Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown in the TV show of the same name. (Entertainment Weekly)

Motherhood, Expanded

I was a senior in high school when Vice President Dan Quayle delivered his soon-to-be-infamous diatribe against Murphy Brown while on the campaign trail. Quayle was supposed to be addressing the Los Angeles race riots, but along the way he ended up blaming single mothers for a decline in social values and blasting Candice Bergen’s fictional TV character for glorifying single motherhood as “just another lifestyle choice.”[1] Although the speech was viewed at the time as a political gaffe, Quayle and then-President Bush capitalized on the media frenzy to politicize the notion of “family values.” They sought to convey to voters that motherhood should be confined to the institution of heterosexual marriage; morally questionable single mothers endangered both the welfare of children and society as a whole. In the years since Quayle’s speech, journalists, sociologists, and historians have continued to write about the Murphy Brown incident.[2] Some argue that Quayle’s stance has proven prophetic and that single mothers do indeed wreak havoc on the social fabric.[3]

Whether or not the GOP’s fears of social decline at the hands of single mothers has come to pass, social acceptance of at least some non-normative maternal identities has turned a corner: in particular, popular publishers and their readers appear to be in unspoken agreement that there is more than one acceptable model of mothering. There are still plenty of books published by and about heteronormative mothers; in fact, there’s an entirely new genre called the “momoir”[4] and a number of self-deprecating books, such as Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay, that humorously push boundaries of accepted maternal behavior. Nevertheless, publishers are showing increasing interest in at least some stories that are outside of the perceived norm.

Cover of book Texas Girl

Robin Silbergleid’s recently published memoir, Texas Girl, traces her journey to single motherhood.[5] Having made a conscious decision at age 27 to become a single mother, Silbergleid takes the reader through the intricacies of her very intentional process and through the emotional four-year roller coaster of artificial insemination, fertility drugs, miscarriage, and, ultimately, successful in-vitro fertilization. At nearly every step, Silbergleid encounters resistance, from those who question her certainty due to her age to the expectations of a single woman in a small-town setting. While she develops strong female friendships all along the way, for much of the book she is alone and must develop remarkable self-reliance, a fitting parallel to how her single motherhood will play out.

Kerry Clare’s The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood collects stories from a wide swath of Canadian writers. The perspectives are unexpectedly nuanced, including aunts who choose to be full-time caregivers, mothers who are forced to put babies up for adoption, mothers whose only children have died, and women who choose to remain childless in the face of overwhelming social pressure. As Clare writes in her introduction,

“women are not as divided between the mothers and the childless […] as we might be led to believe. Women’s lives are so much more complicated than that. There is mutual ground between the woman who decided to have no more children and the woman who decided to have none at all. A woman with no children also endures a similar kind of scrutiny as the woman who’s had many, both of them operating outside of societal norms. A woman who has miscarried longs to be acknowledged for her own invisible mothering experiences, for the baby she held inside her. And while infertility is its own kind of journey, that journey is also just one of so many whose origins lie with the desire for a child.”[6]

Clare’s writers brought me to tears more than once with their passion and poignancy.

Coper of book Stuck in the Middle With You

One that is still on my to-read list is by Jennifer Finney Boylan, who catapulted to New York Times bestseller status with She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. While the former examined her transition from male to female, Boylan’s new book, Stuck in the Middle with You, focuses on her parenting journey of transitioning from father to mother and on the painful and humorous ways in which her family navigated that challenge. Boylan says, “I was a father for six years, a mother for ten, and for a time in between I was both or neither, like some parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo.”[7]

Cover of book Chasing Rainbows

Demeter Press, based in Toronto, continues to publish a host of titles that rebuff the idea of a single normative maternal status. Their recent titles include Disabled Mothers, Incarcerated Mothers, and Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices. Significantly, some of the authors and editors working with Demeter acknowledge but actively resist the notion that only white, middle-class women may push the boundaries of maternity. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson’s edited volume collects essays on black women in the academy, while a forthcoming volume addresses the many ways in which Patricia Hill Collins’ scholarship reframed questions of maternal identity in terms of race, class, sexuality, and transnationalism.[8]

Murphy Brown didn’t signal the beginning of the end, and I don’t believe that social decline can be blamed on the ways we mother. If recent publications are any indication, we have reached a point at which many of us are willing to acknowledge that there is more than one model for mothering. Popular publishers may still privilege the stories of white mothers, but smaller presses are, thankfully, giving voice to many others. I might fit into the normative model, but that does not mean that I am not also interested in learning from others in their journeys as parents.


Notes

[1] Jerry Roberts, “Quayle Blames Riots on Decline of Family Values,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 1992, A1.

[2] See, for example, David Blankenhorn, ed., About Face: Dan Quayle, Murphy Brown, and the Rest of Us (Basic Books, 1997).

[3] Isabel Sawhill, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.” Washington Post, May 25, 2012.

[4] See, for example, Tracy Beckerman, Lost in Suburbia, A Momoir: How I Got Pregnant, Lost Myself, and Got My Cool Back in the New Jersey Suburbs (Perigree Trade, 2013).

[5] I had the pleasure of hearing Robin Silbergleid read from her new book, as one of the keynote speakers at the recent Mothers, Mothering, and Motherhood in Literature conference put on by the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement in Toronto, October 22-24, 2014. (Mothers, Mothering, and Motherhood in Literature conference flyer.)

[6] Kerry Clare, “The Motherhood Conversation (or, “Life with a Uterus”), The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (New Brunswick: Goose Lane Editions, 2014), 13.

[7] Joan M. Burda, “Review of Stuck in the Middle with You,” New York Journal of Books, [no date listed].

[8] Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering, and the Academy (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2013); Kaila Adia Story, Patricia Hill Collins: Reconceiving Motherhood (Toronto: Demeter Press, forthcoming 2014).

For Further Reading

Willey, Nicole, and Justine Dymond. Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating / Writing Lives. Toronto: Demeter Press, 2013.

Kittel, Kelly. Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. She Writes Press, 2014.

Erdich, Louise. The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Memoir of Early Motherhood. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Bydlowska, Jowita. Drunk Mom: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Feature image: Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown in the TV show of the same name. (Entertainment Weekly)