Always, I’ve depended on books to make sense of the world for me. I was the shy kid buried in a novel by the window while others played outside. The kid that got in trouble for holding a book just so under the table—one more chapter to go—at dinner time. I read by the light of street lamps long into the night, so that the geographies of what I’d read and what I dreamt intermingled.
My books earned their place of high esteem. Reliable, they were always there when I needed them, ready to offer me their wisdom. An immigrant child, books taught me what my parents’ couldn’t: to feel comfortable in this new language, to participate, to belong. When I’d read through their classroom offerings, teachers brought me their dusty, marked-up books from home. I read right through my community college courses and into an Ivy League doctoral program in literature.
My books never let me down—until I had my son.
When my son arrived, I had all of the things I needed. I’d learned the basics of newborn care—the towel baths, and burping, and swaddling. I expected sleep would be hard to come by. I expected to be tired. But in the end, I was clueless. I had no real sense of what becoming a mother would do to my life.
Nothing had prepared me for the total transformation of self that becoming a mother entails and requires.
Like most new moms, I wasn’t psychologically or emotionally prepared for what happened after our families and friends left and the hormones wore off. When my husband returned to work soon after, our solitude was complete: I was alone with our baby.
As one half of this all-exclusive club, it became clear to me just how shallow and romanticized the fictional relationships I’d encountered were—none came close to resembling my own experience of motherhood. I realized how easily the novels I’d so hungrily consumed skimmed right over a pregnancy, if they mentioned one at all.
In fiction, women become mothers instantaneously, as simple as: x bore y, and it was good.
In real life, the process was much more complicated and laborious. There were intense, blissful highs, and harrowing, remorseful lows. Mostly, it was lonely. It’s hard to convey just how lonely those sleepless nights were—how desperately I wanted to feel like I could still, when I felt nothing like myself, rejoin the world.
In the shadow of that depression, I did what I always have and likely will always do when I feel lost: I turned to books.
It took a while to build up a library, but in the end they weren’t hard to find. Beautiful, lyrical memoirs, like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Anne Lammott’s Operating Instructions, were readily available. Now I can’t help but see Adrienne Rich’s seminal Of Woman Born everywhere I turn.
There were novels and short stories too—so many of Elena Ferrante’s works foreground a realistically complex vision of motherhood. The protagonist of Jenny Offil’s The Dept. of Speculation echoed my own frustration and love and fear—too afraid to venture out with the baby past where a spring could bring us home. Like her, I worried I’d given up my chance to become an “art monster.” I lost count of how many times I listened to Karen Russell read “Orange World” in a dim room on a rocking chair, while I nursed.
In an interview with Vogue, Offil asserts that “the love you feel for your child has a way of obliterating whatever you used to think you loved.” Losing myself in these books helped me find a way back—not to who I was exactly, but to my old longing to write and my literary ambition, my desire to be more. These women’s words made me feel less alone.
They helped me feel sane, which, in the case of this isolating experience, means they made me feel understood.
Why hadn’t I read these books before? Why had I failed to notice the memoirs? I’d come across the novels—it’s near impossible to not have heard the uproar of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—but the memoirs were new to me. And there were so many memoirs: Beth Ann Fennelly’s epistolary Great With Child, Rivka Glachen’s Little Labors, and Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, to start.
As an avid reader and a student of literature, I’ve spent more than my share of time in bookstores and libraries—and yet I never came across these memoirs in recommended reading lists or on display shelves. Many of these titles are highly esteemed, and have sold well, but it took searching specifically through recommended reading for mothers to find them.
It’s possible that it was a personal failure not to have noticed them before. But I can’t remember, in eleven years of higher education (all in literary programs) ever being assigned a novel or even an essay that explicitly featured a nuanced vision of motherhood as their core issue.
Beautifully written, these memoirs seem almost reserved for a niche market—which can feel like an absurd claim, considering it’s subject directly concerns nearly half of our population. And yet, in praise of Cusk’s memoir, Jenny Offil calls A Life’s Work “a secret handshake among new mothers.”
My question is, why the secret?
In her preface to A Life’s Work, Cusk reflects on the general lack of interest in books about motherhood:
“… a book about motherhood is of no real interest to anyone except other mothers; and even then only mothers who, like me, find the experience so momentous that reading about it has a strangely narcotic effect.”
The conviction that books about motherhood are of interest only to other mothers, and, more to the point, that engaging artistically with a domestic realm will be dismissed a trivial or niche pursuit, is not uncommon.
Reflecting on the writing of Dept. of Speculation, Offil confesses a certain apprehension about writing a novel that was primarily about motherhood and marriage:
“For a while, I resisted this because I feared writing a domestic novel that would be trivialized and dismissed.”
Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom and my academic pursuits are behind me, I wonder how my recommendation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping comes across. Robinson’s debut novel is brilliant, a transcendent meditation on the inner lives of three generations of women in a lake-haunted Northwestern town. Every line of that book is poetry, and yet, I know how the wheels must turn to hear a stay-at-home mom say her favorite novel is one titled “housekeeping.”
I take solace in the hope that things are changing. The literary landscape is changing—in recent years, there are many, many more books about motherhood that are new and unashamed about their concerns. Lauren Elkin wrote about this recent phenomenon (“Why All the Books About Motherhood?”) for the Paris Review:
“What’s different about this new crop of books about motherhood is their unerring seriousness, their ambition, the way they demand that the experience of motherhood in all its viscera be taken seriously as literature.”
This outpouring of literary works that insist on centering the mother and her experience is vital—and the attention they’re getting feels like progress. We can empower and encourage each other by putting our own experiences, in their myriad diversity, out on the table and on display, and that includes our individual experiences of motherhood.
Thinking back to those bewildering first months, I felt that it wasn’t just my books that betrayed me. Not only did I feel unprepared by what I had and hadn’t read, I also felt letdown by the close friends who’d had children before me.
I knew then, in the midst of my own experience of new motherhood, that they had skipped over the details of their own birth stories and of those painful first months. They’d skimmed right over the most difficult, embarrassing physical and emotional details — precisely the bits I wished they had shared. If only I’d heard their stories, I thought, I would’ve known what to do.
Writing about those first months with a new baby, Cusk expresses the belief that “the experience of motherhood loses nearly everything in its transition to the outside world.” This helped me begin to understand why I’d felt so unprepared by what I’d heard from friends.
The problem was two-fold. On one hand, there was their reluctance or inability to share the experience. On the other hand, there was my reluctance or inability to listen. To really listen.
I do remember friends telling me how hard it was, if in vague terms. I remember their telling me I should rest every chance I got through the pregnancy, that I should plan to sleep whenever the baby slept, that I should stock my freezer with cooked foods.
Once I had my son, I realized this wasn’t enough. I was at a loss to explain why friends whom I’d visited in the maternity ward, whose kids I’d babysat and cooked for and bathed, had failed to warn me about the small, practical things that would make such a difference.
Why hadn’t any of them, for example, warned me to stock Dermoplast in my bathroom along with innumerable ice packs? Why was it a stranger at a breastfeeding center that taught me how to put pressure on my son’s chin just so to encourage him to open up a little more. Why hadn’t the women who’d shared with me their broken hearts, and period cramps, and awkward sex talked to me about sore breasts? These practical details and tips should have been easy enough to share.
What kept them silent?
In her review of Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Christine Smallwood reflects on “the shameful debris of the human body” that mothers bring into public spaces. She writes:
Yesterday, while my son was screaming himself to sleep on a short domestic flight, I realized that tears are another form of human debris. A mother receives pity and disgust for bring them into public view…. What are tears but the universal expression of frustration and rage?
Our leaking, torn bodies are the “shameful debris” we’re meant to hide, as are our feelings about what has happened—we try to lose the weight and disguise our distended bellies with corsets and wrap tops as soon as possible.
We tell our friends we’re doing fine when we’d trade almost anything for a full night’s sleep and a quiet morning with a good book over coffee. We hide any evidence of the wreckage, both physical and emotional, from public view.
Motherhood, Smallwood, writes, is “an inside world.” The world is not always kind to women who are honest about how hard it is to be a mother and who admit in a public way that they don’t always thrive in the act. Mostly, people call them bad mothers. Sometimes they go further and accuse them of not loving their children. Always, they file these confessions away as more evidence of the kind of mothers they wouldn’t want to be. It won’t be like this for me.
Writers like Anne Lamott and Rachel Cusk have paid a price for their honesty about what motherhood is—both the good and the bad. They are unflinching in their depiction of the early hardships: physical, spiritual, and mental.
Cusk writes about the way your sense of self changes, and the internal conflict being with and without your child brings up:
“When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.”
Anne Lammott writes about depression and anger, and the importance of community in alleviating those feelings. She describes the way you feel hopeful and enlivened at times, only to crash into hopelessness again, in a sort of maddening cycle:
“When Sam’s having a hard time and being a total baby about the whole thing, I feel so much frustration and rage and self-doubt and worry that it’s like a mini-breakdown. I feel like my mind becomes a lake full of ugly fish and big clumps of algae and coral, of feelings and unhappy memories and rehearsals for future difficulties and failures. I paddle around in it like some crazy old dog, and then I remember that there’s a float in the middle of the lake and I can swim out to it and lie down in the sun. That float is about being loved, by my friends and by God and even sort of by me. And so I lie there and get warm and dry off, and I guess I get bored or else it is human nature because after a while I jump back into the lake, into all that crap. I guess the solution is just to keep trying to get back to the float.”
These are hardships that we don’t often talk about, and that—though I’m convinced many of us have experienced similar feelings—we’re sometimes too guilty, or afraid, or ashamed, to admit. Admitting to these difficulties can feel tantamount to failure.
Postpartum depression and anxiety are pervasive problems, and we’re still not talking about them as often or as openly as we should. They still carry the stigma of a failed motherhood, though this shouldn’t be the case.
It’s in part because of that societal pressure to be perfect mothers and to hide our shame when we, inevitably, don’t live up to that impossible standard that we feel like we’re failing to begin with.
It doesn’t make us bad mothers to have had a hard time adjusting to the demands of life with a newborn, and it doesn’t make us weak. It’s only rational that we’d have conflicted feelings, both joyful and sorrowful, in the midst of so much change.
I’ve read enough to know that I’m not alone in this experience, and yet that knowledge, which should be easily available, is buried in an unlabeled shelf in the memoir section. How different would my experience have been if I’d read these books in a book club? Or—almost impossible to imagine—in a classroom?
Our children are not meant to fulfill all of our social and emotional needs, and yet there’s an ideal vision of motherhood that pretends our children are all that we require. “It’s lose-lose-lose,” Smallwood writes, “our culture deifies and loathes mothers in equal measure.”
If you’re at home, if you’re at work, if you have some, if you have none, it’s never enough.
When I think of who I am and who I’d like to be, my identity as a mother is certainly a major feature of that landscape, but it doesn’t cover every aspect of my ambition and desire. Being a good mother to my son is my first priority and my biggest responsibility, but I’m also a woman and a writer and a citizen of the world.
I want more.