Maddie and Motherhood

Healing Maddie Brees and I are headed to another book club tonight. I am very much looking forward to it.

It’s tricky, though: when invited, I always tell my host that I recognize the liability. Having an author present for her book’s discussion can decidedly hamper dialogue and limit expression: how many attendees will be willing to say what they’re really thinking with the author sitting right there?

Of course, I am more than willing to hear criticism. Releasing a book into the world requires lots of things, and a thick skin is definitely among them.


One of the first book clubs I attended for this novel was also among the best. They were a large group of intelligent and educated women, most of whom were empty-nesters. We had a long and very rich conversation, and people were not at all unwilling to express annoyance with characters or frustration with ideas.

But I was taken aback by one critique: one woman said–and others agreed–that there wasn’t much in the book about Maddie as a mother. They wanted to hear more about that, they said.


That was the day she’d imagined she was knitting–though she had never actually learned how. But she had imagined that she could, and that as she sat, her knitting needles clicked in her hands, binding together the softest yarn into a ribbon and then a square, and then an oblong sheet that grew so long it fell to her feet. Still she knitted, calmly, efficiently, so that the blanket (for this is what it was) pooled onto the ground and then, by the force of her knitting, began to move away from her and toward her son where he sat in the sandbox or walked toward the swing. This great blanket of her affection followed him over the playground, flowing up the ladder behind him and then piling around him as he sat on the platform at the top. It followed him down the slide, too, and she could see in her mind’s eye the way that it surrounded his torso and flowed over his legs that, once again, he used to brace his body against gravity. Such was her love for this child, and such was the way that she willed it to cover him. 


The fact of Maddie’s motherhood is in fact central to the novel. She and her husband Frank have three sons, and her cancer diagnosis–occurring very early in the book–keenly shadows her thoughts, feelings, and fears as a mother.

As one might expect it would.


3 kids summer 2001 nassau point


I’ve thought often about that remark at that book club. At the time, I didn’t defend the novel against it, although immediately my mind ran through multiple instances wherein Maddie’s love and fear for her children are in view.

It’s a trick of my attending book clubs not to be defensive, to let the book speak for herself (or remain silent, if necessary), to let the liability of welcoming the book’s author not be such a liability.

I am not an expert on many things, but I am an expert on this book. There is never need to let that authority cow the expression of others.




Yes, the truth is that Maddie-as-mother is a very important part of this novel, and over the course of the book it’s a concept I return to again and again. Maddie’s motherhood is, in fact, vital to the overarching themes of the work as a whole.

And of the few autobiographical elements of the book, Maddie’s motherhood experience is perhaps most closely linked with mine.

Being a mother has been and remains one of the most important experiences of my life, and I contend that, of the myriad experiences this life has to offer a person, motherhood is likely one of the most powerful.

One can see this, for instance, in how intensely personal it is, how every comment can so readily be received as a critique. The “Oh, I see your baby sucks his thumb!” becomes a commentary on the mother-as-enabler, as addiction-engenderer, as potential destroyer-of-her-child’s yet-to-emerge teeth.

Every comment, every tantrum, every failure to sleep through the night is fodder for assessment as to how well one loves her child.

And every mother feels inadequate, because every mother sees–if only in glimpses–how gloriously separate her child is, how unlike any other, how inconceivably precious are the toes, the fingers, the thoughts, the phrases, the efforts, the successes, the failures, the being of the one she mothers.


Mothers should know. A mother should know her child’s face, she thought. She knew that Garrett’s left ear was just the slightest bit bent at the top, that Jacob’s whorl of hair was just to the right of the center back of his head. And Eli had his father’s nose: straight and, even at this young age, elegantly shaped. It was like a little ski-jump, Maddie always thought: dramatically steep with just the slightest inverted angle at the end. He would be handsome when he grew up.


Kerri is mother to twins who are going on three. The other day on my walk, I stopped to chat with her where she sat on her deck in the afternoon sun. The twins were in their beds: naptime.

We talked about them at pre-school, and Kerri marveled aloud to me about Eli’s predilection for holding open the lid on the classroom garbage can so that his classmates can throw away their trash.

“How does he know to do that?” she wondered. And we were silent for a moment, taking this in. Here was an untaught behavior, a glimpse into a nature uniquely Eli. What might it signify? A pleasure in being helpful, a blooming compassion? A fascination with hinges, an interest in seeing things properly put away, a love for his teacher? An ambition to someday drive the garbage truck?

“What does it mean?”

I stood with my dog on the other side of her fence and pondered it with her, I with my years and years of parenting experience, with two out of three of them– by all accounts– full-grown. What could I say?

I told her what I thought, which is to say that I told her she was doing the right thing. I told her it is her privilege and perhaps her unique responsibility as a mother to pay attention to these things, to notice.

I have a collection beyond counting of the things I have noticed and know about my children–things that might no longer interest them, things they have moved on from, things that once defined them and really no longer do so.

But I have collected and I keep them; and this, to me, is part of what it means to be their mother.




The women at that book club had wanted more from me about Maddie as a mother and, as I’ve said, I’ve given that request a lot of thought. Had they missed what is there in the book about Maddie and motherhood? Certainly other themes and plot elements speak far more loudly in the book, I see that.

Is it that they are empty-nesters, and so are missing the difficult and excellent work that means having children at home?


I am not displeased with the way I wrote Maddie-as-mother. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I didn’t say this to the women that night, but this is how I saw it when writing the book, and this is how I see it now:

Motherhood is one of the most powerful experiences this life has to offer. Raising it in ordinary conversation can evoke all kinds of reactions, from those who wish they were mothers to those who never want to be mothers to those who had a bad mother.

And raising it in a book is equally if not more powerful for the distilled nature of a novel. That Maddie was a mother is incredibly important to the book–but it is a bell I had to ring lightly because of the reverberations it evokes.

In short, writing too much about Maddie-as-mother actually might have been unkind. I couldn’t say too much about it, because motherhood is too dear to me. This book–and any good work of fiction, I’ll warrant–is not about the author. Any and all of the personal emotional investment the author puts into it is actually none of the reader’s business, and, if there, would necessarily tarnish the reader’s experience.

The experience is the story. The means is the writing. The book is the gift.

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?

—  A. Dillard, The Writing Life


These days, every day, I drive Emma to school. She is a junior in high school now, nearly as old as she’s going to get before she moves on from home.

Every day she gets out of the car, tells me she loves me, closes the door behind her, and never looks back.

But as I pull away, I always look for her blond head moving in the crowd, and I say yet another prayer over her lovely self, and I send the blanket after her, covering her, keeping her all through the day.


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