Motherhood as Storytelling

Mother and Daughter Reading Together

While attempting to scrub the layer of filth off my kitchen floor one day, I found myself in a mom-loathing moment. Perhaps you know the feeling: as I lamented that I could not keep my house clean with only one little person to account for, it suddenly began to feel like I could do nothing at all  for my family.

I ran through my perceived good-mom checklist: I don’t sew. I don’t garden. I don’t have a magazine-worthy home. I don’t have my baby on a foolproof sleep schedule. I don’t — actually, let’s make that never — put away the clothes in the laundry basket before we need it to be empty for the next load. You get the idea. I could have sworn a giant “DON’T” sign was hanging over my head at that exact moment.

I was beginning to feel a little desperate, so I actually asked (um, yes … aloud): “What can I even DO around here?!”

Then I had a somewhat strange, yet surprisingly clear thought:

Tell the stories.

Storytelling? Is that even in the mom job description? As an English teacher, I’ve thought about stories often, but I had not fully connected storytelling to motherhood. In the swirl of keeping my new-mom head above water, I had inadvertently begun to think of motherhood as a superficial checklist – one mostly made up of all the things I felt I couldn’t do. I had forgotten that my days were full of stories, ripe for the recording and telling.

Perhaps that’s because motherhood doesn’t always seem like a great story. There are many moments that do feel plot-worthy, of course: a positive pregnancy test or signed adoption papers, a slimy new baby being placed on your chest, cheering for those first laughs or first steps or watching your tiny babe march off to kindergarten or college (or so I’m told!).

Yet for every one of those moments, we all know that a handful of others look oh-so-very-ordinary. Days when we squeeze into jeans that no longer fit well, enthusiastically sing the same beloved song (again) or remind a toddler that no, sippy cups are not for dumping on the floor today, just like they weren’t yesterday, and like they aren’t going to be tomorrow.

But what if it’s this very characteristic of motherhood – its ordinariness — that inherently makes moms the best storytellers? As moms, we see so many details of our kids’ lives. We know the baby’s kicking patterns in utero. We feel the teething drool slide down our arm in the dark. We see how little personalities are emerging in all sorts of places no one else may notice: at meal times, in lines at the grocery store, or in sibling interactions.

Although this isn’t the stuff of Disney movies, these details are  the stories of our kids and families. Maybe they are details anyone else would overlook, but we get to pay attention and keep track of them — which is no small task. To have someone care about and remember the details of our lives, even the seemingly insignificant parts? I think that’s a gift – one I want to give my family. Besides, maybe the details will become motifs, and the motifs might contribute to themes, and the themes may be so grand that someday we’ll wonder why we never noticed them to begin with!

There are probably a thousand different ways moms can record and tell stories for their families – and in my next post, I’ll be sharing a few such practical ideas. Don’t worry, even those of us who are terrible at keeping a baby book (I’m raising my hand) aren’t disqualified.

Most days, I  just need to know this: that simply paying attention to the details of my child’s life is a worthwhile mom task.

So lately, whenever I’m feeling a little lost in the ordinary moments of motherhood, I try to remember that there are stories being written around me all the time, and that I get the privilege of seeing them – unburying them from under the perpetual pile of dirty laundry, and telling them for my family for years to come.

Jenna lives in Midtown with her husband and two kids (ages 6 and 4). She has an M.A. in English and too many overdue books at the library. She has been working with writers for over a decade, as a high school teacher, college instructor, and writing coach. She loves good coffee, serious conversation, and not-too-serious fiction.