The Longform Guide to Motherhood

Older moms, surrogate moms, moms who drink, and more.

A mother and daughter walk down the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at the Easter Bonnet Parade in New York April 4, 2010.
A mother and daughter walk down the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at the Easter Bonnet Parade in New York April 4, 2010.

Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

If the personal really is political, then the choices moms make become fodder for us all. In some cases, even the definition of “mother” is changing. Here are six recent picks about extraordinary moms, stories that reflect a few of the many considerations modern childbearing women must make.


Dream Map to a Mind Seized
Amy Leal • Chronicle of Higher Education • December 2012

The author takes time off from teaching to aid her autistic son.

“As an English professor, I teach the art and science of words—their history and literature, their prose and poetry, their logic and their magic. When I plow through the niceties of syntax with my students, I try to pique their interest by pointing out something the essayist Lewis Thomas once noted: Grammar and glamour (originally, ‘to cast a spell on’) share etymological roots, and it is no accident that we use the word “spell” to mean both the alphabetic configuration of a word as well as an incantation. Words have power; the proper concatenation of them can conjure a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice, as Coleridge conceived it, and enact the impossible.


“But how do I empower someone without language, sign, or gesture? What is it like to experience aphasia, dysnomia, auditory and visual distortions, and variable physical sensations? At times I imagine that entering into my son’s sensory world—his own particular neurocosm, perhaps I should say—is a bit like walking into Lewis Carroll’s Wood With No Names.”

My Mother, My Daughter
Samantha Irby • Rumpus • June 2012

A young girl cares for her mother after a stroke.

“You don’t just get to withdraw from your child life while making sure your disabled mother doesn’t set the apartment on fire because her fingers can no longer close firmly around a cigarette. There is no ‘opt out’ button on adolescence. I would divide myself into two people: the happy, smiling person who needed to make friends and appear to be having a well-adjusted childhood during the day; and my mother’s mother and nursemaid and caretaker and friend at night.”


Parents of a Certain Age
Lisa Miller • New York • September 2011

How old is too old to get pregnant?

“It is nearly impossible to have a baby at 50 by accident. ‘Oops’ does not happen; that momentary abandonment of good sense or caution will almost never result in a pregnancy. No matter how a child is procured, whether through technology or adoption, her 50-year-old parents have likely gone through some kind of hell—paperwork, blood tests, questionnaires, waiting, visa applications, mood swings, marital discord, and recalibration of expectations—to have her. These are the most wanted of children. And their parents, some would argue, can give them something that the youngest and prettiest don’t have: the wisdom of age and an abiding sense that life is a precious gift not to be wasted.”


Meet the Twiblings
Melanie Thernstrom • New York Times Magazine • December 2010

On the complicated process of surrogacy and the many definitions of “mother.”

“And once we made the decision to have children this way, and put away regret, I felt happier embracing it than just tolerating it. There was even something I liked about the idea of a family created by many hands, like one of those community quilt projects, pietra dura, or a mosaic whose beauty arises from broken shards. If it takes a village to raise a child, why not begin with conception? When I tried to think about why I don’t want to have donor-and-surrogacy amnesia, it isn’t that it seems unfair to them (although it is), but that it erases our own experience of how our children came to be. At a basic level, the fact that our children originated through the good will of strangers feels like an auspicious beginning.”


Pregnant Pause?
Alyssa Giacobbe • Boston Magazine • December 2012

To some people’s ire, pregnant women are exercising more personal judgment about alcohol consumption.

“And yet, their decision to drink while expecting puts them in the middle of what may be the greatest divide among the pregnant and those who come in contact with them—which, of course, is all of us. That’s because pregnant or not, woman or man, everyone, it seems, has an opinion about everyone else’s drinking habits, especially if the everyone else in question is carrying a child. I’ve seen friends at both ends of the spectrum—from the one who sat at home for the first six months of her pregnancy for fear of doing anything that could possibly harm her baby to the one who took a far more ‘European’ approach. (If pregnant ladies in Europe are, in fact, doing Jäger shots.) I’m also hearing them judge one another and the comparative health of their babies—out of earshot, of course. And I have to wonder: Is there such a thing as ‘drinking safely’ while pregnant? And who has the right to say? Are we basing decisions about drinking while pregnant on science? Or something else?”


Entertainment for Women
Jessica Francis Kane • Morning News • July 2012

The author interviews her mother about life as a secretary at Playboy in 1960s New York City.

“JFK: Were any of your co-secretaries career women, or were they all just working until they got married?

“Mom: Two wanted to sell ad space in the magazine, but no woman would ever have been hired at that time to make the rounds. But maybe they eventually got their wish, attitudes did change ultimately. (By the way, I politely object to the phrasing above, the “just working until.” Take out the just and I am OK with it.)”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.