What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About

Ed. by Michele Filgate, 2019

I was immediately intrigued by the title of this book, and have been looking forward to reading it for months. It is a collection of essays by established writers about their relationships with their mothers. Most of those relationships are fraught, but not all. Some have overcome serious complications and others never did. As a researcher interested in how we write about maternal relationships, the variety of issues in this collection was fascinating.

Many of the writers experienced abuse as children, either at the hands of their mothers or as a result of her failure to intervene. Although it is not always addressed, it seemed to me that this behavior was likely due to a mental illness. At other times, it appeared that the mother’s failures were due to preoccupation with her own life and romantic relationships. Perhaps these mothers were ambivalent to their responsibilities as parents, or were simply consumed with other concerns. Fathers did not play an equal role in any essay, but then this is a book about mothers.

In spite of the range of abuses suffered, the essays make plain that these maternal relationships were (and sometimes still are) central to the writers’ lives. The most compelling essay (for me) was Nayomi Munaweera’s Her Body / My Body, in which she discussed her mother’s mental illness and its grave impact on her family. She describes her struggle separating from her mother, only after she discovers that the relationship is dysfunctional and abusive. Like all children who are compelled to detach from a parent, she suffers from guilt and a sense of obligation. Unlike many of the other essays, this one ends on a hopeful note, with a surprisingly supportive message from her mother.

Brandon Taylor’s (author of the incredible novel Real Life) essay, All About My Mother, offers a less uplifting conclusion, but is all the more incisive. “The thing that kept me from writing about her, about grief, in fiction was that I lacked genuine, human feeling for my mother. Or, no, that’s not true exactly. What I lacked was empathy for her. I was so interested in my own feelings about her that I couldn’t leave room for her feelings or for what she wanted out of life.”

This sentiment so beautifully encapsulates the recurring conflict between mothers and their children, on a sliding scale of severity (both in literature and in my own less scientific real-life assessment). A mother’s central focus is expected to be on her children throughout childhood, and then those children grow up and live their own lives. How the mother and the child manage this transition is central to the success of their relationship. Did the mother fail the child when he was helpless? Is the child unappreciative of the mother’s sacrifices? Can the mother allow the child to grow up? How do they cope without each other? 

It seems to me that all of the fraught relationships in this collection became that way due to someone not performing to expectations, whether those expectations were right or wrong. Four stars.

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