The “Mother List”

Write what you know

Author Louise Erdrich, a mother of six, has been quoted as saying, “Every female writer starts out with a list of other female writers in her head. Mine includes, quite pointedly, a mother list." A "mother list" serves as inspiration for writers who are mothers. As a celebration of writer moms on Mother's Day, and as a gift to them, here is one such list.

Mama writers, this one's for you! (Illustration for BSR by Hannah Kaplan)

Babies on board

In 2013, writer Lauren Sandler rocked the literary world with an article in the Atlantic postulating that “the secret to being both a successful writer and a mother” is to “have just one kid.” Sandler based this theory on the fact that most of her favorite authors, such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Margaret Atwood, were mothers of only children.

Successful authors such as Jane Smiley, mother of five, and Zadie Smith, mother of two, quickly refuted Sandler. As evidence, Smith cited Nicole Krauss, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, and others — all moms of multiple children. Smith also pointed out Sandler's gender bias, asking, "Are four children a problem for writer Michael Chabon, or just for his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman?"

The truth is that literary history, including Philadelphia-area literary history, is rich with successful women writers who had not just one but many children. Bucks County resident and prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, for instance, was the mother of eight children: a daughter she birthed in 1921 and seven more children she adopted over time. Contemporary Philadelphia writers who are authors of multiple books and mothers of multiple children include Diane McKinney-Whetstone, a mom of twins, and New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner.

Poet Anne Bradstreet. (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Poet Anne Bradstreet. (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

As a writer and mom of three now-grown sons, what I find ultimately inspiring about a mother list is the simple but (to me) profound fact that so many well-known and successful women authors are or were mothers. That information has often been hidden from public view.

A dirty secret

In the early United States, a woman writing was considered scandalous, an affront to society and moral challenge to the status quo of women at home, men at the helm. When Anne Bradstreet’s book of poems, The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America, by a Gentlewoman of those parts, was published in 1650 — Bradstreet having had seven of her eventual eight children — her brother-in-law saw the need to write an introduction certifying that not only was Bradstreet the poems’ true author but also that she had kept up her housekeeping while writing them. Bradstreet herself assumed a pose of self-deprecation toward her achievement, claiming she deserved not the traditional laurel wreath awarded to men but rather a wreath of kitchen-garden parsley.

The fear of public censure in these times was immense. Bradstreet had seen her best friend, Anne Hutchinson, challenge the patriarchy and be banished to the wilderness, where she and many of her children subsequently died. No wonder many women of this time used male pseudonyms. But hiding one's womanhood naturally resulted in hiding one's motherhood as well. As a result, many of us are unaware of past authors who were also mothers.

Zadie Smith, author and mom. (Photo by Kathye Fetsko Petrie)
Zadie Smith, author and mom. (Photo by Kathye Fetsko Petrie)

Today most women are free to be writers without creating a scandal, fearing banishment, or needing to disguise their identity. Nevertheless, highlighting a female writer’s gender can be seen as politically incorrect, or at least irrelevant. Men who write are never referred to as “man authors” but simply as “authors.”  Authors who are women want the same. Additionally, authors who are men rarely note their fatherhood in the bios on their book jackets and websites (Chabon being one exception). Women who write — perhaps in an effort to be taken more seriously — often follow suit. The practice perpetuates the illusion that authors who are women have no children. One is frequently surprised to learn otherwise.

"Nevertheless, they persisted"

Like Louise Erdrich, I have been compiling my own mother list over the years. My list includes women with any number of children. Many writers, male and female, are my heroes, but women writing while raising children are particularly so because I know they have encountered much of the same emotional and time challenges I have, and nevertheless they persisted. Their successes sustain me with the message: "I got my writing work done while raising children; you can too."

In the spirit of encouraging my fellow writer moms of one or many children —and, indeed, all writing parents — here is a small portion of my mother list. Below are the names of 10 well-known historic authors followed by 10 well-known contemporary authors who not only wrote books while raising children but also, in 9 of these 20 cases (I put asterisks after their names) won Pulitzer Prizes for their work. You may want to add your own favorites to this list and keep it taped above your desk. Happy Mother’s Day, and happy writing!

Historic authors who were mothers

• Anne Bradstreet (8)

• Pearl S. Buck (8)*

• Laura E. Howe Richards (7)*

• Kate Chopin (6)

• Kay Boyle (6)

• Shirley Jackson (4)

• Ida B. Wells-Barnett (4)

• Phyllis Wheatley (3)

• Harriet Jacobs (2)

• Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1)

 Contemporary authors who are mothers

• Jacquelyn Mitchard (9)

• Shirley Ann Grau (6) *

• Jane Smiley (5) *

• Annie Proulx (4) *

• Ursula Le Guin (3)

• Anna Quindlen (3) *

• Jhumpa Lahiri (2)*

• Toni Morrison (2)*

• Anne Tyler (2)*

• Anne Lamott (1)

Our readers respond

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on May 12, 2017

Erma Bombeck: three children.

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