Baby steps of change for an age-old genre

"Mommy lit" examines the persistent doubts of new mothers

While it's possibly been centuries since anything "new" descended on the publishing world, a whole crop of women authors is implying that they are just that: a novelty. These women are writing about what one would assume is among the oldest subjects, but remains a hot topic: motherhood.

In Britain, it's called "mummy [mommy] lit," these new books about the transformation from woman to mother as seen through the eyes of feminist writers and literary novelists – groups not previously inclined to discuss breast-feeding and diapers.

Naomi Wolf's "Misconceptions" might be the best-known offering, but it was accompanied last fall by economist Ann Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood" and "Breeder: Real Tales From the New Generation of Mothers," from HipMama.com co-editors Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender.

The past year also saw the arrival of Moyra Davey's "MotherReader," a collection of literary writings about motherhood that spans almost six decades, from Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath to Mona Simpson and Alice Walker. Next month will see the US release of the "mommy lit" offering that probably most deserves the trailblazer's distinction. "A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother" (Picador, $22) is a hauntingly beautiful book-length memoir by respected British novelist Rachel Cusk, writing about her experience as a new mother.

Both Ms. Davey and Ms. Cusk feel that – whether new or not – there is indeed a trend toward straight talk about motherhood, in coffeehouses and play groups as well as in the publishing arena.

Exploring being a mom

Cusk describes in her memoir the alienation of becoming a mother – and a conspicuous silence from writers on the subject. That's a feeling Davey, a fine-arts photographer, also admits to having experienced after the birth of her child.

"I think it is probably a kind of new thing to try to reclaim some of your intellectual territory after having a child," explained Cusk, in a recent interview. "Before, women were having to wait about 15 years, when the children were out of the house, before writing about it."

The title "Misconceptions" implies how strongly Ms. Wolf believes herself to be forging new territory. Her aim, she writes, is to blow the lid off myths surrounding motherhood – "to show how the experience of becoming a mother, as miraculous and fulfilling as it is, is also undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women's expense."

But compare Wolf's sentiment to this passage: "The words are being spoken now, are being written down; the taboos are being broken, the masks of motherhood are cracking through."

That's Adrienne Rich, writing in 1976. She provided the literary inspiration for Cusk's book.

Whether one reads Doris Lessing in 1949, Rich in the 1970s, or a new writer today, one thing is clear: The issues are astonishingly unchanged. Virtually all of the writers discuss equality, status, and the division of domestic chores. All satirize and criticize parenting manuals. Almost without exception, they address lost identities as feminists, artists, or writers.

So it's not the topics, but rather the treatments, that are radically different in the current crop of "mommy lit."

The contemporary stories of Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender's "Breeder" are frank and closely resemble the chat-room discussions of HipMama.com. Ms. Crittenden's fiscally focused "Price of Motherhood" relentlessly analyzes money issues surrounding the decision to become a moth (she estimates $1 million in lost wages over the average mom's lifetime).

Wolf also brings up important issues and provides intelligent, straightforward talk. But apart from some interesting statistics – such as the fact that US women suffer from a higher incidence of postpartum depression than those in any other country – some readers may feel she does little more than complain.

It is Cusk, in her upcoming "A Life's Work," who succeeds in finding an original, literary language to express the journey to motherhood. She does so dramatically – though darkly.

Combining creativity and motherhood

Cusk, Wolf, and others are more than a little concerned with the journey not only to motherhood, but back again: to the recovery of some remnants of their former, creative selves. This search for the Artist Formerly Known as Artist is a major "mommy lit" theme. It goes back to Lessing, who wrote, "There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very small child," and to Rich, who wrote, "For me, poetry was where I lived as no one's mother, where I existed as myself."

Cusk says the recovery of her artist-self was one of the main reasons that she wrote "A Life's Work." It was, she explains in the interview, "to communicate with myself through a sort of fog or barrier. I felt changed in every way – to the sort of core of my being. I didn't know what that meant for my writing, for my creative ambitions.... I sensed that one could never, ever reclaim that [former] person."

Cusk says she did manage to "reclaim" herself during the process of writing, and has since given birth to a second daughter.

However, the process of publishing her thoughts gave way to a national debate in Britain – a response Cusk finds "upsetting" and unexpected. Letters to the editor arrived in droves from mothers quick to distance themselves from Cusk's feelings about motherhood. Reviewers questioned who looked after her children while Cusk wrote about looking after her children (a joke she herself makes in her introduction, where she quite clearly explains that her husband quit his job so that she could write the book).

Cusk will be interested to see if the reaction of American reviewers and mothers is similar or quite different.

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