Baby Shoes, or Why I Write About Motherhood

Baby Shoes, or Why I Write About Motherhood
My scandalously shoeless baby caught on camera.
"For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn."

The six words above are widely considered to be the best piece of flash fiction ever written. Although often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, their actual origin appears to be unknown. I first encountered them, with the Hemingway attribution, in my writers group, at least ten years before I had children of my own. Like most people, I felt the pang of loss implied by the words.

Then I became a mother.

The story surfaced from my subconscious when my second baby was about ten months old, and I was going through the perpetual slog of replacing clothing that he had outgrown. I found several pairs of perfect-condition baby shoes that had been handed down or gifted to me. Baby shoes. Never worn. No tragedy, just uselessness.

Before babies begin to walk, they don't need shoes. And until they began to walk, my babies never wore shoes. (Forgoing shoes during the early months of walking is also recommended, so that toddlers can learn how various movements of their foot muscles affect their balance and mobility.)

Nonetheless, that summer an old man hanging out outside the gas station stopped me as I was walking past on my way to the city park with my two children.

"Hey," he barked, gesturing at my baby in the stroller, happily propping his bare feet up on the seat tray, "where are his shoes?"

Is it worth adding that the temperature was in the nineties that day? I told him, "Babies don't need shoes."

He scowled, and I felt the sense of judgment many mothers feel oozing out of people who don't have the slightest idea of the daily reality of caring for young children. It tainted the rest of the afternoon, even though my husband urged me to just let it go. (But if I had just let it go, would I be able to write this blog post about it almost three years later?)

The reason it rankled, as the judgment heaped upon mothers usually rankles, is because it wasn't rooted in reality. It was rooted in some idea of what babies needed and what mothers should do, an idea that likely came from media, gossip, and other sources a couple steps removed from the daily grind of parenting.

And although I wasn't doing much writing at that time, I thought, "THIS is why real mothers need to write about mothering."

Almost everyone has some kind of experience with the care of children – memories of caring for younger siblings, babysitting, hanging out with nieces or nephews, teaching, coaching, mentoring, or other work that brings you in contact with kids on a regular basis. Because of this, most people can write about children with some accuracy and extrapolate what parenthood might be like even if they haven't experienced it directly.

The subject of motherhood interested me before I had kids, and I wrote about it in several of my works. Nothing I wrote about it before becoming a mother is horribly out of touch or unrealistic, but what I write about motherhood now is certainly more grounded. My body will never forget the way it feels to be bone-numbingly sleep-deprived or to leak breastmilk during a long meeting. I knew I wanted to write about motherhood in a way that eschewed platitudes and that reflected the way it infuses every aspect of your life. I wanted to write about children who were people, and life and identity disrupters, not just props or plot points.

People who have children need a sense of community, and people who don't have children need exposure to accurate depictions of parenthood. So maybe they won't heckle a mother for her shoeless baby on a hot summer afternoon. And maybe they'll shrug off "For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn" with nary a catch in their throat or a prickle in their eyes.

Because they'll know it's not a story about woe, regret, or trauma.

This "greatest piece of flash fiction ever written" is just a story about decluttering.