The Burden of a Thousand Possible Lives: On Motherhood and Conflicting Desires

Reading Motherhood and And Now We Have Everything

By  Jennifer Schaffer

Like all those who live in an ovulating body, I carry inside of me thousands of possible lives: my own and, somehow, others’. I’ve known this since I was 16, when my period pains grew so severe that the doctor mandated an ultrasound. She wanted to check my ovaries for cysts, or some other, visible explanation for why I was bedridden with pain three days a month like clockwork, curled without irony into the fetal position in the dark of my bedroom, an electric heating pad pressed against my side.

Newly-licensed, I drove myself to the hospital in my parents’ oversized chrome Suburban. After I checked in, the receptionist pointed a long, acrylic nail at the water bubbler in the corner, a bending stack of paper cones resting uneasily on top, and told me to drink up, keep my bladder full. I sat by the bubbler and drank cup after flimsy cup with my legs crossed tight, clenching. The wait went on, and I began bargaining with myself—just hold it five more minutes. When I was certain I could wait no longer, the technician called out my name, and the urgency abated.

In a small alcove, walled by thin paper curtains, the technician moved an ultrasound wand inside of me with one gloved hand. With the other, she turned a wide screen towards me.

“Look,” she said, “There.”

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I looked, there, and what I saw looked to me, at first, like a small honey comb, until the technician pointed out that the dark circles were not holes but globes, tiny sacs holding tinier eggs. I was viewing my ovaries, in real time. As the plastic wand spread cold lubricant jelly around my insides, I felt awe, and nausea, and relief, and horror. It was the first moment I realized that my whole life, even before my birth, I had carried—was carrying—carry still, inside of me, the beginnings of every biological child I might someday bring to term. Somehow, this had never really clicked for me; the whole system had seemed hypothetical. And then, there it was, staring me in the face.

You, I thought, as the image on the screen warped and shifted. I see you. You’re going to give me hell someday. Please, just give me time. 

Of course, what I saw was just a part of me, not something sentient or separate to be feared or bartered with. But it did reveal an inescapable series of decisions, demanding to be made.

Then, as now, ten years later, the mere idea of pregnancy twists my mind like a dish rag. The decision to create a human being has always seemed as impenetrable to me as the logic behind a drunken late-night internet purchase: The person you will be when the product arrives will have a fundamentally different outlook from the person you were when you placed the order. Though of course the metaphor falls apart at the issue of returns.

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How can anyone reasonably commit to a choice that will irrevocably, and in unknowable ways, alter who they are? How can anyone decide to live the rest of their lives inside a house whose insides they’ve glanced only through the windows? How can I choose to give up pleasures I don’t yet recognize as negotiable, in exchange for others I can’t know until the deal is done? The fabled assurance of motherhood—that some alchemy occurs inside of us when the baby is born, some deepening, some expansion—is also its paradox. How can I be expected to choose something so massive, so permanent for a version of myself that doesn’t yet exist? Could a choice be more impossible? Could a deal be less fair?

The answer, of course, is that fairness isn’t really part of the equation, and for many women, what strikes me personally as an inconceivable leap of faith is, instead, a matter of easy instinct, a choice so happily made it seems fated.

“How can I choose to give up pleasures I don’t yet recognize as negotiable, in exchange for others I can’t know until the deal is done?”

The fact is that for most of history the question of motherhood wasn’t a question at all but an inevitability. With the advent of birth control, inevitability yielded slightly and took the form of an expectation. Now, the expectation is giving way too, and motherhood—for a privileged but growing demographic of women—arrives in our lives in the form of a decision to be made, a project to schedule, a deliberation. Out of that gauntlet several new and necessary books have been born, detailing with rare honesty the unavoidable neuroses, doubts, and desires that the possibility of motherhood breeds.

Two standouts of the genre are out this spring: Sheila Heti’s vital, unprecedented novel, Motherhood, and Meaghan O’Connell’s audacious, razor-sharp debut memoir, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. Both titles carry an implicit question mark: In Heti’s, it is both the commonplace question of whether her narrator wants to be a mother at all, and a more radical one: how does the mere possibility of motherhood shape time and space in the lives of women? In O’Connell’s, it is the question of whether anyone can ever be truly “ready” to have children, and whether readiness is even the right metric.

In Motherhood, Heti’s unnamed protagonist wrestles with the idea of pregnancy for nearly 300 pages; the book, Heti writes, is a kind of “prophylactic,” shuttling her narrator through to the other side of her 40th birthday without her succumbing to the siren-call of motherhood. Motherhood is, in this sense, a document both of self-questioning and self-protection, a light switched on in the uneasy dark of a woman’s conflicting desires.

Above all, Heti’s narrator dreams of being released from the decision altogether: she uses a set of coins to receive yes or no answers, an adapted form of the I Ching. She speaks with a fortune teller. She has her tarot drawn. She uses the pull-out method as birth control, which I guess is its own way of throwing the I Ching. As I read Motherhood, a passage from Heti’s 2010 novel How Should A Person Be replayed itself in my mind. In it, Heti’s eponymous narrator Sheila makes an appeal to Israel, the man she’s been sleeping with:

Israel, if you ever want a child, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to sit around the table and discuss the whens and ifs of it, or how it should be done. . . . I won’t make a fuss or complain—but no conversations, please, no pleading, no wondering about it all. Impregnate me like I’m an animal that can take it ’cause I am.

Motherhood, of course, is nothing if not a fuss, precisely the discussion and pleading and wondering from which Heti’s earlier narrator begged to be spared.

There were moments I wanted to throw this book at a wall, so exhausted was I with the narrator’s endless back-and-forths, so furious was I with her partner’s lack of empathy, so overwhelmed was I with the unending tick-tock denoted by the passage of each section, titled after the phases of the menstrual cycle. Perhaps those were the moments the book was at its most powerful: when it took the neuroses and decision fatigue so many of us feel and laid them out, bare, on the page. Innumerable were the times I thought to myself, while reading Motherhood, ‘If only men could read this!’ And of course, they can. They should.

Motherhood is a document both of self-questioning and self-protection, a light switched on in the uneasy dark of a woman’s conflicting desires.”

“I understand that fear beckons to a person as much as possibility does, and even more strongly,” Heti writes, towards the end of the novel, “But we never know which choice is fear, and which possibility.” That the reader is left unsure whether Heti’s narrator has acted out of indecision or self-knowledge, hope or capitulation, is part of the novel’s project.

In the vein of the best existentialist works, Motherhood depicts an individual coming up against her own freedom. I’d shelve it next to de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. 

Then there is O’Connell’s memoir of an unplanned—but welcome—pregnancy at age 29, the result of enthusiastic post-engagement sex. O’Connell acknowledges the ambiguity of her desires before she gets pregnant, but once she is, there is no longer space for existentialism or indecision. And Now We Have Everything is a propulsive and generous account not only of early motherhood, but of what it’s like to be an ambitious woman in the 21st century. O’Connell wants—and admits to wanting—what so many of us want: to be desirable, enviable, successful, and happy. An unplanned pregnancy is both a wrench in the gears and a chance to be transformed. “I never imagined the baby. Only me, a mother,” O’Connell writes, with characteristic honesty. “How it might change me or wake me up. Make me better.”

As it becomes rapidly apparent that neither pregnancy nor motherhood will, in and of themselves, transform O’Connell in the ways she imagines, And Now We Have Everything alternates between the language of bartering and surrender. When O’Connell and her partner have sex early in her pregnancy, she spots blood, and the couple panics. After the realization that it’s only her newly-sensitive cervix, they are “relieved but harrowed. At the mercy of something now.” And Now We Have Everything is about learning to live at the mercy of that something: the possibility of motherhood, then motherhood, then the baby himself.

In “Maternal Instincts,” an essay about her ongoing fear that something terrible might befall her child, O’Connell writes, “In a way, the baby dying was more fathomable than him living. That we were falling deeply in love, with the stakes higher than they’d ever been before, and we would have to live with it, with loving like this—that was harder to take in than the possibility of a great tragedy.” This realization is all the more striking because O’Connell has told us, page after page, what “living with it” looks like, in brutally direct terms. We see the excruciating birth, the humiliations of post-partum sex, the festering of caesarean wounds. O’Connell’s writing is so visceral, so immediate, that it made my nipples hurt.

And Now We Have Everything is about learning to live at the mercy of something: the possibility of motherhood, then motherhood, then the baby himself.”

But of all these passages, the one that haunted me the most was about O’Connell’s efforts to bargain with her newborn and her partner for an hour and a half of café time. Just an hour and a half to sit at a laptop, write, browse idly, whatever. Her partner—who, it should be noted, comes across as supportive, and, next to Motherhood’s primary male character, like an all-around mensch—panics at the prospect of her absence:

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Dustin said, his voice quivering now. “You don’t hear him scream. Whenever you leave, even for a few minutes. You can just pull out a boob . . .

In the end, O’Connell gets an hour. When she returns home, the baby is crying. “As soon as the baby latched I burst into tears,” O’Connell writes, “with relief, with rage.” Not being able to go and work at a café for an hour and a half because another human being needs to suck on your breasts for his survival: this, more than anything else, hit home the gravity of motherhood, the way in which its core demands cannot be out-smarted. “I hated being so on the hook, and I hated that I hated it,” O’Connell writes.

Like Heti’s narrator—like most women—O’Connell experiences her feelings twice: first, in their immediate form, then in her feelings about her feelings. In many ways, this self-reflection is an invaluable form of intelligence, accessible to all but imposed primarily on women and marginalized communities. At the same time, who among us hasn’t wished, some days, for the freedom to move through life as many white men seem to: reacting once, with certainty, and without further thought.

Like Heti’s protagonist, I have never wanted to have a child; like O’Connell, I have a to-do list I believe I should complete before I’ll even be ready to want one. At the start of my twenties, for my professionally-minded group of friends, babies were not something to consider, in the same way getting hit by a bus was not something to consider. Pregnancy was not a decision to be made, it was a threat your body made against you. My friends and I had alarms set on our iPhones for our birth control pills: “NO BABIES” the pop-up notification would read, as we diligently popped small tablets out of foil packs, bartering with our uteruses, not so much buying time as passing it unscathed. We rubbed each other’s backs through the nausea of Plan B, and we pushed the question of motherhood far out into the future, into a land that felt a lifetime away but turned out to be just one town over: our 30s.

There’s not a woman I know who doesn’t have some sort of pre-planned timeline for when she’ll start considering having a kid. When I settle my student debt. When I publish my first novel. When I buy my first home. When I sell my first company. When I make tenure track. The specifics of the goal are almost secondary to its size: it must be large enough, hard enough to achieve, that the baby will appear as icing, not consolation cake.

“Motherhood is often still framed as a terminal state, incompatible with the focus and energy our other goals demand.”

Admittedly, my friends and I live lives of privilege, as do O’Connell and Heti. In a way, our advantages—our education, our jobs, our social capital—have carved out the space for our uncertainty, our deliberations, our misguided, obsessive conviction that there is a way to not just get by, but get it right.  

We tell ourselves we need to reach these grand milestones before considering motherhood because motherhood is often still framed as a terminal state, incompatible with the focus and energy our other goals demand. As O’Connell’s memoir makes clear, this incompatibility is largely structural, not innate. Many of the struggles mothers face in contemporary society are built on a series of fundamentally sexist assumptions and policies that hold us all back, while disproportionately harming poor women, women of color, and single mothers. How differently might we see our mothers, and the choice and task of motherhood, if we lived in a world that was shaped around the needs of parents as much as it has been shaped by market forces?

But both Heti and O’Connell are aware that, even in the most progressive possible world, there are certain material inevitabilities—surges, demands, limits—that can’t be worked around. (That’s true for successful white women with financial security and committed partners, and it’s true for the rest of us. I imagine it will be the next generation that writes the “motherhood without a savings account or health insurance” memoirs to come.)

When I was at university, I had an anthropology lecturer who told our seminar—all women—a story about her first fieldwork experience, when she embedded with a community of female migrant workers in the Bay Area. Many of these women had six or seven children, some a dozen. She had just gotten married, and was considering whether or not to have a child. She asked these women what childbirth had been like. “Not so bad,” they told her. “Not bad at all.”

She got pregnant a year later, and after she gave birth, she went back to these women and told them about her birthing experience, how horrible it had been, the pain beyond anything she could have conceived of. They laughed. They said, “Of course.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked. “If we told you, you wouldn’t have gone through with it,” the women told her. “If women talked about the pain, no one would do it.”

Now, women are talking. About epidural bruises and throbbing areolas. About uncertainty and self-doubt and the looming possibility of regret. About the way time moves through the lives and bodies of women like a succession of waves that won’t let up: always rushing, never dammed. About maternity and non-maternity and how strange it is we don’t have a real term for that second thing. Or, if we do, it’s the same that we have for pregnancy. It’s making a life. It’s life.

Jennifer Schaffer
Jennifer Schaffer
Jennifer Schaffer is an American writer living in London. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Baffler, VICE, the New Statesman, and elsewhere in print and online. Find her on Twitter @jmschaff.





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