Shortly after I started reading Know the Mother—a slim volume of flash fiction by former attorney and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Desiree Cooper—my grandmother died of ovarian cancer. This was the woman who taught me how to ride the subway, and who let me live with her when I was trying to get my own journalism career off the ground. At the same time, I was in my third trimester of pregnancy, and legal proceedings had begun regarding the care of my stepdaughter because my husband and I were moving to Ohio from Kentucky. Then I had my second son, born via an unexpected C-section. At only 2 weeks old, his “bed” was a large chair in my husband’s childhood bedroom while we waited to close on our house. During this time I had many chats with my mother-in-law, whom I greatly respect.
At every step, my mind kept wandering back to the book; I kept the advance copy in my purse, intending to finish the review, but every time I opened my computer, I felt stymied. What all of these life events kept reiterating to me is how little we know the mother—any mothers. How could any of us really know who our mothers are, or were, before they pushed us into the world, dripping with an equal mixture of their hopes and losses? Do we simply build our lives around the mythology that our mothers have given to us, or that others have given to us in a mother’s absence? Figuring out who your mom is might be like gathering evidence for a trial—aren’t we always questioning, interrogating things that happened but cannot be changed? We might have a birth certificate, a newspaper clipping, half of a photo, an old dress, and try to fill in the gaps to create a cohesive story.
What can we know of mothers in this era of social media oversaturation, where each event and anecdote is finely selected for the performance of perfection? Pinterest-inspired play dates, Scary Mommy blogs with all of that snark disguised as truth-telling, expertly filtered photos, status updates that manage to inform and brag—they all contribute to a distinct unknowing. What mothers choose to share about motherhood is a form of honesty that rewards omissions, because what would people think of us if all we ever shared were the mistakes, the anxiety, the events that were thankfully never caught on camera, the lies we’ve told people who depend on us because we thought that those lies were better than ugly truths about love and sacrifice.
This is why I enjoyed Cooper’s book, and why I continue carrying it in my purse. It’s a tenderly written gift of glimpses into those omissions. What becomes clear is that these glimpses, rendered in a style spare and polished like poetry, are all anyone could ever have.
Flash fiction is an appropriate form for the collection, as literature is full of mothers we presume to know based on what a third-person omniscient narrator reveals. We know why Toni Morrison’s Sethe slit her Beloved’s throat with a handsaw. We know why Kate Chopin’s Calixta decides to make love to Alcee Laballiere during the storm while her faithful husband Bobinot and son Bibi are at the grocery store. We come to learn about the “great” expectations Miss Havisham placed on her daughter Estella in Dickens’ classic. Cooper’s book illuminates—through 30 vignettes that cross race, class, gender and sexuality—an ultimately universal understanding of what it means to be a mother, and what it means to love and be loved (or unloved). Her approach of writing flash fiction snapshots is risky. It presumes the reader will find something to like or empathize with. But thanks to the Internet, we’re already used to consuming snippets of a mother’s life. We don’t “know” the moms in those Facebook groups anymore than we could know the mothers Cooper has drawn.
Cooper weaves her characters through time, going back to mothers in a pre-Civil Rights Movement era, the implication being that knowing the mother also means knowing or understanding the mothers who came before—the grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The imprint of their experiences is passed down neverending, like water over a falls. “Reporting for Duty, 1959,” evinces this through the eyes of a young son watching his mother’s reactions unfold as the family attempts to get a room at a hotel while traveling. The son is confused, but the reader knows he’ll come to understand his mother’s fear, her resolve, and her support of her husband as they attempt to move through a segregated world with dignity.
Some of the characters are race-neutral while others read as African American, but the beauty in universality is that it barely matters. There are daughters whose mothers named them after African queens (“Queen of the Nile”), and husbands annoyed by their wives who stage every life event (“One Candle Left”), and women having miscarriages in the middle of the workday (“Cartoon Blue”). The stories touch on the longing, loss, anxiety, fear, desire, love and even hate that is a part of being a parent or being parented.
In June, author Chimamanda Adichie revealed her recent pregnancy in an interview with the London Financial Times. She said that she kept the news to herself because she didn’t want to have to “perform” pregnancy. She opted out of the gender reveal parties, belly bump pictures, and status updates about food cravings meant to frame every experience of pre-motherhood as overwhelmingly positive and whimsical. This is not to say that there aren’t some women who do experience pregnancy as overwhelmingly positive, but Adichie’s decision struck me as a real-life version of the mothers in Cooper’s book who only reveal what they wish to, and largely on their own terms, even if the situation is negative. Know the Mother is profoundly respectful all of the parents who want to control their own narrative, who understand that they do not cease being themselves just because they belong to another in some way.