Motherhood on the Head of a Pin

 Jill Lepore wrote a book about a woman we know hardly anything about. A thick book, a love letter, a weighty tome about a woman of whom the slimmest of evidence exists—letters, a single hand-stitched notebook, ghostly things that others said of her.

She was a poor woman from Boston right before and after the Revolution. She got pregnant out of wedlock and married the drunkard father. She had twelve children, and only one outlived her. She washed clothes and nursed and tried to make enough money to support her family.

Her name was Jane, and she had a famous brother, Ben Franklin. He taught her to write. Had he not taught her, or not been famous, we would know even less about her, would never hear her voice—every bit as shining as her older brother’s—speak from the old folded pages of her correspondence.


Not many months ago, I was at a party. The women and men drew together in two separate clumps, like magnets do, and I, gladly, settled in to talk to a few of the moms. I like these women, old acquaintances. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and so I asked one and then another how they were. They’re both stay at home mothers.

I have been the mother at the party and never have anyone ask me about my life. I have had people hear that I homeschool and do laundry and bedtimes and assume I have nothing to say that might interest them. I was determined to not do the same thing to these women. So I asked them, how are you and but what is your story right now, and each time, they looked down at their laps, as if embarrassed.

How do you remember, in a culture that does not value small, quiet things, that you are tremendously valuable?

“You know,” they said. “Not much. Just school, and homework, and—you know.”

And I do know. I do. The life I live at home with my children is lovely. But in the telling it sometimes fits on the head of a pin.

Regardless, I wanted to be frustrated with them. I wanted to say, “Trust me!” and “Don’t underestimate yourself,” and “Really, I AM interested.” But they weren’t telling. And I get why.

How do you tell a story of nursing and laundry and childcare and meals that lets the light shine in? How do you answer the question, “What do you do for a living” in a way that honors the living you do? In a way anyone wants to hear? How do you remember, in a culture that does not value small, quiet things, that you are tremendously valuable?

This is why when I read Lepore’s book I wanted to cry. I was awed by the tremendous dignity of Jane Franklin Mecom, writing the names of the children she loved in a handmade book, and noting the days they died. I loved that she thought and was curious and learned in a world that didn’t value her mind. That she lived the quiet life that was her portion with contentment, and yet shone out fiercely in the middle of an unfair obscurity.

And I wanted to honor Lepore, who noticed a woman who clearly could have been a Founding Mother if anyone had thought that mothers were needful. I honor Lepore celebrating who Jane was in all her daily glory and dignity, and also the ghost of the person she might have been if she, like her more famous brother, had been allowed to make her own choices, or not pay for teenage mistakes with a lifetime of suffering.

I want to honor all of us who do quiet work of caregiving, housework, child-rearing. These daily routines vary little and yet make spaces of beauty and order and love. I want to honor the stories that are hard to tell, because they do not have dramatic narrative arcs.

I want to celebrate the beauty of mother’s lives. Our days are like poems, with repeated graceful phrases that circle back on themselves. They are endless in particular physical detail. They bend down to the earth and pick up stray petals that a child has dropped. They cradle and hold and soothe and smooth. They tuck hairs back behind ears.

Their stories, those endless circular routines, have the same great gravity as the stars and moon.

Photo by Alex Pasarelu on Unsplash

Heather Caliri
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