Study Guide

the mother Themes

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Okay, nerds, get ready to ponder the nature of life and existence, because "the mother" sure is doing a lot of pondering. The speaker is a mother who has terminated her pregnancies, and she spends much of the poem trying to figure out just how to describe her non-existent children. She wonders if she can categorize a fetus as being alive, or if she can categorize a fetus as dead. What counts as life? What counts as death? As we travel down this heady road with our speaker, we even have to wonder about her very categorization as a mother. Can she be defined as a mother if she's aborted her pregnancies? The poem raises, but doesn't necessarily answer, the tough questions about what constitutes a life. It encourages you to jump on in, and form your own opinion on the topic. Brace yourselves.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Does the poem make a claim about when life begins? If so, what? If not, why not?
    2. Does the speaker think that her children have "died"? What parts of the poem support your ideas?
    3. The speaker refers to her aborted pregnancies as "children." What kind of argument lies behind this loaded word?

    Chew on This

    This poem argues that life begins at conception. Mystery: solved.

    Not so fast there—this poem argues that life doesn't begin until birth.

  • Language and Communication

    Sure, "the mother" is a poem about abortion, but it's also about the language that we use to talk about abortion. Abortion is a controversial political topic, so it's no wonder that the language that we use to discuss it is a hot topic too. Whether we categorize the abortion debates as pro-choice vs. pro-life, or as pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion rights, these distinctions matter. Our language and our political views are in a kind of a feedback loop: each affects the other. And nowhere is this more obvious than in "the mother," in which the speaker can't even find the right language to describe her own aborted pregnancies. Talk about a tough subject (or don't, since the language is so tricky). Abortion is both personal and political, and that makes the language around it even more charged.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is the effect of the poem's title? Why does it matter that the poem refers to the speaker as "the mother"? 
    2. Why do you think the speaker uses the word "children," and not, for example "fetuses"? What's the difference between the terms?
    3. Do you think that there's a political reason that the poem refers to the speaker's "children"? Is there a not-so-secret pro-life agenda in this poem? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    By using the terms "mother" and "children," the poem suggests that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. Eesh.

    Yeah—good try and all that. Still, even though the poem uses the terms "mother" and "children," it is pro-choice. The poem claims that abortion is a right, even if it involves a kind of death.

  • Guilt and Blame

    There's no doubt about it: the speaker of "the mother" feels a boatload of guilt about her abortions. She has elaborate fantasies about her children that never were, and she even refers to her abortions as a "crime." But did she cause deliberate pain? Is she guilty of murder? Should she be punished? These are unanswerable questions, and in a way they're the wrong ones to be asking. The poem asks us not to judge and blame the speaker, but to imagine ourselves in her shoes. Brooks's portrait of "the mother" is not a condemnation. It's more of an exploration of the feelings of guilt and blame than a judgment.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Do you think that the poem judges or criticizes the speaker? Or it is a neutral portrait? What parts of the poem support your answer? 
    2. What is the importance of "deliberateness" to the abortion discussion? Why does the speaker bring it up? 
    3. Are there any points in the poem where the speaker does not seem to feel guilty? If so, where? If not, why not? 
    4. Does the poem present any alternative to abortion? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's guilt is a sign that she made a mistake in having an abortion—she's guilty as charged.

    The speaker's guilt is a natural response to having an abortion. The poem is not using it to condemn the speaker (so back up there, Sir-Madam Condemns-a-Lot).

  • Politics

    As far as the United States is concerned, abortion pretty much equals politics. It's hard to even talk about abortion without talking about politics, because abortion has been a hot button issue for pretty much… oh, we're gonna say forever. Even after the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade case that gave women the right to reproductive freedom, abortion rights have been steadily debated and challenged. It was even a huge topic in the 2012 election. Our point is that it's hard to keep the discussion of abortion confined to the personal realm. It's hard not to read an agenda into any art that takes up the issue. Brooks's "the mother," without coming out explicitly for or against abortion rights, makes a lot of subtle—and often contradictory—political claims. It refuses to turn the conversation about abortion into a black and white discussion, and it acknowledges all of the gray areas in the debate by painting an incredibly human, and humane, portrait of a woman who has had an abortion.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Can you boil the politics of this poem down to a simple pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion rights stance? Why or why not? 
    2. Can you read this poem as apolitical? It is highly personal, after all.
    3. How do you think the speaker would feel about Roe v. Wade? What parts of the poem support your answer?

    Chew on This

    This poem is pro-abortion rights. Deal with it.

    This poem is anti-abortion rights. Deal with that.