Know The Mother Tells The Motherhood Stories You Don't Hear
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Justin Milhouse
This collection of powerful short stories displays motherhood’s hard truths without judgment.
A dark anticipation lurks between each letter and every word in Know The Mother, a collection of flash fiction written by Desiree Cooper. (Cooper is a former attorney and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, and a mother of two adult kids, ages 24 and 27.) The pieces are short—no more than 1,000 words—but pack an emotional heft as readers follow women and their families through moments that will haunt them (and us) long after we turn the page.
Motherhood is the lens through which Cooper explores racism, sexism, class, mental health, family, and identity—and it’s a far darker (read: more realistic) rendering than what we’re used to seeing. There’s the expecting career woman who in one night experiences two interlopers threatening the safety and security of her home. There’s the mother married to a soldier standing firm against insinuations that she’s a prostitute in World War II Japan when older women see what's in her stroller. And there’s the cash-strapped woman, floundering under the judgmental glares of people at a grocery store and her kids’ screeches and demands.
There’s a reason for that. Cooper explains why we need more realistic stories about motherhood, how being a mom brings racism and sexism to “our doorstep,” and why we need to know our mothers before it’s too late.
How did your relationship with your mother inform Know the Mother?
My mother and I were very, very close growing up. Even as a teenager, I didn’t have a lot of those clashes that mothers and daughters often have. I think a strain started coming in my early 20s when I started to grow in my consciousness as a woman. I called her and said, “Hey mom, I got into law school!” and she goes, “Well, did you get your teaching certificate?” Teaching is fabulous, but she was defaulting to that. It wasn’t out of her joy for the profession, it was, like, "You’re a woman, you need to teach."
We grew in consciousness together. We became feminists together. As I grew, I think that influenced her thinking. I don't know if I've been able to convert her necessarily, but she is extremely patient and tolerant of my choices and beliefs.
She really saw herself as born to be a mother, and I was the beneficiary of that compassion [and] love she had for mothering. And so that was a tremendous gift to me.
But when I became a mother, it also became a curse. Because guess what stuck in my head? Fresh meals three times a day, high tops are polished white every day, the shoestrings are washed... That's in my head when I'm trying to be a lawyer. [Laughs]
When I became a mother, the gender roles became hugely important and oppressive.
So I found motherhood to be extremely difficult to live up to her standards of what it took to be a mother. I was grateful that I ended up raising my kids two doors down from my mother-in-law and not my mom. My mother-in-law was the mother of seven children, and she was much more laissez-faire, much more “They’ll figure it out,” much more, "You don’t have to do all that." And that was a tremendous relief for me to see another version of loving mothering that wasn't as all consuming as my mother's version of it.
Motherhood is the unifying experience in each of the stories. What made you want to make motherhood the prism you used to explore things like racism and sexism in this story collection?
In my life experience, motherhood is what brought all those -isms screaming to my doorstep. Until then, you have these isolated things and you kind of roll with it, or you get over it. When I became a mother, the gender roles became hugely important and oppressive. The issues around race became much more... I don't know. You kind of become inured to racism, like you know that's the water you swim in your whole life, but what does that mean for your child when your children are experiencing it?
It was experiencing it at a very different level, and so those became huge issues because I took on that role as a mother in ways that I don't know if they would've played exactly the same had I never had children.
Many of the stories seems to be a snapshot that expresses what informs the woman as a mother and person. Do you think motherhood changes women, and if so, how and why?
Another thing that comes out in many of the stories is how women as people are sublimated to the role of mother, and how that's not an easy thing to live with. It's assumed that once you give birth, your whole world becomes your child and it's such a happy thing to provide for that child, to always put the child first—you never have another desire outside of the well-being of the child.
I remember an adult friend of mine saying, "My mother loves doing my laundry." This guy was in his 20s, and I'm like, "Really?" I think that that’s what changes. And that's why I say, motherhood brings that sexism home in a way that is so profound. And when your children are sexist toward you—that’s something that doesn’t always happen when it comes to racism.
I think what happens is it changes you as a person. I feel like many women feel at war with [themselves]. I say often I was jealous of my own children. My children were getting this fabulous day at the zoo when Desiree maybe wanted to have been curling up with a book. And Desiree always lost. Or [even] just going back to work! I didn’t like newborns, I didn’t like maternity leave. That might have been great for the child and I was grateful as a woman that I worked somewhere where I had maternity leave, but I could not wait to go back to work. I felt fulfilled at work, but you never work the same way again when you have a child. It’s profoundly transformative, and not necessarily in a healthy way for the essential person that a woman is.
There’s a darkness present in each of the stories. Was there a reason why you went that way instead of the “this is the most beautiful experience a woman can ever have” narrative?
I have this big argument with the term "postpartum depression." I know I have to let the doctors do their thing and explain this on a biological level, but it’s really mind-blowing to me. I had a normal birth, nothing went wrong. [But] I experienced it as trauma. Then [you‘re] handling a newborn that's going to be up every two hours. You've been through, at the best, a jarring physical experience, then you're sleep deprived, and then you’re not allowed to be unhappy or express any range of emotion past this blessed bundle and blessed motherhood? I mean, that is... What else are people supposed to do but just kind of sink into a hole and feel like, "What is going on? What is happening to me?" [Laughs] It's a terrible set up.
[I've] read older stories and some of the more ancient cultures have a tradition of women separating themselves from the tribe and community as new mothers and [had] other women surrounding them constantly. We've lost that as a modern society, but I’m thinking there was some wisdom in there about [being around] other women who've been through this—who know what the changes feel like and how the person needs as much love as the newborn. There's something missing there.
It opens the arms toward women who don’t have the tradition
And that's why you wanted to include that narrative in Know The Mother?
You don’t write what is, you write what’s missing. What's missing in the narrative is the whole story. That doesn’t make it good or bad, or less amazing to be a mother and give birth—it just makes it a more complete experience. It opens the arms toward women who don’t have the traditional narrative as their narrative. Plenty of women do not want to look at or hold [their newborn] child, plenty of them don’t fall in love with their babies right away. All kinds of narratives are out there that we don't hear about, so those women feel like there’s something wrong with them or they feel alienated or [ask] “Why me?” They don't understand that it's so common. Even the darkness.
I’ve talked to so many women who wanted to commit suicide when they’re pregnant. They don't do it, but it can be that overwhelming that those thoughts come into people's minds. It is very common.
A lot of these women in the stories are alone—there's not a community of women that they're leaning on in these moments we're witnessing. Why is that?
Most of the characters in the book [are] working toward upper class. I think that in that environment, it is very common to be alone in the parenting and mothering. In many communities, you don’t have the group of stay-at-home moms. I remember my mom [had a group where] they would take turns going to the grocery store. All of us would be at one mom's house while the other mom shopped. We don't have that level of support to maintain as a mother [today]. It can be super isolating. And there’s even kind of an attitude of, “Can’t you figure it out?” "Why are you asking me, I don't want your kid" or "Take the kid with you!" Think about how many people give you the side eye over a child crying in public. It's like, "Dude, that baby's tired. It's a baby!" How are you ashamed to be in public with a crying child?
There's not a culture of "We got this for you." If you are unemployed or staying home full time, that's a whole other set of issues, but you are at home. If you're rich enough, you can pay everyone to do what needs to happen. But so many women in that middle are clawing at their day, trying to juggle and figure out how to make ends meet. Those are the women I wanted to write about a little bit because I think it's underrepresented in our stories and our policies.
What role do men play?
I was trying to be careful to not man bash, and there are a number of stories where men are positive, but they are mostly peripheral. And that’s on purpose because for me, that’s how motherhood is experienced in our society. Men are doing so much more than they ever used to, but that’s not enough.
I respect what single mothers have to go through, especially having raised two children and I was partnered. I can not imagine what single mothers go through. However, I often say to myself, every mother is a single mother. By that I mean even when you are partnered, the bulk of the caregiving, planning, [and] the family machine runs on the mother.
This isn't man bashing, because it’s not about the men, it’s about the experience of women. How many books are there about the war experience that up until recently have been a very male experience? It's not to the exclusion to women; it's just that if you're going to make a movie about war, it's going to be about men for the most part! This is our war. [Laughs] Motherhood is about women.
Know The Mother seems like a command rather than a declaration. Is that intentional? Why should we know the mother?
If you look at the title story where Know The Mother comes from, it's about a daughter sitting by her mother's death bed realizing that she never really knew who her mother was. This happens so often with dementia patients. Little trickles of those secrets, or those desires or those true feelings start to come out, and the caregiving adult children are shocked by the things they find out.
It's like, know the mother before it's too late. I think the more you know who your parents are and who your mother is, the more you understand your own life and how that person moves within your life. There are some things you can forgive or understand or have more empathy about, and there's probably a lot you could learn or wish you had known.
I remember once saying to my mother—she's 83, and maybe this was when she was in her 60s—"What are your dreams?" And she just started laughing, and said, "What are you talking about?" At first it was a little chuckle, [but then it had] sort of a little derision in there. It was like, "I don’t get to dream. This is it."
I was crushed by that. And I realized at that point that she had invested all of her dreams in me, which is a [lot of] responsibility for a child to go through life having to live it for more than one person.
What's in there? What are the stories? Who are you, and how can I give back to you by giving you your dreams since you gave me mine?
It can be a command—before it’s too late, know who that person is.
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.