Writing Motherhood – edited by Carolyn Jess Cooke – Seren Books – a review

Sharon Olds


I lightly tap these words and watch them tip toe across the quiet, ordered screen so as not to stir my grandson as he sleeps soundly in the bed beside me. This is about as much quiet and order as I’ve been able to wring out of the day thus far.
Practically speaking, a mothers time is  limited by her children’s needs and routines and the  constraints of the childcare available to her.
Free time feels luxurious and rare these days, especially for mothers. Free time is akin to a favorite Saturday morning sweatshirt that makes allowances for natural breadth and freedom of movement. As both a full time mother and a work at home mother I have, at times, over the years, felt metaphorically as bound in bone corseting as any pre- twentieth century woman.
A mother often plays the centrifugal role in a family and as a result her own identity often becomes an extension of that role. In the early weeks and months after having a baby, identity becomes a question that many mothers wrestle with. Much of this book illustrates the ways in which mothers navigate their roles in order to make time for creativity and how, post birth, they can emerge with an identity that may be re-defined but that they are not solely defined by. The over arching message in this book is optimistic. Not only can motherhood make space for creativity, it can often be a catalyst for it. The excerpt below written by  Rebecca Stonehill, titled “Writer and mother: How children can help (and not hinder) the creative process.” suggests that perhaps one is flint to the others steel. Perhaps, the experience of motherhood can, actually become tinder for the creative flame to kindle.

“Prior to children, my right-hand companion to my writing process was procrastination. With three small children to care for and a supportive husband who took them out on Saturday mornings so I could write, I didn’t have TIME to procrastinate anymore. Here was my precious opportunity and I had to seize it with both hands.
Those mornings came to form a vital pulse of my writing, with many short stories and sections of my novel springing from them.

Writing Motherhood edited by Carolyn Jess Cooke is full of thoughtful essays and poems that examine the role of motherhood in a womans creative life. The diversity of experience detailed in the book share the common theme that motherhood can be a window into a woman’s creative expression rather than a door which closes her to it.


A mother’s life is made up of many constant re-negotiations of time, needs and priorities. The obstacles mothering presents to creativity are real, sleep deprivation, breast feeding and birth recovery being the most immediately pressing and physically demanding. These difficulties are not shied away from, indeed they are described at length from many diverse angles throughout the book. Yet the breakthroughs that come like morning light are equally as present. The kind of re-emergence of self that motherhood brings is beautifully described from the perspective of the child as his understanding of the world around it simultaneously grows ever more coherent in Rebecca Goss‘s exquisite poem, “The Baby who understood Shadows.”

“This baby she washed, fed,
kept close as fog, now able to see through

the branches of her arms, find the sun’s rays,
his own shadow, all things that are not her.”

Though motherhood draws boundary lines around space and time it just as powerfully forces a blurring of boundaries between self and other. Empathy with a child’s rhythms can expand a mothers sensory experience of the world. Exploration of the world through the budding sensory perception of a child is detailed in the playful internal rhymes of Sinéad Morrissey‘s poem “The Camera” which describes how  her young daughter steals and stashes random, ordinary objects around the house and wraps them in “blankets.”

“pine cones, driftwood, rocks –
the waist- high were your common subjects

and while I watched, the air above me stretched”

The photographs  her daughter takes take this extra perspective to a poignant conclusion.

“your own bright smile framed twice),
you’ve nevertheless led me back
to an earlier time, before we swapped

the kitchen table for a sturdier one
or painted the doorframes brown,
when you were four, unschooled, unkempt,

absorbing this house and your place
in it: bewitched by the marvelous –
and then stealing it.”

Motherhood provides more than just new insights and creative inspiration though. In the chapter titled Mothers Work, Holly Mcnish deftly argues that the skills required for negotiating with a toddler provide better qualification for a chief ambassador to the UN peacekeeping force than a PHD in conflict resolution. Her piece concludes:

Have you ever had to settle a dispute with a child or group of children without resorting to fist-banging, shouting “Ra ra, Mr Speaker”, raising your voice or laughing in a pompous, arrogant manner at them?
Er no.
                Ok, thank you. We’ll let you know. We were really looking for someone who has toddler-care skills. Primary teaching might work too. We’ll call you.

Writing Motherhood covers all aspects and stages of mothering including, most movingly a chapter on loss, absence and suffering.
In Postcards from a Hospital, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, writes with aching clarity about the time her newborn spent in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Poetry glimmers through each starkly written paragraph.

“Blood blood – Blood blood – a steady thud.”

“Every hour I descend to the basement in search of my Persephone.”

The sharing of such experiences through the art of writing gives voice to the experience of motherhood from mothers themselves, as Sharon Olds writes:

“Someone who has knowledge of a subject like motherhood, which through most of human history had not been memorialized or embodied in art, has precious knowledge.”

Considering how the experience of motherhood effects us all as human beings it does seem extraordinary that the writings of mothers on the subject of motherhood hasn’t been more widely available.

As a writer and artisan who is also a mother to five and grandmother to one I thoroughly enjoyed reading Writing Motherhood, in-between nap-times, exam coaching, cooking, taxi driving, changing nappies and school runs of course.

Suffice to say, the picture below paints a thousand words. And yes, I have written this piece in several child, interrupted installments.

“Writing Motherhood” is available for purchase from Seren books.

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