Mama's Writing

Deesha Philyaw | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Starr Davis.

What recent writing accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

I have a satirical horror story titled, “Fuckboy Museum” in a forthcoming anthology, Peach Pit: 16 Stories of Unsavory Women.

Was this accomplishment shared and supported by your children?

My youngest daughter (age 19) read the story and, sadly, found it to be relatable.

Tell about a time mom-guilt emerged (or emerges) in the midst of your writing process.

My daughters are 19 and 24 now, so it’s been a minute. I don’t remember feeling a lot of guilt around writing, but I think that’s for several reasons. First, I co-parented during 99% of my writing career. So I had regular times when my kids were away with their dad, and I tried to get as much writing done as I could at those times. The other reason I didn’t feel much guilt is because too often I prioritized my kids and other obligations over my writing time. I frequently wrote at night, after everybody and everything else was taken care of, when I was running on fumes. For too many years, I made sure everyone else was fed well while giving myself and my writing crumbs. I regret that.

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a mom, what would it be?

“Don’t get married before you’re 30. And make sure he’s sweeter than your solitude. Word to Warsan Shire.”

What topics, artistic channels, or forms have become present that were not there before in your writing since becoming a parent?

I didn’t really write before becoming a parent. I started when my oldest was two.

Do you ever find yourself dealing with censorship as a mom-writer?

I held back sharing things about my first marriage in part because I wanted to protect my children’s privacy as well as my own. And there are still some things I’ll never write about for those same reasons. I don’t really think of that as censoring myself. For me, censoring has happened when I’ve not written about something because of fear or shame, unrelated to me being a mother.

Explain your thoughts on your children becoming acquainted with your work.

In nearly 25 years, we’ve gone from my kids wanting me to write about their funny antics in my (now defunct) blog to my kids having zero interest in my writing to them reading and talking about my short story collection and asking me to sign copies for their friends. I’ve wanted them to read my work more often than they’ve wanted to read it! I see my writing as a way for them to get to know me more fully as a person. But then I have to remember that I didn’t really see my mom as a person (and not just my mom) until I was 35.

How has parenting bolstered or inhibited your creativity?

Bolstered. Parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s made me curious, flexible, and resilient, all of which fuel my creativity.

How has the internet influenced you as both a writer and parent?

The first thing I did when I got pregnant in 1998 was look for a community of mothers via the internet. My writing career began on the internet. I’ve met and stayed connected to my writing community via social media. I’ve survived and thrived as a mother and as a writer because of people and resources on the Internet. The internet, like books, has made my world larger.

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

In my online community, a group of progressive homeschooling moms deeply influenced my parenting, even though I ultimately decided not to homeschool. They introduced me to attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding, and the like. Two of those mothers are also artists, and they were my early first readers.

Online, my first writing gig was as a columnist at Those wonderful mother-writers were my first editors and critique partners. I don’t have an MFA. I consider my 4 years at LM to be my MFA. Offline, my writing community was far more limited. Poet Yona Harvey is a dear friend and mother-writer who has influenced me as a mother and a writer. We became friends in the mid-2000s when we were both living in Pittsburgh. I deeply admire the vulnerability and authenticity of Yona’s work as a poet and as a mother, and simply how she moves in the world with such gentleness. She is forever goals.

Recently, I thought about how I’m a mentor/mother figure to younger folks, but I only have one older mother/mentor figure in my life. So I reached out to another mother-writer I know and asked if she would be my mentor, and she said yes. One of her best pieces of advice: When your children become adults, your role shifts from “manager” to “consultant.”

How do you balance motherhood/parenting and finding the space to write?

When my daughters were younger, I reminded myself that pursuing my writing – the thing I wanted to do most in the world – made me a better person, which would in turn make me a better parent. I’m not sure which quote is accurate but these two have been attributed to (racist) Carl Jung:  “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” and “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

Yona Harvey, Laura Szabo-Cohen, Peachie Wimbush-Polk, Renee Simms, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Kim McLarin, Mahogany Browne, Yvonne Bynoe, Toni Morrison

Final question especially for you:
What have you gained/gleaned from these profiles over the past almost 30 months that will stay with you?

The first mother-writing I encountered, pre-Literary Mama, was reading about the momoir era aka the Chardonnay-sippy cup-minivan book era aka the Mommy Wars era. Middle- to upper-class white women writing about motherhood and folks trying to pass their experiences off as universal and representative. The impact was a flattenng of motherhood and the erasure of the experiences of mothers of the global majority. And I remember thinking how frivolous those momoirs were, how little I could relate to what they were writing about, how little I cared. By contrast, I was constantly surprised and delighted and moved by the Mama’s Writing profiles. By the honesty and the grappling and the contradictions and the humor. By the realness. What will stay with me is that mothers of the global majority have so many wonderful layers, that – to quote Walt Whitman – we contain multitudes.

Deesha Philyaw is the author of the debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press, 2020), which won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and a 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; the collection was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and is currently the 2022-2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.

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Starr Davis is a poet and essayist whose work has been featured in multiple literary venues such as The Kenyon Review, Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day, the Rumpus, and Catapult. She is a 2021–2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow and the creative nonfiction editor for TriQuarterly. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York and a BA in journalism and creative writing from the University of Akron. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry and creative nonfiction, Best of the Net, and Best American Essays.


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