Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


In the days leading up to talent night at my daughter’s middle school, Emily would only share that she had a short moment on stage. She had been keeping more of her personal and school life to herself; signs of teenagerhood even before reaching her teens. Since she spent most of her after-school hours in theatre workshops, my husband and I expected that she had a small part in a scene from a musical or one-act play and wanted to surprise us.

But when I took my seat in the cafeteria-turned-auditorium, I scanned the handwritten program and saw that the third act, titled, “The Birthday,” was a skit in which she would not only be acting, but had also written. As the lights went out, my stomach began to knot.

I was uneasy because my daughter, who could deftly bring a scripted character to life, was also verbally fearless in front of an audience. Long before she entered puberty or acted in plays, she could think quickly on her feet and loved being a provocateur. With a photographic memory and a pitch-perfect ear, she could hold a room hostage with verbatim scenes from movies or made-up characters who spoke in Russian, Indian and New York Jewish accents. At eight, as a flower girl at my father’s wedding, she clapped her hands for attention and gave an extemporaneous speech on the ups and downs of marriage. And just a few months before the talent show, during her bat mitzvah practice, she captivated the cantor as she sung her Torah portion in Hebrew, alternating between Sinatra and Madonna voices.  So with a script she had written herself, and a rebellious nature, someone could get hurt.

I was also uneasy because Emily and her younger sister were principal subjects for the monthly newspaper column I was writing on women and family issues. Since the time they were 8 and 5, I had filled numerous column inches with stories about them. It was important to me not to misrepresent or embarrass my children or anyone else who showed up in my columns and I’d frequently remove material that, on second or third reading, struck me as potentially problematic. I also recently had begun getting Emily’s approval on sections in which she was mentioned. I wanted to protect my daughters’ feelings and not expose too much of their private lives. But just a few months before the talent show, Emily hadn’t taken kindly to a reference I made in one column to her menstrual period. She didn’t veto it, but it occurred to me that this, and some quiet petulance at her mother, could possibly move her to strike back.

As the fluorescent lights went down, I shot an apprehensive glance at my husband. He was characteristically calm.  The hip-hop dancers took to the stage to loud applause, followed by a young comedian who elicited a few chuckles. I began to relax a little. Then Emily appeared, alone, under a white-hot spotlight on center-stage in the character of a sixth grade girl.

“My mother and I are having this disagreement,” said The Girl in a voice that sounded like Emily’s own. Uh-oh. Where were her accented characters now?

“We were talking about my birthday,” she continued. “I wanted my three best friends to go to the mall with me to see an R-rated movie and to stay up after midnight, but my mom wanted me to have the girls come over, eat popcorn and play Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey.”

The corners of my mouth dropped. Wow, I thought. She sure is taking on a serious subject, especially in contrast to the hip hoppers and comedy routines. Emily loved the movies, especially the independent, edgy ones. She regularly asked to rent them and I would regularly say no. Gastric acid was building in my stomach.

Another sixth grade girl entered the stage playing “The Mom” and the two began to argue.

The Girl: “Mom, you don’t get it. I just want to take my friends to a movie and walk around the mall.”

The Mom: “I just can’t let you do that. You are under age for an R-rated movie and you aren’t allowed to walk in the mall unaccompanied at night. What’s wrong with some popcorn, cake and party games at home?”

I could feel my face reddening in the dark.

The Girl: “But those are your rules, Mom, not the theatre’s or the mall! And those party games are so dumb!”

The Mom: “I’m sorry, honey. Those are the rules. This discussion is over.”

The scene didn’t look or sound like one from our relationship – The Girl’s line of argument sounded like Emily’s, but Skit Mom was far more traditional and rules-based than me, or at least how I liked to think of myself. But there she was, in front of a hundred students, teachers and parents, dramatizing a middle school girl who insisted that her mother was getting in the way of her desire to grow up.

It appeared that the person who might get hurt that night was me.

In the next scene, The Girl sneaks out of the house, meets her friends at the mall, and sees the R-rated movie. But as she exits the theatre, she bumps into The Mom. The two have it out. The Mom flips. The Girl apologizes. The Mom agrees to be more sensitive for the next birthday and concedes that her daughter is, indeed, growing up. The stage goes black and The Girl stands under the bright light and says, “My mom: She’s turning out to be a pretty okay mom.”

Okay, I thought, at least The Girl doesn’t end up hating The Mom. I exhaled. Up came the cafeteria lights to hearty applause, on came the recorded transition music and off she went, stage left.

My husband and I exchanged arched eyebrows. It was taking all of my energy to hold myself together.

After two solo vocalists, an orchestral segment and a poetry reading, the curtain closed and the middle schoolers filed into the hallway. Emily’s teachers passed me by, winking and smiling. I grinned sheepishly and struggled to swallow. Friends stopped to give her high fives. My husband gave her one and told her she was great. I bent down to congratulate her with a hug that she weakly reciprocated. When we left the building, I began to feel lightheaded. I could actually feel myself splitting into two: I was a proud mother and an exposed one.

In the car, I turned my head to make eye contact with her in the back seat, mustering up my proud mother self to let her know she had done a great job.

The Mom: “That was terrific, sweetie.”

The Girl: “Thanks, Mom.”

The Mom: “But I’m curious …” My exposed mother self was elbowing through. “Were you writing about us?”

The Girl: “No, Mom. It’s not about you or me.” She fidgeted with her script, avoiding my glance. “Not consciously, anyway.” At that, she looked up with a smirk.

The flicker burst into flames. So it was true. I had been written about. Without a heads up.  Without my permission. And I didn’t like it. At all.  She had made a portrait of me as a mother public, and it wasn’t how I wanted my daughter to see me, wasn’t how I saw myself and it certainly wasn’t a version I wanted teachers, neighbors and friends to see. Though her one-act play was a fiction, it felt real to me and I felt unfairly depicted.

In the days after the performance, I became twisted into a mini-madness, questioning everything. Did Emily really feel like I was thwarting her young womanhood? Was it sour grapes for saying no to so many “R” rated movies? Was it payback for being written about? Could it possibly be all three? If this was how Emily felt when she read about herself in my columns, then I had no other choice. With my next column deadline nearing, drowning in doubt and guilt, I decided that my children’s mental health was far more important than column inches. There were plenty of other subjects to write about. I had no other option: I would not write about them again.

So the next month, I wrote about finding a gift for my husband. The month after that, I wrote about an experiment in living without a mirror. And the third month, about an interfaith prayer session at my dining room table. Perfectly fine topics, all, but the pieces that I wrote about motherhood had more fire in them. They moved people to write me letters, to tell me their stories. By the fourth month, the desire to write about my daughters bubbled over. My girls were my muses, little mirrors reflecting some kind of truth, whatever that looked like and whether I liked it or not, truths that forced connections between me, the generation before me, the one I was raising and perhaps the ones to come. They were, without a doubt, my best work; on and off the page. Not writing about them allowed a new truth to surface: that for me, being pulled to the page can be equally as compelling as raising my children, sometimes more so because writing is how I understand, how I make sense of the world. So finally, I decided I would write what it felt like to have been written about, to be the subject of my daughter’s writing. And in writing that piece, I realized that Emily had been compelled to write about what was on her mind. She felt the energy rise and refuse to settle until it was expressed. For both of us, the writing felt bigger and more important than the consequences. Perhaps my column had modeled the power of expression and that it could be safe to explore feelings in words. Could I have been a muse for her? Were we muses for one another, mirroring truths between us?

I’ll never know exactly what motivated her to write that script in sixth grade. To my knowledge, she never wrote another one, although she dabbled in high school and college theatre. Mostly she got down to the business of being a teenager, funneling her creative, rebellious nature onto a real life stage. I continued to write my columns about my growing daughters for another six years, remaining mindful of their feelings while still honoring my own, which meant continuing to write about what came up for me as a mother. I wrote about the heated conversation we had about nose piercings, my determination to get an annual family photo in spite of my family’s dread, whether or not to read my daughter’s journal when I was concerned, and my struggle to find the right amount of contact with her after she left for college.

Now, at 24, Emily is a college graduate, a working girl living in the city. Lately she’s been spending her free time at open-mic storytelling gatherings. She tells her stories at venues that encourage provocative and confrontational material. She doesn’t invite us to come, though I’d love to. Sometimes when we are having dinner together, over a glass of wine, I’ll broach the subject.

The Mom: “I’d love to come see you when you tell one of your stories on stage. Will you let me know the next time you go?”

There are several variations on this request. In another version, I offer to slip quietly in and out the side door. But no matter what words I use, she remains resolute.

The Girl:  “Mom, I really appreciate that you want to support me. But I’d rather that you not come. This is for me.”

At heart, she’s still the provocateur. But now it’s me she’s protecting.

Essays by Ellen Blum Barish have appeared in The Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the author of Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life. Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and StoryStudio Chicago and is a private writing coach. You can visit her at

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This is both heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. They say that good writing isn't afraid to dig into people's lives and secrets, that good writers don't worry about hurting the feelings of those they love. But how can that be true? I love how you've raised the questions here. Thank you for sharing.
This is so true; we all have to be very, very careful when we mention our family members - or easily-identifiable others - especially if we do so without their permission. The litmus test is: would we have wanted to be mentioned in the same way had the story been about us?
As a writer, I agonize over what and how I write about my loved (and detested) ones. As a reader, I, almost 100%, understand that if someone writes about me or an incident I was involved in, that it is to "tell the story". But, my 11 YO daughter hasn't written a *play* with a Mom character and *surprised* me, either!
This reminds me of when Frank McCourt gave a public reading from his masterful memoir "Angela's Ashes," about growing up poor and hard in Ireland. His mother -- the Angela of the title -- was in the audience and shouted out, "Pack o' lies! Pack o' lies!" She no doubt really believed it was a pack of lies, true as it all was for Frank. And wonderful as the book is. Writing about family is a minefield.
Very thoughtful piece on the privacy issues inherent in creative nonfiction in a variety of genres. I do see a difference in delicacy and immediacy between the written word and theater. As the mom in the audience, the content and delivery of the storyteller can easily be considered confrontational whether real, fabricated or both. The mother's embarrassment on the spot, surrounded by other listeners who can't sort out what's fictionalized, was potently depicted by Ellen in this essay. The written word, most often read at a distance, privately and without knowledge of or the actual presence of the mother (or other real character), packs less punch. I like that both mother and daughter still tell their own stories in their own venues because each viewpoint is valid, each portrayal gives form to one's love for the other, while each author struggles to grow their respect for one another--all universal themes amongst parents and adult children.
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