How Deborah Levy is Getting Me Through New Motherhood
On Sleepless Nights and Dreams of My Own Shed
Since my daughter was born (four months ago, at the time of writing this) I’ve been thinking about rooms. The ones we enter in the early days of motherhood, the ones we exit, the ones that envelop us, welcome us, and the ones that keep us away. Virginia Woolf was right, a woman needs money and a room of her own, and a writer certainly needs somewhere to write. I wasn’t fully aware of what Woolf’s words meant until I had lost my room, both the space I needed to keep my mind at ease and a place to write. You see, since my daughter was born I can only write in sentences that read like first lines in a novel. I don’t feel like a writer anymore. I am myself and I am also not close to recognizing who I am anymore.
She clings to me as I write this with one hand.
She drinks from the nipple as I try to make out a full sentence in my head.
She is vocal about her wants and needs.
I have to abide and leave the page.
I think back on the delivery room at the hospital and remember how foreign the setting was: the absence of warmth in the lights, the furniture in the room functional and nothing more, the air tight. Each person entering the room gave me a name and I forgot it immediately. I do remember how well they did the job they came to do.
From the recovery room, I can recollect the light coming in from the windows, the laminated pages with bulleted advice stuck to the wall at the foot of my bed, and the blackness of the TV screen I never turned on. Two days spent with the doors always open and my chest always bare. With mind and body torn, I gave in fully to my new environment.
From the moment my daughter was born she slept by my side, in the hospital and in our bedroom. As she was testing her lungs, she made the faintest sounds that kept me from sleeping. The baby often startled herself as if she was surprised by her own existence outside of the space—within me—she’d occupied for so long.
I miss her deeply in the belly, and from the bottom of it. My midsection, now saggy yet still somehow bloated from compensating for her absence. Even here, there is an emptiness.
It didn’t take long for us to move the baby into the room my husband and I had intended for the nursery. Before her arrival it was my husband’s office and the place where I kept my clothes and shoes, perhaps also some art supplies. Before her arrival I wrote at our small dining table or in the café around the corner. I never thought I needed my own set of walls.Morning came and turned into the day and folded into the early evening and there we were at the same place as the day before . . .
I started nursing into the late and very early hours of the night in her room. The noise machine constantly on like a forever ocean wind or a wave that never breaks. Time became elastic and staying awake in dim lights warped my mind. Morning came and turned into the day and folded into the early evening and there we were at the same place as the day before and none of the hours mattered yet all of the seconds were felt, each gnawing away and making dents at the back of my head.
Welcome to the Milk Bar—I’m open 24 hours, seven days a week.
Since I’m not a writer anymore, I’m also not much of a reader.
When I was pregnant, friends of mine—ambitious new mothers—told me they had finished Moby Dick or plowed through audio books from the many hours of nursing. Even in the early weeks of motherhood, while my baby and I were knee-deep in a kind of echo chamber of liquids, I tried to be a deep and romantic mom. I read poetry out loud while she was in a bottomless boobie trance. I felt none of the words but I did feel stupid.
Sometimes motherhood makes you feel like an idiot with sore nipples. What was the point in consuming art when I barely had any energy to enjoy it, let alone make any myself?
Like a tender rhythmic leech my daughter attached to me each night, and while she was gobbling away at the nipple, creature-like, I felt myself in a kind of gentle mourning, saying goodbye to the art I imagined I wouldn’t ever create.
Above us hung the picture I painted for her in the last weeks of my pregnancy. Looking over her changing pad a mobile dangled in the dark and still gave off some devious shadows. I sewed it together in the very first days of knowing she was something small but becoming. The baby was still oblivious to both.
One friend and mother told me that if you stop wanting things in the early days, it gets easier.
I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living on the subway, commuting to work. It’s a slim autobiography from the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist but it’s packed with descriptions of simple things in life that envelope larger themes of motherhood, womanhood, heartache, redemption, and writing (just to name a few). There’s a store-bought chicken that dies more than once, a speedy motorcycle, a revolver that’s really an electric screwdriver, bees appearing from the cold, sturdy succulents, and oranges split and shared with daughters. Levy elevates these ornaments and other details from life to such a degree that she’s convinced me that life is meaningful.
When she paints her walls orange, they hurt my eyes. When her necklace breaks, I see how each pearl escapes the confines of the string and where they skitter off to hide. Levy can make the purchase of an ice lolly bring you to tears, and it feels like a kind of magic; even the brief appearances of dull men with their unnamed women, rendered by Levy with deserved but delicate mockery, are enjoyable.
Few of the reviews do the book justice (or maybe it’s just that most of them give away her incredible tales: don’t tell me how the chicken dies the second time!). A couple of them mention the shed she rents from a friend in order to write but don’t spend too much time on its importance: this is the shed the autobiography is written in, the shed within which she will write other books.
As Levy mentions in the book, there are countless factors that have come together for her to write The Cost of Living, and just as many (if not more) for me to read it in these crowded, musty subway commutes. But of all of Levy’s marvelous details, the one I am most thankful for is the aforementioned shed: I cling to the freedoms it has given her. I take great comfort in imagining her sitting there alone with her thoughts and books and old journals, a blanket of freedom across her shoulders keeping her warm into the evening.
As I came to understand the importance of the shed to Levy and realized The Cost of Living was a direct result of the freedom and time she found within its walls, I hate to confess but I became jealous. My days now are filled with baby and daycare obligations, pumping, and, of course, my job, all in a seemingly neverending cycle. My evenings are consumed by more baby duties and keeping the milk bar open at all times. Blink twice and the weekend is over, with laundry still drying on the rack, a thousand miniature pieces of clothing in need of folding, like tiny envelopes addressed to no one. Sometimes my husband and I find moments where we inhale into a kiss and exhale into each other’s arms. Time spills away, like water.
Perhaps I didn’t quite “consider the facts” that Woolf laid out, about the years of dedication a mother gives to her child, and all those opportunities lost to make (potentially) great art. But those facts seem pointless to me now (and were, in some way, even before the arrival of my daughter). I have always wanted her. What I’m thankful to have realized with Levy’s book is that the great art can come later. I can work towards my room. Earn my money, get my shed.
I can’t quite convey the many thoughts you have when nursing in the dark, into the late hours of the night—that is partly the work I want to do—but I can say now that I have visited the most horrific places, met some vile creatures, stumbled upon love and light, structured plot and wondered about what will happen to this character or that. I’ve set the scenes for a story or two that I’d like to tell. For now, I play it on loop as my child draws nourishment from me.
At four months, she smiles a toothless grin and it really is something to see a part of yourself smile back at you. One day I’ll be able to describe it.