Poets as Parents: Girls Against Boys (Again)

I was reading Kelli's post earlier this week about parenthood and career considerations, and since then I've been thinking a lot about these issues.

I noted in Kelli's comment section about how it really irritates me that we hear so much about "working mothers" and nothing about "working fathers." This exposes two main assumptions about (mainly white, middle class) heterosexual gender roles: first, that all men work; and secondly, that not all women should. I say this because media spin bias is decidedly against the experience of the working mother:

Consider advertising, which, to me, is a goldmine of our cultural values. Instead of the typical 80s mom--"Dr. Mom," homemaker, etc--we have Working Super Mom. She comes home, diagnoses her kids ailments, outsmarts her husbands attempts to avoid housework or child-rearing, gets dinner on the table, and pays her online bills while running her after-jogging bath.

This cultural expectation for women is unfortunate. Instead of merely breaking through a glass ceiling, they end up being the porter of all the family baggage in addition to her own career concerns. Women didn't trade the kitchen for the boardroom; they took it with them.

Conversely, depictions of men--especially fathers--often show them in the home as bumbling, well-intentioned but ultimately impotent clods.

One question you might be asking is how come a woman's identity becomes inextricably linked with motherhood when she gives birth, but fathers are still just men?

It's because our culture wants to make sure that women are dragging their Kitchen Aid into their cubes.

Now, on to poetry. Ron Silliman's post the other day about his twins really surprised me. I don't recall reading a poem by a man about his kids--at least, not kids that were still living--so, to hear Ron frankly discuss not only raising children but also how parenthood was impacting his poetry was a real jolt.

It shouldn't have been. We should hear these things all the time, but we don't. Why isn't Ron writing more about this in his blog? A variety of reasons, perhaps, but among them perhaps is that he doesn't feel pressured or encouraged to do so.

Right now I'm reading Bernadette Meyer's Midwinter's Day, which contains a long sequence of prose paragraphs that describe the dailyness of motherhood and daughterhood--the constant surprises a child's imagination offers about clocks, breakfast, coloring walls in crayon, etc.

I've read several essay by women wherein they discuss how having children imposes upon them a restriction in writing poetry, so many poet-mothers begin writing shorter pieces, "when they find snippets of time to write." I see no evidence of this in Meyer's work, which was purportedly written over the course of a single day.

What interests me about Meyer's work is how closely connected her narrator is to the dailyness of parenting. The list in her poem is very exhaustive. It occurs to me that the parent poetry I've read by men is more concerned with moments, not routine. Men (grossly generalizing here) seem more interested in monuments, benchmarks, and events as opposed to process.

In any case, it's unfortunate to me that there is such a broad split between men and women who write poetry and raise children together. It seems like American poetry is missing out on some important male perspectives and ghettoizing women into specific categories.

Thoughts? Responses? Reading suggestions?


  1. Charles,
    Great topic. This ghetto is slowly changing and largely due to health care benefits. I know several stay-at home-dads who are home with the kids because their wives have better health care benefits. More importantly women poets (women anything, for that matter) need to make time for their writing. I do. I don't wait for snippets. I have my time to write and my husband respects that, we agree that I am more than a mother. I love being a mother, it's the most rewarding experience I've ever had, yet it's easy to get caught in the motherhood maddonna mode--because society puts so much pressure on mothers to be 'perfect' with little support, actually no support. The most important thing is to remember that you're raising children to be independent, these children have their own lives before you know it, much sooner than you would expect. And that makes you a successful parent if you think about it, but I digress. Happy mothers are those that keep some semblence of their indvidual selves going--tougher than it sounds. A good book is "Misconceptions," by Naomi Wolfe. There's a lot of truth in it, I found myself nodding through most of it (I had my first son at 21, a hasty and disaster of a marriage.) and Wolfe made me realize how important your choice in partner is, how lucky I felt that I found and married Jim who is a wonderful father *and* husband. Some of what she proposes to 'fix' the current situation is a little OTT imo, but as I said I think the healthcare mess is taking care of that. My goodness, did I go on and on or what? *lol* Apparently, this topic hit close to home.

  2. addendum: this probably too much information, but hey you asked...

    I did have trouble finding time to write when I was nursing Jack. I exclusively nursed and was exhausted, it's very demanding on the body. The other time I have trouble writing is when I'm expecting--some women go through this...losing the desire to write and others become even more creative. I'm going to try to at least to be aware and make an effort this time around. It should be easier since the nursery and baby stuff is still in use and I won't get carried away by baby fever. (wink)

  3. Suzanne, I really appreciate your thoughts and responses here. Do you write about your child? Have you ever wanted to or considered it?

  4. Yes, I do Charles. I have about half a dozen poems about my oldest son and I have two poems about 'my daughter'. (I don't have a daughter.) I even have a poem that mentions my granddaughter. Ha! Also a very corny (sentimental) poem about my most recent baby that will never see the light of day, but I'm happy that I wrote it anyway. I hope you get a lot of responses. (from father's too)

  5. There's Yeats's "A Prayer for My Daughter." I feel that Li-Young Lee has written a lot about fatherhood, though I'm too lazy to search for a specific poem. Mark Jarman's new book closes with "Prayer for Our Daughters" and I believe several other poems take on a "fatherly" tinge.

    Perhaps the problem is with male poets who don't survive/stay sober/stay around long enough to write about their children. There is definitely no shortage of poetry about fathers.

  6. "Women didn't trade the kitchen for the boardroom; they took it with them."

    Great comment! My new quote of the year...

  7. Obviously this is something weighing on my mind as well. Silly me thought I wouldn't have to cross this bridge until I actually had the child, but just being pregnant has made writing more difficult. And my jewelry side business has been put on hold since the summer. Exhaustion from anemia and my shift in priorities are serious hurdles. It's not so much time as having the energy. I've had to prioritize in ways I didn't expect. At least not this soon. Writing poems and editing No Tell are must dos. Everything else (reviewing books, writing essays, taking jewelry orders), hopefully in due time.

    I always try to be hopeful that I can strike a balance and tell myself I have it easier than many other women because my husband has always been supportive and is more than willing take on some of the traditionally female resposibilites. He's going to do a lot of the cooking and is going to try to work two half days per week from home. But he's biologically limited. He hasn't been able to carry the fetus for one second (I joke about his great sacrafice of sperm) and he'll never be able to breast feed and there's probably a long list of other things we'll discover it just makes more sense for me to take care of. So that eats into the "creative" time of the mother in ways it doesn't for the father. I envision I'll be making sacrafices on both ends and the more I think about it, the better I feel about that. Today, at least.

    There are a lot of biases against certain types of mothers. It depends who you ask. I know a lot of professional men my age that look at stay-at-home mom's with disdain and would be disappointed if that's what their wives decided to do. If she's not working and putting her child in daycare, she's merely a breeder with little to offer society except cooking dinner and wiping asses. They have "Working Super Mom" expectations of all women.

    Then there's other side that sets up women who work outside the home as selfish, the "you've had your career for five years, now time to grow up and raise your children."

    I've also had male friends (in the past, not while I was pregnant) try to discourage me from ever having children. They considered me fun and a peer and feared what I'd be like as a lame mommy obesessed with poop and lactation. Mommies are the height of uncool. Mommies are tunnel-visioned and uninteresting.

    Frankly it's all sad commentary.

    I don't feel pressured to write about my upcoming motherhood. Actually I have more self-imposed pressure not to write about it. I simply find it difficult not to because it's constantly on my mind. In fact, I recall writing in October "This won't be become the baby blog" and looking over these past few months, well, it sort of has become the baby blog.

  8. "One question you might be asking is how come a woman's identity becomes inextricably linked with motherhood when she gives birth, but fathers are still just men?"

    I think we tend to do this because the mother has all the biological and physical changes and has to be the one to breastfeed, etc. Personally, I had no idea how exhausting it would be to create a little person. My husband can't sleep for me; I have to sleep more and that takes time from my writing. The hormones themselves have had an effect on my emotions and thoughts. Hormones are like a drug. Why we link women to motherhood is also due to the stereotypical mother image of comfort and security that we see in ads and literature.

  9. Yeah, what Deb said . . . although I don't think we can blame the media every time a little kid with a tummy ache, somersaults over his father so he can get to his mother in time to barf on her. Sometimes you can't blame dudes for not wanting a piece of that action.

  10. Actually, since I don't write poems "about" whatever, you won't find those kinds of poems in my work. Also, there tends to be (literally) a multi-year (sometimes as much as ten) gap between what I'm working on in notebooks and what I'm publishing & my kids are only 13. But in fact they're in all of my writing over the past 13 years.

    If Zukofsky's writing of Paul (let alone Niedecker's writing about the same Paul) doesn't give a male poet permission to write about his kids, nothing ever will.

  11. Are you going to teach a feminist class? This is the best thing I have read in a long time. I love the topic and I hope you bring a bit of it over to LJ for us non-bloggers.

    All of your friends also had some great stuff to say. I am very impressed.

  12. Ron, I wasn't addressing your work in this post; I mainly mentioned you because your blog entry was so beautifully parental that I realized how rarely I read poetry of parenthood from men. This is not to say that men don't ever write about being fathers, but I safely hazard that men approach it much differently than mothers--er, women. I agree that since you don't write "about" things, as you say, it wouldn't be a good idea to factor your poetic work into this discussion.