Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Remixing Memories: Back Down Memory Lane

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When I talk about my past writings, I sometimes say I'm digging through my literary crates, a nod to DJs who travel with crates of records to spin vinyl. I love dancing and old-school hip hop and R&B, so I love the DJs who make the magic and good times. And I hope too that my work has put some magic and goodness into the world, especially during hard times.

But given the opportunity to dig extensively into my literary crates—specifically, my Literary Mama column archives, 2004-2007and reflect on them as a whole, I braced myself. Was 2019 me ready to revisit those pivotal sometimes painful chapters of my life? Had I been honest enough in those writings, and with myself, during that time? I didn't know what would be harder: to relive those heavy moments, or to realize that they had been so heavy, even my words couldn't bear their full weight.

On the other hand, maybe the issue wouldn't be that I hadn't shared enough. Maybe I had shared too much.

February 2004 excerpt from the inaugural "The Girl is Mine" column:

[As] my friend Kristan and I strolled down the book aisle of Sam's Club we ran into Kristan's aunt, whom I'd never met before. After introductions, the aunt peeked at the tiny baby snuggled in the fleece sling draped across my chest.

"Ohhhh! She's beautiful. A little peanut. How old?"

"Five weeks," I said.

"Five weeks?" the aunt sputtered. "But . . ." She gave my body a not-so-subtle once-over. "You look—great! How did you do it?" A real mystery: How had I managed to squeeze back into my button-fly not-too-low-riders so soon after giving birth? Where was that tell-tale post-partum bulge?

I explained, "I . . . didn't have her. She's . . . adopted."

Wait. That didn't come out the way I'd rehearsed it. What was with the pauses? And where was my proud, mega-watt smile? This was not the way I'd intended to explain how my younger daughter, Peyton, came to be mine, in response to "I didn't know you were pregnant" and similar comments. I'd planned to be matter-of-fact about it all: I was this child's mother.

This first column set the topic and the tone: I would write about being an adoptive mother, with a dash of humor and clever titles. I would write about how my older, biological daughter was adjusting ("'The baby is King of the World!' five-year-old Taylor declared within a day of us bringing her baby sister home."). I would begin to advocate for adoption as a valid and loving way to grow a family. But I cringe now looking back at my claiming of Peyton, right down to the title of the column, a reflection of my need for validation. Thankfully, over the years, I've learned to shift my focus, to center on Peyton and her needs. This is what it means to be an adoptive mother, not declaring that a child is mine.

In that first year, I also wrote candidly about the day-to-dayness of motherhood:

I count myself among the rag-tag band of moms who pray not only for good health for their children, but for faulty long-term memories for them: the better to forget the all-day Disney channel marathons, the dry-cereal-in-the-car breakfasts, my screaming and yelling when I would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else, alone.

Another writer, novelist Martha Southgate, and I must have been separated at birth. She writes, "I love my children, enormously. I'm a fairly good parent, but it's not easy for me. It's not easy for anyone, but I find it harder than most. Family life—taking care of others, the bump and rub of a group—I've never been comfortable with it. My children's needs intrude, on my need for solitude, reflection, selfishness, time to be. I resent it. I try not to let my resentment affect my parenting, but I must be honest. As I become more serious about my work as an artist, I am less patient with all the minutiae that fragment a mother's day."

Even with the downsides, however, motherhood has made me a better person. I see how unattractive and bothersome whining and complaining are, so now I try to keep mine to a minimum. Kids will also disabuse you of any misconceptions that the world revolves around you. Kids make you grow up. In these ways, motherhood is the best thing to ever happen to me.

In 2005, I started to write some slightly less navel-gazing columns (slightly) and began to write about race and parenthood and take on adoption in pop culture. (Someone actually greenlit a reality TV show called "Who's Your Daddy?") The column was becoming less and less about being an adoptive mother, but my editors were cool with it, and I was having fun.

Meanwhile, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and my marriage was headed for divorce. But I would not write about my mother's illness or why I would adopt a child into a situation where the marriage was so fraught. Looking back, I don't think I was trying to keep up appearances by keeping these facts out of my column. I think the column provided me with a respite, an escape from those facts. Plus, I don't know what I would've written about with respect to my mother or my divorce at that time. There was still so much I didn't know and didn't understand. Only in the past few years have I begun learning and making sense of so many things about myself, that marriage, and my relationship with my mother.

In the middle of 2005, my mother went into hospice, I went home to be with her, and I went on hiatus from the column. After my mother passed away that August, I returned to the column and wrote a series about her final months, my readjustment to life and motherhood back in Pittsburgh, and then my father's sudden death in December.

In 2005 and 2006, I also wrote sometimes funny takes on things like solo parenting and domestic life, puberty, and race. In 2007, I wrote about how all my kids' babysitters had been white, our blended family going whitewater rafting, more on puberty, and the beauty of doing nothing.

I did not write about rushing into dating after divorce. I did not write honestly about the person who would become my second ex-husband; I wrote about him as the man I needed him to be, not the man he was. I didn't write about the debilitating fear or loneliness that propelled me into that second marriage that should not have even been a second date. Today, I still don't write about that fear and loneliness; it is all still too fresh, too raw. I only write about fear and loneliness when they wend their way into my fiction. My fiction, the theme of whichI announce in my artist statementis mothers and daughters, and dissatisfied women, more broadly.

But back in 2007, I wrote almost exclusively as a mother and as a motherless daughter. I didn't even scratch the surface of my life as a woman, my loneliness and deepest fears, my needs, griefs, and desires. Instead, I wrote about emerging as a writer:

I have this column and a few published non-fiction articles to my credit. Fiction, which was my initial writing passion, has been harder for me. I already have two unfinished novels under my belt. The third time will be a charm, though, not because of luck or any guarantee of publishing success, but because this time is different. This novel is better, stronger, and so am I. This time, I will finish.

I love writing and telling stories, and I want it badly enough to find a way, make a way, to be the best writer I can be while being the best mother I can be. In my dreams, it is possible though not easy to be both. But nothing is easy.

I know where to start, though. By sitting down and finishing chapter three. Amidst the tent-pitching in the backyard in these last days of summer vacation, teaching Peyton to tie her shoes, and helping Taylor with her own book-in-progress (called "Oh, Sister!"), I will finish chapter three, and then four, and so on in the months to come, building the novel to The End. Easier said than done, but it will be done.

It was not done. I wish I could remember exactly why I didn't hunker down and stick with that novel. I think back, and the three things I remember most about that time are parenting, struggling as a freelancer to pay the mortgage on a house that had been bought on a banker's salary because I wanted at least one constant in my children’s post-divorce lives, and laundry that was never fully put away.

Instead of finishing my novel when my Literary Mama column ended in 2007, I turned my attention to building a brand in support of a book I would later write with my ex-husband (the first one) in 2013, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. While our family's experiences were not the focus of the book, they did feature in it. And we did not ask our children’s permission. I have since stopped writing about the details of my children's lives without their permission. And as a result of this reflection, I've apologized to them for having done so.

Do I regret "The Girl is Mine" or any of my other writing about my children for other publications? Yes and no. I am extremely grateful for the ways the column, particularly my close work with the Literary Mama editors and fellow columnists, grew me as a writer and as a person. I call my years at Literary Mama my MFA program.

I am also thankful for my Literary Mama column as record of myself as a woman and a mother, becoming. A record of a time that now feels like a blur, so much of which I had forgotten. It's a record of my daughters' childhoods and the beautiful minutiae of our lives then that still makes my heart glad.

But I regret my stunning failure to consider how my daughters might feel about this record that they did not consent to. As they grew up, they were aware that I had a personal blog and wrote about them on the internet, and they vaguely remember the Literary Mama column specifically. Still, regardless of how they feel about it now, the bottom line for me is that they were too young to speak for themselves back then. I should not have presumed. In writing the column, I tried to learn as much as I could about adoption from Peyton's perspective and not just my own. But in the process, I overshared parts of her story that were not mine to share without her permission, which of course she couldn't give at that time.

I wrote to reassure myself that my kids would be okay. That I could be less than perfect, and that they would still be okay. I wrote to reassure myself that it was okay not to love every minute of mothering. In retrospect, I wish I had put effort into finding and respecting the line where my story ends and my children's begin. I don't subscribe to the notion that as a writer or as a woman, I should never be silent. I should be silent when the story is not mine to tell. And if I can't figure out a way to write about motherhood meaningfully without violating my children's privacy, then I'm a piss-poor writer. I accept the challenge to either do better, or not write about them at all.

My last column for Literary Mama was published in September 2007. It was on coping with grief and fear—my fears and Taylor's fear of monsters, for which I devised a Monster Spray. This is how the column ends:

Unfortunately, ingredients for the grown-up equivalent of Monster Spray aren't as readily available. We dig around the dusty pantry shelves of our childhoods, of past hurts, of lost friends and lovers, searching for a quick fix amongst the clutter, an antidote to the real and imagined monsters that keep us awake at night and darken our days.

But for lasting healing, I recommend laughing early and often with the kids, and doing that one scary thing every day that Eleanor Roosevelt said you should do. Mix well, then add a huge dollop of faith; equal parts therapy and steadfast girlfriends; and all the real love and encouragement you can find. Get older; write if you want to be a writer; take dance lessons if you always dreamed of being a Rockette; look fear dead in the eye and realize, truly, that you don't have that kind of time.

This reads as so clichéd to me now. Laugh early and often! That Eleanor Roosevelt quote! That paraphrased quote from Anne Lamott at the end! I'm fine! Everything is fine! Except it wasn't. Except I wasn't.

Still, I kept writing. That third novel I told my 2007 self that I would finish is still unfinished. But it did inspire a short story collection. In recent years, I have turned my attention back to fiction. I'm currently preparing the collection—about Black women, sex, and the Black church—for my agent to shop to publishers.

I declared myself "stronger" in one of my 2007 columns, and I can only guess now that I meant stronger overall, as a writer, as a mother, as a grieving daughter, as a woman. Stronger then, since my mother's death, perhaps. But in truth, I was still barely holding on, barely breathing, outwardly strong because I felt I had to be, for my children.

That's the other thing I wish I had done differently: I wish I had shown my girls that it's okay to be brought to your knees. More than okay, it's human. It's simply what happens sometimes when death and disappointment come knocking, when the weight life gives you is stronger than your back. Don’t break your back. Kneel. Lie down. Rest. Understand that grief is not linear. Name the places where it hurts. Let others care for you. You are loved. There is nothing you have to bear alone.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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