Study Guide

the mother

the mother Summary

Sit down, take a deep breath: this poem's intense. An unnamed speaker ruminates about the abortions she's had. She thinks about the children and adults that her pregnancies could have grown up to be. She addresses the aborted fetuses directly, and tells them that she was not "deliberate" in her decision to have an abortion. She contemplates the idea of abortion itself, and asks if it's possible to kill something that was never alive. She ends the poem by announcing that she "loved [them] all."

  • Stanza 1


    • We're going to start off our analysis of the poem with a quick reading of the title. There are two things to keep in mind about this baby. 
    • First, it announces who the speaker of the poem is: it's "the mother." It's not "a mother." Nor is it "some lady who happens to be a mother." The speaker of the poem is defined by her singularity—she's "the" mother. She's also defined by her relationship to her children. She's not "Susan"; she's "the mother." 
    • Second, the title is in lowercase letters. Does this diminish the position of this mother? Does it make her seem not-so-important? Let's read on and see what we think…

    Line 1

    Abortions will not let you forget.

    • Woah—this is one heck of a way to begin a poem.
    • Let's break down everything we know about the poem so far. The speaker of the poem is "the mother," and this line is the first thing she says to us, her audience. She addresses her audience directly with the word "you." This kind of direct address immediately involves (and implicates) us in the poem. 
    • And what are we implicated in, exactly? "Abortions." 
    • So, the mother begins the poem by telling us that "abortions will not let [us]" forget—but what will they not let us forget? The aborted fetuses? Something else entirely? Let's keep reading.

    Lines 2-6

    You remember the children you got that you did not get,
    The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
    The singers and workers that never handled the air.
    You will never neglect or beat
    Them, or silence or buy with a sweet. 

    • The next five lines provide some answers. The abortions will not let us forget "the children that you got that you did not get."
    • Hmm. These are all simple words in this line, but they are strung together in a strange way.
    • But we can unpack them, knowing that the topic of this theme is abortion. "The children you got"—the fetuses that you were pregnant with—"that you did not get"—that you did not give birth to. The mother is talking about the fetuses that she's aborted. 
    • She then goes on to describe these never-born children. She imagines that they would be "damp small pulps" after birth, that they might grow us to be "singers and workers."
    • She imagines a near, and then a distant future, for the children that were never born. 
    • The mother then imagines her relationship with these non-existent children: she will never neglect them, or beat them, or silence them, or bribe them with candy. And that's because they will never exist. 
    • She doesn't just think about the good times that she would have had with these non-existent children, but also the rough times.
    • She paints a small, but realistic portrait of motherhood.
    • But wait—is this motherhood? Is "the mother" who aborted her fetuses still a mother? Can you be a mother if you don't have any children?
    • Get ready to dwell in uncertainties, guys. These questions are at the heart of this poem.
    • Before we move on, let's just notice that we've got some rhyme going on. The first lines of the poem are written in rhyming couplets: "forget" and "get," "hair" and "air," "beat" and "sweet." There's almost a childishness about these easy, sing-song rhymes. They remind of us of some rhymes from children's poetry. ("Little Jack Horner / Sat in a corner," anyone?)

    Lines 7-10

    You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
    Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
    You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
    Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

    • The mother continues to list all of the things that she'll never get to do for her non-existent children. She'll never get these children to stop sucking their thumbs. Nor will she pretend to chase away the ghosts that the children imagine before bedtime. 
    • She will never know the feelings of sadness when she leaves them, and the feelings of happiness when she returns to them again.
    • Notice anything weird about those last two lines? There are some serious food metaphors going on. She describes the children as "a snack," and her eyes as "gobbling."
    • Is the mother the witch who trapped Hansel and Gretl, hungry for child flesh?
    • We think not. More likely, her feelings toward these children are so deep that she feels them deep in her body. We might even call these feelings "embodied." 
    • But wait: don't forget that the mother is not talking about actual children. She has aborted the fetuses that would turn into children one day. 
    • Don't you think the mother is being oddly specific in her descriptions, her hunger metaphors, her "scuttling" of ghosts? She's not generalizing; these are full-fledged fantasies that she's sharing. 
    • And we're starting to feel like the mother is not talking to an audience of readers. She's so specific about these motherhood fantasies that it feels much more like she's addressing herself in this first stanza.
    • And hey, let's just take note of the poem's form before we move on: more couplets. We've got more childish rhyming going on. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that sort of stuff.)
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 11-13

    I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
    I have contracted. I have eased
    My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck. 

    • Brooks starts changing things up in this new stanza. No more couplets, no more addressing the audience with the word "you."
    • The mother speaks forcefully, in the first person, by using "I." And hold on to your hats, this poem's getting real.
    • The mother tells us that she has heard the voices of her "dim killed children." The implication here, of course, is that she is the one who killed her children. And note that she does not say that she "aborted a fetus," or "terminated a pregnancy." By using the word "children," she is already anticipating what these fetuses will turn out to be. 
    • And she also says that they are "killed." Not that she has killed them herself, but that they are "killed." This is some hyper-passive syntax. And through this passive grammar, the mother doesn't (in these lines, at least) actually come right out to blame herself for their deaths. 
    • We should also note that she says that these children are also "dim"—that they're hazy, dark, maybe unreachable. There's an acknowledgement here that these children exist dimly. They are shadowy figures. 
    • Next, the mother refers to her body. After the abortion, her body has "contracted." Even still, she imagines that she has "eased" her non-existing children by breastfeeding them. We are way into fantasy here, but the speaker knows this. She acknowledges that the non-existent children "could never suck" from her breast. Still, that undeniable fact doesn't seem to stop her from diving headlong into imagining that they could.
    • We should also note that the rhyming couplets are gone. Instead of the neatness of couplets, we now have very uneven lines and uneven rhymes (if any). It feels like the speaker may be getting emotional here, maybe even falling apart. 
    • Of course, it sounds like she's in a dark place. She's thinking through the lives that her non-existent children never got to have.
    • They are "killed." "They could never" breastfeed. She's not telling us directly that she regrets having had an abortion—and from her use of the word "children," probably multiple abortions—but she's sounding mighty sad right about now.

    Lines 14-20

    I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
    Your luck
    And your lives from your unfinished reach,
    If I stole your births and your names,
    Your straight baby tears and your games,
    Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
    If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths, 

    • We've got another change in address. The mother is not talking to us now, or to herself; she's directly addressing her non-existent children. 
    • She calls them "Sweets," echoing the word from the first stanza. These children are like candy to her. (Yum. Child-candy.) 
    • And as she's addressing them, her words are all in the conditional tense. She doesn't say, for example, "I sinned"; she says "if I sinned." She doesn't say "I seized," but "if I seized."
    • Why is this important? Well, all of those "ifs" cast doubt on what she's saying. Her emotions are complex. She imagines her fetuses carried to term, she imagines them growing into babies and children and adults. But she also doesn't say flat-out that she's sinned in having an abortion. She's raising the possibility that she's sinned. It's a subtle, but important difference. 
    • She then lists all of the experiences that these non-existent children haven't had. They haven't had births, names, tears, games, loves, tumults, marriages, aches, or deaths. In short, these non-existence children haven't had lives at all. 
    • And why is that? In a turn of figurative language, the mother blames herself for seizing and stealing the abstract qualities of their childhood (births, names, games, etc.). 
    • The mother keeps imagining these lives that never were. It doesn't seem like she's totally regretting having an abortion, but she's definitely mourning the lives of the children that never came to be. 
    • But then her language gets harsher; she proposes the idea that she has "poisoned [their] breaths." It seems that her guilt is getting the better of her with this shift in tone.

    Lines 21-28

    Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
    Though why should I whine,
    Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
    Since anyhow you are dead.
    Or rather, or instead,
    You were never made.
    But that too, I am afraid,
    Is faulty:

    • These lines are some of the most painful in the poem. In them, we see the mother tossing and turning in her mind. What responsibilities does she bear toward her unborn children? Has she committed a crime in aborting a pregnancy? What is her relationship to these non-existent beings? Is a fetus a life, or just a potential life?
    • These are just some of the questions that the mother is grappling with in these lines. Plus, there's one more: is she really a mother? Can one be a mother without children? By naming the poem "the mother," Brooks seems to be leaning toward "yes."
    • But let's read on—"the mother" has more to say.
    • She says that "even in [her] deliberateness [she] was not deliberate." In other words: even though she decided to have an abortion, she was not deliberately killing her children. 
    • But then, she begins to berate herself. She asks herself—what is the point of whining? The "crime"—the abortion—was her decision. 
    • The mother, for the first time, really, is directly referring to the abortion as a crime—as a killing that she was responsible for.
    • Hmm—is this poem suddenly hard-core anti-choice? 
    • No. The mother begins turning the abortion around in her head. Are her children "dead"? Were they just "never made"?
    • In this moment, the poem is questioning language—what language do we have to refer to aborted fetuses? How does the language that we use to speak about abortion affect our feelings—personal or political—about it? 
    • The mother finds her descriptions "faulty." She can't find the right words to describe the children that she never had. 
    • Also, you might want to note that the rhyming couplets are back. As the mother gets deeper into her sadness, she begins speaking in harsh rhymes. We can almost hear the hardening in her voice as she rhymes "dead" with "instead."

    Lines 28-30

    oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
    You were born, you had body, you died.
    It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried. 

    • All of the mother's emotions and turbulent thoughts come to a head in these lines, as she mother cries out with an "oh." She doesn't know what to say. She doesn't have the language to describe her experience and the experience of her never-born children. 
    • So she tries to break it down in the simplest language that she has. She explains that the children were born, that they had bodies, that they died. But that they did this without life experiences—without laughter or planning or tears. 
    • The mother imagines a sort of life cycle (including death) for her non-existent children. But it's a weird life cycle, because it doesn't actually involve a life. (If this is making your head hurt a bit, don't worry—us, too.) 
    • There is a slowness in these lines, a moment of deliberate reckoning when the mother is trying to sort things out for herself.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 31-33

    Believe me, I loved you all.
    Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you

    • Sniff, sniff. Are we the only ones tearing up over here? The mother seems to give up her quest to put language to the experience of her never-born children. Instead, she addresses them directly. She tells them that she knew them faintly (which reminds us of her earlier description of them as "dim") and that she loved them all.
    • She loved them so much that she repeats the word "love" three times in these final lines. 
    • And that final line—that lonely "all"—suggests two different things. First, she loved all of her never-born children, but also, she loved everything about them—their bodies, souls, their potential life.
    • The poem ends on this horribly sad note, with love as its only resolution. It doesn't come out for, or against, abortion, but it does allow a woman who has had an abortion to mourn for her children that never existed. 
    • Brooks is navigating a tricky political space here. She's asking us to empathize with a woman who has terminated pregnancies by choice. She's asking us to give this woman the right to mourn for her non-existent children without coming out as anti-abortion. She's asking us to hold conflicting ideas in our minds: that the speaker is mother without children, and that a woman can have an abortion and still mourn her loss. 
    • Poetry: pretty powerful and thought-provoking stuff, dontcha think?