'Mothers' Literature' Offers New Voices on Child-Rearing

Katrina Kenison's son was three months old when she accepted a job as editor of an annual collection of fiction, "The Best American Short Stories." Working from home in Winchester, Mass., reading story after story, she quickly discovered a paradox: Although many women write short stories, few write about motherhood.

Yet the appeal of such fiction became apparent when she read "Before," a story by Mary Grimm about a young wife expecting her first baby. That story, says Ms. Kenison, "really resonated with my experiences - the transition of becoming a new mother. So I filed it away."

Over the years, her "motherhood files" grew. But it wasn't until Kenison's friend Kathleen Hirsch, an author with a master's degree in fiction writing, also became a mother that the collection expanded. They gathered stories, all previously published, on subjects from pregnancy and birth to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The result is "Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood" (North Point Press, $22), an anthology of short fiction devoted to motherhood. Writers include Laurie Colwin, Mary Gordon, Barbara Kingsolver, Perri Klass, Sue Miller, and Jane Shapiro.

Explaining the dearth of stories written from a mother's viewpoint, Kenison says, "Women historically have felt the need to separate their creativity from their maternity. They have felt they could tell all in their memoirs and fiction about sex and messy divorces and dysfunctional families, but there's been a great silence when it comes to expressing the way they feel about their own children." Kenison and Ms. Hirsch speculate that women have not regarded motherhood as a legitimate literary subject.

Although maternal emotions are timeless, Kenison continues, the issues mothers confront today are different and more complicated than they were 25 years ago. She and her husband have two sons, ages 6 and 3.

"It used to be that when a woman had children, the role was there waiting for her to step into," she says. "It may have been a circumscribed role, but it was a well-defined one. Today a woman choosing to have a baby has many more options, from the way she conceives a child to the way she raises it. Every woman has to create the role for herself and figure out on her own the kind of mother she will be - who's going to raise the children, who's going to pay the bills, how all these issues will be negotiated, with or without a partner."

For more than a decade after college, Hirsch could not imagine answering those questions herself. As a writer and self-described "seventies feminist," she saw her sense of wholeness as a woman in terms of intellectual development and achievement. "I could only think of having a child as somehow being a drag on that," Hirsch says. "For a long time that was how women portrayed childrearing to each other. It was cast in very negative terms, however subtly or not so subtly."

Then she wrote a book about homeless women, "Songs from the Alley," and her perceptions changed. As she immersed herself in her subjects' lives and "confronted an ocean of emotional neediness, and many other kinds of neediness," she says, "I began to realize that ... there was more to life than achievement. There were realms of caring and love and nurturing that I had just kept at arm's length." Today Hirsch and her husband, residents of Jamaica Plain, Mass., are parents of a toddler son.

Hirsch notes that although many women of her generation began their families during the tumultuous 1970s and '80s, other elements of their identity, such as careers and independence, often took center stage publicly. "Those were the topics we were all talking about and getting approval for talking about," she says.

During the '80s, Hirsch recalls, women who wrote about being a mother tended to favor first-person articles in magazines rather than fiction.

Fiction about motherhood, Kenison says, can help to moderate the isolation many American mothers experience. Noting that she was unaware of mothers' groups when her first son was born, she says, "The first stories I read became almost my mothers' group. Although I had read all the childrearing manuals, there is an emotional connection, an emotional truth in fiction that you're not going to find in 'What to Expect the First Year.'"

Today both authors see attitudes toward child-rearing changing. "Women are taking mothering much more seriously again," Hirsch says. "They are trying to work out acceptable compromises that will allow them to put mothering more at the center of their lives while their children are young than women were doing for a time.

"I know a number of women who just put their careers on hold for a number of years," she continues. "Ten years ago, I didn't know anyone who was doing that. It's not that they're particularly well-to-do. They're making sacrifices to spend those early years with their children as much as they can."

That renewed focus, Hirsch says, could mark the beginning of a new emphasis on "mothers' literature." She says, "I think this is an emerging voice and an emerging sensibility. I hope other women writers take the ball and run with this idea. This is just the beginning."

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