On Discovering Real Mothers on the Page
Pamela Erens, Rivka Glachen, Julia Fierro, and writing about motherhood
Before my son was born, I did not think of motherhood as a particularly compelling state of being. The mothers I knew seemed constantly tired—which I read as bored—and my own procreative urge did not kick in until the very month before we conceived, when I was 33. Motherhood may not rank as a particularly adventurous topic to most people, but to mothers (and fathers) themselves, it’s a topic worthy of literary merit, a rollicking world of complexity and intrigue, wrapped in diapers and smeared with effluents.
Not shockingly, post-baby, I became deeply invested in motherhood not only as lived act but as literary concept (for the sake of my salvation). With little family or other support network, I walked my screaming infant around the neighborhood for hours in weary loops, muttering to myself, or locked myself in the bathroom for a moment of peace, to keep from being a statistic, one of those mothers who shakes her baby. I couldn’t read books fast enough about, or featuring mothers grappling with childrearing, particularly those who, like me, were not effortless or natural at it. Yet I found no convenient bookshelf at the library or bookstore called Real Truths About Parenting. Oh, there were how-to books and self-help guides, but these had a way of highlighting my failures and pointed to an ease I did not experience. Very few of these kinds of books spoke to my truth: that motherhood is boring—or perhaps the better word is tedious—at the hour-in/hour-out level of constant responsibility. Moreover, it is also lonely. Immensely, achingly lonely. In lieu of support, I turned to books.
My gratitude is incalculable that now it’s much easier to find books in which parenthood plays a central role. Here, in what I like to call the “post-chicklit era,” popular novels about women’s lives are moving beyond the sexy single girl in the city, to include the deeply nuanced, socially complex, and emotionally fraught territory of motherhood.
You can’t imagine my delight when I heard that one of my favorite authors, Pamela Erens, has written a new novel devoted entirely to the act of labor, called Eleven Hours. In it, a laboring single woman named Lore is tended to through the eleven hours of her labor by a pregnant Haitian nurse named Franckline. Both women’s histories are expertly revealed in flashback scenes, but the engine of this novel is planted inside Lore’s body. Erens presents the mother’s body as laboratory, as crime scene. Her book poses the question: is a woman still the protagonist of her life once her first child is born? Eleven Hours is no less rip-roaring an adventure tale than any thriller, but the setting is the inner wilderness of the woman-becoming-mother, where all the big questions about life and death play out. If you have not experienced or witnessed an actual live labor (not the theatrically-grunting, magically brief ordeals portrayed on TV and movies), you can’t be blamed for not understanding the sheer life and death intensity of the way we all come into the world.
She dozes. A great umbrella opens, its spines blooming outward, but one spine is broken and the fabric flaps up and down… Now Franckline is speaking to her. With an effort Lore concentrates, wakes.
Her inner vision dims. Something falls on the floor with a ping, strangely audible amid her own cries (she hears herself as an echo rebounding from some distant, craggy surface). Hands move around her, gripping her shoulder, asking what is hurting, what is wrong? She does not know! She does not know! Oh God, it does not stop! Her belly is stone. Someone struggles to hold her down.
Labor is a normal human experiences with a supernatural edge, in which death hovers at the periphery. Here in the US childbirth is usually sanitized for public consumption in most forms of media, so any woman looking for a dose of reality will have to ask other women, not all of whom want to part that veil for their friends. Before my own son’s birth (he is now almost eight), I recall those birth announcement photos sent by friends of the new mother and baby: her glowing face, a bundled infant at her breast. No evidence of the violent, messy, bloody process that surely took place.
In my own labor, which did not go according to plan (as few do), spent at the near end from two days of labor and three hours of fruitless pushing, I thought: Can you die of fatigue? And then, when another diving whale of a contraction gripped me again, also: I don’t think I’d mind. Only weeks after our son’s birth did my husband finally tell me some of the more harrowing details; how he thought that meconium in my son’s amniotic sack meant our baby would die; how he thought that I might die from loss of blood. How he called my father in a panic and begged him to get down there, from two hours away, in a hurry. How my father sped so fast he made it in half the time. As I read Erens’s novel eight years after my own experience, tears wet my cheeks, phantom contraction pain and memories of that helpless, wondrous, terrifying experience passing through me with the relief of catharsis. Any one who has witnessed a birth will also understand how very momentous an event it is.
Moreover, page-turnability in a good story is often created by unrelieved tension, the need to know what will happen next. Every labor is a story of life-hanging-in-the-balance—what could be more compelling? Eleven Hours captures that, and more.
Another new book that offers wry and honest reflection on the perils and joys of raising a child is Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, meditations on motherhood, told in mini-essays, or vignettes. One of the most illuminating passages in it is little more than a list, titled “Notes on some Twentieth Century Writers.”
Flannery O’Connor: No children.
Eudora Welty: No children. One children’s book.
Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Mavis Gallant, Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Pym: No children.
Helen Gurley Brown: Author of Having it All, no children.
Katherine Anne Porter: No children, many husbands.
Alice Munro: Two husbands. Raised three children. First story collection at age thirty-seven.
Toni Morrison: Two children. First novel at age thirty-nine.
Penelope Fitzgerald: Three children. First novel at age sixty. Then eight more.
John Updike: Many children. Many books. First at age twenty-five.
Saul Bellow: Many children. Many wives. Many books. First at age twenty-nine.
Galchen lets the facts draw a hard line: the male writers wrote their first novels in their twenties, unencumbered, perhaps by the burdens of childrearing. Women, on the other hand, have always had to make hard choices to raise children first, then, if they were lucky, pursue their vocation or careers. (And oh how hard I laughed at the irony of the author of Having it All having no children). While women now have more freedom to carve out whatever identities they like, many of us (and all women in poverty) still struggle to “lean in” to our careers, while somehow balancing motherhood (and affording childcare) under the intense scrutiny of a culture that objectifies and shames our bodies even when we’re using them to birth and feed our children. The pressure to keep quiet about the challenges of bearing and raising children remains one of the final taboos, making these books even more essential.
Who needs books now that there are hundreds of “Mommy blogs” and websites, one could argue? Yet nothing captures the pains and joys of parenting like the immersive experience of a book.
Galchen writes about the tedium of life with a toddler thusly:
Occasionally these things not going well combined with my general sense of being trapped inside a space that the Russian Formalists of days past would have described as producing nothing and I would feel really pretty desperate and like I was made of sand and would soon be nothing but a dispersed irritant…
And Julia Fierro provides another dark inner view in her novel, Cutting Teeth:
By the end of the long day, when Josh finally returned from work, she heard a tone in her voice (he was always complaining about her tone)—a pathetic desperation. As if she were an impoverished third-world mother with a disease-riddled baby.
Though not a book about motherhood, per se, Sarah Manguso’s memoir of a journal Ongoingness reared its head a lot in the writing of this, because of how her writing changed once she had a child. And in an interview with Tin House, she says,
It’s important to me that I describe motherhood accurately and honestly, though, because until recently, I had been brainwashed into believing that motherhood was trivial. Until recently I thought my art-centered life was too important to pollute with such a mundane, common experience.
What so many writers, particularly women, now have the freedom to do, is show just how serious motherhood is, hopefully with the power to change the cultural conversation, too. I look forward to more page-turning fiction and memoir that plants the experience of motherhood at the center of the story, not the periphery. And I want to see a wider breadth of stories, not just tales of white mothers of privilege, but Black mothers, Native mothers, Indigenous mothers, LGBTQ mothers. Let’s elevate motherhood above the generic one-size-fits-all how-to guides to create a canon all its own.