Writing, Motherhood, and the Self

Nadia Colburn // August 23, 2023 // 24 Comments

One of the hardest things we do as writers is balance our writing and the rest of our lives. There are all the practical challenges: how to make time for writing in our already very busy lives? How do we fit writing into our life if we also need to earn money?

There is also the question of how to balance writing in our emotional and spiritual lives: how do we give it enough attention but not allow it to take over? How do we remain present while also writing?

If we’re parents, these questions become all the more complicated. 

Why do I write? Why don’t I write? How do I find my subjects?

I wrote with these questions in mind, and what I discovered in the writing process surprised me. I hope you enjoy the essay: 

Writing and Not Writing: Motherhood and the Self

After my poetry reading, my daughter, Simone, who had watched attentively from the front row, told me that she’d enjoyed the reading and especially liked the poems about her. 

This made me happy. And then, almost immediately, sad.

I wanted to have more poems about her.  I wanted my work to reflect my full love. And for a while, I felt full of regret.

Simone shows up in my poems only in snippets: a girl holding a bucket, drawing a flower. But the live, dynamic person that she is, my kind, spunky, thoughtful daughter with her blue-gray eyes, the girl who ran around the house putting on elaborate acting shows, who I held in my arms, who I lie down next to at night to check in about her day, who now goes about the world with such grace and surety —that person who means more to me than language can ever express, does not have a place in my writing commensurate to the place she holds in my heart.

Why was that? 


I became a serious writer in part because I wanted to write about motherhood.  My first pregnancy, with my son four years before Simone was born, made me want to find my voice.

My changing body turned me inward. The more my belly protruded, the deeper I went and the more I wanted to translate that inner life into language.

I wanted to write partly to represent myself on the page. In 1999, at twenty-six in New York City, I’d read very few accounts of motherhood. And the examples of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, famous poet mothers who had killed themselves, were ones I wanted to write against.

I wanted to create a new story of motherhood, a new story of what it means to birth and nurture life, a new story of what it means to be creative.

My early poems were about pregnancy and motherhood. Later, I wrote a memoir about the first year of mothering my son. But when memories of an early childhood sexual assault started to surface, I pulled the memoir from my agent: in part writing about motherhood had made me start to remember pieces of my own childhood, and I didn’t want to publish a story that I myself only vaguely understood.


In the many years since, a curious thing happened: I only sometimes wrote about motherhood. 

What happened? Why aren't my children, who are so important to me, represented more in the pages I have written? 

What if, when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t central to me because I don’t write about them? What if they make the mistake of thinking that the real me is the me on the page?

When I have this thought, I feel an old disembodied despair of not being seen in my wholeness. Of being only part of me, of being fragmented.

But this fear comes from a common mis-equation between our writing and ourselves.

Many of my students and many writers worry that they are not fully represented on the page. They worry, like me, that they haven't done justice to the people they love. Or they worry that their writing is too dark and don't want people to read it because it doesn't represent all of them. Or they worry that they can't put the truth about their feelings for people on the page because it will hurt others. Or they worry that their writing puts their deepest, innermost selves are on display and are concerned about what people will think. 

I've had all of these concerns myself, but when I really sit with the situation, I realize the fear comes from the ego that wishes we could have a stable, monolithic self that could be seen, understood in its fullness. It comes from an ego that wants to be fully seen. 

But what if it's okay to put parts of ourselves on the page and leave whole other parts off? We can be seen and also not seen at the same time and still be whole. 

After all, Simone told me something she liked; she didn't tell me that she was hurt that she didn't appear in more of my poems, but I immediately translated that into what I hadn't done enough of. 

That's common, too. It's easy to feel that our writing isn't enough. But what if it is? 


For women, it is particularly hard to be fully seen and feel that what we do, what we are, is enough. It was Walt Whitman who wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” But it was Emily Dickinson who said, “I dwell in possibility.”

For women, it’s that hard to feel that we are large enough to hold all our identities at once. We’re expected to be one thing, but we are so many. And then we worry that if it’s not all on the page, it’s lost—not important, not given the weight that it deserves.

But we are not our writing. Just as we are not our trauma, and just as we are not any one role, not just mother or lover or friend. All of these things are just part of the experiences that have made us, but are not simply who we are. 


Thinking about the ways in which I have—and haven’t—written about motherhood helps me reconsider and see more clearly the role writing plays in my life.

When I started writing seriously as a young mother, I had thought that I wrote to represent myself as a woman, that I wrote to give voice to what means the most to me and what I work hardest at, but none of this is  simply the case.

If I wrote to represent myself on the page or to give voice to what I think is important or what I have worked hardest at, certainly, I’d have written much more about motherhood and my children.

So my basic assumptions about why I write are undone.

Why, then, do I write?  


I started to write seriously when I was a new mother, I now think, because that experience turned me upside down: there was so much that I did not know.

And I was propelled also, in part, by a trauma story that my body was holding that I wanted to bring out of silence.

When I pulled my memoir from my agent, I thought I was pulling it because I didn't want to write from a place of not knowing.

But if it was a good idea to pull my memoir because I wasn't in a good state to be public and I needed to prioritize my healing, in fact, there is nothing wrong with writing from a place of not knowing.

I write to discover; I write from the places that are not actualized in other ways.

I write from silence, from the place language does not yet go, to try to put into language what I do not understand. I write to break toxic  silences.

I reach toward truth, but like my meditation practice, my writing teaches me that there is no simple static truth and no fixed location for my identity, for myself.

I write not to express myself in any kind of monolithic way, but to explore possibilities, and to make on the page something beautiful. 

My writing has a life of its own. It takes me on its own journey of spirit and listening. 


Other people write from other places. Each of us has our own, unique and valid relationship to our creative writing, a relationship that changes over time. 

But for no one is there a simple one-to-one relationship between their writing and their selves. 

Even memoir writers must make a distinction between their lived life and the life of their character on the page.

When I am with my children, I try to be as present as possible, grounded, and open to my ever-changing relationship with them. 

And when I am with my writing, I am with my writing. If we try to force our writing to be something it might not want to be, it becomes constrained, and, in fact, we misplace our energy. 

But if we give our writing freedom to be what it wants to be, both our writing and our lives expand. 

Interestingly, I find myself now going back to some of the themes of motherhood that I first wrote about more than twenty years ago--but of course, I do that from a different perspective now, and I look forward to seeing where the writing leads me. 

PS: Stay tuned for another essay coming soon about writing about difficult relationships and breaking family silences.

(An earlier version of this essay was first published in Literary Mama.)

I  encourage you to think—and write—about the role of writing in your own life:

  • What do you take as your subjects?
  • How do family and writing interact for you?
  • What surprises you about your own relationship to writing?
  • What questions do you have about the role of writing in your own life?

Writing into our questions is always illuminating.

LEAVE A REPLY.   I love to hear from you and do my best to respond to all comments. 

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  1. Hi,

    I am somewhat puzzled by your email. I did enjoy reading your essay, though in my case, most family members are not hoping to be written about, but fearful I will reveal a secret.

    Writing became my primary hobby only recently – long after retirement. My Ph.D. was in food science, not literature-related.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Marilyn Carnell

    1. Hi Marilyn, Thanks so much for your note! I completely relate, also, to the challenge of writing about difficult family relationships. I'm really lucky that my relationship with my daughter is the way it is, but I have plenty of more challenging relationships, and it's been a journey, also, do figure out how to write about them and what to publish when. Thanks so much for expressing your puzzlement. Keep writing–for now, you can keep your writing to yourself and decide what you want to make public later. warmly, Nadia

  2. Sometimes I think we are so busy taking snapshots of a child's ballet performance or the fun a child has on a playground that we distance ourselves from the fun a child is having or can't really enjoy the performance. Perhaps also we are trying to validate ourselves as parents by chronicling milestones in our children's lives…Often I am the photographer or writer…By looking through the lens of my cell phone, am I missing out on the moment? What gives me more joy, the picture or the experience of sharing a precious moment with my children, even now when they are adults? I try to take candid photos and not too many…I wrote of my daughter when she was two. I treasure the first which I share.The second I wrote to her when she was 50. I told five stories of shared experiences. I told her she was my favorite…Ami likes to be own picture, write her own story…She read the the second and immediately put it into her purse. You ask the question..What if, when they read my work, my children and husband think that they aren’t central to me because I don’t write about them? What if they make the mistake of thinking that the real me is the me on the page? Your daughter Simone will perhaps someday understand what it is like to love someone so much that you can let go and just let that someone be…without any editorial…Simone will remember that more than any poem.

    1. What a beautiful post–this is lovely. And yes, I wonder about what it's like for children who always see their parents behind screens of one kind or another. Real, attentive, loving presence is such a gift.

  3. Too long for first comment
    Oh, she just cried “mama”, and I hoped, “Not yet, finish your nap.” Quiet again. As I watch the even breathing and the occasional curling of a finger, I think of her infancy and my insecurity. At night I’d wake up four or five times and check that she was still breathing. Now half-awake, she examines her hands with sleepy eyes and returns to a two-year old’s dream.
    Sometimes when I’m scolding her, I can almost climb inside and feel her frustration at being kept from pouring water on the bathroom floor. “Sweetheart, do you dream of freedom from your mommy’s no’s? Of kitties and doggies that don’t run from your happy squealing. Of ice cream first and then your vegetables?” Your little tongue slurps in and out. Yawning and folding your arms, you continue sleeping.
    You told someone yesterday, that Mommy made your holey red tennies and your dress and your panties too. Where are those red tennis shoes taking you now—to California and “Gamma”…to Big Bird and Sesame Street?
    On waking, you’ll hear it raining, and I’ll see that by your big eyes. Barefoot and umbrella’d, are you already splashing puddles in your dream? Button-nose and Curlylocks, are you tasting porridge with the three bears or chasing after the “gingerman bread”?
    One minute you tell me, “Be careful, sweetheart” or “Amy kiss your ouchie”, the next, “give me that now!” or a defiant “no!” Your words and temperament are a mirror of your parents’ love and frustration with a growing-up-so fast two-year-old. You are such a daddy’s girl and so willingly, he gives you his chair, his food, his time, his heart—you only have to ask. He is more patient and giving with you than anyone else in the world. So often, you wake from your nap, asking, “My Daddy home?” eager to check his lunch box for a cookie. Your baby delight envelops and expands his homecoming like a second sunrise. You are confetti, balloons and a trumpet fanfare for your pa.
    Chubby hands reach and grope and glazed eyes see (I think) a corn chip you’ve dropped from your dream. Your pick it up and hand it to me, and by rubbing your ear, sucking your finger, you leave me for your spirit journey. I am glad for the brief privacy of your nap, for sometimes I feel drained by your parasitic dependence on my personality. But, I realize I am an extension of your world, a part of you that sustains and protects and loves you, until you can cope and relate on your own terms as a separate and distinct person. And I am anxious for what you will discover next with your big, new, wondering eyes.
    You climb off the couch, and demand—no seduce a story from your Mama. Still sucking a finger and snuggling close, my daughter returns to an incomprehensible world that her mom and dad translate into love for a two-year-old. Written in 1974

    Here is the way I started the 2023 poem,, I remember your birth, Ami, you were my first child, so anticipated with so much love. I remember looking you in the face for the first time and forgiving my parents for any parenting mistake they ever made. I wondered how I would ever teach you to feed yourself, then I saw your arms were perfectly hinged to exactly reach your mouth.
    I have told each of you children that you are my favorite child, but don’t tell your brother or sister. But you were my first child, the first to catapult from my womb. Immediately you captured my heart. Your parents gave undivided attention to your first smile, first laugh, first tooth and first step. Why were these first milestones never as amazing for subsequent kids? Was being first a blessing and or a curse? Probably both.

  4. Hello Nadia,

    Since purchasing your 31-day writing and meditation course, I've revisited my love for writing in the best way. Needed for these latest chapters in my life. Learning about meditation, a bonus. I'm not necessarily a mover & shaker, living a hurried or overstressed life. No kids. No husband or even boyfriend. No mind-blowing career to date. At 48. I'm a free spirit, my faith in God leading me from childhood. The desire to reinvent is more powerful than ever these days…spiritually, professionally, financially, physically, etc.

    Those things said, your open and generous way of sharing your story is helping me tremendously. To explore possibilities with more intention. With pride in what I've accomplished. And all of who I am. Your breathing exercises, readings & writing prompts help me still my mile per minute mind. My writing flows as if it's been waiting to be released every time. Mostly a journal writer. Aspirations to possibly write even a little something for publication. Miracles do happen. Thanks for the latest shared essay on Motherhood and writing. Reading is another area I'm trying to reclaim. The bookworm days of the past were so fulfilling. Thanks for reading this and for your presence, positivity, priceless vibe.

    1. Dear Wanda, What a beautiful note. I feel your strong energy and spirit here. So glad you are writing, reading, and reinventing yourself from an authentic space. And I'm delighted the 31+ Day Course is helping. Great to be connected! Nadia

  5. Thanks for posting this. The concerns as a mother, and the litany/list of "why I write" particularly touched me. Also these questions of "self" and how they fit into meditation practice.
    I'm writing this from my (almost 50-year-old) daughter's house in Oregon, cherishing this week where we walked her son to his first day of 4th grade, and she and I can stay up late together and talk like we did when she was a girl.
    Her first comment on a poem I wrote about a painful conflict we were having when she was a young teen and I was in a new relationship, was, "Can you just take my life like that?" "But it's my life too" didn't satisfy her then. She also wanted to know why I didn't write more happy and sweet poems with her in them. Before long she began requesting read the poems where she appeared and asked me to read them for her friends and also was proud to be in them.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections. What a nice relationship it sounds like you have with your daughter!

  6. I appreciate the permission factor to be ok with what we write and when. I think when I’m super honey and am writing to extract angst or the like I’m just getting it out of my head. No one needs ever to see it. I oven have whole journals I throw away because of a difficult time and I never want anyone to read it. But then like you I wonder perhaps knowing I too was working through some difficult May be a shared light for my children, etc. Thanks for sharing this essay.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes–your writing is yours! You get to decide what and when and how you want (or don't want) to share it with others!

  7. Whst you've said really resonated with me ,

    "For women, it’s that hard to feel that we are large enough to hold all our identities at once"
    Thanks for the beautiful article

  8. Oh Nadia,

    Thank you for this! when my son was 13 I raced home from having been out with him and wrote a sweet piece on mothering that is on my blog on my website. I love it very much because I feel that it captures the push/pull of adolescence. When I was pregnant with my daughter and my son (born ten years apart!) I started a journal to (for?) each of them. They are now 37 and 27 and I just added an entry yesterday. My memoir so far has no mention of them because now as I focus on my own journey at age 65 it's time for some self focus and love.


    1. Hi Didi, I love that you captured your feelings and experiences with your kids at the moment, and are using different pieces and forms to focus on different parts of yourself. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Hello Nadia,

    Recently linked in with your daily mindfulness/ writing mini course and was super pleased to have found you and your creative mindfully informed suggestions for writing…something about their simplicity and inclusiveness that chimes loudly.

    Grateful to you for sharing and look forward to the continued delving into treasures yet to be discovered…

  10. Dea Nadia,

    I loved your email and found it thought provoking. You could tell your daughter that even though you love her with all of your heart you need an outlet for creative expression through writing to nurture yourself. Spending this time for yourself helps you to be more present for her and for your other children to attend to their needs.

    Many composers write musc for their children but usually only several pieces. You could make a scrapbook of poems about your children as a keepsake to them while still writing about many other topics that nurture your creative self.

    1. Thank you, Peggy, for your suggestions and comments. It's interesting to notice what people do across the arts, isn't it? xo

  11. These are great questions to contemplate. I am finding a degree of my writing is centered around the impact of my childhood on who I am today. Perhaps I need to clear that to connect with possibility!

    1. Hi Anita, I do find that the more we can go back and heal our childhood self, the more we open to possibility. And one way to heal that childhood self is to get clarity (and compassion) through writing. Thanks for posting! warmly, Nadia

  12. I love love love this opportunity. You speak to my heart, where I am now… at 64 looking back on my life with so many questions, with an awakening awareness of my past trauma and how it has impacted my choices and my life. I find peace and understanding and hope in the meditation and my attempts at writing . Thank you so very much . I have done two lessons so far and already feel hope and a deeper understanding of who I am and how I fit in this beautiful world . Hugs kathy

  13. Nadia,

    Your essay was very touching! I think that once we are mothers, we are "forever" mothers and that ultimate unconditional love we have for our children will always make us put them first and want to put them first! Just wait until the grandchildren come along!!

    In my writing, I tend to write about my feelings, perceptions and experiences and all the people in my life, but it seems I write less about my husband and kids than I do others. You've given me something to consider. I also tend to write from emotion as well and the new practices your course introduces to me are helping me to broaden and consider other areas to delve into. I would like to see all of this writing I am doing and have done for many years actually morph into "something". But if it doesn't, I am okay with that too!


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