to Being a Natural Mother

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Reader Response to Being a Natural Mother

Last month’s column invited readers to submit poems on “mothering differently,” and I received only two poems, both by people who are very important to me: my stepdaughter’s girlfriend and my poetry publisher. After I received both poems, I emailed them to each writer and we began a conversation online. I am happy to share these beautiful poems about our sometimes painfully complex mother-daughter relationships, as well our discussion about daughters, mothers, difference, and poetry.


Birthday Wishes

by Carol Brady


As I tell you this

I remember each year

You reminisced upon my birth

And the beauty of your first daughter


The dreams you held for me

Were full of life and laughter

You wished upon me peace

And a romance to last a lifetime


As I tell you this

I remember each year

Happy tears in your eyes as you said

“I prayed each night for a daughter”


The worry you held for me

Was full of hope and wonder

You wished upon me strength

And a marriage to last a lifetime


As I tell you this

I feel your angst and sorrow

You never dreamed in all your life

Your daughter would love a daughter


The dreams you hold for me

May seem shattered and torn

You wish upon me change

That a son would replace my lover


As I tell you this

I pray you feel my wonder

For I’ve waited all my life

To be loved like this by another


The pain you feel for me

Shall turn to pride and joy

You’ll see as time goes on

Two daughters can love each other




About Your Skin

(to my daughter Caitlin in December 2012)

by Annmarie Lockhart


An hour before a young man shot up

his mother and a school, you found

an image of a noose in your locker

and called to ask me to take you

home from school early.


I told you to report it and you did.

Protocols were followed, meetings held.

By day's end there were two confessors,

girls who used to be your friends.


We skipped the pep rally and talked

about the real world, where people pretend

but metaphor never lies.


I failed to protect you from the hate

that stalks safe spaces. The explanations

I gave missed the mark, for evil has no

synonym, though it wears the many

faces of a Chinese mask changer.


My poet sister told me a mother's job is

not to protect but to love and I think about

this as I feel the weight of your mixed-blood

babyhood in my empty snow-white arms.


Our attention shifts from one heartbreak

to another in the span of a newshour

heartbeat and amid the confusion

a grief-bewildered father speaks of love.


Love is the skin of resistance. Skin is

provocative yet vulnerable, but more

importantly, an icon, an organ,

a talisman against a thin-souled

demon that still seeks sacrifice.




A Conversation about Mothers, Daughters, Difference and Poetry

Cassie: Annmarie and Carol, both of your poems bear witness to the often unspoken, painful aspects of mother-daughter relationships: i.e., mothering across difference, such as when a daughter is gay and a mother is straight, and a daughter is black and a mother is white. What similarities do you see in these situations?

Annmarie: What I noticed right away is the concern on both sides, mother and daughter, each for the feelings of the other. Both of our poems are written in the voice of a woman reacting to the pain of another woman, namely her mother or daughter. And the idea that each woman is somehow responsible for that pain. And that the pain is related to basic identity. What fascinates me about this is the spontaneous expression in response to your prompt. Carol and I didn’t collaborate; this is the first time we’ve read each other’s poems. Yet the theme is consistent in both.

Cassie: That’s a great insight: you didn’t know each other, your situations are not the same, one of you is a daughter and the other a mother, and yet your poems bear similar witness to the painful encounter with “difference.”

Carol: I also see a theme of unspoken forgiveness in the two poems. Both of our poems are written with a lingering guilt and worry that we are not what the mother or daughter needs. Mothers and daughters are so often stereotyped to be “peas in a pod” when in reality we hold so many differences. I think with any mother/daughter relationship it is important to anticipate our differences, acknowledge them openly, and admire the beauty that our differences bring to relationship.

Cassie: Oh, how seldom that happens! (Laughter.) But seriously, what role does silence play in all this?

Annmarie: We never seem to know when it’s best to say nothing or when it’s best to run on without ceasing. I think the silence, in both poems, is the voice of hope, vain hope, that “we’ll never have to have this conversation,” knowing full well it’s only a matter of time before the conversation is forced to the table.

Carol: There is a lot of silence surrounding the difficult topics in both of our poems because they speak about topics that are not easy to discuss head on, or that are complicatedly delicate. I think for both Annmarie’s poem and mine the silence is being broken by the mere poem itself. Both Annmarie and I speak clearly about issues we will eventually have enough strength and the right words to speak about with our mother/daughter.

Cassie: As you each read the other’s poem, what lines or images strike you as most meaningful?

Annmarie: The imagery of a mother’s dreams for her daughter of course speaks to me, as a mother who wanted a daughter (even though I didn’t admit it until after her birth). But what I find most meaningful, most important, is the language of the last two stanzas:


As I tell you this

I pray you feel my wonder

For I’ve waited all my life

To be loved like this by another


The pain you feel for me

Shall turn to pride and joy

You’ll see as time goes on

Two daughters can love each other


Those stanzas present such a clear vision of the daughter’s hope, of the inevitability of attaining this peace, respectfully willing the mother to be open to a new dream.

Carol: Thank you, Annmarie. For me, your lines “I failed to protect you from the hate / that stalks safe spaces” have stayed with me. As a kindergarten teacher, I am an alternative mother to the children in my class, and after the tragedy in Connecticut, my students spoke of the shooter the following Monday morning. I assured them “This would never happen to you, I would never let this happen to you...” and then I quickly realized that was an impossible promise to make. Annmarie, I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to answer your daughter’s phone call that morning, knowing that in mothering her, you can’t always protect her from the bullying and cattiness of school children. These lines resonate universally.

I also resonated with the lines, a mother's job is / not to protect but to love.” This line danced in my head for several hours after reading Annmarie’s poem. I thought about how many mothers are worried and wounded by the world’s reactions to their children. I wondered how my own mother might be unconsciously grappling with love vs. protection with her own three grown children. Annmarie did a beautiful job of concluding that despite the difficulty and delicacy of raising a daughter, the greatest love is to let go and love.

Cassie: That’s so perceptive, Carol. I think as daughters one of our biggest challenges is coming to see things through our mother’s eyes. This is perhaps the largest “difference” between us. I’m wondering what each of you sees in the other person’s writing that helps you rethink either your own writing or your mothering/daughtering?

Annmarie: When I read Carol’s poem, I remember during my pregnancy feeling anxiety that skin color and racial identity might be a barrier between my daughter and myself. Once she was born, the anxiety dissipated. Reading Carol’s poem, I’m reminded that what is rich terrain for creative expression can also add dimension to the mother-daughter relationship. And that it might be more easily shared creatively rather than in a conversation in the car. (Laughter.)

Cassie: Oh, yes, those productive car talks.

Mother: “Are you okay?”

Daughter: “Sure.” (Click click click on the iPhone.)

Mother: “Okay, let me know if you want to talk.” (Turns up NPR.)

Carol: So there’s silence on both ends. One of the things I particularly love is how I hear my own mother talking in pieces of Annmarie’s poem. Like Annmarie’s poem so beautifully conveys, a mother daughter relationship is complicatedly silent and eternally connected in the balance of protection and love for each other. My mother, who wants to be protected from the publicity of a gay daughter, cannot separate the love she holds for me from the desperate need to protect me from negative judgments. Annmarie, who wants to protect her daughter from the painful reality of a sometimes cruel and ruthless world, realizes by the end of the poem that only in loving her daughter can she protect her.

Cassie: Yes. Wow. We don’t hear much about mothering after the 0-18 years. How do you think mothers and daughters grow even as the daughter becomes an adult?

Carol: I’ve always heard that as a daughter ages she becomes the mother. I wonder if this will be true for myself and my mother --  but only time will tell.

Annmarie: I’m feeling knee deep in the under 18 category still. I hope to have a coherent answer to that question at some point. What I can say is that Carol’s poem gives me hope for the next phase. Her ability to convey in tone the innocent hope of childhood mixed with the determination of womanhood feels very hopeful to me. Her mother must be proud of the strong daughter she raised.

Cassie: I agree. As writers, I’m sure you turned to other writers in developing your voice. What books about mothers and daughters have been influential to you and your writing?

Carol: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel,  and Right Here With You edited by Andrea Miller with contributions by Thich Nhat Hanh -- all three of these books speak volumes to the idea that unconditional forgiveness and love are essential to a mother daughter relationship.

Annmarie: Most traditional parenting guide type books really only served to give me ideas of what I did NOT want to do. Most of the positive mother-daughter writing I’ve read has come in the form of poetry, and, recently, blogging. Cassie, your poetry about mothering (The Pomegranate Papers) has always struck a chord with me. Ellen Kline McLeod’s poetry in Garden speaks to me. Galit Breen’s blog is a voice in the wilderness for me. And Amy Nathan, whose novel The Glass Wives comes out this year, has been writing great things about the mothering experience for several years now.

Cassie: Is it harder, do you think, to write as a mother or a daughter?

Annmarie: My mother voice is much clearer to me than my daughter voice. So, writing as a daughter for me is a much greater challenge.

Carol: I think it must be harder to write as a mother! Mothering brings about so many more emotions and undertones that for me would seem more difficult to sift through for clarity in poetry. However, Annmarie was able to convey so many clear undertones of trust and love in her poetry!

Cassie: That’s interesting. You both write from the voice that, for you, is easiest right now. I think that could be a lesson for Literary Mama readers who write. If readers want to write about their own mother-daughter relationships, what advice would you give them?

Annmarie: Do it! Write about it from as many angles as you can, play with words until you feel the voice is authentic, experiment with humor, don’t shy away from the hard stuff, use metaphor and imagery, find the balance between artistic suggestion and clarity of narrative, remember that there is a lot of universality in this subject matter so focus on what it is for you as an individual.

Carol: I would say it helps to be in a relationship with someone whose stepmother is a wonderful writer! (Laughter.)

Cassie: Thank you both for such a delightful dialogue. I am honored to have you in my life, and it’s been a pleasure to have you here in the column.

Annmarie and Carol: You’re welcome!

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.

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