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Living as a Twenty-First Century Mother in “The Year of the Horses”

Living as a Twenty-First Century Mother in “The Year of the Horses”

Courtney Maum’s new memoir, The Year of the Horses, uses her story of falling in love with horses and playing polo as an adult to reckon with how to exist not only as a mother, but also as a human.

Maum, a writer propelled by deadlines and busyness, wrestles with the all-consuming question of how to mother, work, be a spouse, and have any semblance of a relationship with herself. As a high-achieving woman before becoming a mother, having a baby introduces a new level of chaos. She considers time with her daughter Nina to be “a worthy time commitment that nevertheless ate into my time.”  As many mothers experience, Maum is overwhelmed by “mom guilt.” In her words, “in order to be a good mom, you had to be a mother like my mother: willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to drive places in an emergency, to stay at a sick person’s bedside regardless of what plans you had to cancel and hopes you had to dash.”  And so, Maum meditates on those canceled plans and dashed hopes: there must be another way to exist as mothers and women.

“Perhaps this story is my attempt to work out my response,” Maum writes. “If there is one thing that I am growing sure of in the body that I’m writing from, it is that women deserve to have both a secret inner life and a way to activate and celebrate that life outside the home.” Maum learns to celebrate that life at the stables. As an adult, amid a time when she’s overwhelmed with her professional and domestic workload, she’s pulled to riding horses. Riding fills her, and Maum values not only the act of riding, but the passion behind it. Women “need passions that are ours and ours alone, so that we can be ourselves, instead of somebody else’s something: mother, ex-wife, wife.”

As Maum rides more and more, her drive to be with the horses doesn’t diminish: it increases. It increases so much that she wants not only to ride, but she wants to play. Polo is a dangerous sport dominated by men. “In polo, as in all other aspects of life, women have had to fight like hell to play equal with the boys.”  Despite her initial role as underdog, Maum plays. She plays well and she plays hard. “But what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising … But love is complicated.” As a player and rider, Maum shows her daughter what it means to love—a horse, a sport, herself, her child—deeply.

Maum brings Nina to the barn with her. “This seemed the way forward for me: not to leave Nina at home because Mama wanted to ride, but to take her with me so she could see why Mama loved to ride so much.” The crux of this memoir is in the strength of a mother developing her own self outside of the cultural rigidity of motherhood, and then bringing her child into that space. When Maum nurtures her inner desires, her mothering doesn’t suffer. It improves.   

In The Year of the Horses, Maum doesn’t choose one role to neglect another. She doesn’t exchange her identity as a writer or mother for one as a polo player. She uses horses as an entry point to show what it means to encompass her whole self. Through experiences with one particularly difficult horse, Harley, Maum examines the lessons he taught her. “Clarity, efficiency, and buckets full of patience, this was what Harley showed me lay between ‘desire’ and ‘result.’” She applies the patience with Harley to her mothering. “I started making a concerted effort to put away my phone until Nina was asleep,” Maum writes. Nina “needed to know that her mother would choose watching her an eighteenth time over checking Twitter.” 

The more time she spends with horses, the more attention she gives her child, the more creatively she writes, the more connected she feels with her spouse. She learns to nurture herself and her own personhood. “Horseback riding had shown me how to give myself completely to a pursuit.”As a reader (and as a mother), Maum’s narrative propelled me to keep turning the page. The commentary woven throughout moves this from a story about a woman and horses to  become a conversation on how parents, especially those socialized as women, are still fighting to build identities as selves beyond their roles.

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Readers recognize that while women and genderqueer people are making some strides, the lived experience and expectations are still stifling. Women are still expected to give themselves up for the roles they inhabit. Maum resists the idea that the only good mothers are the ones who give up their personhood and dash their dreams. In The Year of the Horses, we ride with Maum and celebrate her using horses to redefine what it means to be a mother.

The Year of the Horses
By Courtney Maum
Tin House Books
Published May 3, 2022

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