The Mother

Author Gwendolyn Brooks (1917– )
First Published 1945, in A Street in Bronzeville
Type of Poem Lyric

The Poem

"The mother" is a short poem in free verse, written mostly in the first person. In her narrator, Gwendolyn Brooks adopts the persona of an impoverished mother. In the tradition of the lyric, this narrator addresses the reader directly and personally to convey her feelings. The poem contains thirty-five lines, which are separated into three stanzas. The title, "the mother," is ironic, for this mother is a woman who has lost her children because of very difficult and painful decisions—decisions that she believes were for the best.

Brooks’s "the mother" implicitly explores the impact of abject poverty on the life of a female character. The poem depicts the struggles and regrets of a poor woman who has had many abortions. The mother has continuing anxiety and anguish because of her difficult decisions. The very first line of the first stanza, "Abortions will not let you forget," immediately draws attention to the title, "the mother," and to the importance of the word love—what it has meant to the narrator to love her children or, rather, the children she might have had.

The narrator of the poem, the mother of the lost children, ultimately accepts responsibility for her acts, although she seems to alternate between evading and admitting that responsibility. Throughout the poem, the narrator refers to her decisions with concrete adverbs and adjectives.

The brief final stanza is climactic. The narrator confronts her familiarity with her lost children and, despite her decision to abort them, proclaims her love for them. The final line, consisting of only one word, "All," is particularly effective in that it stands in stark contrast to the apparent harshness of both her decision and her own attitude toward that decision.

The city is an important and recurring symbol in Brooks’s work. She has created a series of portraits of women inhabiting Bronzeville, a setting for many of her poems, which may be taken symbolically as the African-American community. In a way similar to that of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks’s work expresses the tragic and dehumanizing aspects of the ghetto experience. Brooks also ventures deep beneath the surface of the ghetto experience to uncover areas of a poor person’s life that frequently go unnoticed and should not necessarily be considered terrible or ugly.

Forms and Devices

A sharp contrast is created in "the mother" between potential—what could have been—and reality, what has been. This contrast establishes a dialectic of dreams versus reality, since, in the mother’s imagination, the lost babies still exist and grow even though she knows that the babies are dead. Throughout the poem the mother drifts between the imaginative and the real, finally revealing her need to believe in an existence after death.

In stanza 2, she imagines giving birth, suckling babies at her breast, and hearing them cry and play games; she even thinks of their "loves" and marriages. Yet these thoughts are bluntly followed by the words, "anyhow you are dead."

The speaker cannot quite bear the word "dead," however, and immediately follows it with "Or rather, …/ You were never made." The alternation of accepting and evading responsibility, of plainly saying "my dim killed children," then denying that terrible picture, gives the poem its complexity and its deep emotion. The speaker begins, in the first stanza, by using a second-person address—"the children you got that you did not get"—then switches, in the second stanza, to the painfully personal first-person meditation: "I have heard … the voices of my dim killed children." Her attempt to keep a distance between herself and the experience she describes fails. In stanza 2, she addresses the children who were never born with a series of clauses beginning with "if," attempting to apologize or explain herself to them: "If I sinned," "If I stole your births." She can conclude these thoughts only with the contradictory statement, "Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate."

An important unifying device in the poem is memory. Memory is constantly functioning in "the mother." The narrator is in a fluid and changing relationship with the past, and specifically with her decisions that have drastically affected the present. These decisions keep intruding into the present, and her recollections move between her dreams of what might have been and the harshness of her memory of what caused her to decide as she did.

Themes and Meanings

"The mother" mourns the loss of children aborted because of the poverty of the mother. By extension, it also mourns the loss of things that do not reach their potential, such as the loss experienced by a race of people whose growth has been interrupted or altered. One contrast and conflict that emerges in the poem is that between the desire of the mother to do what was best for her children and the finality of her decisions. The depiction of the narrator—honest, reflective, and self-aware—prevents an immediate positive or negative characterization. Instead, like the decisions she has made, the narrator is complicated—full of conflicting emotions regarding both herself and her lost children. Ironically, it was the mother’s moving concern for her children as well as her own circumstances which caused her to decide to have the abortions.

Throughout the poem, a strategic use is made by the narrator to the fate she knows would have been her lost children. Because of the harsh honesty which she refers to her decisions to have abortions, this reflection upon what the live’s of the children would have been like is made more believable. Her reliability as a narrator is established by the time she gets to an accounting for the reasons she made her decisions.

An important difference between Gwendolyn Brooks and contemporary writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who also use poor urban settings in their writing, is that she devotes much more attention to the experiences of women. Women may not be lacking in Wright’s and Ellison’s writing, but they are typically in the background and are of secondary importance to the male characters. Like the work of Ann Petry, Brooks’s work concentrates on the importance and implications of the poor urban experience on women as well as men.

Brooks’s poems offer a realistic view of the diversity of poor urban women. This view is in sharp contrast to the stereotypes which have grown up around such women (whore and matriarch, for example) and have made their way into literature. Brooks intentionally fails to provide some sort of unifying, uniform characterization of poor urban women. The narrator depicted in "the mother" remains one of many possibilities, not the only possibility. There are also women in Brooks’s poems who are sexually repressive, ordinary, exploited, protected, despairing, or aggressive. The only common characteristic these women share is a similar environment and heritage; throughout Brooks’s poems, women emerge as individuals. The women have different goals, priorities, and values, and have varying levels of misery, tolerance, and talents. This variety points to the recurring theme in Brooks’s work of individual identity and individual problems.