The Existential Impossibilities of Parenting, in Fiction and Life
Rebecca Ackermann on New Books by Edan Lepucki and Yael Goldstein-Love
In the bleary early days of parenting, my friends and I joked that books and movies with sick or dying children should get their own warning labels. “Dead baby alert!” we texted each other when we came across one. (I’ll tell you too: Beware of BBC One’s Call the Midwife, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, and the 1996 film Trainspotting.) We “lol”ed at our running exchange, but the truth was darker and more profound than we admitted, as all truths in new parenting are.
Our babies were fresh slates, and we hoped shiny futures awaited them on our doorsteps. But in the folds of our tired brains, we also could feel gnarled misfortune out there too, clawing to get in. What’s more, our parents and their parents stood on the welcome mat, the hurts of our own childhoods slung low among them. If only we could lock our doors and our minds, we might keep our children safe from it all. So, no reading about dead babies.
But magical thinking is poor security; other universes, happy and sad, always seep through. Two new novels with speculative angles explore how loving a child well means learning how to live alongside these ghosts, the past, the present, and infinite futures all at once—literally, in Edan Lepucki’s Time’s Mouth and Yael Goldstein-Love’s The Possibilities. Time’s Mouth sprawls generations of Californians burdened with a complicated inheritance: the power to time travel and the desperate desire not to pass down childhood trauma—but the compulsion to do exactly that. The Possibilities tells the story of a woman who loses her child across multiple dimensions, and struggles to pull apart anxious worry from life-saving concern. Both books draw on otherworldly elements to describe the familiar vertigo that makes it so hard to make peace with all the “could be’s” and “once were’s” without losing our minds along the way.
Time’s Mouth begins with Sharon, a teenager in the 1950s who leaves the East Coast, her father’s abuse and her mother’s neglect for the Golden State, renaming herself after the stars. Now Ursa, she finds her way to a majestic and overgrown house outside Santa Cruz, and into pregnancy and the kind of heartbreak that hardens into a lifelong distrust of all men. Ursa dedicates herself to honing her gift for time travel, and offers her hippie gothic homestead to other lost women and children to build a new world where they can be as safe as she never was. “The mamas,” as the women call themselves (Lepucki’s sly naming for a cult of bad mothers) venerate Ursa and build rituals around her “transports.” They construct a maze to ward off strangers, and safeguard the children against interfering authorities by keeping them out of school.
But children need more than walls and ignorance. Ursa’s son Ray plays caretaker when the mamas won’t, and grows into the hardworking, trustworthy man his mother never had for herself. Ursa adores her son—she transports to Ray’s childhood over and over to spend hours with his younger versions—but for all her love and fierce protectiveness, Ursa was never taught how to care for a child’s real needs; her own history haunts her parenting. Ray hates his mother for her neglect, and runs away for a new shot at family with another teenager from the commune, Cherry. Their child, Opal, has Ursa’s gift but a strange curse too: she freezes in rigor mortis for terrifying stretches—a convincing dead baby performance and a nightmare come true for Cherry or any real-life parent who reads her story. Yet Cherry is convinced by her own deep-seated shame and new mom guilt (and by a well-meaning psychic) that it’s all her fault. To keep her child safe, she leaves—as Ray’s father left him, as Cherry’s mother left her, as Ray left Ursa, as Ursa left her family. The cycle feels dizzying, worst case scenarios already foretold despite every attempt to shift fate.
In The Possibilities, Berkeley mom Hannah lives and breathes inevitable disaster. “The world was not to be trusted, as I had always known,” she tells the reader when her husband, Adam, leaves her—his abandonment rhymes with Hannah’s mother’s disappearance years before. But Adam has had enough of Hannah’s rootless worry for their seemingly healthy eight-month-old son, Jack. Hannah can’t shake impossible images of her baby blue-lipped and breathless—Goldstein-Love’s descriptions resonate at a heartbreaking pitch. She is sure that Jack is in danger and only she can stop it. And then she loses him—first misplaced and then gone gone—confirming that she’s either lost her grip on reality or something is truly wrong. When Hannah slips through dimensions and learns that Jack is in real danger of disappearing, as other Jacks in other universes have before him, she feels a kind of relief: her worry was right. But that worry didn’t keep him safe, and it can’t bring him back, either.
Hannah reaches out for help from her therapist, neighbors, the police, her husband, and then from alternate versions of herself and her long lost mother. She accepts that other dimensions exist, both tempting and terrible—some where her son has died, others where he was never born, one where her mother taught her that the worst case scenario isn’t always inevitable. Hannah learns that to pull her son back to her, she must welcome all the possibilities into her mind while living fully inside the only one that’s hers. It’s a balancing act that feels impossible but Goldstein-Love’s first-person prose makes plain that the hard choice is the only way forward for Hannah and her family.
And what about when we can’t or won’t pick the right path? What about the pain we cause as parents, not just the harm we fail to predict or keep out? Now years into parenting, those early days only smudges in the rose-colored rearview, my friends and I text about different concerns. We worry that we gave a cruel answer to a curious question or opened our mouths to let out our parents’ old words. What do we do when the misfortune is already inside the house—in us—and no closed door will protect our kids? We take on another difficult ask of the job: We say we’re sorry, we swallow our failures, and we pray they don’t eat us alive.
In Time’s Mouth, Ray cannot stop himself from making mistakes new and inherited, but he can find a way toward the future through forgiveness. Ray lies to Opal about Ursa, Cherry, the mamas, the house, closing off whole worlds to his daughter to try to keep her safe. But Opal “tunnels” into the past—the word she uses for her grandmother’s gift of time travel—and unearths it all. Opal loses trust in her father, despite how hard he tried to be a better parent than his own. But Ray does what his mother never could: he admits his mistakes, allowing new possibilities to unfold for their family, ones he never could’ve predicted. Poor Ursa, who was once a child failed by her own parents, can’t get out from under the torture of what could’ve been. She drives the mamas away and loses herself in a mind-melting eternal transport to the past, haunting old versions of herself, Ray, Cherry, and Opal. Unable to keep out the dangers to her family and incapable of taking responsibility for her role in it all, Ursa drowns in the infinite soup of “what if”s.
And here is the darkest and most profound parenting truth of all: It is impossible to keep a child safe forever. We are all human, we will all leave this dimension—our babies included, as simultaneously close and unimaginable as that may feel. (Even now, my mind urges me to delete such a bald invitation to the fates at my door.) But being a good parent requires us to be present with our kids despite—or maybe because of—the limits of time and space. Let us learn the hard lessons of Hannah and Ray, and tragic Ursa, too. We must stay open to all the possibilities, all the mistakes, all the blame, and all the forgiveness, but we can’t lose sight of how lucky we are to live in the one today that is our own.