Book Review: Once There Was a Mom


I recently read Deseret Book’s new book, Once There Was a Mom, written by Emily Watts and illustrated by Destin Cox. I hoped to share some thoughts on it before Mother’s Day, but that clearly didn’t happen. 🙂 So instead, I’ll share some thoughts now, and I will start by saying I know this topic is tricky. It is tricky for so many genuine and valid reasons, and there is no way a single book can address all of them or meet every need. And this book is no exception. This makes me feel it is pretty brave to try to address some of them. And this book does do that, quite beautifully.

Specifically, it addresses profound (and unfortunately common) mommy guilt as well as (also unfortunately common) one dimensional characterizations of mothers as self serving beings with no personal needs. It does this in part by pretty explicitly acknowledging mothers can love their children fiercely while also needing rest and/or time (and treats!) to themselves, fiercely. It also does an exceptional job of sweetly, and sometimes humorously, highlighting the mundane things that can make up the work of caring for small children. To this point, one of my favorite illustrations has the picture books the mom is reading titled “Again” and “Again.”

And near the end, it admits that these things don’t often feel meaningful. It ends ends with more hope than that, and a to-be-expected affirmation that they are, but this pause felt important to me. Maybe because I’ve also felt an enormous disconnect between what I have heard about motherhood from the pulpit (most frequently from men), and what I have lived day in and day out .

Once There Was a Mom is framed like a children’s story, which could potentially be seen as infantilizing, but didn’t feel like it as I read, in part because it is done so well, and in other part because it fostered some really great conversations with my three year old, about the relationship we share as mother and daughter. It’s picture book set up also makes for a quick read, which can feel simultaneously rewarding and useful. 🙂 The illustrations and font type/layout are a big part of the book being really, really well done. They are remarkable, with a perfect mix of beautiful, thoughtful, and funny.

The most important thing it did for me, however, is made me feel seen. There is something sacred in that, and it is among the best gifts a book can offer. And it did see me. I am a mother of two young children, one of whom doesn’t color on my walls, but does color on my chairs, her bed, her brother’s crib, and their play kitchen. And I also sometimes (often!) need to take a bath by myself. And leave the house. And eat chocolate. I read the same stories, and play the same games, and sing the same songs, and watch the same children’s shows, and walk to the same park over and over and over. And all of that over and over is exhausting, physically, mentally, and emotionally. So I am also very tired.

Once There Was a Mom saw that too. It knows why. And it tells me it matters. And that I matter. And that my children, and the life we are creating with each other, matters. (The only page I didn’t see myself in was one about noisy toys and removed batteries. I don’t allow such toys in my house in the first place.) So I am thankful. Profoundly thankful. (Just as much as I sometimes feel profoundly guilty.) And if you are at all in the stage of life and circumstance I’m in, it might make you feel grateful too. Or maybe if you have just passed through my stage, and remember.

Do I wish it went a bit further? Absolutely. Is that fair of me? I’m not sure. But since I do, how precisely do I wish it went further? I wanted it to say even more clearly that it’s ok if the time mothers need away from their children is for more than baths, chocolate eating, or even leaving the house. That it could be for reading grown up books, or writing them. It could be for at-home, or away-from-home, work. I also wish it said a tad more clearly that moms are not just moms. They existed as women, as people, before they had or adopted children, as they exist that way afterward. Changed of course, but still important. Still themselves.

With that I’ll end with the book’s ending–the quilt. It was perfect, and made me think of two things I heard Laurel Thatcher Ulrich say (who I am thinking so hard about right now, anyway). The first was while she was talking about A Beginner’s Bostonthe book she made with her friends when they were young. She said they learned that they could use small increments of time to create something big. The second was while talking about her oft quoted (but not oft comprehended) phrase, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” She shared that she really valued the work that women do, including their material culture and their care. A quilt made of small pieces seems fitting, here, and reminds me of just one more thing. A poem by Carol Lynn Pearson called “Support Group,” with the first stanza being particularly relevant:

You can fall here.
We are a quilt set to catch you
A quilt of women’s hands
Threaded by pain made useful.

Rachel

Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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3 Responses

  1. Julianne says:

    I love this and want to buy it and read it and feel seen too. Do you know the kids book “5 minutes peace”? (I think that’s what it’s called?) I remember reading it with my mom when I was little. About an elephant, or rhino, family, and the mom is always looking for “5 minutes peace,” and her kids keep interrupting her. It was so sweet, and resonant for me, even when I was so young.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Thank you for this review; the book sounds excellent.

  3. spunky says:

    Such a great review Rachel! I read the book and quite enjoyed the simplicity of it. The only real issue I have is in the use of the term, “Mom.” *sigh* SO American. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I can just see the boxes of these books at Australia and New Zealand’s TOFW going back completely unopened and the American marketing team being confused as to why and making some weird connection about women outside of North American having such hard lives. “Mama” would’ve been more adaptable, or “Mother.”

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