Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

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Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth Themes

Familial and Generational Relationships

Connections among family members form a primary theme of many of the poems. The actual relationships also represent links between groups of different generations. As the reader might infer from the title, relationships between parents and children play a dominant role. It is not established how many different speakers are present among the poems, and in many cases, the gender of the speaker is not evident. However, it often seems that the speaker is female and that mother–daughter relationships are featured in several poems. Other poems refer specifically to relationships between the speaker’s parents, sometimes before the speaker’s birth. Still others present relationships with and the lives of grandparents.

Mother–child relationships play important roles in “Things We Had Lost in the Summer,” “Beauty,” “Trying to Swim with God,” “Ugly,” “Fire,” and “In Love and in War.” Mothers and their children rarely understand each other, whether because of cultural changes within their country or because of generational differences after moving to a different place. “Fire” presents a vast gap between the mother’s and daughter’s understandings of spousal physical abuse. The speaker in “Ugly” blames the mother for numerous inadequacies in raising her daughter. In “Beauty,” however, the mother and one of her children seem close, while the other child—the speaker’s sister—disappears into her own world.

In several poems, the speaker provides her impressions of the parents of an unknown addressee. These commentaries involve topics like sexual initiation, such as in “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” which also considers parenthood as a possible outcome of rape. Parents’ relationship on their wedding night is a theme in “Snow” and “You Were Conceived.”

The larger family unit is included in the “we” of “Things We Had Lost in the Summer.” This group includes the speaker and her cousins. Her mother’s whispered telephone conversation with her father contrasted with the bond the girls share suggests the generational differences in attitudes toward the female body. Puberty and traditions, possibly including genital cutting, are topics about which they disagree.

Relationships with grandparents and between grandparents are addressed in several poems. The idea of the grandparents as younger, loving, sexually active individuals is delicately addressed in “Grandfather’s Hands.” In contrast, “Old Spice” presents a man at death’s door and the grandchild’s concern and frustration at not being able to help or fully understand him. The generational divide is affectionately treated in “Tea with Our Grandmothers”; the death of one grandmother has prompted the speaker to reminisce about differences among three others and differences from the speaker.

Identity, Transformation, and Challenges to Belonging

Numerous dimensions of identity, including the way it changes for different people, are variations on a theme in many of the poems. Gender and sexuality are among the most prominently featured aspects of identity. Aging, illness, and death are other transformations that the poet considers; these changes are addressed via the significant effect they have on close relatives or survivors. All of these are intertwined with national and ethnic heritage and migrant and refugee status. The challenges of displacement and recreating bonds of community are often sharply contrasted with attachment to—and nostalgic memories of—home.

Sexual activity and initiation are frequently specified or implied in several poems. One complex instance appears in “Your Mother’s First Kiss,” with its ironically romantic title; the teenage girl suffered doubly from her experience being sexually assaulted and her realization that the boy had later raped other women. Sexual desire and puberty are themes in “Things We Had Lost in the Summer.” For the daughter...

(The entire section is 1,072 words.)