The Problem of Writing About Our Mothers 4

MOTHERS are fertile ground for memoir writers — we have innumerable stories arising from their temperaments, parenting styles, and influence. Most of us have observations and judgments about our mothers that, let’s face it, they’d rather not read in an essay or book written by one of their children. Yet, mothers are dominant influences in our lives and it’s practically impossible to write about your childhood without writing about your mother, so write about her we do — possibly imperiling our relationship in the process.

As I see it, there are basically two types of mother memoirs:

  • Fond and sometimes humorous stories of mothers who were, though perhaps quirky and quite human, basically strong, supportive, and loving. With these kinds of stories, the memoirist wants to honor her mother and share the good times with her readers. These are the warm, feel-good family stories we all enjoy.
  • Complicated mother-child relationships in which the mother has let the narrator down in some major way — neglectful or cruel physically or emotionally, narcissistic, absent, or otherwise just not the picture of the “normal” mom. In these kinds of stories, the memoirist wants to explore that relationship to better understand why her mother was the way she was and how the writer can come to terms with her mother and herself.

It’s the second of these types of memoirs that I’m writing about today.

When you didn’t have the mother you wanted or thought you should have, short of fabricating an ideal fantasy mother out of thin air, how does a memoirist who wants to write about her life AND who wants to maintain a civil relationship with her mother handle this conundrum?

Writing honestly about your loved ones, and particularly about your mother, can be scary. You doubt yourself, and you have all these questions: What will she think? What will she say? Will she still speak to me? Will sharing my deepest truths about what it was like being raised by her hurt or help your current relationship? Is it fair to write about her? It’s my life story, true, but will what I write be a portrayal of the truth or a twisted view of reality? How will I know what to include and what to leave out?

In my case, my mother had passed on by the time I wrote my Not the Mother I Remember, so I guess you could say I took the easy way out. I had the freedom to write anything I felt needed to be said and portray her character from my subjective viewpoint without worrying about hurting her feelings. I also was able to have more compassion for her, having watched her long struggle with Alzheimer’s. At the same time I knew that had my mother been alive, I would not have had to worry, as she never did care what anyone thought of her — including her children. She either would have agreed with or shrugged off any characterizations that might be considered unflattering. But many people do not have a mother like that.

Some memoirists, including Mary Karr, give drafts to their mothers to read prior to publication and allow them to have some influence on what gets included. Reportedly, her mother has thick skin. Not everyone has a mother that would work well with, either.

Ultimately, it may come down to deciding which is more important: your relationship with your mother or your life story?

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott famously wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” 

That statement is both true and humorous. Yet, I think we also have an ethical responsibility to treat other people in our memoir with some respect. That it’s best to scrutinize ourselves more than, or at least as closely as, we do others. Besides, no one wants to read a memoir that is more about revenge than redemption or is self-aggrandizing.

An important part of the decision to write about your mother is knowing whether you have worked through your mother-issues and anger adequately enough to portray your mother as a well-rounded but flawed human, and not some evil-mother caricature. No one’s perfect, but mothers (rather than fathers) tend to get most of the blame for our childhood difficulties, and it’s important to recognize and question our assumptions about who a “mother” is supposed to be.

If you’re writing from a place of raw hurt and anger and not taking a good, long, hard look at yourself while doing so, then your “memoir” might be more adequately called a weapon of words, intended to inflict harm. In that case, it’s better to keep writing all those thoughts and feelings in your journal until you have worked through them and are ready to be honest with yourself about your own part in that relationship.

If you’ve done that, writing about your mother may help you complete the puzzle of your relationship.

Writing about your relationship in your memoir or essay can actually be a catalyst to transform your thinking about her, your past, your perceptions of that relationship, and ultimately about who you are becoming. 

That’s why I recommend writing that story about you and your mother, whether you intend to publish it or not. Write your truth, get the words out. Then you can question what’s important to include in order to communicate your core message and what is meaningful enough to risk straining your current relationship with Mom. Then you can decide how you want to approach the big question — whether you want to let her read it in advance or let the chips fall where they may.

So go ahead — be courageous and write your story, because writing your story could be the most important thing you ever do.


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4 thoughts on “The Problem of Writing About Our Mothers

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    I agree, Amber. Whether the story one needs to write is warm, humorous, or painful, one needs to write the story if for no other reason than to get the mother-daughter relationship into perspective. In my case, many of my mother memories were warm and poignant ones. Yet as I wrote about her, I unearthed some latent feelings of her having betrayed me. Hmmmm… I suppose I denied those feelings believing that in claiming them I was somehow dishonoring her. But in claiming my feelings and in looking at our relationship from a distant, adult perspective I saw a woman who, much like me, was doing the very best she could from where she was at any given time in her life. I suddenly felt compassion for her. I also had to examine the source of my guilt for writing about her in a negative manner. In the end, I wished my mother were still alive so I could share with her my honest, adult feelings of love, respect, and compassion for her. I’d like to think that she sees my words and hears my thoughts and is smiling with that loving, understanding smile as she so often did.

  • Tammy

    I’ll admit, writing about my mother has been very cathartic. I’ve come a long way in dealing with her. 10 years ago, her name couldn’t even be uttered in counseling after 2 years of therapy. Today, I can talk about her to most people. Now, after reading your article, I wonder if writing my memoir is taking longer than expected because I’m processing my relationship with her. I normally write a portion, then let it set for a while, talk about it in therapy, edit it a bit. I wonder if I’ve been too harsh on myself. I think after reading this, I can truly accept how long it’s taking. Thanks for the insight Amber!

  • Barbara Toboni

    Thanks for this article, Amber. I’m glad you included the quote from Anne Lamott. It made me laugh. My mother died many years ago and I’ve written about her only since her death. I wish she were alive now and could read my stories and poems about her. I wonder how she would have felt about them, and I also wonder if I would have changed anything.