That Only a Mother
|"That Only a Mother"|
|Publication type||Astounding Science Fiction|
|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. The story ends with Hank tightening his hands around the child, indicating that he will commit infanticide like the fathers mentioned earlier in the story.
"That Only a Mother" falls into a category of mid-century science-fiction writing often referred to as the "housewife heroine" story, works that deal explicitly with domestic themes and the experiences of women. Stories of this type were often controversial because while some editors praised their literary qualities, others viewed them as dull domestic tales. Nevertheless, "That Only a Mother" went on to become one of the most anthologized science-fiction stories of the twentieth century. 
"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
- [https://www.jstor.org/stable/4317053 Stories "That Only a Mother" Could Write: Midcentury Peace Activism, Maternalist Politics, and Judith Merril's Early Fiction, by Lisa Yaszek, in NWSA Journal; published summer 2004; retrieved February 12, 2018