Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Kathryn Black

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Kathryn Black is the author of the recently published book Mothering Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within, a book that focuses on women who grew up feeling "undermothered" -- whose mothers were absent, distracted, emotionally distant, depressed, or fell short in some vital way. She lives with her husband and sons in Boulder, Colorado, and has been a journalist for 20 years. In 1997 she was named Author of the Year by the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Black, whose own mother's early death inspired her award-winning book, In the Shadow of Polio, probes for answers from experts in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, developmental psychology and social work, biology and anthropology, as she asks a fundamental question: Why are some people able to transcend troubled childhoods and lead satisfying lives while others are not? Through the voices of women across the country, in all stages and ages of mothering, she learns that there are ways to become a good mother without having had one of one's own.

In an interview with with Mother Shock author Andi Buchanan, Black discusses her research, healing, and readers' response to the book.

Andi Buchanan: What inspired you to write this book? Was it sparked by a desire to explain your own trajectory as a mother?

Kathryn Black: Like many other writers, I write the books I need to read. This book began for me with compelling questions that I needed answers to once I became a mother: How was my disjointed upbringing affecting my mothering and my children? How do women learn to mother? Can a woman who was not well mothered herself be a good mother? Do we have a say in whether the oddities, tragedies, dysfunctions and quirks of our own particular families get passed along to our children?

AB: You did a lot of research in the process of writing this book, speaking to women with a wide range of mothering experiences. How did you find these mothers? Were most of them willing to share their stories without reservation, or did you find them to be reluctant to discuss their specific concerns about their relationships with their own mothers or the way they themselves mother?

KB: When I first began this book, I was daunted by the prospect of rounding up the women I wanted to interview. I wanted women in all stages of mothering. I wanted geographic and age diversity, and I wanted women at various points along that journey toward figuring out their mothers and their pasts.

Because of the Internet, finding such women turned out to be not so very difficult. For a year or so, I sent word out, mainly by e-mailing a description of what I was looking for to friends all over the country who then sent it out to their e-mail networks, and eventually I found all the women I needed.

I also devised two questionnaires to help me gather information. And then, of course, I did many in-person, in-depth interviews. Some women were able to share their stories, without reservation, and with great insight. Others had much more difficulty. Both extremes and all the in-betweens helped me to understand the complexity and scope of a mother's influence on how her daughter mothers.

AB: Did you expect, before you interviewed the women you spoke with, that the notion of mothering "without a map" would resonate with so many mothers -- even mothers who felt their own mothers had done a "good enough" job?

KB: Indeed, I was very surprised to find how broad the idea of "growing up without a mother" was. The vast majority of women I interviewed did not suffer the obvious childhood deprivations that I did. In fact, many grew up in families that looked just right. And yet they shared many of the emotional experiences I had, such as feeling unwanted, shut out, not seen or valued. Many women who felt undermothered expressed confusion over their dissatisfactions and criticisms of their mothers, because the care they received looked appropriate. Many women assumed the problem was within them, rather than with their mothers. I heard, again and again, how the suffering of a child -- and later that child as a mother -- is compounded when the care she received looked appropriate, but felt wrong. I saw how the message "I am not here for you" can be said through physical absence, but also through a mother's treatment of her daughter.

AB: One of the remarkable things about your book is that it is so hopeful and encouraging for those of us who feel that motherhood is a path we are forging without landmarks to help us find our way. You point out that even if attachment does not seem to come naturally for a mother, it can be established -- something you call "earned attachment." Was this concept -- the idea that a mother who does not have a role model for mothering can still connect with her child, even if it's something she has to learn how to do rather than something that occurs spontaneously -- something you were confident would be borne out in the stories of the women you interviewed, or did it emerge for you along the way?

KB: Your comments get right to the heart of the book. I am an optimist and I have seen in my own life how much healing is possible, even for those of us who have suffered greatly. And yet when I began the book I could not have said where the research would take me. I knew a little about attachment theory (enough to make me worry as a mother!). And I had not heard the term "earned secure." Doing the research and study that I needed to do to explain it all simply and succinctly in the book helped, but what truly enlightened me was talking to other mothers and seeing in their lives and their mothering how a secure adult and parent goes about her life. Both the academic research and the interviews bore out a fundamental belief I have that it's never too late to grow and learn. And that the advances toward self-awareness we mothers take benefit our children.

AB: Another aspect of the book that made it quite accessible was the very personal story woven into the work. In the midst of the academic and theoretical there was this powerful portrait of a mother finding her way. Was that always the intent of the book?

KB: I did not want this to be a "how to" book, because I think that every mother/child relationship is unique and the more we focus on finding the "right way" to mother, the less focused we are on our individual child at that moment. I wanted to tell my story, along with those of some of the women I interviewed, in order to reveal the process of "coming from a long way back," as one woman said. My hope was that if I opened up to the reader it would help the reader open up to her own story.

AB: When you began approaching the subject, did you suspect that your personal experience might have a universal appeal? Was there a moment you felt your story give way to something larger?

KB: At some point I did realize that the universals lay not in the particular details of any one life -- mine or someone else's -- but in the shared feelings. If I were to identify a particular moment, it would be in an early interview I did with a woman I identify in the book as "Kit Bishop." She grew up in an intact family and still lives in her hometown, near her mother. Her story, on the surface, appeared perfectly fine. No one looking in would have thought, "What a difficult childhood she had" -- as they would have had hearing my story. And yet, as "Kit" described with great insight the feelings she had as a child that resonated for me, I saw that there are many routes to becoming a woman who feels like a motherless mother. A mother can be profoundly emotionally absent, while physically present. This awareness also helped me see how the blank space of my mother's example was only part of the picture for me. The care I received from my grandmother, who was emotionally closed and deeply grieved over the death of my mother, provided a powerful "mothering" example that I did not want to repeat with my children.

AB: Now that the book is out, what has your experience been like promoting it? Have you found readers to be as receptive to the concept of "mothering without a map" as the mothers interviewed in the book were?

KB: I have been deeply gratified by the response from readers who have let me know that I did strike a chord with the book. Even reporters, reviewers and interviewers have ended up wanting to tell their own stories of being mothered and mothering -- which is exactly the response I had hoped for from readers. My wish is that this book helps women see their mothers, themselves and their children in a new, hopeful light. I want to show women that they can make peace with the past and become the good mothers their individual children need.

AB: Has writing the book been a healing process in some way? Have you found that your own mothering has changed as a result of the research and writing you did on this subject?

KB: Truly, one of the great blessings of being a writer, for me, is the healing that comes through my work, especially the writing I do about my own life. Knowing our own stories is vitally important to knowing ourselves and my books have helped me piece together the narrative of my life. And this was the perfect project for a writing mother. For about three years mothering was the focus of both my personal and work life. At any given moment I was studying mothering, mothering my children, talking to other mothers or thinking about mothering. Each piece informed the other. My experiences with my children helped make the book better and the book helped me be a more conscious, deliberate and aware mother.

AB: What's next for you?

KB: In this time that I think of as being "between books," I'll write magazine pieces. I'm particularly interested in writing essays and first person articles about mothering and family life. And I'll go on collecting notes and research on three book ideas, all of them about family life, that are brewing. I don't know yet which one will become the next book. Most of all, I'll go on enjoying my children. They are 10 and 12 now, and I'm acutely aware of how fast these years are going. This is my last spring to walk a child to our neighborhood school, as next year both of my children will be in a middle school a bus ride away, and so I relish those walks. I'll always be a mother and a writer, and I try to remember that over the span of my life there is time for both, but that right now being a mother comes first.


Andrea J. Buchanan is a writer living in Philadelphia. In addition to her latest book, The Double-Daring Book For Girls (HarperCollins), she is the author of the New York Times bestselling The Daring Book For Girls, The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Things To Do, and The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Wisdom and Wonder along with Miriam Peskowitz. She is also the author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (Seal Press) and the editor of three anthologies: It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons; Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; and It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (all from Seal Press). Before becoming a writer, Andi was a classical pianist; she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she earned her bachelor of music degree, and continued her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, earning a master’s degree in piano performance. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She is the mother of a daughter and a son, both of whom are equally daring.


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