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Topic Recommends: Mobster Moms, Sister Ships, and Whistler

Mennonite volunteers leaving the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility with inmates’ babies, who they will care for as part of a special program, 2012. Women who give birth in prison are often only allowed to spend a few hours with their newborns before handing them off to foster care. The Mennonite women who participate in this program maintain relationships with the kids’ mothers and bring the kids to visit, with the goal of reuniting the families once the mother is out of prison. Photograph by Wesaam Al-Badry

Topic Recommends: Mobster Moms, Sister Ships, and Whistler

A curated list of the best stories on the internet about choosing, and avoiding, motherhood.

Every other week, Topic Recommends curates the best stories for you to watch, listen to, read, and enjoy. Anything, really, besides the news. It’s all the work of writer Laura Olin.

This month, Laura is suggesting stories linked to our May theme: Mothers. Sign up to get this as a newsletter here.

1. Made Moms. Mother’s Day is “the most important Sunday on the organized crime calendar,” according to an oddly heartwarming 2007 portrait by Associated Press reporter Larry McShane. The story describes how, every year, Jimmy “The Gent” Burke—the mob mastermind who was suspected to be behind the legendary Lufthansa heist immortalized in Goodfellas—would buy thousands of dollars worth of red roses and then personally deliver them to the mothers of the imprisoned members of his crime family. Stay for the kicker.

2. Pioneer Woman. Margaret Sanger is most famous, of course, for helping people avoid becoming mothers. She coined the term “birth control,” and the Mother’s Health Centers she founded evolved into Planned Parenthood. This 1930 profile of Sanger in The New Yorker by Helena Huntington Smith is half-admiring and half-bemused, delving into the must-be-Freudian origins of Sanger’s dedication to helping women get some measure of reproductive freedom at a time when that birth control was 40 years away from being legal. Sanger’s own mother had 11 children. “My mother died in her 40s,” Smith quotes Sanger saying. “My father enjoyed life till he was in his 80s.” The math there is clear.

3. To Bear or Not to Bear.The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us” is a contemporary classic in modern advice-columning. A 2011 installment from the series Dear Sugar, by the writer Cheryl Strayed, it’s the perfect thing to send to a friend who is agonizing over the decision of whether or not to become a parent. In the column, Strayed cites a poem by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer that argues every life has a “sister ship”—one which, Strayed writes, “follows ‘quite another route’ than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.” The writer, who does have children, continues: “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours.” The notion that regret will dog us no matter what we do is an oddly freeing one.


4. Face Value. Two pieces on iconic art capturing American mothers: The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl on James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s iconic painting of his mother—an image of a staid-looking woman wearing a black dress and a white bonnet that gets weirder the longer you look at it, as will the mother’s relationship to her artist son—and writer Ben Phelan’s story behind the photograph known as “Migrant Mother.” Dorothea Lange’s iconic portrait captured a woman named Florence Thompson as she weathered the Great Depression with her children at her side; Phelan follows the widely diverging fortunes of Lange and her subject.

5. Never Had It All. “Work Plan for the Working Mother,” a September 1957 New York Times article by Dorothy Barclay, is eerie in the degree to which it sounds like it could have been written today: “As if working mothers didn’t have enough on their minds and shoulders, they’ve been needled pretty regularly by the headlines for some years now. In practically every discussion of delinquency, someone points a finger at mothers who hold jobs.” And, as today, the answer to the conundrum of working mothers turns out to be “hire a housekeeper.”

6. Lock & Key. Two This American Life stories about imprisoned mothers: Amanda Coyne and Alex Kotlowitz on the mothers we have and the mothers we have to find for ourselves.

7. After, Birth.

I’m no more your mother Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow Effacement at the wind’s hand.

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Meryl Streep reads Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song.”

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