kate baer's motherhood poems
Kate Baer's poems have topped the New York times, making her a best-selling author twice. She's also a mother to four kids, a wife and a staunch believer in telling it like it is.
She chats with Lunch Lady about writing, parenting, marriage, inequality, body image and more.
How did your writing career get started?
I graduated with a major in English, which is basically a major in nothing in America. I worked random jobs and was always writing during that time but wasn’t getting paid. My first book, What Kind of Woman, was the first time I was paid to write—and I had four children by then. I did side hustles and wrote in my free time the rest of the time.
Was writing an outlet for you?
Writing was something I kind of avoided, and I took a big break from writing on motherhood because I was tired of being called a mummy-writer. I wanted to be taken seriously. Then I realised I was internalising misogyny by not writing about motherhood. I was making a statement that it was less-than, and I don’t feel that way.
When I started cheating on my novel with poetry, I quickly returned to motherhood. My fourth baby was a surprise, and it was such a difficult time. I was still very much in recovery mode from that shock, and sitting down to write the book was definitely cathartic. It felt like everything I’d ever felt as a woman and mother came out, which sounds cliché. Writing isn’t a magical process, but I felt like I was meant to write about it all along.
How did you manage the tiredness you must have felt when receiving news of your fourth pregnancy?
Two kids felt doable. Hard, but doable. But even though it was difficult, I loved babies, and we decided to have a third. When we had a third, it really pushed us over a cliff. I felt like I was trying to bob above the water, trying to get everyone’s needs met—including my own—have a career, keep my husband’s career and keep our sanity. Then, we scheduled a vasectomy, and I found out I was pregnant again. I felt like I was already in the water, and someone handed me a bag of bricks. I really sunk into depression and felt like I couldn’t function.
The pregnancy was miserable. He was a wanted child, but the pregnancy was not wanted. Having him was a relief but still so hard. I had to figure out what I needed to be a mum of four and be a person again. It was difficult. It took so much time to get out of that fog.
Why do you think What Kind of Woman struck such a nerve with women in the pandemic?
In the US, the pandemic highlighted the cracks in many systems. One of those systems is childcare and motherhood, and how women carry so much. I think women here still feel it even though schools aren’t shutting down as much—there’s still a huge childcare crisis here.
How do people react to what you write?
Most of the time, I feel supported. There are times when I get initial pushback from men in response to what I’m talking about, which I think speaks to the huge divide of understanding when it comes to knowing what it’s like to be a woman, have children and all the other major differences between the sexes.
Your work makes women feel seen. Why do you think women often feel unseen?
I think it’s partly how we grew up and what we saw our mothers do or say—or more importantly, not do or not say. There’s also an expectation women will be a certain way, speak a certain way or behave a certain way. I think women have been getting sick of societal expectations for generations, and each generation makes little changes. I’m sure my own daughter will one day look at me and say, “I’m not going to do so many of the things you did,” and she will progress us a little further.
Do you have anything in your life that you feel you need to take care of because you’re a woman?
Having control and understanding over money is important to me. As much as I want to believe my relationship is forever, we never know what’s coming. Many people’s mums weren’t involved in managing the money, so it’s easy to be lazy about that. And I’m not judging people for that. However, I’ve started asking more questions, getting access to things, and checking I’m set up okay and have my retirement organised. But everyone has their own different thing.
How long have you been married?
About twelve years, but we’ve been together for fifteen. Marriage is so fascinating to me. At first, I thought it was boring—why do people talk about this thing all the time. We’re together—whatever. But the nuances and incredible toll it takes on a person and how people stay together is interesting to me. There’s the physical side of having sex with one person for the rest of your life and also how much a person changes over a decade.
I recently took off my engagement ring. It was my great-grandmother’s and I love it, but it became strange to wear—I can’t explain it any other way. It felt like I was impersonating a twenty-six-year-old bride. I don’t need to wear it anymore.
Do you think messaging around women’s bodies is changing?
Yes, but it’s hard to gauge because I’m not sure how I measure that—I’m in my liberal bubble. Is it changing for my daughter at school? I don’t know. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” I think we have to live in hope and keep working on it. Otherwise, it feels pointless.
How do we model good body image?
For better or worse, I don’t think kids really listen to what we say. But they do watch what we do and how we behave.
What makes you mad right now?
When my husband takes the kids to the park, people tell him he’s a good dad. I take my kids to the park, and people think I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do. I also feel mad when I hear people complain about their mental and emotional loads—not because they’re complaining, but because they still have to complain. Why aren’t their co-parents seeing or hearing it and taking proactive steps to make things more equal?
Why do we get stuck in these scenarios and relationships?
It’s so hard to communicate what’s bothering you. This happens to me all the time. I’ll explode at my husband about something that doesn’t really matter, but my rage is coming from somewhere so much deeper—usually a feeling of inequality. I think it’s harder for women to ask for help, and it often comes across as nagging. We all need relationships expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel in our marriages, handing out worksheets on how to communicate. Humans are so bad at communicating. Marriage is the perfect place to find two people trying to talk to each other, and nobody is hearing anything.
Do you find it difficult to sit and play with kids?
Most people don’t want to play with their kids or don’t enjoy it. And I really think most people don’t want to be with their kids all the time. Biologically and historically, mothers didn’t have their kids all the time—villages and communities did. It’s not natural for one person to have to spend all their time with children—it’s mind-numbing. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and most people love their children very much, but it’s not natural, and the isolation of the pandemic has exacerbated this.
What are you doing differently than your parents?
Mainly thinking more critically about parenting and how we speak to children, and what we expect of them. I feel like in the ’80s, children were basically a problem to be solved—parents had to stop tantrums and stop kids talking back. But tantrums are natural when a child can’t communicate well. Understanding a child’s development has helped me know it’s normal and okay—my child is not broken.
How do you balance being a parent with everything you want to do?
There is only one answer: getting help. I don’t think there is a way to balance work and motherhood without help. It’s a very privileged thing to say because having help requires money. Thinking about how I can write or work and how much money I need to pay for children has been a math problem over the years. But to me, the answer has always been childcare.
Your second book—I Hope this Finds You Well—takes people’s text and email messages and turns them into poetry. When did that idea come to you?
It really happened on a whim. George Floyd had just been murdered and I was talking about police reform on social media. I had people pushing back, and I was going through those messages and deleting them or not responding because I didn’t think it would lead to productive conversation. And I had this one message from a woman who was pretty upset with me. I was about to delete it, and then the words stuck out in a new way. So I took a screenshot, hid her identity and made a poem out of it using a white-out tool. People resonated with it. Erasure poetry then became something I just did.
Tell us about your unpublished novel.
I spent four years working on a literary thriller. I'll probably never look at it again, but it was such an incredible learning experience. I think people who aren’t writers look at that as a waste of time and energy. But it was a good experience. People don’t usually talk about the attempts they make at trying out new things, to get somewhere. But they matter.
We invited our readers to ask you a question. Someone asked, “How does Kate keep her faith in humanity?”
It’s hard sometimes, and there are days when it feels hopeless. But, I see the hope in my kids and my female friendships. My friends are as important to me as marriage—I couldn’t stay married without the women in my life because they fill so many gaps. And, when I see the ways we all show up for each other in little moments, even when we’re busy, those moments give me hope.