That Only a Mother
|"That Only a Mother"|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction short story|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
The story is set five years in the future in 1953. World War III has been going on for several years. Unlike in many other depictions, it is seen as a prolonged war, which does not destroy all civilization at once - but extensive use of nuclear bombs causes radiation poisoning and has led to a rash of mutated babies (it is implied that only a small fraction of pregnancies result in the birth of normal children).
The first part of the story is told in the form of letters from the pregnant Margaret to her husband Hank, a "technical lieutenant," on assignment. In these letters we learn of Margaret's fears of giving birth to a mutant, disturbing tales of infanticide by the fathers of deformed babies, her successful labor, and the rapid development of the newborn. The daughter, named Henrietta, is extremely precocious, speaking in complete sentences by the time she first meets her father at the age of ten months. Margaret dotes on her and thinks she is wonderful, though there are hints of something disturbing about the girl, including the story's title (referring to the phrase "a face that only a mother could love"), and an offhand comment that the nurses in the hospital were not sure whether the child was a boy or a girl.
When Hank returns home, he discovers that his daughter has no arms or legs, and that his wife is in such strong denial that she does not realize she has given birth to a mutant.
"That Only a Mother" was among the stories selected in 1970 by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best science fiction short stories before the creation of the Nebula Awards. As such, it was published in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.
Jonathan Strahan has emphasized how uncommon it was at the time for science fiction to provide a woman's perspective, but nonetheless calls the story dated, saying that the passage of decades has changed it from "a chilling and timely piece of science fiction" to "an important but not particularly moving historical footnote."
- Locus Roundtable: The All-Time Top 40: That Only a Mother, Judith Merril (#43), by Jonathan Strahan, at Locus Online; published March 16, 2009; retrieved February 16, 2017