Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Repetition and Revision in Motherhood and #MeToo

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Photo by Edwin Andrade. See more of Edwin's work at unsplash.com/@theunsteady5

Photo by Edwin Andrade. See more of Edwin's work at unsplash.com/@theunsteady5

There's a long list of things I didn't expect when I became a mother: the nightly sweats when my milk came in that would drench the bedsheets, the hunger that would wake me up (if she didn't) at four in the morning, my previously untested ability to suck a corn kernel out of a nostril with a straw or soothe a swollen gum with my fingertip. Most significantly, I didn't expect to re-see previous parts of my life unfold in the present.

Before I was a mother, I'd write early in the morning at my desk with no distractions, and I'd write only poetry. I believed good writing was earned only through hard work, and I'd get agitated easily if my time was disrupted. Motherhood quickly obliterated any daily writing practice, my rigidity around routine, my supposed ownership of my time. Suddenly just writing—any writing at all, with no outcome in mind—became as enjoyable as it was when I penned my first illustrated story in second grade. To some extent, motherhood offers an opportunity for this more important kind of revision—the ability to rewrite fervently held beliefs about life and hopefully, with conscious effort, improve upon them. No one wants to repeat the perceived or real mistakes of their childhood, their parents, or their original drafts. But a discarded draft can be mined for new insight.

At home with my daughter, all I do, all day to some extent, is re-see—re-see my childhood, my parents, the dailiness of routines. I am more aware than I've ever been of patterns, patterns that have stunted growth and shored up strength, patterns that have contributed to my identities as daughter, woman, and now, mother. While this repetition is new for me as the mother of a two-year-old daughter, I suspect it's not a revelation for the millions of mothers before me. What is novel for mothers in this historical-political moment, however, is the uncharted territory of the #MeToo movement. It asks each of us to re-see challenging, difficult moments in our lives—and other women's lives—in a new light, with our futures quite literally toddling or walking in front of us. In many ways, though, writers and mothers are primed for this task, having honed the skills of revision, of re-imagining different outcomes and solutions, since we committed to the unpredictable and trying arts of parenting and writing.

In September, I traveled to give a poetry reading with other mother writers on the subject of motherhood. I dropped my daughter off with my mother and sister on the way; then, on the train to Philadelphia, I collected my thoughts to prepare for the reading and the ensuing discussion on motherhood and poetics.

Meanwhile the nation's attention was fixated on the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford would testify the following morning. I found it difficult to focus, flipping back from my papers to my phone for news updates.

I remember watching Anita Hill's testimony. I was ten years old. Though I did not fully understand, I knew enough to know she was telling an uncomfortable story that she did not write, that she did not want to have happened to her.

And she was asked to repeat it again and again for a powerful male audience.

Some of the same male senators who listened to Anita Hill would be seated again, passing judgment on a woman's claim of sexual assault, deciding if a male judge accused of such behavior deserved to be deciding cases on the highest court in our country, for the rest of his life.

As with Ms. Hill, Dr. Ford's mental state would be questioned in the hearing and other women who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault would never be given a chance to speak. Both Hill and Ford have maintained they could not keep silent. There was too much at stake.

On the train, I was nervous as we approached my station stop. I hoped I would have something intelligent to offer during the Q&A, maybe something about how far we've come as writers and mothers, how diverse the readership for our writing is now. I hoped that whatever I said would sound more optimistic than I felt; how I felt was wound with the repetitive nature of the hearings, stymied by the gendered lens on female agency and a woman's lived experience. It was as if there was a discordant humming in the back of my brain as the train squealed and finally lurched to a halt. The stakes felt so high.

As both parent and writer, I think the stakes are higher. When I write about an event in the world (as opposed to a poem that is clearly about my daughter), she is in it, though she may not be overtly figured. Maybe that will change in the future as she and I become less each other's shadows, but I doubt it—or at least I can't envision it at this moment. For now, it is difficult to write or think about anything concerning being female without thinking of her.

Maybe I can't envision it because there is no comparable moment to being a mother in the #MeToo moment. My mother didn't raise me in a time when thousands of women were coming forward to tell their stories of harassment. And if women did come forward, they seldom saw justice served to their accused. For centuries, whole identities and defense systems have been built on what it means to be a woman and a mother within a patriarchal system, and to raise a daughter or son with the assumption that these systems will remain intact.

It occurs to me that this is a part of my life I don't yet have a model for; I haven't lived it myself or seen other women and mothers live it before me. Suddenly, looking at the blank page (or a blinking cursor) is both a thrilling and anxiety-producing prospect. I am writing at a moment when both men and women are becoming increasingly aware of and fed up with the silencing of (or half-hearted deference given to) women in order to prop up a patriarchy, a boy's club, a locker room. A growing number of us are aware of what this silence cost our mothers, sisters, and daughters and are actively seeking writing that delves into the lived experiences of women—writing that in some cases imagines different outcomes and reckons with the past. For those of us who write to these topics whether directly or indirectly, the stakes are high—but we also have more receptive readers.

In an article in The Paris Review, Why All the Books About Motherhood?, Lauren Elkin writes that motherhood as a subject matter has either been ignored or largely pathologized in literature. And literature, that is to say canonical literature, has been reflective of our dominant patriarchal structure. A powerful male audience has essentially silenced writing about the particularities of motherhood as it has effectively silenced so much else.

Motherhood is far from an exhausted subject—which is surprising, considering that everyone knows a mother, has had a mother, and has thought about motherhood, even if you are not a mother by choice or by default. But it's not so surprising when one considers the ways women have been conditioned to stay silent or face consequences when they do speak up.

I've been a feminist since high school, when a male teacher of mine made inappropriate remarks at female students during class. If a female student asked if she could go to the bathroom, he asked her to tell the class if she had to go "number one or number two." Girls with short skirts were always moved to the front row, and there were the inexplicable pelvic gyrations as he sat in front of the class. The atmosphere was toxic.

I complained to the head of his department, who knew me, who had been my teacher once, who was a woman. Nothing happened. My scared friend (whom I'd convinced to speak up with me) and I were congratulated on coming forward. We were told it would be looked into, but the comments in class did not stop. As far as I could tell, there were no real consequences. My grades were still under his purview, and he still had a job. Though the situations are drastically different, I couldn't help re-see this moment among others while I watched Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed.

Here again, nothing happened. The news moved on to the next event, and seemingly, most of us did too. But I suspect that's not the case entirely. The Kavanaugh hearings triggered the national consciousness with a familiar story, one we've literally seen and heard before in a similar hearing, leaving us with a sour taste and a hunger for a revision. Dr. Ford's testimony inspired many women to come forward and tell their own variations of this story. Of all the jaw-dropping headlines this past year, this is the only one strangers and I talked openly about at a playground while watching our children play. This is the only one I keep revisiting, imagining not myself but my daughter testifying in that chair.

I can't say whether or not being a mother has made me more of a feminist. I'm certainly more attuned to issues facing parents and mothers—childcare, medical insurance, FMLA, the birth industry, the myths of having it all as a working or stay-at-home parent. I was already sensitive to the reality of harassment in the workplace and elsewhere; I had had my share of the leers and inappropriate comments, the much older president of the company asking me to a hotel room after the holiday party, etc. The idea, however, that my daughter, might learn that her claim of sexual harassment or assault might not be heard, might be laughed at or ignored, angers me; it moves me to act and write more. In fact, to not be more political and vocal as a parent seems negligent to me in this moment. Isn't that now also part of how and why I write, as well as part of my subject matter?

An hour before the reading, I took out a stanza and changed the last line of a poem. I thought to myself that editing at the last minute is not something I would have done until recently—that is, since my daughter's birth. But is that reflective of my development as a more confident, risk-taking writer, or is it because as a mother in this moment, my relationship towards revision, towards re-seeing in general, has changed, such that it requires a bit more risk and discomfort? Can it be true that writing it down and getting it out may be more important sometimes than getting it closer to perfection? Does my desire to endlessly revise reveal the many ways I've learned as a woman to silence parts of my story?

It's worth thinking about. There is still a notion that art suffers for parenthood, but now that I'm on the other side of that equation, I don't really believe it. It is irrefutable that motherhood changes a woman physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically, so it makes sense that one's writing might change as well. Even so, perhaps what has changed most is not necessarily myself, but the world I am writing into, the world that is beginning to see, hear, and value women's voices differently.

If there is a notable blip in the amount of literature on motherhood, in all its diversity of experiences, it is without a doubt part and parcel with the #MeToo movement. An unprecedented number of women are demanding consequences for abusers, but also attentive audiences for all of women's stories. As the main paradigms of patriarchy remain mostly intact, this is where I see the shift in re-seeing beginning to happen in homes and playgrounds, libraries and schools, and blinking on computer screens in front of writers. On a national level, we can see results in the #WomensWave and the record number of women elected to the 116th Congress.

On the night of the reading, I decided to take my friend up on her generous offer to spend the night at her place. Mostly, my reason was the overriding fear of being alone at 11:30 p.m. in a city I didn't know well. If something happened to me, what would happen to my daughter? I stayed because I'm a mother, because now I have a family and more responsibility. This is also how I feel about writing. I have someone else I'm writing for and it seems increasingly vital to be revising the old scripts and writing raw. This extends not only to the natural upheaval of the writing process, but also to subject matter, genre, self-censorship, reception and criticism. My hope is to write my way into another possibility I had not previously considered. It does not feel burdensome, insofar as it is freeing to write as authentically and boldly as one can with no outcome in mind—except that I don't want to write another sentence that reads "nothing happened." I must account for all things that did happen, are happening, and will happen on second, third, or fourth look.


Sara Burnett is the author of the poetry chapbook Mother Tongue (Dancing Girl Press 2018). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Bullets into Bells, Matter, Poet Lore, SWWIM and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland and an MA in English literature from the University of Vermont. She lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter.


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All this talk of Anita Hill and I'm thinking about how Joe Biden lied... er, "revised" history. Recently, he said he always believed Anita Hill "from the beginning" but back then, while it was happening, he actually told his peers she lied. Now that he's running for president he attempts a half hearted apology 28 years later, which she of course saw through and chose not to accept. Besides her discomfort at his constant inappropriate touching and hair sniffing, in her own words, she says because of his mishandling of her case, Biden "set the stage" for Kavanaugh's confirmation. Seems to set the stage for Biden's candidacy too. Anyway, the future won't be much for any our children if people, both men and women, aren't held accountable for their actions.
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