There are several fascinating elements at play in poet Rachel Zucker’s new memoir MOTHERs, which came out in December from Counterpath Press. In her lyrical style, Zucker explores the difficult relationship she has with her mother (the late, great storyteller and mythologist Diane Wolkstein), the surrogate/artistic mothers she seeks out in older woman poets, and the ongoing struggle to find balance and satisfaction in caring for her own three sons, for a start. In MOTHERs, Zucker has hit upon a way of claiming ownership, or the “right” to tell—if not the story—at least a story.
Adrienne Rich wrote that although we have the great tragedies of Lear (father-daughter), Hamlet (mother-son), and Oedipus (mother-son), “There is no presently enduring recognition of mother-daughter passion and rapture… This cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story.”
MOTHERs seeks to counter this blatant void. The result is an elliptical, fragmented beauty, a lyric essay spiraled out of control. Zucker says repeatedly that she “wanted to write an essay,” pointing out that the meaning of “J’essai” is I try. The book is a record of these failed attempts, borne of a beautifully rendered incapacity to distill the issues at hand (or, quite simply, the incapacity to sustain pure focus on writing while raising three children). Honest and raw, it explores old and fresh wounds alike, skillfully blurring the lines between the two. “I did not want to be a writer like my mother,” she writes. “I did not want to be ‘like my mother’ at all. There were many reasons for this. I do not want to write about them.”
By turns accusatory, meditative, and mercilessly self-aware, Zucker—author of eight other books—spares herself no reflection. Heeding the advice of a child-development expert, she seeks to tell her sons true stories from her own childhood. She comes up with stories only of abandonment and sorrow, before deciding to go back to reading to them from The Odyssey.
Toward the end of the memoir, she wonders if the book-in-process is going to turn out to be “viable.” That brilliant use of the word, which has strong associations with pregnancy, is characteristic of Zucker’s fine mind. “Nothing in my life is ‘without doubt,’” she writes. “As soon as I wrote that I wondered if it was true. That made it true.”
Over the course of several weeks, via email, we explored the subjects of memoir, of mothering, and of being unmothered.
ELISA ALBERT: As you put it: “Kill the father is an old story. Worked over and over. What about the stories of mothers? What do we do with mothers? Living mothers. Dead mothers. Birth mothers. Other mothers.” Why has there been no enduring mother/daughter mythology in our culture?
RACHEL ZUCKER: This is a great question, and one I really don't know the answer to! In so many fairytales and folktales and children's literature the mother is “conveniently” absent. We are, as a culture, very confused about motherhood: Mothers are saints and sluts, idealized and demeaned. Just think about how much Freud got wrong about mothers! For the life of me I don't think my sons saw me as a castrated man. If anything they saw my husband as a sad human-without-breasts. I don't think we know as individuals or as a society what we think about mothers or what we should think about them, let alone how to be them! A book I love very much is Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. In double-checking the title I saw she has another book out—Mothers and Others. I just ordered it.
Can we talk about guilt? The old-fashioned kind, somewhat universally joked about as being inextricably linked to the fact of having a mother?
My first thought is that guilt has to do with being a daughter more than a mother, but I do feel guilty as a mother, even when I think I'm doing a pretty good job. Some of this I put on the fact of having three kids and the ebb and flow of who gets what compared to the others. Some of it has to do with being a writer and a mother, which are constantly in conflict.
Maybe no one fully escapes that guilt—she birthed you and kept you alive and you can’t meet for lunch? But it does seem that daughters bear a special burden. You’ve heard the old saying “A son will leave and take a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all her life”?
I always wondered what my life would have been like if I'd had siblings. As it is I have no comparison. I can't tell what has to do with gender or birth order. As the mother of sons, I won't be able to test that old (and terrible) saying out in my own life. I think part of the motivation for writing MOTHERs, although I didn't realize it at the time, was an attempt to find a context for my own very specific experience with my mother.
To me, that is the best reason to write at all: When the context for your precise experience doesn’t exist, you’re called upon to create it. The other terrible old saying I love/hate is “a woman without a mother or a daughter is a woman alone in the world.”
I think I was looking for mothers from an early age. Perhaps all girls do? I remember going through phases of falling in love with other mothers, mothers who could sew curtains and placemats (my aunt Elizabeth), mothers who knew how to shop for a bat mitzvah dress (my aunt Margot)—I'm reducing these women in terrible ways but it was the ways in which they were most unlike my mother, in addition to the love they showed me, that made an impression on me.
I wasn't aware of looking for mentors so much, perhaps because my early writing teachers were men. I felt supported by these men, and valued. It didn't have the same kind of charge that my relationship with Jorie Graham would have when I was her student in grad school. My desire to impress her, to understand her, to be understood by her, to be loved (although I would never have thought of it in those terms then) had a definite mother-mentor echo for me. It felt both exciting and somewhat dangerous to me.
Working through the essays in Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (with Arielle Greenberg) was an amazing education in reading about other poets’ mentorship relationships and seeing a wide range as well as commonalities (many of the poets described their mentors as "permission-giving" in various ways). But it wasn't until my friend Peggy Sradnick died that I really began to be away of how much I had been looking for a mother even though I had one, and the ways in which I had conflated mentoring and mothering.
Peggy was your sons’ daycare provider, and of course her death resonated so powerfully, because of course the woman who oversaw the care of your children would come to occupy a profound place of importance. I remember being vaguely embarrassed when I’d look to my son’s daycare providers for reassurance (on a daily basis): Am I doing this right? Is everything okay? Are you sure? Embarrassing because, I guess, they could easily interpret my own lack of mothering. One of the things our mothers are “supposed” to do for us is show us how to be mothers.
But we clumsily figure it out, with the help of whomever we can find. “I became a woman good at taking care of people,” you write. Which is so interesting, given how much airplay has been given, in other incarnations of feminism, to eradicating the idea that a woman should be good at taking care of people. And that brings me to your activism as a doula—bearing witness, mothering other mothers.
I think there are some serious problems feminists have inherited, not least of which is the idea that feminists should avoid some of the behaviors and attributes that girls and women are socialized (or biologically predisposed) for, such as caretaking and empathy. I don't want strong women to shun these behaviors. Nor do I think we need to be shackled by them or [have] full caretaking responsibility for children, partners, elderly family, etc. I think for many women of our mothers’ generation, a conscious effort was made to avoid (or at least limit) the caretaking expectation, and this must have been very confusing for these women when they become mothers.
My mother cooked a little but not predictably; I think she really took pride in the ways that she didn't care about regular eating and meals. My father still can't make more than a simple cheese-and-crackers snack. In college I went through a phase where I really wanted to make things: I went berry picking and learned how to can jam and [make] peach brandy. I brought these gifts home for Chanukah my freshman year, and my family looked more dismayed than pleased. My grandparents (my father's parents) hadn't worked so hard so their granddaughter would make her own jam! The life of the mind—being an artist or, especially, a teacher—was what they valued. Not cooking, not crafting.
When I trained to become a doula, my father seemed perplexed. Again, why would someone who could teach poetry at a university or read and write books choose to spend hours and hours with a stranger in labor and clean up throw-up and do such bodily work? [But] I learned so much from doula training and from attending births, including how to take care of someone without fixing their problems and how to care for myself in physical and emotional ways. I had to learn to mother someone else in order to see how to care for my children and myself and others. As I became the mother I wanted to be I also realized how much I didn't get the mothering I needed. At the same time, I also had more empathy than ever for my mother (who didn't get the mothering she needed) and for how hard it is to be a good mother. Round and round it goes.
One of my favorite moments in the book is this: The deepest shame, the thought-feeling I could not forgive in myself because I could not forgive it in my real mother, was how often my mind said ‘I don’t want to be here. Elsewhere, you quote Adrienne Rich: “The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” Perhaps that’s why we have so little pity for the failings of our mothers or our own failings as mothers. We have to squash that victim/martyr if we are to get anything done.
These are deep, deep questions. Today I think that this resentment is both entirely natural and unavoidable and also unnatural/ imposed/constructed and needs to be fought.
Let me start with natural. My sons are 14, 13 and 6. It's so beautiful and heartbreaking to see the stages of separation that mark their relationships with me. Yesterday my youngest openly disobeyed me in a new way. We were leaving soccer and he was very upset and frustrated. We were waiting for the elevator and he wanted to walk down the five flights of stairs because he didn't want to be in the elevator with the kid he was angry with. But I was tired and grumpy and said we needed to wait for the elevator and...he left! He opened the door and went down the stairs by himself. The other mothers stared at me, and my eyes got big and my heart started to pump hard. There are these moments—from the time they are born and we don't perfectly meet their needs to when they begin outright testing us—that we are in conflict: our desires and needs or ideas versus theirs. Sometimes things are obvious. Mostly [they’re] not obvious: Is it ok for my almost-7-year-old to walk down the stairs alone in a strange building? Does he still have to hold my hand crossing the street? Should I let my almost-15-year-old go over to his girlfriend’s house even though there are no adults there because I'm working on this interview?
When the elevator doors opened my son was there waiting for me. His face—how do I describe it?—was waiting. He wants me to let him make his own choices. He wants to believe I can keep him safe, that I am invincible, that I care for nothing and no one as much as I care for him.
My body made all the decisions for my sons when they were in utero. I made most when they were babies. But now, less and less. Yes, my teenage son can go to his girlfriend’s apartment because I trust him and her. Because I cannot control him. Because in a few years I will not be able to make any decisions for him, we are practicing now for that time. When he's older will he complain that I was too permissive or too strict? Probably. Will my sons complain that I was too present or not present enough? Probably. And every day, hundreds of times a day, I make these decisions about what to do and what not to do.
You say that we hold mothers to impossibly high standards? You're imaging an ideal time in which the most basic desires of mothers were not constantly in conflict with the needs of children. This is, I think, the crux of the problem: The way in which we cannot imagine a motherhood that is not ineluctably damaging to womanhood. If we lived in a [culture that] valued mothers because we saw children as part of the mother-infant dyad or part of the family unit (whatever that family unit looked like), we would see that the mother's success and ability to have her needs met is part of being a good mother, NOT in opposition to it. We give lip service to the idea of “happy mother, happy baby,” but mostly we just reinforce the mother/martyr complex. I felt as a child that my mother wasn't meeting my needs in ways that were painful to me. I see as an adult that my mother was trying desperately to meet her own needs and was doing the best she could. Can we imagine a world in which there is not an everlasting famine of resources, an unmovable conflict between mother and child?
This has become theoretical, so let me be more concrete. I'm planning to go away this summer for three weeks to write, or not write, but to be away from my kids and husband. I'm on the waiting list at McDowell. If I get in, this will be a really hard decision to make but I will accept. If I don't get in, will I still set aside that time? Will I have the courage to put myself first? A good friend urges me to do it and says, “This will be such an important thing to say to your sons... to say that you are taking this time for yourself.” The same friend says I'm having trouble seeing it this way because my mother made that decision—taking time for herself—too often and I'm still caught in the trap of trying to make up for my mother's absences.
I want to move toward a motherhood in which every decision I make is not a measure of how much I have put myself first. I want to go away for 3 weeks this summer because that is putting all of us first. I want to drive a stake into the heart of martyr-motherhood. I want a world in which that Rich quote—“The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr”—sounds strange to us and is no longer true.
Oh yes, the courage to put oneself first, at least some of the time. Remember hearing on planes about how parents have to put on their own oxygen masks before children’s? Weren’t we all, as children, mildly scandalized by that
Tell me about facing off with your mother. You write, “[T]he writing is a kind of revenge, a kind of claiming center stage.” That’s a profoundly brave admission, especially now when it’s very fashionable to insist always and only on sisterhood, the alleged rising tide that lifts all boats. So it strikes me as particularly courageous to articulate these feelings. There is an inherent, unspoken competition at play: Your mother was a storyteller and folklorist; you’re a poet and a writer, and you’re writing about her. It’s a riveting tangle. And she was not pleased.
In between our last set of emails and this set of emails, my mother’s mother died. She was 99. What a strange experience it's been, these past few weeks, to go to the funeral, to see my mother's brothers, to go to my grandmother's apartment in New Jersey to pay a shiva call to my uncle who lives there. To do all these things without my mother. For my mother not to know that her own mother finally died.
At the shiva, I thought of the times (not that many) when I'd go to visit my grandmother with my mother. My mother and her mother had a very difficult relationship, poisonous in many ways. I remember my grandmother telling my mother to put on more lipstick or a different color lipstick. I remember my mother complimenting my grandmother's paintings, pushing her to make more, to take herself seriously. The spoke about plants and shared cuttings. My mother always brought her mother her books and recordings.
I don't know what really happened between my mother and my grandmother. I am confident that my mother was a better mother to me than her mother was to her. I know I am a better mother to my sons that my mother was to me. Part of the story of my mother and my grandmother (and my grandmother's mother...) is specific to these women and part of the story is endemic to their gender, class, nationality, religion. I think you're absolutely right that this story and the story of so many mothers and daughters did involved competition—a strange, unspoken, very deep rage and jealousy that was always there and inseparable from the love. Perhaps if women are able to be more powerful, more embodied, more successful on their own terms then the motherhood role will be less bound up in regrets and resentment. I want to believe that competition is not at the root of this relationship. I don't believe it is.
I miss my mother. Despite all our difficulties, I miss her profoundly. My grandmother was senile and extremely ill for years and years and yet my mother always said “It means something to me that my mother is still on this earth.” I feel the lack of my mother keenly, acutely, painfully. I also feel a sense of sad power or a new kind of responsibility. I need to take responsibility for whatever kind of mother I am now, whatever kind of writer, whatever kind of person. I come from a long line of mothers (most of whom I don't even know about) and these women all are part of who I am. But what I do now, that is up to me. There's no one to measure myself against in that way anymore. It's a lonely and frightening and very powerful place to be.
Interviewer Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming in 2015), The Book of Dahlia (Free Press, 2008), and the story collection How This Night is Different (Free Press, 2006).
Editor's note: This article has been edited since its publication—several sentences have been cut to create greater clarity.