“The mother” mourns the loss of children aborted because of the poverty of the mother. By extension, it also mourns the loss of things that do not reach their potential, such as the loss experienced by a race of people whose growth has been interrupted or altered. One contrast and conflict that emerges in the poem is that between the desire of the mother to do what was best for her children and the finality of her decisions. The depiction of the narrator—honest, reflective, and self-aware—prevents an immediate positive or negative characterization. Instead, like the decisions she has made, the narrator is complicated—full of conflicting emotions regarding both herself and her lost children. Ironically, it was the mother’s moving concern for her children as well as her own circumstances which caused her to decide to have the abortions.
Throughout the poem, the narrator examines the fates she knows would have awaited her lost children. Because of the harsh honesty with which she refers to her decisions to have abortions, this reflection upon what the lives of the children would have been like is made more believable. Her reliability as a narrator is established by the time she gets to an accounting for the reasons she made her decisions.
An important difference between Gwendolyn Brooks and contemporary writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who also use poor urban settings in their writing, is that she devotes much more attention to the experiences of women. Women may not be lacking in Wright’s and Ellison’s writing, but they are typically in the background and are of secondary importance to the male characters. Like the work of Ann Petry, Brooks’s work concentrates on the importance and implications of the poor urban experience on women as well as men.
Brooks’s poems offer a realistic view of the diversity of poor urban women. This view is in sharp contrast to the stereotypes which have grown up around such women (whore and matriarch, for example) and have made their way into literature. Brooks intentionally fails to provide some sort of unifying, uniform characterization of poor urban women. The narrator depicted in “the mother” remains one of many possibilities, not the only possibility. There are also women in Brooks’s poems who are sexually repressive, ordinary, exploited, protected, despairing, or aggressive. The only common characteristic these women share is a similar environment and heritage; throughout Brooks’s poems, women emerge as individuals. The women have different goals, priorities, and values, and have varying levels of misery, tolerance, and talents. This variety points to the recurring theme in Brooks’s work of individual identity and individual problems.