Erin S. Lane: Someone Other Than a Mother | TarcherPerigee; April 26

Several months ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal released her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter. The film follows Leda (played by Olivia Coleman), a translator on a solo vacation who becomes fixated on a young mother, her daughter, and the daughter’s doll—which Leda steals for reasons she doesn’t even fully seem to understand. The story then touches on Leda’s own experience parenting and being, as she describes, an “unnatural mother.”

The film, a radical, elliptical portrayal of a woman at odds with motherhood, is also often uncomfortable—partially because of Leda’s prickly loner persona, and partially because ambivalence about parenthood is not a story often told, even as it’s often felt.

Someone Other Than a Mother, a new book blending research and memoir by Raleigh author Erin S. Lane, is one welcome contribution to that particular canon.  Weaving in stories about people who fall outside of the dominant family narrative—people who don’t have children, people who can’t have children, people who come into parenthood unexpectedly—Lane (who is now an adoptive parent of three daughters) issues an invitation to broaden our ideas, not just about womanhood, but about personhood.

Lane, a graduate of Duke Divinity School, writes from a Christian perspective, but the book’s reach feels farther than that. This interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, was originally timed to Mother’s Day but was postponed. Coincidentally, its timing now—with a leaked Supreme Court document, several days ago, suggesting that Roe v. Wade may be overturned—feels more relevant than ever, with the book’s blunt considerations of choice, purpose, parenthood, and what it means to make decisions outside of the patriarchy.

INDY Week: You talk about wanting to rewrite the kind of social script around motherhood. What do you see that script looking like now?

Erin S. Lane: In the book, I talked about the mother scripts and this idea that women have gotten the message that their reproductive role is supposed to be the ultimate expression of a life well-lived. What I tried to do in the book is set out all of these pervasive cultural sayings that push women or society at large into believing that “mother love” is a superior love. So even if it’s not women’s “only purpose,” it still feels like we are getting the message that if you mother, it should be the thing that colors everything else in your life. And if you don’t mother, you’re not living in Technicolor. I think that’s the central mother script—the mother of all mothers scripts—that you don’t know love until you become a mother.

Can you talk about the book structure?

There are nine cultural scripts that felt the most pervasive in my life and in my social location, and every chapter lays out that script—from “Your biological clock is ticking” to “But you’d make a great mom” to “You’ll regret not having kids”—that often women who aren’t parenting hear the loudest. I also wanted to explore them as someone that used to be child-free and then found herself unexpectedly parenting.

Like, how are these messages about the before and after of a woman’s life really detrimental to mothers—and really rude—about the kinds of people and the kinds of meaning and fulfillment and calling we led before we became someone’s parent? And so every chapter is a pervasive cultural saying that I’m a little suspect of, and then every chapter is my suggestion for an alternative rewrite.

There’s an awkwardness people seem to feel around women who have chosen not to have children.

Yeah, I was the recipient of a lot of that awkwardness, which I describe as “blank stares, long pauses.” People seemed to have a feeling that they had nothing in common with me once they learned that that was not the trajectory that my life was on. A lot of people also wanted to convince me that I wasn’t seeing the full picture—that it was a lack of confidence rather than conviction that made me count myself out of biological mothering.

Religion is a clear through-line in the book, though I imagine not everyone drawn to it will be coming from a faith background. Who do you see as your audience?

I am a theologian by training, or a theological anthropologist, and my background is in anthropology, theology, and gender studies. So this is always the lens that I bring. I wanted to parse both how I had received certain messages from American Christianity about what a life well lived look like [and] also, because American Christianity is very dominant and loud and pervasive in a lot of cultural conversations, I wanted to explore how, even if you are not Christian or coming from a different faith background, these messages about the purpose or the primacy of family, or what a  legacy looks like, are still the waters many of us swim in.

The book also seems to be a bit about relationships, and how our culture doesn’t put as much emphasis on adult friendships as it does familial relationships.

As I get older, I realize the complexity of my own family system and have friends that are doing that same work with adult parents and siblings and sometimes children. And, why don’t we talk about family like friends, right?

Friendship is often the love that people express as giving them the most joy and the most wellness. There have been a lot of studies about older people in friendships and how that really is one of the defining factors of healthy old age. Like why don’t we lift up friends’ love as the ultimate expression of love rather than mother or family love? It seems like that would be a lot more generous and democratic because you don’t have to have certain body parts to practice it. You don’t have to have a certain family system, but it really is a love of intention, you know, rather than inevitability

And I think it has gotten lost in culture writ large because we don’t have a lot of rituals around it. We don’t have, like, sacraments of friendship or legal ways of recognizing friendship that we do for biological families. I think we’re missing out on a really big, expansive love.

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