9:30 a.m. The children have breakfasted and nursed, been toileted and diapered, medicined and vitamined, swept off and wiped. The baby is down for her nap. The three-year-old is playing with his train tracks on the floor. I sit down on the rocking chair, sneak out an essay that I’ve been writing and rewriting for five years, and uncap a pen.
“Mommy, I want a hug.” Gripping Percy, the cheeky green engine, my son trots over and climbs onto my lap. Ten minutes later, I ask if he’s ready to play with his tracks again. “No.” He runs Percy up and down my arm. “I just hugging now.” In no time flat it’s time to get the baby up and make lunch.
Bear with me.
In the early 1900s Elinore Pruitt, a widowed washerwoman with a tiny child in tow, took herself and her daughter to the Wyoming frontier. She’d accepted a job as a housekeeper for a rancher there, but her true aim was to realize her own dream of proving up on a homestead. “I wanted to do every bit of it myself,” she wrote to a friend and former employer. And she did. While housekeeping for the rancher—whom she soon married, becoming Elinore Pruitt Stewart—she cooked, cleaned, mowed hay, put up jam, milked cows, frequently took her little daughter into the mountains and woods to camp and fish and explore, and later bore several more babies, burying two of them. Her letters depict a woman who observed nature as keenly as Henry David Thoreau did, but, unlike Thoreau, there was nobody else washing Stewart’s laundry and dropping off dinner. Thoreau talked a good line in independence; Stewart lived it, and despite the fact that she’d had little formal education, she left writings about her life that are immediate and engaging and sharp.
Collected in Letters of a Woman Homesteader, her epistolary stories are alive with hard-pressed neighbors, experiments in potato planting, and the treks she takes for days at a time, fishing in the mountains to feed herself and her daughter. Put her next to Thoreau’s Walden and she is more self-sufficient, more adventurous, braver, and, frankly, more fun to read.
Despite the fact that Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s letters were eventually published by The Atlantic Monthly and in 1914 were then collected into a successful and widely-read book, today almost nobody has heard of her. And I have to wonder: What if Stewart had written Thoreau’s book, and he hers? Would Thoreau have been praised for his detailed observations, and for removing himself from the narrative, as Stewart often did? Would Stewart have been criticized for introspection and self-absorption?
Why is work like Thoreau’s lauded and the writings of Stewart hardly known? Compared to Thoreau, Stewart’s independence was both more progressive and more radical, even discounting the daughter she raised on the frontier. Yet it is his books that are taught in school while her existence remains obscure. Has Letters of a Woman Homesteader been relegated to forgotten history simply because Stewart was a woman, a mother like me? Will my work be blotted out for the same reasons?
What was your reaction when you read the opening scene of this piece: a woman struggling to create against the chaos of children and home? Did your heart drop a little, anticipating perhaps a syrupy mommy blog post? Do you think a woman can make nothing vital out of the experiences of her life as a mother? “Bear with me,” I asked, because I know how easily we dismiss the woman-at-home story as mundane, as if a mother’s experience invariably reduces to insipid uniformity. As if there is nothing in this life, my life, worth writing about.
When my first child was still a baby and I began shaping my experiences of motherhood into narrative, I kept coming up against my pioneer ancestors and the knowledge of their tremendous competence: my great-great-grandmother and her relatives, who came out to Montana in the late 1800s and early 1900s, raising vegetables and wheat and cattle and children on soil that wasn’t nearly as hospitable as it had first appeared. They had hard lives and spines of steel, that much I know from my mother and grandfather. But they didn’t write much down, which meant the stories they left are scant and sketched out only in tiny, vivid details passed orally to their descendants.
These stories were of women who could do things. They fixed machinery, gardened, canned, taught children to read and do arithmetic, cooked huge meals on woodstoves in tiny kitchens, herded cattle and so much more. Since they kept no diaries or journals, I relied on my mother’s memories of her childhood on the ranch to help me imagine their lives.
When I tried to expand my knowledge by seeking out the stories of other pioneer women whose lives may have been similar—Pioneer Girl, the much more true-to-life autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (edited by Pamela Smith Hill) that strips down the glossy romanticism of the Little House books, had not yet been published—I ran into a vast emptiness. A void of stories that implied there’d been no women at all on the frontier, much less mothers. As with the other erased voices of the settlement of the American West—although involving, obviously, less overt violence—their absence changes the myths of our collective history. We have the intrepid male pioneer, the strong and silent male cowboy, the mountain man. In the pioneer narrative of the years following the Homestead Act, we hardly ever, heaven forbid, have mothers of any kind, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized Ma notwithstanding. We have only prostitutes or “farmer’s wives,” or women burying their dead babies beside the wagon train as they headed west, dimensionless characters with no voices of their own. In my research, I relied heavily on the efforts of little university presses, rare memoirs like Mary Clearman Blew’s All But the Waltz, and small volunteer-run historical societies that collected personal pioneer narratives. That was where I found vignettes full of dirt and detail, where you can smell the Chinook winds off the page and hear the creak of the plow, the crackle of the woodstove fires. And where mothers are real, vibrant, powerful people.
The absence of mothers still penetrates literature, even today when the call to listen to and publish diverse voices is making its first dents in the traditional canon. Writing by mothers can be easy to dismiss, especially if the writer happens to be writing about the experience of motherhood itself—a subject treated so derisively that it spawned the term “mommy blogger.” A scornful way to turn our backs on women’s efforts to make some sense of this visceral, maddening, joyful, terrifying experience. A high-minded dismissal of mothers’ attempts to find some connection and community, places where we can share stories of motherhood’s various challenges and the ways in which they burrow deep into every individual mother, permanently changing her sense of self.
We are shocked, as a country, as a people, every time a headline crashes into the day with another mother who has killed her children. It seems the act most unnatural to us; a mother’s love should surmount everything. But when a mother writes of the dark forces that parenting stirs within her, the fears and the rages and sheer helplessness in the face of dependent people whom we love with an absolute, clawing passion, but who have the unwitting ability to literally drive us mad, we at best give it space in the “Parenting” column and pay it scant attention. Is it any wonder many mothers, especially mothers whose darkness threatens to swallow them and their children together, feel so alone?
There are two billion mothers in the world. The way that these mothers raise their children to be eventual adults has an impact on everyone around them. Yet we still behave as if those mothers’ stories—our stories—are somehow lesser. Or as if a writer with a child at her side must necessarily face a career flattened due to lack of subject matter. Even Claire Vaye Watkins, at the end of her powerful essay “On Pandering,” said that attempting to write about her own experience of motherhood felt “quaint” and “domestic.” “I found myself with nothing to write about,” she wrote. It’s no wonder mommies started blogging; almost the entire literary world treats the subject of motherhood like a child itself: pats it on the head and sends it out to play so the real grownups can get back to their important conversations.
As a writer, I’m often told implicitly—sometimes even explicitly—that being a mother doesn’t matter, that it in fact castrates my career if I mention my mother-ness in an essay. We find the exceptions only in a few publications dedicated to the idea that mothering is in fact a complex literary subject worth exploring.
The lack of acceptance by the wider literary world is partly why I fell in love with Letters of a Woman Homesteader so hard and so fast. It’s not a perfect book—Stewart’s rare notes about African Americans are at best reflective of her time, although she comes across as more conscious than I would have expected—but her stories finally made sense of the whole spectrum of experience that made up my strong female ancestors’ lives. And in her writings, Stewart did not separate her domestic tasks from her more adventurous stories. “I kissed my baby’s little downy head and went to sleep,” she slips in among a rather thrilling story about camping with cowboys amidst a chase for horse thieves. This line comes only a half-page after “The firing had ceased save for a few sharp reports from the revolvers, like a coyote’s spiteful snapping.” The next thing we know, the cowboys’ German cook is rousing the camp for a breakfast of “cackle-berries und antelope steak.”
For her these events, the bundling of her baby to sleep and listening for sounds of the horse-thief chase, followed by breakfast over a campfire and her discovery that “cackle-berries” were simply eggs, were warp and woof, as they should be for all of us, each part of it necessary to complete the rich, wild thing we call life. In Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s book, we finally have a pioneer woman’s story, a pioneer mother’s story, told simply and beautifully as if being a mother and having something necessary to contribute to literature were not incompatible.
Elinore Pruitt Stewart had no doubts about the abilities of women. She did not question whether a woman, married or single, or with a child hanging on her apron, should strike out for the frontier to achieve independence. Assuming a person was not “afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness,” she wrote, there was no reason they couldn’t make it work just as she had. “I am very enthusiastic about women homesteading. . . . [A]ny woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed.”
Stewart’s story shifts the pioneer narrative from being solely male-centered to the strength of the female. And her writings throw into relief how completely we accept the absence of the “domestic” stories that actually make up the fabric of our daily lives. Motherhood exposes us to our raw animal instincts; the domestic life keeps us bound to the rhythms of the planet and the passing of our numbered days. Are we so afraid to admit that these subjects are just as worthy of our attention and accolades as any other narrative?
In a recent essay for Vela magazine, titled “In Defense of Motherhood as Art,” Sarah Menkedick ends her examination of the mother-writer by envisioning a new era of literature awaiting her daughter, one in which motherhood-as-literature and mothers-as-writers are released from their cotton candy cages spun over the last several decades: “I hope she grows up seeing mothers not as passive compromised figures but as the writers of the future, the weavers of new worlds,” she writes.
I hope so, too. Because there is substance in the way my son carried Percy the cheeky green engine around, in the way I anxiously hoped my baby daughter’s nap would be a few minutes longer each day. There is texture in the fact that, as I was finishing edits on this essay, the children whose presence opened it, and who are no longer babies, were trying to get my attention by stealing my papers and hiding them in the blanket fort they’d built in the living room. How we assess the value of this the chewiest, densest area of our lives taints how we perceive a woman’s literary treatment of anything at all. Women won’t get published equitably until this kind of work, this daily living, is held to be as truly valuable and individual as the rest of society’s experiences. There is fat and bone in the way we raise children, clean house, and strive to keep ourselves whole. Just as there is fiber and sinew in the way women fall in love, pursue astronomy, research World War II, trek through Patagonia, experience heartbreak and betrayal. There’s meat there, if we would only taste it.
Antonia Malchik‘s essays have appeared in Aeon, Orion, The Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the managing editor of STIR Journal and is working on a nonfiction book about walking.