Exploring the art of prose


Mother-Writers Are Writers

Image is a color photograph of a moss-covered tree; title card for the new critical essay, "Mother-Writers Are Writers," by Ann Guy.


By Ann Guy •

Wading through a sea of blond hair and blue eyes every day felt normal in the tiny, rural Western Michigan town where I grew up. So did biking to the public library and loading up my basket with books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury, which featured white kids in white towns (even on future Mars, the human kids were white). As the only nonmixed Asian girl in my elementary, middle, and high school, I didn’t bat an eye at the lack of representation in my environment and my books.

I was a rising junior in college before I read a book with an Asian protagonist, which the older sister of my then-boyfriend sent to me. His sister worked for Houghton Mifflin at the time, and she had edited Finding My Voice, which is considered the first young adult book featuring an Asian-American protagonist. The author, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, is a Korean-American woman who was raised in a small mining town in Minnesota.

I inhaled the book in one sitting. Its mere existence told me that my reality as a young Asian-American woman was worthy of notice. That there was at least one other person (besides my older sister) who knew exactly how I felt. That maybe now there were also white girls reading the book who might know exactly how I felt. It was 1992.

Now, as a writer, reader, and mother of young kids, I continue to search for connection with others like me—and unlike me—through words. I recently discovered a trove of books by writer parents—not parenting books, but literary work that plumbs their life experiences to ask thoughtful questions and tell profound stories. I breathed in the unabashed self-portrait and sly humor in Sarah Manguso’s 2015 memoir Ongoingness: The End of a Diary; unfurled with Clint Smith in his 2023 book of poetry, Above Ground; ached for home in Kelly McMasters’s 2023 memoir in essays, The Leaving Season; and cackled at the acerbic wit of Rachel Cusk’s 2001 memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. There are many, many more, enough to fill a reading list as lengthy as the maturation period of a human child, depending on the reader and the child.

The landscape of many literary journals has a different shape, however. It’s rare to find essays in lit journals that mention children, much less the writer’s own offspring. While reading through more than a dozen journals’ online issues—journals which are commonly regarded as top markets—I found only four essays where the writer copped to being a parent. One on the power of water in a woman’s conversion to Catholicism, her writing, and her son’s fear. Another in which a father opens to the possibility that the act of reproduction might also be an act of mourning. A third that brings a father under COVID lockdown to Sesame Street with his toddler while the world outside erupts in death, racial violence, and wildfires. And finally, a lyric essay that is a meditation on loss and absence focused through the lens of motherhood, which won the Southeast Review’s Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest in 2021.

Thank God, Odin, Margaret Atwood, or whomever you worship, then, for the pages of Literary Mama, Mom Egg Review, Motherwell, MUTHA Magazine, and similar journals, where mothers, fathers, stepparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, birth parents, and everyone in between share their vision and craft with the world. Like that first YA book featuring an Asian girl that I read three decades ago, these writers’ searing, vulnerable words feel like a conversation, an assurance, a mirror held up to reveal my own wavery reflection. For if one purpose of writing is to cast new light on shared experiences, then caregivers who read—all sixty-three million of us in the United States who are living with kids under the age of eighteen—need caregivers who write. Are we not all searching for the same things: answers, comfort, and a sense that we aren’t completely alone?

Artists and Mothers: Venn Diagram

In her 2015 essay in Harper’s Magazine, “The Mother of All Questions,” Rebecca Solnit tells us that a woman’s reproductive status has no bearing on her work as a writer. This idea feels simultaneously true and untrue. True in that a woman’s choice not to have kids isn’t central to her creative work. Untrue because the creative work of writers who do have kids is impacted in a thousand different ways by that choice—in terms of our experience, our environment, our creative time, and our intellectual framework. Unless we build a mental berm, motherhood can also bleed into our subject matter.

Solnit writes that many women become mothers, but not many women become great writers. I worry she is implying that because motherhood is ubiquitous, there’s nothing original or creative about it. This idea is one that overpowers me when I feel trapped by the tedium of packing lunches, extricating tiny boxer briefs from inside-out pant legs, or picking up socks that my middle schooler leaves around the house like she’s Hansel dropping clues of his whereabouts.

But the reality is that the work of being a parent is creative work, and not just in a biological sense. Cultivating decent, interesting human beings, minute by sometimes endless minute, absolutely requires imagination (although childrearing usually takes a lot longer than a writing project—unless you’re J. R. R. Tolkien and your book is The Lord of the Rings, which if it had been human, would have been applying for college by the time it was published).

As prodigious as her intellect, ideas, and experiences are, Solnit cannot truly know what it’s like to be a mother, just as I cannot know what my life would have been if I hadn’t had a child a dozen years ago. Likely, I would have read more books, skied more mountains, drunk more alcohol, had more sex, and gotten more stamps in my passport. Maybe I’d still be living in my golden apartment in San Francisco, taking belly dancing lessons, listening to drunk people stumble past my window at 2 a.m., and lounging on the grass in Dolores Park while marijuana smoke wafts over me. Possibly, I’d be writing about making eye contact with a snow monkey as it soaks in a Japanese hot spring, kayaking between ethereal blue icebergs in the Arctic, digging deep wells in Senegal, or trekking the length of the Great Wall of China.

Would I miss something I’d never had? The warmth of their bodies curled against my chest during afternoon naps. Months and years of holding their hands in mine as we walked under canopies of cherry blossoms, sprinted from frothy ocean waves, and skirted the undulating shores of Lake Merritt. Witnessing two humans change day by day from tiny, squirming bundles of skin, bone, and want into self-propelled beings of sinew, intuition, and daydreams. The teaching and learning. How would I comprehend any of this?

I think I would have found other things to love.

But I’ve made my bed, and now I must lie in the domestic labor that comes with the territory of keeping small humans clothed, fed, and reasonably clean. The year after Solnit’s essay came out, Kim Brooks, a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, published an eloquent essay in The Cut about the incompatibility of parenthood that seeks safety and predictability and the artist’s life that is defined by risk and pushing boundaries.

Brooks builds a good case, but there’s no single definition of what makes a parent or an artist, and parenthood isn’t all about going to soccer games and cooking dinner (speaking as someone who avoids both like Neo in his leather duster, dodging a hail of bullets). Moreover, since the day I got whisked into an emergency cesarean section, buried in a crowd of medical workers speaking urgently about my unborn child’s sluggish heartbeat, motherhood has felt inherently risky.

Now, every time my kids step out the front door, I have to trust that the SUVs accelerating up the steep road in front of our house will come to a full stop at the top of the hill. I must trust everyone who comes in contact with my children—the teachers, conductors, librarians, coaches, and, oh my lord, other parents. And I have to trust myself, which is the most frightening prospect of all.

Neither is art all about struggle and life on the cusp. Consider Ross Gay’s incredible success with his 2019 flash essay collection about beauty, gratitude, and connection in the world, The Book of Delights. This book is so blatantly happy and widely read that he received blowback asking what a Black man was doing writing about gardens. Enough criticism, in fact, to prompt him to write a rebuttal in his 2022 follow-up essay collection, Inciting Joy. There are as many ways to make art as there are artists.

The Question of Time

One universal aspect about being a writer is that, in most cases, we must train ourselves to decouple what is valuable from what is monetized, and must often pay for the privilege of doing so, one Submittable fee at a time. As a parent, the intangibility of the benefits of art-making can make spending time on it seem selfish. Without kids, you could have a day job and make art outside of that job. With kids, it feels like there is no such thing as “outside of your job”—you are either giving time to your children or taking it away from them.

But there’s a question of need and relative importance. In an interview I conducted with McMasters last spring about her memoir in essays and the practice of writing while parenting, she said running out of toilet paper means you’ve spent your time on what really matters. Maybe that Target run for more Tide PODS can wait. Over time, I hope to commit more of my precious hours to writing instead of the invisible work of hemming my daughter’s jeans, filling out medical forms for sleepaway camp, or planning elaborate birthday parties. I want to protect my writing time and not fall asleep wondering what I’ve done with my day. Extrapolating forward through years and decades, maybe I will also avoid lying on my deathbed wondering what I’ve done with my life.

After all, as Annie Dillard writes in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives…. A schedule is…a net for catching days…it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” I want family in my lifeboat, but also books and nebulae and community and my favorite pen gliding over a smooth piece of paper like Michelle Kwan doing a change of edge spiral.

Maybe balancing art-making with domestic life is like juggling anything—running a bike touring company, designing the next generation of solar cell technologies, or delivering humanitarian medical care—and life outside of that thing. When it comes to parents who write, I think symbiosis is a more productive model than thinking of art and the rest of life as separate pursuits. As Leslie Jamison writes in her 2024 memoir Splinters, as an artist she wishes to emulate her own mother, who modeled a way of “crafting a self that understood work and motherhood as forces that could feed rather than starve each other.”

The domestic sphere can often open new portals, bringing heightened awareness to life’s constant movement and change. Metaphors abound in the incidental and monumental, in a monarch caterpillar carried home in a glass jar with holes punched into the lid. Witness how it forms a milky green chrysalis with a line of gold dots across the top, within which it will entirely dissolve in order to become something entirely new. One life two ways.

Moreover, as McMasters writes in her 2021 essay “Finding Home: On the Journey Back to Writing as a Single Mother” in Literary Hub, time may not be the zero-sum game it sometimes appears to be. For her, carving out hours away from her jobs as a university professor and single mother to coedit and contribute to an anthology about the concept of home brought her back to her creative self and filled her with joy that spread to every other area of her life, including parenting. Just as discontent in one area can tinge other areas of one’s life, so too can delight.

The Relationship Between Pressure and Depth

Rachel Cusk writes, “My experience of…culture was profoundly changed by having a child, in the sense that I found the concept of art and expression far more involving and necessary, far more human in its drive to bring forth and create, than I once did.” It’s elementary physics. Engineers, scuba divers, or anyone who has retrieved goggles from the bottom of a swimming pool can tell you that pressure and depth are directly related.

As a parent, the decisions you make about who and how to be in the world seem to carry extra weight: When your child tells you that his teacher made a transphobic comment in class. When your daughter asks why there are tents under the Highway 580 overpass, and why you didn’t give money to the lady holding a baby on her lap at the bottom of the off-ramp. When your kid looks up from a graphic novel to say, apropos of nothing, “Mommy? I think the planet is going to be really different when I’m your age.” There’s an almost daily reckoning that is triggered by everything from your language use to your consumption habits. You have to decide where you stand, where you draw the line, because the people you brought into the world will live with the consequences of your choices long after you’re gone.

The questions my kids ask often appear simple, and the values I try to instill in them seem straightforward, but it is precisely their fundamental nature—their virtual invisibility to my adult self—that forces me to think when I respond with answers and reasons. To look again. To reframe. As a writer, constantly encountering the potential to alter the trajectory—mine, theirs, all of ours—is often an impetus to pick up my pen. It all seems so damn important.

Finding My Voice

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The dearth of parent voices in so many literary journals is not for lack of material, talent, or relevance. For the writers of the books and essays I read, rather than parenthood dulling and clouding their sight, it offered them new vision as if a nictitating membrane had been drawn back. Loss, fear, mortality, belonging, and hope dwell in this work. If another purpose of writing and reading is to broaden perspectives and show the beauty and pain of a life that is different yet resonant with ours, then everyone—be they parents or childfree readers—needs these words.

So I keep writing. I keep sending my work out. I think a falling tree makes a sound even if there’s no one to hear it. But the sharp crack of wood, the oceanic rush of splintering branches as the trunk faints through the forest canopy—that wonder is worthy of attention.


ANN GUY is a writer and recovering engineer who was born in the Philippines, grew up among the cornfields and cow patties of Western Michigan, and now lives in Oakland, California. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction in 2020 and her MA in English with creative writing in fiction in 2018 from San Francisco State University, where she received a distinguished graduate award from both programs. Her writing and interviews have appeared in River Teeth (Beautiful Things), Sweet Lit, Entropy, MUTHA Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Literary Mama, Motherwell, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a historical and speculative fiction novel about migration, loss, and kinship. Find her on Twitter @annsy0.


Featured image by Todd Diemer, courtesy of Unsplash.