Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Men Writing about Mothers

How seldom I come across positive writing about mothers from male authors. If you know of any, please let me know.

Joseph O'Neill is the exception. The main character of his novel, Netherland, remembers his mother finding him when he cuts school and goes skating:

"As my ankles grew sore and my mind turned to the inventing of excuses for my absence from school, a figure approached on the ice. For a moment I was terrified. Then I saw that this approaching skater was a woman, a woman who as she drew nearer became my mother. How she'd guessed she would find me in this lonely place is something I still cannot explain. But she had guessed, and here she came now, methodically thrusting sideways and moving with the sweet excess of physical efficiency that is the first and last bliss of ice-skating. I was busted; I thought for a moment about sprinting off. When my mother caught up with me, however, she simply said, 'Would you find it terrible if I skated with you?' She and I glided side by side along the edge of the fields of white grass, our hands clasped behind our backs. We pushed in harmony, the one occasionally dropping behind the other where branches leaned into our way or when a cracking sound betrayed a stretch of thin ice. My mother, a large woman and somewhat plodding in shoes was graceful on runners. It was she who presided over my first wobbling, upright motions on frozen water, who first placed bladed little boots on my feet and, with gentle tugs, pulled right their crosscrossing white laces."

There are no discordant notes in his passage. The mother asks permission; mother and son skate off together, harmoniously. She does not scold him about his cutting school.

I would be grateful to hear of similar descriptions of mothers by male writers, but all I can think of are monster mothers like the one in Portnoy's Complaint.


  1. Laurie Lee wrote about his mother in his autobiographical book Cider with Rosie. She comes across as a chaotic, funny, whimsical but strong woman who brought up several children on her own. In the end, she lost the plot and when he came back to visit as an adult she woke him in the middle of the night to serve him a cooked meal. One senses that he felt a great tenderness for her.

  2. Good to hear, Signs! Isn't he the author of "As I walked Out One Morning"? I like that book.

  3. Yes - As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - the sequel to Cider with Rosie.

  4. I scoured my bookshelves and could not think of one such book Mim, and then suddenly I remembered Hugo Hamilton's memoir of a half-Irish childhood, 'The Speckled People'.

    The German mother in this story is portrayed beautifully and with deep affection on the part of her young son. She is the parent with whom I'd say the author/narrator, Hugo Hamilton, most closely identifies.

    Its a beautiful book and well worth reading.

    I mentioned this question to my husband who considered that there's probably a great deal written about the love between the blessed virgin Mary and her son, and I also think of Proust and Flaubert, their mixed perceptions of their mothers, moments of deep affection.

    But you know the story, the best writing worth reading is about angst and travail. If a relationship is all positive, it's unlikely to make for interesting reading.

  5. Yes, I agree, Elizabeth. Let's say, somewhat positive portrayals. The Virgin is not of this earth.

  6. Postivity sells less, I expect.
    Mim, I was sent another blog award recently, it involves recommending 12 other blogs, so I hope you have the time to do so too. Thank you for being such a loyal reader!

  7. I think the way David Sedaris writes about his mother is full of respect and love, well, and bitchiness too, but then that is his style.

  8. Lewis: I'll be recommending 12 blogs soon. Many thanks.

    Mimi K., I'd forgotten about David Sedaris; he is under his mother's spell no matter how bitchy he gets.

  9. Hi Mim - this had me stumped for a while... I'm not sure how much 'direct' writing Paul Lisicky has done about his mother, but it seems to me that whenever he references her, it is with tenderness and not insignificant ache?

    And then I thought of the relationship between archetypal mother (Mother Earth) and son (Humankind). Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan are writers who come immediately to mind here - they speak with empathy and can be alternately sober, reprimanding & celebratory in tone.

    Your post makes me want to go and rummage through all my bookcases for son/mother stories... thank you!

  10. Lots of writing about mothers to be sure. Take Colm Toibin who deeply loved his mother. But few passages are as unambiguous as the one you site. The usual story is that the love is suffocating and the man has to free himself through hate and anger -- then along comes the guilt for doing so. I love the passage because is is so free of all that.

  11. Same here, Bluedog, but then O'Neill portrays a mother who does not interfere.

    Claire, I like the way you open up the discussion.

  12. “A mother is a mother still, The holiest thing alive” --Coleridge

    He also wrote:

    “The love of a mother is the veil of a softer light between the heart and the heavenly Father.”

    Of all people, Jack Kerouac had a strong relationship with his mother. The eternally patient and supportive aunt of Sal Paradise is a stand-in for Gabrielle Kerouac in On the Road.

  13. Thank you, K. The quotes from Coleridge are gems.I had forgotten about Jack Kerouac and his mother.

  14. We, who in our latter years, are fortunate enough to sort out all the struggles with mother, forgiving her and ourselves, can hope to recall the many moments of love and support. Alas, by the time we are ready she has passed.