Motherhood: A Gap In The Literary Record & In Public Life

Recently, in the LA Review of Books, Lily Gurton-Wachter discussed her observation that there is a dearth of literature about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, saying:

We have a rich, challenging, and complex canon of war literature… The same cannot be said about a literature of pregnancy or childbirth or parenting, though these are also extreme experiences that stretch our understanding and push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.

Little Z and MeWhile I won’t go quite so far as to analogize pregnancy to combat, I agree with Gurton-Wachter that motherhood — however it happens — is a transformative experience. My pregnancies were terrifying, so much so that it was almost a relief when the doctors wrested the little beings from my body at 26 weeks for my twins and 34 for my singleton. Since then, parenting has had its lows and its highs, from the helplessness and fear I felt while watching my twins struggle to survive in the NICU to the joys of sharing my favorite children’s books with them and collaborating with them on an Anne of Green Gables-based writing project that reflects our heritage and community.

The experiences of motherhood are life-changing and deserve to be discussed and memorialized in writing. I’m sure we can all think of a few books that focus on the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood — Gurton-Wachter mentions what she calls “the emerging literature of new motherhood,” including Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) — but it seems literature (of the “literary” and “serious” variety) has largely avoided these subjects. I haven’t seen empirical research on the issue, but Gurton-Wachter’s observations are certainly plausible when, as she notes, “most philosophy and literature has, historically, been written by men.”

A dearth of honest literature about motherhood would also reflect our societal norm of silencing women by censoring our bodies. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are inherently tied to women’s bodies, a subject that is taboo because our society ascribes a sexual meaning to it (at least in the United States).

We’ve come a long way since the days of women “wearing wool all summer long” (19th Century), breast cancer being described as a “disease of the chest wall” (1950s), and school districts forcing female teachers to leave the classroom as soon as their pregnancies were showing (which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1974), but censorship of the female body is a cultural norm that simply refuses to disappear entirely.

For example:

Additionally, new mothers venture into the public sphere at their own risk:

  • Mothers who want to express milk in the workplace — which, in many (but not all) cases is their right under the law — often face resistance from their employers;*
  • Just this week, Donald Trump shamed a mother who brought a baby to one of his rallies, saying, “I love babies. I hear that baby cry, I like it… What a baby. What a beautiful baby. Don’t worry, don’t worry. The mom’s running around, like, don’t worry about it, you know. It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want [But then saying, less than two minutes later…] Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here … I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”

Clearly, for mothers to get the respect we deserve, our society must change how it views our bodies and our roles in society. It’s telling that, even among one of the supposedly most educated and sophisticated groups of people, i.e., the publishers of serious literature, there seems to be a hesitation to address one of the most common and fundamental human experiences. Hopefully, filling in the “motherhood gap” in the literary record will be a step in the right direction. I’m going to keep an eye out for these books.

*This is one of many examples of how our modern workplaces fail to acknowledge and accommodate the reasonable needs of working parents, but I won’t go into that subject right now.


  1. This is a wonderful post! War has traditionally been seen as a masculine thing and that there is so much literature written about war as opposed to motherhood reveals how much literature focuses on the male experience as being the universal human condition and worthy of literary examination. I’ve heard lots of excuses from publishers about why they don’t publish books about childbirth and motherhood, etc, the most horrendous I think is the one “men don’t want to read about that stuff.” Since it is mostly women who buy and read books the poor excuse is even more appalling.

  2. I think the idea of “women’s issues” is definitely still going round and strong in literary circles and is made niche by gatekeepers. The Greats are supposed to write about the human condition etc etc and anything icky like women, poc and all us weird people still cannot get past this.
    The shaming of breastfeeding in the US is really horrifying and social media like Facebook with their censoring are exporting it.

  3. I certainly agree that cultural and institutional factors have contributed to lack of books describing the parenting experience (and, I would argue, a glut of books about war), but I also wonder if there are very practical obstacles in writing about parenting. For instance, I’d think that most people who’ve experienced war (and lived to tell about it) spent a year or two in combat and then had time to write, whereas parenting (I’m not a parent, but so it seems) is intense for many more years.

    The larger point is also a valid one: that there are MANY aspects of life that have yet to be written about. As a teacher, I’d say that while there are many fiction and nonfiction depictions of teachers in classrooms, so many of these books and shows don’t deal with the average teacher’s experience of daily seeing 100 or more students. In “Stand and Deliver,” Jaime Escalante is shown teaching and getting to know just a few students, but that’s exactly not what most high-school teachers’ days are like. In fact, the central aspect of surviving as a teacher is dealing with the mass of students and mounds of assignments — being able to engage intensely with a few students occurs seldom in class but is highly rewarding.

    I’m also thinking that the day-in, day-out experiences of lawyers are seldom shown, Sure, there are lots of courtroom shows, but attorneys prepping for trial is seldom seen. Transactional law is almost never shown.

    I’m sure there are many others, but thanks for getting me thinking!


    1. These are interesting points. Gurton-Wachter highlights the practical obstacles in her piece. She writes: “In the context of parenting, this manifests as a problem of timing. By the time a new mother has the time (or free hands) to write again, the most extreme experience is beginning to fade from her memory. These recent books are attuned to this problem. In After Birth, Albert asks: ‘so who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?’ Nelson puts it even plainer: ‘here’s the catch: I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.'”

      In my case, I started writing after having my children, but I was only able to do that because my partner is so supportive, and we live near my parents and sisters (who help with child care). The early months were very difficult, though, especially with twins.

      As for books featuring the day-in, day-out experiences of people’s lives, the only glimpse of that I get is through blogs, not through novels. A 500-word post about trial prep is probably easier to read than a 400-page novel on the same subject. My daily experience as a lawyer isn’t that interesting (even to me sometimes!).

  4. I had no idea motherhood was a topic less written about in fiction. Of course, I have no experience with it, so it’s not something that immediately jumps out when I look for fiction to read, but in writing I try (and hope I) include a richness of family dynamics. It genuinely disgusts me that in real life the treatment of motherhood is not heralded in its natural, life-giving form but that it actually limits women. Urg.

    1. The treatment of motherhood disgusts me too! The “motherhood gap” seems to exist in literary fiction and creative nonfiction. There are many contemporary novels that address motherhood, but most of them fall into the “women’s fiction” category, which isn’t taken as seriously as other genres.

  5. Thank you for this post. There are too many needs – most unspoken – that society has not prioritized. I wish we could all just agree that mothers are human, too. We make mistakes. We are going to expose our breasts at times. And we need love. One of my biggest pet peeves is the “But we’ve come so far!” attitude. Yes, I agree. But, if you are a mother, you know just how far we have left to go.

  6. I love reading fiction and nonfiction about motherhood (or fatherhood, for that matter!). It takes up such a big part of our lives for those 18 years or so. It’s puzzling to me that we can’t discuss it and read about it more, aside from elderly strangers in the store telling you to “enjoy these years before they’re gone!”

    1. I enjoy reading books about parenting too! Most of those books tend to fall into the “women’s fiction” category, which doesn’t receive the respect it deserves from (some) literary types.

  7. The constant uproar over breastfeeding mystifies me, but that outrage usually comes from men, who have sexualized the breast to the point where they don’t even remember what it’s original function was.Those same men who complain about a woman discreetly feeding her child would likely applaud, and most certainly gawk, if she whipped it out so they could get a good look at it.

    As for Trump: I cannot stand listening to him. He sounds like a five-year-old, whiny and insistent on getting his way, then abusive and angry if crossed. That there is even a slim chance he could be elected president terrifies me.

    1. “Those same men who complain about a woman discreetly feeding her child would likely applaud, and most certainly gawk, if she whipped it out so they could get a good look at it.”

      Well said! It’s Breastfeeding Awareness Month right now, and I’ve been hearing lots of stories about women who were scolded for breastfeeding their children in public. Some of the worst offenders are other women who are worried that men might be looking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s