About the Project
“Whenever people would say ‘having a child will really change you… or you’ll see this differently as a parent.’ I thought, well, intellectually I can understand how much a person can love a child, but that must be an exaggeration. It really hit me the most when I returned to my pediatric surgery rotation. I had been on pediatric surgery as a junior resident before we had Mary Elizabeth. I cared a lot about the patients. I was very sensitive to the families, the babies, the children. But after I had Mary Elizabeth, the first time I had to operate on a child, I remember looking down and thinking this is someone’s child.” – L.T.
Throughout time, across the world and despite major differences in culture, religion, socioeconomics, education, age, family configurations and race, we humans have sought to have children, to become parents, despite only a vague idea of how this will change our lives. There is blind faith that it will be for the better. And, as reflected in my interviews, it often is for the better.
The most popular book on motherhood published in the last twenty years is “What to expect when you’re expecting,” which walks you through all the physical changes your body goes through over the nine months of pregnancy, but there is no equivalent book that provides insight into all the other ways we change after becoming mothers.
During college, I discovered the work of Studs Terkel and was impressed by how he tackled some of the big topics of the past century–dreams, race, work, aging, war–through collecting hundreds of interviews from a wide range of common people across the country and publishing them (with minimal editing) as first-person narratives. I wanted to do something similar on motherhood.
With a small grant from the NC Art’s Foundation, I set out to interview a wide range of mothers across several states about what drives us to become mothers; how we expect our lives to change and then how they really change; how our ideas about work, religion, volunteerism and priorities change; and how our relationships with family, friends and partners change.
While doing this, motivated by my own experiences being hospitalized with postpartum depression (detailed on the New York Times Motherlode blog here: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/postpartum-depression-what-to-expect-when-the-unexpected-happens/), I especially became drawn to the stories we don’t often hear. I sought out mothers of different ages, races, socioeconomic classes, professions, biological and adoptive, hetero- and homosexual, single and coupled, of typically- and atypically-developing children, of good or poor health themselves, from the United States or outside the US. I’ve interviewed women from North Carolina, Maine, Pennsylvania, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Virginia, Colorado, Vermont, St. Croix, and South Dakota.
The interview structure has been purposefully loose, in order to zero in on what serves as the heart of each mother’s story. I am constrained in that I capture each mother on a single day. We all know that our perspectives change across a single day and over time.
Through this project and book, I wanted to paint a more comprehensive portrait of motherhood today–one that is real, communicates our complicated and sometimes contradictory feelings and hopefully increase understanding and compassion between and among mothers who, superficially, might seem quite different.
The first person I interviewed was my mother-in-law, who died soon after of end-stage breast cancer. The day I interviewed her, when she was very, very sick, I asked why she continued a very grueling treatment regimen. Her response, “Once you’re a mother, whether they’re one or 50, you don’t want to leave those children.”