Motherhood figures into the subtext of all my work, most clearly in Willing Spirits and in The Sinner’s Guide to Confession. Undoubtedly, motherhood has shaped my life. I am the mother of a soon-to-be twenty-six-year-old son. One of my dear friends, the mother of five daughters, once told me that, “It doesn’t matter how many children you have. Once you’re a mother, you’re a mother.” I believe that is true. Motherhood has empowered and defined me as nothing else in my life ever has, not even writing. I quickly came to see that the love I felt for my son was boundless.
Needless to say, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of motherhood. I don’t know how anyone can be. Nothing can prepare someone for the intensity of such love. In truth, I did not feel that immediately, and I worried that perhaps something was wrong with me. When the nurse handed me my baby boy, he looked rather perplexed and not at all certain that he liked me. But that first night alone with him in the hospital room, I was enraptured. I pulled the curtain around my bed and peered down into the bassinet He stared at me as I unwrapped his blanket and removed his diaper. I smiled at his naked little body and ran my hands all over him. He relaxed under my touch and wriggled about a bit. As I changed his diaper, I introduced myself and presented my plans for our future. He listened with interest before he began to wail. He was hungry. After a rocky start and the help of another new mother in the bed next to mine (by some miracle, she also happened to be a maternity nurse), I nursed him. I was in love. I knew by then that from henceforth, he would define my plans. I acquiesced without complaint. Once we were home and eventually settled into a routine, my life was defined by his needs. His father left early and came home late most every day, and I spent long, mostly happy days with my baby. I learned how to strap him to my chest and write. He slept to the sound of me banging away at the typewriter keys. If I stopped, he opened one eye and looked up at me, questioningly, but with patience. I often rested my chin on his head and rubbed my cheek against his soft curls. He was my boy, and I could not imagine anything that would ever compromise my love for him. I had never been as in love with anyone as I was with him, and that love persists.
When I write about motherhood, as I often do, it comes from a place that is still a source of wonder to me. How is it possible to love someone so much? Even more compelling, how is it possible to know with absolute certainty that regardless of what transpires, you will always love your children with profound and unshakable steadfastness. In Willing Spirits, Jane must deal with the unforeseen reality of her daughter Caroline’s unexpected pregnancy. Jane rises to the situation in spite of her concerns and her disappointment. Jane is Caroline’s mother and that limitless love demands that we often forego our dreams and expectations for our children and learn how to help them live the best lives they can. In The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, each of the main characters is a mother. Barbara, the mother of three grown children, recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each of her children. She deftly navigates those relationships, trying not to play favorites and working hard to be what each of her children needs while still retaining her independence and her privacy. When she eventually decides to reveal her secret, she is most worried about how it will affect her children. Kaye has two children and though they are adults, she is unable to disregard how her decision to leave their father might affect them. Even Kaye’s relationship with her own mother, Gertie, explores the push and pull of mother and child. However, Ellen’s loss of her infant daughter and the inability to conceive again play the most significant role in the novel. Ellen’s need is so profound and so palpable that I cried as I wrote the section where she imagines what it would have been like to raise her daughter. Ellen’s situation is heartbreakingly sad. Her loss defines her forever. I loved writing the scene where Ellen and Joy meet for the first time. They are each so full of expectations. Joy, already a mother herself, can really understand what Ellen must have felt and continues to feel. Both women have suffered unimaginable losses, and this brings them closer. Motherhood is a bond.
My role as a mother has enriched me as a writer. I can go to a place inside myself that understands what it means to split yourself between your own needs and dreams and your role as a mother. More importantly, I have learned that my dreams and hopes for my son may not always be my son’s dreams and hopes. As I embrace this truth over and over, it deepens my love for my son. He is a fine man, and his dreams represent the culmination of various influences… all of them, I am happy to reports, good ones. As I watch my son make his way through the world, offering him both solicited and unsolicited advice, I am more and more convinced that there is no way to accurately predict who your children will become. We can only hope that they will make choices that show integrity, compassion, and decency. Each time I speak to my son, I tell him that I love him and that he makes me proud. I know there will be times when he challenges the limits of my patience and frustrates me with his shortsightedness… all privileges of youth. However, I also know (and feel confident that he does as well) that nothing could ever make me love him less. Sometimes I still long for just one more chance to experience another day of the chaos and fatigue that defined those early months of being a new mother. I want just one more day of the newness and the thrill of such never-ending love. And then I remember that it is forever on going, forever deepening, and always newly surprising in its intensity.
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