Often, our experience of a mother’s love can eclipse our understanding of her identity. As children, the first thing we understand about our mothers is what it feels like to be loved by them, or for that love to be absent. We most often talk about our moms in the context of what they have or haven’t done for us because it’s the only lens through which we’ve seen and known her. In reality, of course, our mothers had entire lives – dreams, follies, romances, battles – long before we ever entered the picture.
Who were our mothers before they became mothers? This elusive question fuels the fascinating nostalgia of Mothers Before, a moving Instagram project celebrating the lives our mothers led before we knew them. Edan Lepucki, author behind dystopian bestselling novel California and modern-day noir novel Woman No. 17, curates the series: a collection of old photographs of mothers before they ever had children, submitted by their own daughters with a brief note.
The series features quaint images of bright young women, some swept up in frivolous laughter, some caught in moments of quiet, and others posed for striking formal portraits. They all look exceptionally young and witheringly beautiful.
Lepucki birthed the series in April 2017 to promote her then-forthcoming book Woman No. 17. The novel follows an eminently unhappy woman named Lady Daniels as she attempts to squeeze out a memoir focused on raising her mute son. Daniels hires a live-in nanny, Esther, to take care of her children while she writes — but Esther is secretly working on an intense creative project of her own, one that centers around understanding how her own problematic mother came to be that way. Mothers Before is actually a recreation of part of the character Esther’s work.
I called up Lepucki to talk about the journey of Mothers Before, the storytelling power of vintage photographs, and the need to complicate our image of motherhood.
HelloGiggles (HG): Where did the idea for Mothers Before originate?
Edan Lepucki (EL): Woman No. 17 came out about a year ago, and there’s a character in the book who does a similar project. She asks for photos of people’s mothers before they were mothers, and she does a further art project with it. She basically stages a recreation of that photograph, starring herself in sort of a Cindy Sherman way. Then she makes a portrait painting of the photograph. It’s kind of elaborate. So I thought it would be fun to do a kind of similar project, but honestly, [I thought] this would just be fun publicity for my book. And I didn’t really think it would be anything beyond, you know — I would just do it for a couple of months. I didn’t think in the long term.
So I first asked my friends if they had photos, and then I put a call out for them on Twitter and started amassing them. And then I posted them, and immediately they were just really – every single one of them was so cool. We got the beautiful mother, we have the fashionable mom, there were a lot of funny moms, and that, combined with the captions — I felt like it told this bigger story.
There’s a whole narrative in each photograph – the bygones past, the style of whatever the woman’s wearing, what they did in their lives before they were mothers, and what still remains. And then the caption often had another layer of the daughter looking at the mother and what that feels like.
It kind of took off, and it now has a life of its own that’s totally separate from Woman No. 17. Once I wrote the article for The New York Times about it and that article went viral, I suddenly got thousands of submissions.
HG: Is the character Esther’s experience in the book mirrored in the way the project has panned out in real life?
EL: The book is all about the various identities that women have and how they’re seen versus how they see themselves. There’s a lot of drama and conflict. Thankfully, the Instagram hasn’t been like that at all. (laughs)
But one thing that does echo it is this: Esther is coming from a place of wanting to know her mother better, and she has a really complicated relationship with her mother. Her mother’s an alcoholic, sort of an egomaniac in some ways. She is very affectionate but then can be very cruel. She can really turn on a dime. [Esther] really wants to have a connection to her mother, and in a strange way, she would like to be as free [as] her mother is. Her mother is very uninhibited and says what she means. [Esther] doesn’t have that.
So there is a sense, in the Instagram, of daughters looking at their mothers for not exactly guidance, but I would say maybe for clues. Because I think it’s sometimes startling to see elements of yourself in past pictures of your own parents, and trying to say, I know where they ended up, and this is what they were like at my age. Often I’ll get picture submissions where they’re like, “I’m the same age as this woman in the photograph, and I am suddenly realizing how much I look like my mom — and also how she still has the same laugh.” And I think there’s a way that we can feel a connection that I think sometimes we take for granted or we kind of reject, depending on your age – that similarity between you and your mother.
HG: I wonder what it is about photographs in particular that we’re so fascinated by, as opposed to talking to our moms and hearing the stories from their own mouths.
EL: Most people are seduced by a visual artifact. And I think in photos, there’s sort of a sense of, what’s beyond the frame? What is captured here? What’s the story behind the photographs? Every picture has a kind of history of how it came to be. And it’s interesting, too, especially now that we take billions of photographs. But most of the photographs that I’m seeing, they’re from a prior time. They had to get them developed, so there’s a little bit more intention behind them.
HG: Do you think photographs like these help us to see our mothers more authentically, or do they just add to the “myths” of our mothers, as you call it in your New York Times piece?
EL: I do think there’s a sense of getting something unguarded, caught on film, forever. But at the same time, our mothers – especially our mothers before we met them – they have to be myth. They’re only history. They’re only what is told to us and what we can glean from primary sources. So of course we’re still feeding into our imagined notions of our mother — but I think that’s kind of what’s fun about it. It’s like…there’s a glimmer of authenticity that’s also just beyond reach – which I think is how it always is with your mother. Because you can only know her as your mom.
HG: What I like about Mothers Before is that it challenges how we imagine mothers, which is typically as these very one-note, vanilla nurturers. What do you think about how our culture portrays motherhood in literature, movies, magazines, et cetera?
EL: Ugh, I feel like this is my beat. I just feel like so much of the stuff I’m writing right now is all about how I just want to see complicated women represented. That means women who adhere to those accepted notions of how to behave, those who don’t, and those who want to be [traditional enough] but somehow fail — all of those kinds of things. That can all seem really messy. I feel now is sort of the golden age of seeing those kinds of characters.
I can get really upset when I think about expectations of what “mother” means. When somebody refers to – like, oh, this is a “mom book,” and that refers to something bleached of anything edgy or something that is really schlocky. I’m like, that just means it’s for a woman who’s not necessarily old or not necessarily young. And then I catch myself making those same comments…You know, I’ve been a daughter for my whole life. I’ve been a mom now for almost 7 years. I’ve thought a lot about how my identity has changed since becoming a mom, and also how I’m exactly the same person in other ways when I consume the world. So that’s been kind of a struggle for me, and that’s one of my goals with the Instagram, and with all of the things that I do.
It’s to be like, look at all the ways that we can exist. Look at all the different ways that we can be female.
HG: Did you relate to either of your characters, Lady or Esther, when you were writing Woman No. 17 and exploring motherhood and its nuances?
EL: I thankfully do not have a really toxic relationship with my mom, so I was able to write about that but I didn’t tap into my own experiences. But I think everybody has a friend with a bad mom – or not a bad mom, but a troubling relationship. Something I’ve thought about a lot as a mom is how to know how to mother if you weren’t mothered in a way that helped you. I think it’s so hard to be a parent, and if you don’t have those examples to look back to, I think it would be doubly hard.
I could identify with Lady because I have two kids…The book was inspired because when my son was 14 months, which is not very old, he didn’t speak. He is now extremely verbal, but I had this kind of crisis: What if he doesn’t talk? What kind of mom will I be? Will I be able to be his advocate and support him? And I didn’t really have faith in myself that I could be that paragon of motherhood. And sometimes he is really challenging and I’m not always my best self. I don’t always keep my cool with him, and I think I’m not being the mother that I want to be…I think in order to be a mother, you really do have to know yourself to understand your identity apart from your child and with your child.
So I totally identify with Lady in that regard. I think she makes poor choices throughout the book, but I also understand why she made certain choices.
HG: You also have a podcast dropping this month. I love the idea – Mom Rage!
EL: Mom Rage started because my friend Amelia Morris, who’s my co-host, has two kids as well. […] The kids would be playing. We would be talking. We would just get into these deep conversations that sometimes veered pretty dark. Just very frank conversations, and she also has some issues with her own mom. So somewhere along the line, I was listening to a lot of podcasts, and I thought it would be so fun to do a podcast with Amelia where, in the first half of the show, we talk about our own struggles.
There is a little rage, like, against our children. We become dragon women, and then you lose your temper, and you feel out of control, and then you feel bad — like you’re totally doing the wrong thing. So there is that. But there’s also the rage against what people expect a mother to be like. And I felt so much rage when I read this New York Times magazine article about Black mothers in America not getting proper birth support. [And then there’s] the mom rage that Amelia has against her own mom and working through that conflict.
HG: How will this podcast add to the conversation about motherhood?
EL: The more opportunities we give mothers to speak openly without fear of public pillory, the more we free mothers to do what’s right for them. Because I don’t think it’s really about all the little tiny conversations like do you breastfeed, do you co-sleep, what kind of school, whatever. Those are details, and the larger narrative is getting lost — which is that women are not feeling supported, and this is what happens because of that. I just really want people to feel like there are a lot of different kinds of moms, a lot of different stories about them. Obviously, we don’t have the answers, but that’s why we’re doing the podcast.
HG: I agree. The more conversation that happens, the better off everyone is. It makes me happy to be reading about difficult women — women who are kind of fucking up motherhood and fucking up everything. It feels good to see those narratives.
EL: You know what?…That’s really what it’s about. Everyone fucks up, including moms.