Ah, Mother’s Day! Tomorrow’s a day for misty-eyed paeans to the labour of maternal love. Okay, so the tedious work of motherhood doesn’t exactly inspire poetry, but it has birthed an entire sub-genre of writing dubbed mommy lit.
Mum’s the word: Celebrate Mother’s Day with good mommy lit
The success of I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson in 2003 sparked a publishing boom in books on modern motherhood, usually intent on detailing its every unappetizing aspect. 2003 was also the year I first started contemplating the prospect of having a baby. Anxious about making the leap, I turned to the books in search of a blueprint, anything that would help me learn the secret of happy motherhood.
Three of them were the most helpful, but not in the way they were likely intended.
Better described as depression-lit, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother cheerily described motherhood as “an unpeopled continuum” shaped by “hours of darkness”. Cusk painted a stark and compelling picture of maternity in the West—or at least its least family-friendly cultures in the UK and the US—where women spend hours every day, trapped at home with their new-born, without help or relief.
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage was filled with angry, exhausted, overworked and under-appreciated mothers who nevertheless spent most of their time feeling guilty for not doing “enough”.
The most disturbing, however, was Guarding the Moon: A Mother’s First Year by Francesca Lia Block, who offered page after page of gems such as: “It felt like being in love for the first time. I wanted to woo her... I wanted the magic charm of fabrics and colors to transform me into a mother worthy of my daughter.” This was baby love at its worst: overly romantic, near-obsessive and somewhat nauseating.
Needless to say, I didn’t find that magic formula, but the mommy-lit books did help me make two important decisions: I wasn’t ready to have children; I certainly was never going to be ready to have children in the US.
Five years later, I have a one-year-old and am safely ensconced in my new life in Bangalore—very much a “peopled continuum” with all the support and help I could possibly need. But some things haven’t changed all that much.
As it turns out, Indian mommy lit is a lot like its Western counterpart. Block is no match for Mallika Chopra, whose 100 Promises to my Baby offers the same fawning prose without the saving grace of a narrative. Much of the book reads like a hilarious English translation of a Bollywood script: “You will feel the warmth of my embrace, you will hear the song of my voice, and you will know that I love you. We are bonded now forever, and never again will we find ourselves truly alone.” Cue music, start rain sequence...
Then there’s Shefali Tsabary’s It’s a Mom! What you Should Know about the Early Years of Motherhood, which is mostly a run-of-the-mill advice book on motherhood with an Indian flavour. Yet it’s being sold as something bold and refreshing because it, one, acknowledges the difficulties of motherhood and, two, offers this bit of ground-breaking advice: “You have a life beyond your baby—and a body and mind, and spouse to reconnect with.”
It isn’t that hard to sell Tsabary’s book as something new when there isn’t a lot of Indian mommy lit around. The best of the lot are anthologies such as Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood, edited by Rinki Bhattacharya. The essays don’t merely explore the experience of motherhood but also the decision to become a mother. The collection includes women who chose to adopt, those who chose not to conceive, and even those who chose to have an abortion instead.
Now that’s bold and refreshing.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org