GUEST BLOG POST: Our Mothering Lives: Getting Them Down on Paper by Kate Hopper
Motherhood has been the subject of my writing since my daughter, Stella, was born prematurely ten years ago. Stella spent a month in the hospital, and the very long winter months that followed at home with me. And for the first time in my life I felt desperate for words. I craved stories that would reflect some of the conflicted emotions I was experiencing as an isolated new mother, and I knew that I also needed to get the details of my new reality down on the page.
Stella was five months old when I finally began to write again. One evening, I went to the coffee shop by our house and pulled out paper and a pen. But instead of returning to the half-finished pieces I had been writing before Stella’s birth, I started to write about the single most life-changing experience of my life: becoming a mother. I began with an image: my daughter, writhing on white blankets, beamed from the NICU into the television set in my hospital room days after she was born. As soon as that image was down on paper, other images followed. After an hour, there were tears in my eyes, and words covering the page. And for the first time since Stella was born, the world felt a little bigger, and I felt a little less alone.
In the following weeks, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and hospitalization, and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded; I was doing the only thing I knew how to do to make sense of what happened to me, to us—I was writing.
In the introduction to their anthology Mothers: Twenty Stories of Contemporary Motherhood, Kathleen Hirsch and Katrina Kenison write, “It takes courage to write about motherhood in a culture that sets women with children on the sidelines, and it takes even greater courage to give voice to the powerful emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface of our daily lives, informing and shaping our relationships with our children and the world at large.”
We all have stories to tell. Whether we tell these stories is another question. It does take courage to write about motherhood, to describe our lives with children and explore our roles as mothers, to “give voice to the emotions and fears that swirl deep beneath the surface” of our daily lives. But the power in these stories, and in getting them down and sharing them with one another, cannot be underestimated.
But how do you get started writing your motherhood stories?
I think the easiest place to begin writing your mother stories is with a detail, an image. It was with one or two sensory details that I began writing Ready for Air: the image of my daughter on a blanket on her open warming bed; the sickly-sweet smell of the NICU. These are the details that helped me dive into my narrative.
Concrete, sensory details are details that arise from our senses: sound, taste, smell, touch, sight. These are the details that allow us to step into an author’s world, to feel as though we are walking in her shoes. When I wrote about the first time I saw Stella in the NICU two days after she was born, I could have written: “I stare down at my tiny baby and feel sick to my stomach.” Instead, I wrote this:
I look down at her, and my stomach or chest—something in my center—tightens. A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web.
I take a deep breath. This cannot be my baby. This is not how it’s supposed to happen. I look up, around the large room: nurses hovering over incubators, monitors beeping, alarms sounding. Through the windows at the end of the room the sky is blue, bright fall blue. How can that be? How can my baby be here, in this place? How can the sun be shining outside?
I hope these paragraphs allow the reader to enter the NICU and stand with me over the frame of my tiny daughter. I must assume that most readers haven’t had a premature baby, and it’s my job as a writer to ground my writing with enough detail so a reader can experience at least a little of that world.
Now it’s your turn:
Think about the time when your child (or one of your children) was born, when s/he first arrived home, or even before he or she was born. If you adopted your child, maybe you want to focus on the first time you saw his/her photo. Is there a certain smell, sound, taste, texture, or picture that comes to mind? Start with that. Write it down. What other concrete details do you remember? Let your mind wander. Jump from image to image. Try to use as many sensory, concrete details as you can. Don’t pick up your pen—just keep moving it across the paper—and don’t worry about grammar or spelling.
If those early days and months feel too far removed, choose another period in your child’s life that seemed particularly vivid to you, and begin writing details from that time.
It’s never too late to start writing about motherhood. One of the wonderful things about writing is that the more you write, the more you remember, so don’t worry if you’re having troubling remembering scenes; you can write your way back into your memories. Now grab your laptop or and pen and paper!
Kate Hopper is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Brevity, Literary Mama, The New York Times online, and Poets & Writers. She teaches Motherhood & Words online and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Kate also leads retreats and workshops for mothers interested in writing. For more information about Kate’s writing, retreats and classes, visit www.katehopper.com.