Writing While Woman: Mothering in SFF

There aren’t many topics I avoid when writing—I’ve mentioned my struggling marriage, my hemorrhoids, my mental issues (severe OCD for the win), my postpartum depression, the infamous moment of sheer stupidity when I was not only was certain that Wyoming did not exist, but actively argued about it with other people. As a speculative fiction writer, I tend to write about emotionally withdrawn, presumably cold women with a thirst for vengeance. It’s cathartic. It’s empowering. Screw the patriarchy and all that.

I won’t, however, write about mothering. Or to put it more honestly, I can’t bring myself to do it.

Modern mothers are dragged ruthlessly via a thousand channels—their government, their communities, the internet, their families, their jobs, and each other. It’s a jugular-ripping war out there, and there is no shortage of condemnations for every stripe of mother, no shortage of equally vicious contradictions explaining to parents every which way they are not only doing it wrong, but how the alternatives are equally shaming. Because we are women, because we are just women, because mothering isn’t work, and yet still consistently held to the highest of impossible standards set about by the collective vitriol of the internet and policy-makers alike.

As a mother of two young boys, I spend a monumental portion of my day tending to them, whether they are present or not, as I suspect most mothers and caregivers do—thinking about school supplies and dental appointments and whether or not they have clean pants (sniffing the perfect ‘clean enough’ pair after they’ve inevitably forgotten to finish that load of laundry); reading about Magic Bullet blenders because jarred baby food is potent with preservatives, searching and searching for the perfect BPA free bottle, and wondering if their baby has pooped while with the sitter; wondering if they’ll be able to feed their kids or buy them school clothes. Absorbing the shame of using food stamps in a society that vilifies the poor and marginalized with reckless abandon, as if their disenfranchisement wasn’t a manufactured product out of their control.

I’ve started and stopped so many stories that involve mothers, each time stalling, treading open water until the passion simply burns out. There are a plethora of reasons why that is—pragmatism (it won’t sell), fear (it will sell and they’ll hate me for it), but mainly my hesitation stems from a lack of safeguards. The shiny veneer of “civility” is exponentially eroding, exposing the rancid, trash fire center of American culture that’s always existed, and motherhood is where I (and so many others) am most vulnerable. It is where I am most challenged, most unsure, most defensive as the artillery fire of the social police rains down upon my choices every waking second of the day. Those two, precious, infuriating, inspiring little creatures are my heart and soul incarnate. They are my joy and my pain, and joy, pain, and children alike are slippery and ever-evolving. I need to keep them safe, yet their safety continually unwinds itself from my control.

So when I see articles and Twitter threads asking about SFF and motherhood, I nod in agreement. Yes, damn it, there should be more pieces that involve motherhood—not even as the main focus, but just a mom fighting monsters and what-have-you in between parent-teacher conferences. These stories are abundant and rich and hilarious and tragic. They are alive and they speak to so, so many. They are rife with conflict and laughter—motherhood is what good stories are made of. Why do you think that’s all parents talk about (besides the obvious)? The very design of motherhood is rooted in story—it’s story-telling at its finest.

But the next caveat to this is—what kind of stories are these? There is an overwhelming urge to shelve works focused on mothering into the nebulous Women’s Fiction genre of work (as opposed to simply ‘fiction’, as it were). I consider myself a women’s fiction writer. I also consider myself a speculative fiction writer. As any Barnes and Noble bookshelf will tell you that the two are apparently incongruous. There is a definite lack (though not a complete absence, as this list will highlight) of mothering in speculative fiction. And there are a multitude of contributing reasons for it, the least of which being that mothers are discouraged from writing them to begin with.

As Ms. Busse, senior editor at Orbit books, point out on Twitter, “Mom’s never get enough love in fiction. Particularly not SFF.”

Perhaps it is finally time for moms like us, daughters and aunties and women like us, to change that.