What We Write About When We Write About Our Mothers

“I knew that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore.”
Maya Angelou

I have an unfair advantage over my mother, I write to an audience (though small). She doesn’t. I use words to speak my “truth.” She doesn’t. I can tell her story to people. She can’t and wouldn’t tell mine.

My mother is an intensely private person and a remarkable human being. I have to be careful not to speak for her when I write about her.

Short-story writer Alice Munro said she avoided writing about her mother until her mother died. I find that hard to believe, for we are always writing about our mothers.

'Rembrandt's Mother' by the school of Rembrandt van Rijn for use in post "What We Write About When We Write About Mothers"
Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, ca. 1628. Her dark shawl and fur collar depict a respectable person admired by the painter. Learn more.

When American poet Robert Lowell pioneered the confessional poetry movement he wrote about his life and family, his rich Boston heritage, wealthy relatives and his contentious parents. From “91 Revere Street:”

My mother felt horrified giddiness about the adventure of our address. She once said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency.’ We were less than fifty hears from Louisburg Square, the cynosure of old historic Boston’s plain-spoken, cold roast elite – the Hub of the Hub of the Universe. Fifty yards!

In this new form of first-person, autobiographical writing that discussed things traditionally private, Lowell exposed his parents (and their eccentricities, social aspirations, and anger) to the public.1

During the weekends I was home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion.

Lowell’s mother appears with depth and personality. A mother longing for social mobility and lost in an unsatisfying marriage. But nevertheless, his depiction of Mrs. Lowell it isn’t a person. It’s Lowell’s memory of a person.

Mothers receive mention in most memoirs, “I associate my mother with a remoteness, which I did not at all resent, and with the smell of eau-de-cologne.” Wrote English novelist Graham Greene. With such details, Greene’s mother remains remote.

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1" by James McNeil Whistler for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
“Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” painted by James McNeil Whistler in 1871. It is more commonly called “Whistler’s Mother.” His mother was made famous by the painter’s critical eye and painterly skill. Her existence is bound to the canvas by the very same. Learn more.

In other writings, the mother plays a primary part. She is blamed or vindicated for crimes only the writer knows, or frankly, cares about.

Although Mother kept her self busy in countless and pointless ways, it did not alleviate her worrying: her pervading sense that she was keeping nameless disasters at bay only by incessantly anticipating them, and that one moment’s lapse in this vigilance would bring them hurtling towards her. I once proposed to Dad that we should purchase a large hamster wheel for her.

The mother of comedian John Cleese was a central character in his autobiography. Without her our hero might not have turned out as he did:

My ingrained habit of walking on eggshells when coping with my mother dominated my romantic liaisons for many years. Until it began to fade, women found me very dull. My own unique cocktail of over-politeness, unending solicitude and the fear of stirring controversy rendered me utterly unsexy.

Much of Cleese’s early comedy originated from this “infuriating desire to be inoffensive” and later in his career he created Basil Fawlty, a study of ineffective and bemused anger. Cleese’s mother isn’t his villain, she’s his alter-ego. Incurious where he is intelligent, anxious where he is comical, diminutive where he is expansive.

It seems – or maybe this is just me – that we often fail to see our mothers apart from ourselves or as humans in their own right. And equally, we fail to see ourselves apart from their influence. Mothers become a symbol, a theme, even a thesis. An actor, an alter-ego. Not a person. How they act to us and against us is how they are.

Paul Cezanne's "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" used in
“Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” painted by Paul Cezanne in 1867. So many of Cezanne’s portraits were full of brightness, this one is oddly dark. But the close-up reveals how much Cezanne cared for their relationship. His mother was an emotional support throughout his life.

This entwining is perfectly demonstrated in the writing of American activist and essayist Rebecca Solnit. According to Solnit her mother was blind to her daughter’s needs.

My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.

In Solnit’s free-flowing prose, The Faraway Nearby, about storytelling and narrative she (unwittingly?) narrates her own mother’s story. Solnit reclaims the power – the voice – she was denied.

She often visited her fury at others or at life upon me. She took pleasure in not giving me things that she gave to others, often in front of me, in finding a way to push me out of the group. She thought she would get something from these acts, and maybe she got a momentary sense of victory and power, and those were rare possessions for her. She didn’t seem to know she had also lost something through this strategy.

As true as any of this might be, and I don’t doubt it is, Solnit doesn’t say ‘I saw my mother as’; no, she writes ‘my mother was.

When we write our mothers they will exist in perpetuity as they were to us.2

I’ve written about the burden of bearing witness, telling stories to engender collective memory. When we talk about our mothers we witness a life, but when we narrow it to our drama, we deliver incomplete portrayals.

Gillian Wearing as her mother, Jean Gregory, 2003 for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
Gillian Wearing as her mother Jean Gregory, 2003. Wearing, famous for dressing in the masks and costumes of family members, makes a brilliant comment on how we inhabit our parents, and they us. Look closely at the eyes, you’ll see Wearing under the mask. Learn more.

In a smattering of people writing about their mothers, one stands out. Mom & Me & Mom is the last of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies.

How did I, born black in white country, poor in a society where wealth is adored and sought after at all costs, female in an environment where only large ships and some engines are described favorably by using the female pronoun – how did I get to be Maya Angelou”.

The answer, Angelou tells us, is the grandmother who raised her and the woman who became her mother. Vivian Baxter sent Maya and her brother to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas when they were three and five. Maya lived there for the next ten years until she returned to California to a mother she vaguely knew.

After a few weeks it became clear that I was not using any title when I spoke to her. In fact, I rarely started conversations. […]

She asked me to join her. “Maya, I am your mother. Despite the act that I left you for years. I am your mother. You know that, don’t you?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” I had been answering her briefly with a few words since my arrival in California.

“You don’t have to say ‘ma’am’ to me. You’re not in Arkansas.”

“No, ma’am. I mean no.”

“You don’t want to call me ‘Mother,’ do you?” I remained silent.”

Initially, Angelou was unable to use the word “Mom” because Vivian Baxter, whom Angelou learned to call ‘Lady,’ hadn’t earned the title.

Perhaps because Angelou only lived with her mother from age thirteen, or perhaps because she is such a keen storyteller she gives her mother independence, agency.3 This is the story of how Maya Angelou’s mother became a mother and how her love turned a young girl into a great woman (and mother).

In one glorious scene, Angelou describes her mother as “catching” her baby when Angelou gives birth. Both physically and emotionally. “Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby” Vivian says to her daughter. She caught. A wondrous, full word.

I consider my daughter. I catch her. I cradle her, I hold, lift, elevate, rock, sway and am always always there to catch her. And my mother me. That fierce action.

Mothers are action.

And yet we write them still. We paint them sitting.

My daughter. How much power she will have to write my story? Will I exist apart from how I affected her?

I stopped writing fiction because, like Munro, I always wrote my mother. Or maybe I wrote myself because ultimately, I am so much her.

When Angelou finally left home to live on her own, with her young son and her ferocious power in tow, she finally calls her mother “Mom.”

I walked away and was back in my bedroom before I heard my own words echoing in my mind. I had called Lady “Mother.” I knew she had noticed but we never ever mentioned the incident. I was aware that after the birth of my son and the decision to move and get a place for just the two of us, I thought of Vivian Baxter as my mother.

Both women felt like mothers.

We tell stories. These days we tell stories about ourselves. We involve others in our drama. Some echo more strongly than others, some reverberate off the pages, some slink into the margins.

But there they remain, contained.

When we write about our mothers – these individuals with whom we’ve shared a body, a name, a home, a day, many days, a space and countless memories which could be summed up with the word “past” – when we write about our mothers we are really writing about ourselves.