by Nicki Leone
“Some writers say, ‘You’ve got to write the book that’s been writing you forever, and then maybe you can go to another topic.’ I’ve never had any other topic but this topic, motherhood.”—Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016
“I always kept time for myself,” said my mother once in one of those conversations where we talk about how different the world is now from when I was young—how free my brother and sister and I were to stay out of doors all day, with little to no supervision. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.”
I’m sorry to say the remark didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. I thought it was one of those throwaway comments mom made that tended to dismiss whatever she did well in the name of modesty. Tell her “Dinner is delicious” and she would say “I don’t think I added enough salt.” It was a habit of hers I picked up and have been fighting ever since.
But her comment came back to me while I was reading Desiree Cooper’s engaging and unsettling collection, Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press), published in March. Indeed, I think it would be impossible to read the book without thoughts of one’s own mother constantly intruding. A collection of about 30 very short stories—some only a page or two, some a paragraph—Know the Mother is a constellation of stories about women who are mothers. Not, it must be emphasized, a paean to the institution of motherhood, nor stories of children or spouses honoring their mothers. Not stories of bravery or sacrifices or what they gave to their families, although some of that can certainly be found here.
Cooper’s fiction is anchored in the women themselves, the ones who are contending with their unexpected transformation from a person into a role. We live in a culture where our identities and our roles are often inextricably entangled, and nowhere is this so clear as in tension between “self” and “mother.” Mothers are supposed to be selfless—a troubling idea and an unrealistic expectation of any woman. I found myself wondering if my own mother ever felt guilty or defensive about the time she took “for myself.” I hope not, because it is my memory of her in those moments that I am most drawn to, even now. A sense of self-sufficiency is probably the greatest example she ever set.
And why does the night abandon us to twinkling worry, to the rattling breaths of our children, to the hard floor of our long prayers? What fresh dangers tap against the black window? And why do our men snore so easily while the horror gathers?
Every story in the book seems to be an answer to these questions.
They are not comfortable answers. There is the physicality of motherhood, for one thing, the grueling toll it takes on the body. “I’d never been so beat up—like physically attacked,” Cooper told The Rumpus of her own experience of childbirth. She brings the full force of that experience to her work: a woman collapsed in pain on her bathroom floor as her water breaks in “Icthyophobe.” Another at work determinedly finishing her phone call while she feels herself miscarrying (“Cartoon Blue”). Yet another waiting up in the dark for her daughter to get home, remembering how suicidal she felt at nine months (“Mourning Chair”): “I prayed all night as I paced by the cabinet of poisonous things, by the drawer of sharpened knives. I thought about throwing myself down the stairs or starting the car in the garage.”
Then there is the fact that the moment a woman becomes pregnant she forfeits her sense of self in the eyes of almost everyone around her. Her career is on hold or over, her life is no longer her own, her husband and children and even the government seem to have a claim on her body. “If you wanted to have babies,” says a law firm partner in “Ceiling,” “why did you go to law school?” The scene is shot through with metaphor—the man’s tie is “burqa blue and the yellow of a runny egg yolk.” The woman feels faint confronting him, “a useless bride, crossed legs as brown as firewood ready to be doused.” Does becoming a mother mean immolation? Lovers change overnight into people with expectations—they want her to keep the child or not, to submit to this change in her life, to arrange things so they don’t have to. They demand she take it easy, as if a plus sign on a pregnancy test both turns her into an invalid and invalidates anything she might want for herself:
Jim steered with one hand, driving into the quiet evening, preoccupied with important things. Kate stared jealously at how easy driving was for him—like an extension of breathing. Because she had been put on bed rest—and then had a C-section—Kate hadn’t been able to drive for months. She tried to remember that feeling of absolute, one-handed control. (“Origins of Sacrifice”)
They take choice after choice out of her hands. More than one woman in these stories is prone to dreaming she can fly away into the night sky.
Many of Cooper’s women are persons of color, facing the full range of racism—casual to overt—that being “not white” brings down upon them, and “identity” starts to feel like a life or death battle. A simple trip to a supermarket with two tired, unruly kids who want Double Stuf Oreos becomes a kind of gauntlet for one exhausted woman, who can almost hear the accusation “welfare mother” from all the people around her. A young black mother takes her baby to a market off the Japanese army base where her husband is stationed, and endures the leering comments of the vendors when they notice her child’s much lighter skin.
The women ignored her, clucking like hens. Tears began to rise up instinctively, but Bobbie Jean resisted the urge to back away. This wasn’t the rural South, where uppityness could cost her life. This was postwar Japan, and her husband was protecting both his country and theirs. She had every right to be in the ginza buying a roasted sweet potato. (“In the Ginza”)
“You got white GI?” they ask her, as if she were a whore who pulled off a good trick.
Even a modern, middle-class, liberal school becomes a locale for the erasure of black women, as one mother discovers when she finds out teachers are ignoring her daughter in “The Disappearing Girl:”
I turn off the radio, which I always do when the kids are in the car, just in case something bubbles up from their mysterious lives. Lately, my daughter has become impenetrable. When I hug her, she stiffens. Even though I am her lifeboat, she will not touch me. She is the kind of lonely that cannot be explained, so it becomes someone else’s fault. Mine.
“Did you know I am invisible?” Her words come in a scratchy little-girl voice, but she is too old for make-believe. She is stating a fact. My heart is a block of ice.
[A]ll mothers are single mothers. Society is structured in such a way that women have to devise, invent, and cobble together motherhood, each and every time, on their own.—Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016
If there is an overarching point Cooper wants to get across, I think it is this: The disconnect between social and cultural ideas of motherhood, and the actual experience of the woman who has become a mother. Her stories are centered on the woman navigating this state of motherhood that is perhaps not unwelcome (some of the women in the stories are happy to be pregnant, some are not), but for which she discovers she is unprepared. Cooper eschews stereotypes and archetypes in favor of the messy, gritty reality of motherhood as it feels to the woman who finds herself facing it. Our mothers are flawed, often afraid, sometimes resentful, generally in awe of this role they have stepped into. They “cobble together motherhood” in spite of us, their children. Their family. The people who stand behind them in the supermarket or sit next to them in the waiting rooms, measuring and judging.
Like some of the women in her stories, Desiree Cooper left a law practice to become first a mother, and then a writer. She is a poet, fiction writer, and journalist, and—as will surprise no one who reads her work—a community activist on behalf of women. But if she has the eye of a reporter, she has the sensibility, and the pen, of a poet. The most gratifying thing about Know the Mother is the beauty and daring of its language:
One night, as I lay awake in the sweltering darkness, the stars called me back to the beginning. I went outside and gazed skyward where Orion hung low and the Milky Way dangled within reach. A current of evolution stirred; suddenly I was certain of my fetal wings.
Pressing my bare soles against the damp ground, I angled my crooked spine and pushed up on swollen knees. I was aloft. (“Soft Landing”)
It would have been easy to let such themes—motherhood, and particularly black motherhood—become a polemic. The author is passionate about women’s reproductive rights, and critical of the sacrifices women (especially black single mothers) are expected to make:
I do think we’re allowed to raise our voices when it comes to single motherhood, but we’re on that pedestal of “hero” and “Big Mamma.” Just taking it on and making it work and keeping our babies safe and keeping that Sunday dinner going. We’re not allowed to say, “This hurts. This is ridiculous. Some of the rest of y’all need to step up here. —Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016
But Cooper is interested in deeper things, and she is not afraid to push the language to reach for it. She finds in goldfish a metaphor for fear; in a bright dress, a symbol of death. Many of the stories are set at night, in the dark—sometimes a warm dark, but just as often a fearful thing. In fact, for a book about mothers, there is as much death as life in this collection, as much mourning as celebration of birth. Sometimes, you think you are reading about a dream—like the woman who flies into the sky at night. Sometimes, you hope you are reading about a nightmare—like the increasingly violent scenarios of a woman, a gun, and her sleeping children in “Something Falls in the Night.” One of the most beautiful pieces in the collection is the title story, “Know the Mother,” where the narrator—we are never told if the speaker is male or female—is sitting by the bedside of their mother as she dies, caring for her wasted body (“already, she smells like a garden unearthed”). The language is intense and immediate, which is why, perhaps, these are all very short stories. It would be unbearable to stay in any of them for very long.
Taken together, Know the Mother is a welcome antidote to the fetishization of motherhood that tends to reach its obscenely sugar-coated peak in the month of May. Because let’s face it: chocolate and flowers are a wholly inadequate acknowledgment of the woman you are supposed to be honoring. Possibly the best gift you could give your mother for Mother’s Day would be to read Desiree Cooper’s book yourself.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Click here to read Nicki Leone’s previous features on Bloom
Homepage image by Chidi Okoye via finartamerica