Lauren Elkin tackles the big question many female readers are asking in The Paris Review this month...
As the summer heats up and my due date approaches, I’ve been reading Pamela Druckerman’s cult book about French parenting Bringing Up Bébé. It’s a book people have been telling me about for years, I guess because I live in France and they want to know if they really serve Camembert in the crèches (from what I’ve heard, they do). But I had put off reading it until it felt, well, more relevant. If you don’t have a kid and have no immediate plans to have kids, reading about how to raise one isn’t going to be a top priority.
This is not the case for readers of the spate of new books about motherhood that have been hitting the shelves over the past few months. Motherhood is the new friendship, you might say. These are books that are putting motherhood on the map, literarily speaking, arguing forcefully, through their very existence, that it is a state worth reading about for anyone, parent or not. There is no more relevant subject to every person in the world than motherhood. “All human life on the planet is born of woman,” as Adrienne Rich begins her landmark book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Or as my friend A. N. Devers paraphrased Rich recently on Twitter: “Moms are not a niche – they literally make ALL THE PEOPLE.”
This is one thing I keep marveling over as pregnancy has its way with my body: for every single person you see and have ever seen in your life, some poor woman went through what I am going through now. It seems too extraordinary to be true. My friend Jean, who is due in December, put it similarly in her TinyLetter (to which you must subscribe; she is a genius): “On some of the worst days of the sickness I would look at people on the street and think: All of you did this to someone, every single one of you.” How could I ever have thought of parenting, or motherhood, as a niche concern? I find myself urgently needing to talk to other women about how incredibly momentous it feels, and yet how banal, and about the weight of the decision we’ve made—about what it all means.
And just at the moment when I have most needed ambitious, thoughtful books from a mother’s or would-be mother’s perspective, there is a new canon available to me. The past year alone has seen the publication of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers, Chris Power’s story collection Mothers, and Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood. Not to mention the ones that came out in the last few years: Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (2016), Nadja Spiegelman’s I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This (2016), Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014), Elisa Albert’s After Birth (2015), Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (2015), Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock (2015), the essays in Meghan Daum’s collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (2015), Rachel Bowlby’s A Child of One’s Own (2013), Anne Enright’s Making Babies (2012), or, reaching further back still, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and the entire fiction output of Elena Ferrante (from 2006’s Troubling Love right up to 2014’s The Story of the Lost Child). As Lily Gurton-Wachter puts it, “These writers are making space in the literary world where there didn’t seem to be room before: a space in which pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum experience are neither ignored nor pathologized, but simply — and at long last — described.”
How they are described, however, makes all the difference. As Judith Newman writes in the New York Times Book Review on Mother’s Day in 2012, “No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.” There has long been space in the world of trade publishing for descriptions of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum experience, but they have tended to be found in the self-help or psychology section. The writing is not necessarily bad (though it can be cloyingly sentimental), but the writing is not the point: these books are there to advise and recommend. Though they are often pressed on expectant mothers, I’ve found myself viscerally rejecting them. I’m strapped for extracurricular reading time; why would I spend it on books with titles like Raising an Organic Baby or The Burping Handbook? (Although who knows—when I have a burping organic baby myself, I may well be whistling a different tune.)
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. They put the mother and her perspective at the center of their concerns. We have lacked a canon of motherhood, and now, it seems, one is beginning to take shape. Or rather, there very much has been a modern tradition of writing about motherhood, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton to Adrienne Rich to Nancy Huston, that the current writing on motherhood, through its insistent and seemingly sudden accumulation, is making visible. The new books on motherhood are forcing the culture to accept it as not only one of the big themes of literature but one that is intimately bound up with the concerns it has more readily acknowledged: war, peace, love, loss, the city, the country, murder, madness, race, class, apocalypse, alienation.
I am curious, however, as to why these books are appearing right now, at an ever-greater pace. I have the sense that to some extent, it’s generational. The authors of these new books are by and large (with a few exceptions) women writers in my age group (say, roughly, aged 35-45) who are now at the point where they’re either having children, or being forced to justify to themselves and the world why they’re not. Many of us in this age group have been grappling, out of necessity, with a keen ambivalence towards becoming a mother. Heti does the I Ching; I did tarot; a friend does stichomancy; and we all find our ways through periods of doubt and questioning however we can. And now, we also turn to writing to understand what it means to be or not to be a mother, and how to honor the ambivalence that lives on even as our bellies grow rounder, and our lives fill with nappies and playdates.
It may also have something to do with the way our generation is more attentive to embodiment, to the fact that the bodies we live in shape our experiences of the world. Instead of the “you can have it all” approach of the previous generation, this kind of writing on motherhood registers with great sensitivity the phenomenological experience of motherhood in the early 21st century. These motherhood books ask the reader to think about the ways in which we are bodies in the world, subject not only to the biology of being born with a uterus but into a particular kind of body, in terms of race, ability, and desire – and the way all of that is imbricated in the social. There is still a need within this new motherhood boom to think about the latter categories in particular; Parul Sehgal is rightly concerned that “so many of these books (almost all of them are by white, middle-class women) seem wary of, if not outright disinterested in, more deeply engaging with how race and class inflect the experience of motherhood,” while Katie Heaney notes that the ambivalence which many of these women explore is more complicated for queer women, given that for women partnered with other women, “pregnancy can only be deliberate, expensive, and lucky.”
I think another, related aspect of the motherhood boom has something to do with the role played by the internet, which may not resemble that of women ten years older or younger than the writers in this cohort. For women of this generation, a large part of their daily engagement with feminism is articulated through social media. The internet has had an impact on our narratives of motherhood for nearly twenty years, but whereas the early noughties saw a rise in “mommy blogs,” women telling the unvarnished truth about motherhood, today we have the mommy mafia on instagram, whitewashing (literally) the experience into an overexposed fantasy of spotless children in white linen. These new books are perhaps a reaction against that pixellation of motherhood, which flattens out the experience, and makes us even more anxious about the things we’re failing to do, and the style in which we’re failing to do them.
But really, these versions of motherhood are failing us. They do little to help us understand the transformations taking place in our bodies and our lives. Jenny Offill told Vogue that she was prompted to write Dept of Speculation because of the insufficiency of everyday conversations about motherhood, even between mothers:
Early on, I took my colicky baby to one of those new-mothers’ groups. I wasn’t sure how to connect with them, but I desperately wanted to. But the affect seemed odd. The new mothers seemed to be talking in these falsely bright voices; all the anecdotes were mild ones of “the time she lost her pacifier on the bus” variety. No one seemed to feel like a bomb had gone off in their lives, and this made me feel very, very alone. Gaslighted, almost. Why weren’t we talking more about the complexity of this new experience?
This reminds me of the delightful evisceration of the mother’s group in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (“Singing seemed rather an intimate thing to do with people I hardly knew, but it was, at least, preferable to conversation”). A sympathetic reading of them would suggest that “false brightness” is born of both of a need to cope, as well as with a certain performative, competitive competency, rather than an attempt to grapple, intellectually, emotionally and collectively, with what this new state means. The same can be said for the insta-mommies: they curate a mosaic of aesthetic perfection that only just barely hides their anxieties; it’s hard to feel critical of them when you feel so much empathy for them. Frustrating though it may be not to find them grappling with – well, anything at all, it seems clear that it is in the sphere of art that motherhood will find the space it needs to ask the questions it must. The new motherhood books take up Nelson’s challenge when she complains in The Argonauts of the limitations of magazine Q&As about pregnancy, “No one asked, How does one submit to falling forever, to going to pieces. A question from the inside.”
Motherhood in the early 21st century is a time of being branded. Ever since I announced my pregnancy, kind souls have been sending me their lists of what they bought for their babies, often with annotations: this is the best kind of pregnancy pillow, this the best kind of swaddle, don’t believe the hype around this brand of bottle, don’t buy pacifiers in advance, your baby will only want the kind they give him at the hospital. I’ve spent several afternoons fretting about which is the safest baby bath seat to buy – with straps? Without straps? – conveniently forgetting that my parents bathed my sister and me in the kitchen sink, and we survived. The pregnancy clothing designer HATCH won’t stop sending me emails, ever since I ordered a stripey maternity top from them (which I subsequently returned). This most recent one congratulated me on reaching the third trimester, and offered to help me think about “LAP” (Life After Pregnancy):
Since being a mama to a little one becomes a lot more manageable with help from friends, we keep up with the most fun, inspiring, stylish and sweet mamas out there on the HATCHland blog. We’ve got Go-Guides for the most family-friendly destinations, styling round-ups and spotlights on brands you’ll want to know about.
It’s the language that grates, the reducing down of mothers to peppy, positive, “sweet mamas,” filling each other’s lives with fun and inspiration. The unspoken shadow side of the “manageable” life they peddle, is the dark (but not necessarily negative) unmanageability Nelson, Offill, and Cusk devote themselves to exploring. Thanks to HATCH and other companies, we can stay out here in the flat white light of consumerism, frolicking in expensive overalls and adding the products of their marketing partners to our tiny, virtual shopping baskets.
Motherhood is “on trend” now, as Natalie Alcala, founder of “Fashion Mamas” tells Hatch. Often trends can seem meaningless or random, like something cooked up by some marketing team somewhere. But they in fact express something about the culture that produces them, some desire it wants to see fulfilled, some need it has for conformity. The motherhood trend is no different. In the face of the terrifying reality of making, birthing, and raising an actual human being – again let us pause at the enormity of it – it is soothing to think we are doing something right when we see it mirrored by others, or to take those placid, pastel-hued photographs for reality, and mirror our own lives after them. From that anxiety over the impossibility of reproduction comes the consumption sustaining the motherhood industry and the kind of competition that sows conflict between mothers, rather than community. Writes Jacqueline Rose:
We are now witnessing what feminist sociologist Angela McRobbie has described as a “neo-liberal intensification of mothering” – perfectly turned-out, middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all women who do not conform to that image (because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated) feel like total failures; one of McRobbie’s articles on the topic has the title “Notes on the Perfect.”
But there is only so much we can glean from the self-help books, the classes, the peppy websites; as Cusk writes, “The literature tactfully tones down references to the ultimately solitary nature of childbirth, and to the fact that attending classes for it is like attending classes for death.” Death doesn’t sell overalls. It is to Cusk, and Heti, that I need to turn, to try to understand what I’ve embarked on, and how what I am experiencing is not always in line with the way the culture represents it to me.
I feel a creeping kind of guilt for wanting to read Rachel Cusk instead of the practical baby book guides. I am happy to think in the abstract, with these writers, about what motherhood means, but resistant to learning how to burp my organic baby. I worry this means I only want to be a mother in the abstract – but then I also know in my heart of hearts that this is not true. I love my unborn baby in a strange unthinkable way, because he himself is unthinkable. It is the work of literature to help us think through the unthinkable.
I feel redeemed in my preferences when I come across these lines in Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers:
A recent study suggests that the mothers who read the most manuals on mothering report the highest level of depressive symptoms (it is not clear whether the depression is the consequence of reading so many manuals or the reason they are reading them in the first place).
It seems to me that all of this looking to the manuals will not help us with what we really want to know. We want to know not only how to do it – surely the brand of nappy doesn’t matter so terribly – but to enter the intimacy of another mind that has felt the same hopes and fears as ours. We all learn how to fall in love, how to have our hearts broken, how to grieve, without a guidebook. And yet we still hunger to read literature about how other people have experienced these most universal of pains and joys.
I don’t mean to set up some high-low divide between the literature of motherhood and the motherhood industry. Avant-garde or experimental writing fully participates in the dynamics of the market (see Christian Lorentzen’s recent piece on autofiction as marketing). But what makes these new motherhood books valuable is their thoughtful collectivity, their demand for specificity, for the wide-ranging and messy human experience, and their frustration with the branded language of motherhood.
These books don’t all take the same form; they run the gamut from dystopic fiction to critical nonfiction. To approach the specificity they ask us to bring to motherhood, we also need to attend to their specificity of form and genre, otherwise we run the risk of collapsing motherhood (only) into the sociological realm. As Sarah Blackwood points out on the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, this damages the way we think about motherhood itself, “marginalizing it as some kind of exception to human life, some kind of individual opt in or out ‘choice.’”
This new crop of mother-writers, or non-mother-writers, is set apart by their approach to motherhood as the spur to thinking about the nature of creativity and its relationship to gender, and to exploring these questions in work that is formally challenging – as if textual embodiment were as important to interrogate as physical embodiment.
Many of them are marked by a preference for a fragmented narrative structure, and yet even the reasons for that stylistic choice vary. Willa Paskin is quick to point out that the form in which these books are written “structurally reflects” their thematic preoccupations: “this is writing that can be picked up and polished in short, awkward bits of time.” Justine Jordan called The End We Start From“part of a growing trend to approach parenthood side on, smash it into fragments, and offer up the shards.” Yet Maggie Nelson, while giving a talk at BAM, said, “I didn’t go to the fragmented form because of naptime,” but for her own aesthetic and political purposes. A rejection of binaries, a need for specificity, for a form that captures vulnerability, the unreliability of language, an openness to kink and perversity. There are, too, different kinds of fragments; Nelson told Guernica that her earlier work, Bluets (2009) was a book of propositions, while the “unit” of The Argonauts was anecdote.
If the literature takes different forms – even down to different approaches to the fragment – it is as a means of getting to grips with all the different forms motherhood can take. In A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother, Pruchinskaya emphasizes this plurality, and makes it the basis for challenging the relationship between gender and narrative: “How are women’s stories told? Who hears these stories? What do these stories do? […] To talk about ‘women’s stories’ is complicated, and has its own history, and it is not one thing but a collection of theories as diverse as the stories they attempt to describe.”
“How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?” Nelson asks early on in The Argonauts. One answer, it seems to me, is when the experience is so wild and so transformative that you need to take refuge in conformity, only to find there that what you thought would bring you into line with your fellow humans has only thrown you deeper into your own body. These new books recast motherhood not as the reactionary choice, the choice made because it’s what’s socially expected, but as something hard won, intellectually demanding, a form of creative labor. Not something that takes you away from your work but something that is now both frame and canvas for it. “Motherhood is not knowledge or control,” writes Rose. “It may have to make non-stop decisions, but not according to some fatuous logic of mastery” (138). The pieces, as we fall to them, as we pick them up, as we rescue them from our babies’ exploring mouths, don’t add up to anything neat or marketable.
The new books on motherhood are a counter-canon. They read against the literary canon with its lack of interest in the interior lives of mothers, against the shelves of this is how you do it books, and against the creeping hegemony of social media motherhood. As the internet rewires our thinking, and therefore our writing, towards the epigrammatic and fragmentary, we’re also reasserting that we live in messy, organic, imperfect bodies. And in a wider political context where it often feels as if the old white men who run the country have taken aim against mothers, our greatest hope for retaking and maintaining control of those bodies is moving the conversation around motherhood from a niche concern to the serious, pressing and universal subject that it is.
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. She lives in Paris.