My Son is Perfect: How to Write (Honestly) About Our Kids

A recent book review in the New York Times began with this: “No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.”

That review reminds me that writing about mothering is just like mothering itself – fraught with judgement, whether it’s from family or neighbors or the media. It’s right up there with education as media’s go-to when we’re not in the midst of an election or scandal or disaster or tragedy.

And so, at the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference in March, I was happy to chair a panel of women who write about motherhood. Me, Kate Hopper, Caroline Grant, and Hope Edelman convened to give insights into how to write honestly about our own kids, about this job of motherhood.

So, what keeps us from writing honestly? Well, for one thing, fear. Fear of a reviewer like that. Fear of what others might say or think about us as writers and as mothers. Fear of what our kids will think of what we say about them, and what they’ll feel. Could we damage them for good with our words? And fear of what every mother fears: that we’re bad mothers.

Writing honestly about our kids requires, first of all, overcoming those fears.

Years ago I taught a Literature of Motherhood class that was rooted in the awareness that until recently most portrayals of mothering have been written by men. For most of literature’s life, wrote Helene Deutsch, “mothers don’t write, they are written.” This, says Susan Rubin Suleiman, is the underlying assumption of most psychoanalytic theories about writing and about artistic creation in general: the productivity of motherhood is believed to replace the urge to intellectual and artistic creation. In other words, either you create kids, or you create art.

The course I taught was a look at how contemporary writers who are actual mothers portray this most fraught subject. We read “The Language of the Brag” by Sharon Olds, Intrusions by Ursula Hegi, Mother Love by Rita Dove. We read Rosellen Brown and Adrienne Rich and Tillie Olsen. And the roomful of women breathed a sigh of recognition. But that was a roomful of women, mothers and mothers-to-be. How does it play outside the cloistered classroom of Women’s Studies in the larger realm of Literature?

So, even as we consider some techniques to write about motherhood in a way that I hope isn’t as terrible as the New York Times reviewer would call it (would that I ever had a review in the New York Times!) I want to first say that I often wonder if the level of critique isn’t biased when it’s an actual mother writing about mothers and their children.

And especially with nonfiction, it’s part of our cross to bear, isn’t it, that the critiques often get aimed not only at the writing but also at ourselves. A recent A Room of Her Own survey on women writers reminded me of a conversation I've had with some fellow mother-writers over the years - we keep having this uneasy feeling that women writers are judged differently especially when writing about parenting, that we're criticized for our parenting rather than critiqued for our writing.  So I wonder: do we ask more humility of mother writers than we do of, say, father writers? Is there a double standard?

And I also want to let you in on a fear that arises when I read, for example, Meg Wolitzer’sessay  in the New York Times Review of Books: “The Second Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary fiction?” I fear that writing about motherhood may, as some say about women’s writing in general (think chick lit), become simply a novelty, a lesser subcategory not taken seriously in the world of literature with a capital L.

That being said, we do have a habit, us mothers, of loving our children so unconditionally that we cannot see them as anything other than perfect. Ten fingers, ten toes, pure miracle. When writing about our kids, it’s hard not to brag. After all, one’s child is perfect, by definition of unconditional love. So as writers we need to pay special attention.

The first time I had a lesson in this was from a peer reviewer of my first memoir, The Heart of the Sound. During the course of the narrative, my son is born and grows to be five years old. I met up with a peer reviewer at a conference, and she came up to me and, in a whisper, said, “You know, Marybeth, you don’t have to keep telling us how precious James is. We get it.” And I had been overebullient in my prose about his perfect baby self, his curly blond locks and cherubic cheeks. Honest, maybe, but too ebullient. She was right.

So, beyond bravery, I’ve found that writing honestly and well about my kid is a matter, mostly, of space: a combination of closeness and distance.

Closeness is important because it’s essential to write it down as it happens. what they say and do. We think we’re going to remember, but we may not. This holds true for any writer of any subject, but parents in particular seem to believe they will always remember the way their toddler says helicopter for the first time, or the way their teenager looks when she first falls in love. But maybe not.

I can’t, for example, remember my son’s first steps. I know I was there, but I just don’t remember it. So we need to record the immediacy of the moment. As well, as Patricia Hamplso beautifully wrote in “Memory and Imagination,” memory is not terribly honest, and less so as time goes by.

Distance is equally vital. For their sake, and for our ability to see the forest rather than the trees, it’s best to let some time go by before writing about a certain period or event in our children’s lives. With time, it’s less likely that we’ll embarrass or otherwise harm our children.

I talked to a friend’s stepson at his high school graduation. My friend had just published a memoir in which his 6-7-8-year-old self featured prominently. I asked him what he thought and he said, “Oh, that was when I was just a little kid.” In other words, I’m not that person anymore. In other words, time moves differently for our kids than for us parents. Time moves more quickly away from who they no longer are.

That said, it is important to let our unconditional love guide us and talk to them (if they’re older) about what we’re up to, and be willing to let go of writing about something if they're uncomfortable with it. Writing about our kids, said Hope Edelman, “doesn’t trump but increases our need to protect them.”

Still, time is our best friend. If they say no, we just might ask them again in a few years.

Caroline Grant’s son was happy to see his name in print and was “apparently proud to have given his mother so much material.” Another child might feel differently. “One’s children,” she said, “are very unpredictable. So know your child.”

With time, we can see more clearly ourselves; we can put the event in context of what else was happening in our lives, the bigger picture. This alone makes us more honest.

In the early stages of writing, said Kate Hopper, it’s best to pretend that no one else will ever read what we’re writing. She often advises her students, “No one needs to see this.” We need to dive in, no holds barred, the blinking red light of the editor eye turned off, to get to the heat of the story - no matter how uncomfortable.

Often we find that our frames shift, and things that we worried about including don’t even make it into the final story. So, not until it is poised to be published do we need to carefully decide what is ethically safe to include. As Caroline said, “Write with freedom but edit with care.”

But when writing about our kids, we’re really writing about our relationship to them, that is, our mothering. “Ultimately,” said Caroline, “the person you expose in your writing is yourself.” And Kate noted that, “Motherhood writing that doesn’t work is often too focused on the child and doesn’t reflect on the relationship.”

So, besides overcoming those fears and letting closeness and distance do their magic, another important thing is to write honestly about ourselves as mothers.

Working on my new memoir about homeschooling and traveling with my son, I realized the book was missing what Terry Tempest Williams has called the story’s “underbelly.” That is, why was I the kind of mother I was? What drove me, what were my underlying motivations, the unconscious ones? I needed to explore my relationship with my own mother, even if none of that makes it into the memoir. So now I’m at work teasing this out, like a strand of a thin gold necklace at the bottom of a jewelry box, carefully, patiently.

Finally, it helps to remember that we are only writing our perspectives of the story. It’s not, says Hope, an absolute truth; it’s just our story. And we should also be prepared that our children may, as Hope experienced, start writing about us.

So we might be patient and kind to ourselves, especially considering the level of critique aimed at mothering books. That New York Times reviewer, who actually liked the book she was reviewing because it focused on the negative aspects of child-rearing, wrote: “To be fair, writing well about children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them.”

Well, THAT feels like an uphill climb. Yes, there's a craft to writing honestly (and not romantically) about our children, but there's also the double standard that I suspect makes mother writers either shy away from writing about certain things, or write about them more brusquely, with a layer of protective armor (often in the guise of humor) hiding the heart's truth.

I’d like to offer a challenge. I think there is in this an opportunity to carve out new territory – and the source is mothering itself.

 “The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist,” wrote Alicia Ostrikerin her essay “A Wild Surmise,” “is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption.”

In this immediate and inescapable contact, we can see what Fanny Howe called “the lock of dualism (it’s this or that)” as the illusion it is. We know, as mothers, from our daily reality, that life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to hold two seemingly opposing things at the same time. We have to embrace “this AND that.” We don’t live in an either/or world, but a both/and world.

This is a rich vein. In my memoir, I’m trying to work it. I’m melding mothering and the natural world, trying to get my words around this both/and world, trying to reawaken a sense of wonder in a 14-year-old boy through the lens of nature.

We might go back to Sharon Oldsand Alicia Ostriker. To Tillie Olsen’s“I Stand Here Ironing.” To Adrienne Rich. There’s nothing boring about giving birth. Nothing mind-numbing about dealing with your troubled teenager.  Sure, there are moments of boredom in parenting, but even firefighters spend lots of hours sitting around playing cards.

We can do this. There are strengths we gain as mothers that can be Herculean. Here’s what Barbara Washburn, who in 1947 became the first woman to ascend North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, had to say:

“Over the years many people have asked me how I trained for such a major climb. I tell them I didn’t train. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t run. I pushed a baby carriage. That’s how I got in shape for Mount McKinley.”



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  • Marybeth Holleman

    Thanks, Julie. Writing fiction is certainly one way to go. And sometimes, for writing a piece of nonfiction that feels scarey to approach, I've had students write it in third person ("she") so as to give a bit of distance that allows them to feel comfortable opening up to being as honest as possible.

  • Julie Christensen

    MaryBeth, Thank you for posting this wonderful essay.  It's triggered a lovely discussion in the comments, too!  In spite of some parental bragging among authors, there are also a lot of bloggers who write beautifully frank posts about the ups and downs of raising children.   I find these writers refreshing and courageous.  What mother doesn’t feel relief to hear that someone else handled a parenting challenge as badly as (or worse than) she did?  Even as a fiction writer, I’ve found writing about children to be like walking through a mind field.  Fictionalizing my own meltdowns and mistakes gives relief to readers who are parents like me but it also opens the door for attacks from that (probably) small group of perfect parents who think I am an absolute monster for screaming at my two year old for scribbling on my living room wall with permanent markers. 

  • Caryl

    I'll give that a try- writing as if no one will ever read it. I've gotten that advice before: "Just get it written," so maybe it's time to pay attention and do it. Honestly, though, I do hope it will be read someday by other parents dealing with the same baffling behavior my son displayed. And I understand that I can deal with protecting my son after I just get it written. Thanks!

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Kate, Thanks - yes, so important to remember, as Caroline said, "Write with freedom but edit with care." I've had so many students get stuck listening to their editor-selves before they've even written one word. Turn off the editor, and let it rip! Then later, much later, when you're ready to send it out, or even later than that when/if you get to yes with a publisher, then take care to see what you really want out in the world. The poet Ann Sexton first started writing on the advice of her therapist. Writing can be healing. Even if it is never read by anyone but you.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that you are always writing about relationship. Not about your son or daughter, but about your relationship with them, and therefore, ultimately, you are writing about yourself. In my memoir, the real transformation isn't with my son, but with my relationship with him, and this comes about through a transformation within me.


    So I encourage you, Caryl, to write what's deep in your heart, in your bones, and turn that editor off. Do it just for yourself first, and keep telling yourself, as Kate does her students, no one else ever needs to see this.


    Then see what happens.

  • Kate Hopper

    Marybeth, thanks so much for posting your wonderful talk. What a pleasure to be on a panel with such amazing writers. Caryl and Julie, I think it's helpful to make a distinction between writing and publishing. We can write whatever we want, whatever drives us to the page. I think it's critical to believe no one will ever see that writing while you're in the process of writing it. You only need to think about protecting people before you are ready to publish, and by then your essay/book might have morphed into something slightly different, and it doesn't feel so threatening. It's a tricky line to walk, because as parents we need to protect our children. But as writers, we need to put words down on the page. 

  • Julie Luek

    I think writing about motherhood would be so very difficult because it requires such a contradiction in values.  The need to be honest and transparent and the fierce, mother-bear instinct to protect and shield our kids from the eyes and judgment of the world. I could, perhaps, write honestly about myself as a mother-- it is just me at risk-- but would have a very difficult time when it came to pulling my children into the mix. I couldn't do it. 

  • Caryl

    I started a memoir about raising a son with Borderline Personality Disorder but abruptly stopped because he did and said some terrible things that I'm sure he wouldn't want the world to know about. I'm stuck. I have this undeniable urge to tell the story but an even greater love for my son. I don't want to pass it off as fiction- I think it would lose it's impact. I suppose I could change everyone's names? I have no illusions about writing a best-seller (I won't), but how do you sell a book if you don't want anyone to know who wrote it? (Now I'm picturing myself at book signings with a bag over my head.) 

  • Kathleen Varn

    I completely agree... know your child's public persona wishlist. I just posted a blog regarding my neglecting tooth fairy duty... but that's more on me, than him. In spite of the fact he used it to his benefit!

  • Marybeth Holleman


    Very good points. I went to a panel with Meg where the VIDA numbers were discussed. It's a challenge, and I think even more so when women WRITE about "women's issues" like - parenting. I went to another panel with some agents who pointed out - more than once - that it's no longer called "chick lit" but rather "women's writing." I look forward to the day when it's just called "writing."

    And I look forward to reading your book - what's the title? - and meeting you at AWP Seattle. I hope to be there.

  • Julia Fierro

    Marybeth, thank you so much for this smart, thorough, thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I feel like it was meant for me, which I always think it the best compliment a writer can receive. You make so many important points, and this one really resonated with me, because it is a fear I have:

    "And I also want to let you in on a fear that arises when I read, for example, Meg Wolitzer’sessay  in the New York Times Review of Books: “The Second Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary fiction?” I fear that writing about motherhood may, as some say about women’s writing in general (think chick lit), become simply a novelty, a lesser subcategory not taken seriously in the world of literature with a capital L."

    As a "literary" writer (the definition of which I am still struggling to understand) with a novel about parents to young children coming out in the Spring of 2014 via St. Martin's, this is definitely an issue I think of. Especially when I hear the term "mommy lit" or "mommy book" thrown around, as in, "God, not another mommy novel!" ;)

    But the point you made above is important in a larger way, I think. As women writers struggle in a pub world that is still unequal (see the VIDA count statistics), I often see women writers disparaging other women writers who, I assume they believe, are in a different genre, category, club. 

    I wish I had made it to your AWP panel - I heard from several NYC writers that it was enlightening. I'm hoping to be on a panel at AWP 2014 of writers discussing how motherhood has affected their writing lives, and vice versa. I hope we can meet then. Thank you again for this great post.

  • Marybeth, I thought I recognized that glacier in your profile photo! I spent a summer in Alaska as an undergrad, and have been back in the winter, too. Lucky you living in such a place.

  • Marybeth Holleman

    Gayle, glad you got to hear the whole panel. I was honored to be up there with three other such fine writers and mothers.

    Katherine, glad you liked the post. And looking forward to reading some of your mothering stories!


    And Deb, glad to see a fellow Alaska writer-mom here!

  • What a fabulous post. Thanks from another mother writer, one with a 3 1/2 year-old and baby on the way. I've written of mothering, but mostly with humor--I've not yet touched the serious. It may be time to.

  • gayle brandeis

    I was lucky enough to attend this panel at AWP--it was so fabulous. Wonderful to be able to see your talk here now; thank you so much for posting it.

  • Deb Vanasse

    Great post, to see it featured here!