Move LifeStyle

Move LifeStyle

Complicated Women and Fears of Motherhood

When I was about eighteen, I suddenly became terrified of motherhood. Not because I was remotely close to a job, marriage, or any other logical impetus for stage fright. Not because of traumatic loss or sickness or an unhappy childhood. Not for any concrete reason, in fact. The fear was complicated.

On one side, I was experiencing a new sense of possibility and independence.

Concluding that a childless life was the only way to become the writer I wanted to be, I scoured the library for books by or about women who chose not to have children.

On the other, there was my picture of parenthood: living in a smallish town for decades, devoting most of my time to raising children. Everything I wanted—broad experience in work and travel, deep study, and especially, extensive time to write—seemed at odds with being a mom.

So I did what any idealistic, bookish college freshman might do: I read. Concluding that a childless life was the only way to become the writer I wanted to be, I scoured the library for books by or about women who chose not to have children. Those books were few and far between. And the more I read, the bleaker the choice seemed to me.

It took me many years to admit that I did, in fact, want children, because that admission meant opening up to baffling uncertainty. If I could not have it both ways, but could not give either way up, what exactly would the real picture look like?


That is precisely the question facing the protagonists in Mary Rechner’s vividly honest short story collection, Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women.

These are stories about women learning to understand and reshape their identities as girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, artists, and friends. This is a book about the crumbling of false identities, and the unvarnished truth underneath. Though written with humor and shot through with redemption, there is a refreshing absence of happily-ever-after here. These are women confronted with the “real picture” of motherhood, chosen or not. In these stories, the picture is not always be pretty, but it is always real.

In Exhibit, shiftless poet Amanda is headed to a poetry-reading at a strip-club, a dubious performance that suddenly places her life under scrutiny: “She was currently twenty-five. By the time her mother turned twenty-five, she was married, owned a house, and had three children.” By contrast, Amanda is in a lackluster relationship with an indifferent boyfriend, and though she has rehearsed for this stage of life, she suddenly finds herself without a useful script, her own words ignored by the wrong audience.

The hazards of comparison is a common theme. In Visiting Philly, two college roommates reunite for an alumnae panel on “how women negotiate and navigate their lives,” envying one another for the seeming glamor of the other’s life. Moon follows two sisters from roller skates and recess to business trips and nursery wallpaper. Though Celia is the younger sister, she passes Lucy in all the major milestones: first one to start her period, first to marry, first to get pregnant. And in Hot Springs, a restless married woman introduces a widowed friend to a man she herself lusts after, only to find that what she thought she wanted isn’t so clear after all.

These are women confronted with the “real picture” of motherhood, chosen or not.

One of the many remarkable strengths of the book is its capacity to embrace multiple perspectives within the tight confines of the short form. Rechner’s deft hand renders the full breadth of her characters’ thoughts with astonishingly little, linking just the right exterior details with a spare interior voice, bracingly familiar in its vulnerability and assorted longings.

The best piece is arguably Four, a single day of motherhood told through the eyes of a four-year-old. Written entirely in the second person, the story binds together both mother and child’s perspective, for 24 hours of an exhausting battle of wills. Its final lines ring with hard-won compassion and humor: “As soon as your father gets home your mother says she’s going for a walk to get some milk. You want to know why your mother is crying. Why would she cry about milk?”

I love this story because it is difficult, kind, and unblinking. It’s the kind of story I needed to read as an eighteen-year-old, because it pulls the art of mothering through the refining fire of narrative art. Rechner writes with what Irish poet Eavan Boland calls “the courage of her own experience.” I’m grateful for it.

Q & A With Author Mary Rechner
I asked Mary Rechner what comes to mind when she hears the phrase “work-life balance.” Here’s her response:

“Becoming a mother radically changed my sense of time and how best to spend it. In the early years of parenting my sons, I realized that if I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer and carve out time to develop my craft and writing practice, caretaking and work responsibilities would easily expand to fill any available space.

Work-life balance for me has meant not being defined by any one role. There are three essential parts of my life: family, writing, and gainful employment. Short story writers such as myself generally don’t make their living through writing — most do other work. I have been a teacher, and I currently direct an arts education program.

Rather than work full time, I work 30 hours a week, and keep Fridays free to write.

Rather than work full time, I work 30 hours a week, and keep Fridays free to write. I must be disciplined about writing on Fridays; it is easy to lose hours to phone calls, errands, and lunch dates. A focused day of writing helps fuel my writing practice for the rest of week; in addition to Fridays, I write several mornings before work, and on the weekends.

Unlike the unrealistic concept of “having it all,” I understand that making significant room in my life for family, writing, and employment has meant tradeoffs. I don’t volunteer much at my sons’ schools, don’t make as much money as I would working full time, and my writing projects take a long time to develop.

Being a working writer and mother is the best way for me to live. A happy side effect is inspiring other women. It is possible to nurture both your family and your creativity!”

Author Description

Melissa Reeser Poulin

Melissa Reeser Poulin is a poet and writer. Her work appears in basalt, Water~Stone Review, Ruminate, Calyx, and Sugar House Review, among other publications. She is co-editor of Winged: New Writing on Bees, a literary anthology to benefit pollinator conservation. Melissa received her MFA at Seattle Pacific University and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon. Read more and connect here.


Move LifeStyle is an e-zine for the modern working woman created by Autumn Reeser, Jenn Wong and Ashley Fauset.

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