I read a lot of books about mothers.
Teachers are warned never to let their students see them cry. Last year was hard, but I held out until the end— was it May? June? One Friday afternoon I sighed loudly when a student spoke out for the second time during instruction. Her classmate responded, “You know, Mrs. Cotten, this is what it’s gonna be like when you have kids.” Other students had tried all year, but she had found my soft spot. I remember admonishing her for yelling out and then hearing myself choke up while explaining some Greek/Latin root. I finished out the hour a little tearful and shaky and splashed cold water on my face between classes. Even my dean said afterward, “What happened? That seemed like such a minor thing.”
When we got engaged, Graham and I decided that we would have kids when we had been married five years. I cried in front of my class about a month before our fifth anniversary. We had decided (decided mind you, not had decided for us by issues of fertility or finances, and I hope this post smacks of confusion and reflection rather than any kind of ingratitude or judgment or entitlement) that we’re not ready to have a family. (I sometimes joke to my high school friends that I have always said five years and am not going to stop now.) And when that student yelled out, I was too tired to talk myself down from two terrifying thoughts: that I was going to be a bad mother like I was a bad teacher, and that I would never want to have kids.
Basically my whole life I have wanted to be a mother. I haven’t (until recently) been particularly interested in pursuing a career, and (I’ve thought) I will live just about anywhere as long as I’m meeting a lot of people and am able to nest and have people over for celebrations and suppers because my one goal in life has been to be piled up with babies, my babies, my family, my world. And here I was five years into my marriage finally ambivalent about children with twenty-seven of them staring at me and wondering along with me what I would be like as a mom and if that would ever even happen. I lost it a little, and I started thinking, and I started realizing this question of motherhood is my one obsession. Graham tells his students to write to their obsessions, and I would add we should also read to our obsessions. Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, the best books I read in 2017, speak to mine.
Are we always looking at women and girls and wondering what kind of mothers they will be? As women do we always feel that question, even when it isn’t being asked? In Motherest, the narrator Agnes repeatedly experiences the (often unintentional) judging glances of peers, parents, and passersby. When Agnes returns home from college and meets up with her high school friends, she never announces, “I’m pregnant!” Instead, she meets up with them, they recognize a change, and ask questions almost like they would if they had noticed a hickey in the locker room before gym class. They talk over delightfully 90s mall salad bar salads:
‘Agnes, I think you’ll be a great mom. If… that’s what you want, I mean.’
‘I wouldn’t say it’s what I want, no.’
There is silence, as viscous as the stuff pooling in my plate.
‘I guess I don’t feel I have any, um choices. It’s weird. It was like, the second I found out, the only two options became kill myself or keep the baby. And the first one, well you know. So that left the only other thing. I just want to do the least damage possible. I feel like I’m a bomb and I’m trying to figure out how to contain the blast.’ I’m still sweating and my face and hands feel greasy. I take a big gulp of water. ‘I’m trying to be a very responsible bomb’ (149-150).
One of the topics Kristen* handles with so much care in Motherest is the guilt and competition associated with motherhood. As the title suggests, there is this recurrent question of who is the mother-est of all of the mothers in the book, and does she (or he? sometimes he?) want to be? Each mother in the novel, and there are many, is confronted with motherhood that looks so different from what she’d imagined, from what she’d hoped for— even the leader of the support group for unexpected expecting mothers makes big mothering mistakes. It’s a book about living with the ghosts of missing loved ones, both those who took up physical space and those who were dreamed of. And Agnes this fertility bomb is a reminder to all of the women around her of the constant question of motherhood: how will you mother today, will you? You’re a woman, answer the question.
Is this always a question for women? And if they become mothers, is it possible to remain (retain?) themselves? The Days of Abandonment also addresses the ghosts of dreamed up loved ones, in this case the loved ones are the potential selves lost in marriage and motherhood. When Olga’s husband abandons her (Olga, Agnes, what great names are these?), she abandons her children, her dog, her self. The self she has worn since marrying him, since having children. This book is exquisite. I was misinformed a couple years ago when a stranger in New York told me to start with Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy. My Brilliant Friend was fine, but I didn’t get the hype; why was the whole world (well so many of the readers in it) freaking out about this woman? I put the series down. Then a friend recommended The Days of Abandonment. Read it, she said. It’s so much about womanhood, she said. It’s so much about depression and creativity and identity, she said. It is, I say.
During Olga’s darkest day of her abandonment (this is the most climactic and plotty-est section of the novel), she has a lot of dramatic situations to deal with (being vague here to avoid spoilers in a super character-driven novel, shrug emoji) and so doesn’t notice that her young daughter has dressed herself in Olga’s clothes and used (too much of) Olga’s make-up. When Olga scolds her, her daughter justifies her actions saying that now they are identical: “What did it mean, we are identical, at that moment I needed to be identical only to myself.” (121) Is being identical only to oneself possible when one is a mother? Obviously, it is—I’ve seen others do it successfully—but it seems such a danger of bringing someone out of one’s self. This was the question that excited me most while reading Are You My Mother?— Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, to be and not to be mistaken for the Dr. Seuss book. Bechdel returns again and again to Winnicott’s studies of this sameness and separation between mother and child.
I’m smart enough to understand that I am not smart enough to understand all that much of Winnicott’s psychoanalysis of good enough mothers and true/false selves just by reading Bechdel’s memoir, but I found the sections in which she considers the oneness provided by a womb to be both obvious and enlightening: “The womb is an environment that adapts absolutely. Nothing impinges because there’s no outside or inside. No separation. And if there’s no separation, then properly speaking, there’s no relation either. As they say, all is one.” (138) The reminder of that lack of separation is comforting: Of course motherhood is a process of losing and finding one’s self; a mother’s self has expanded and then broken off to form a new self. It’s messy and physical and metaphysical and impossible to prepare for or to understand fully. And so when it happens, it’s as different from what we expect and dream of as the perceptions we have of ourselves before a crisis. This reminder is a comfort, as I preemptively understand what Olga means when she says, “While I was taking care of the children, I was expecting from Mario a moment that never arrived, the moment when I would be again as I had been before my pregnancies, young, slender, energetic, shamelessly certain I could make of myself a memorable person.” (92) Reading these women has clarified for me my fears of losing even more of myself than I have in marriage, and along with a lot of reflection and work has helped me become open to motherhood as a possibility rather than as a certainty or fear. A wondrous and uncertain possibility.
When I first pitched the idea of this blogpost to Graham, he was supportive but hesitant. “Is it a book review or a personal essay?” he said. “Will you be comfortable inviting others to know about something so private?” he said. “This is mine, and I don’t want you to share it,” he didn’t say. TBH I wanted to write this and share it for many reasons, among them: to organize for myself my fears about motherhood and some of what I’ve learned about it from reading this year, to open a conversation that might draw from the experiences of those much more knowledgable than I am, to admit something that’s hard to talk about as so much more of my social media feed turns into pregnancy and birth announcements. (I love that. I’m obsessed with it. And I’m confused by it.) My hope is that in this blog Kristen and I will stay raw and tender and will invite discussion and reflection. It’s a space I’ve needed and felt there might be a wider need for. It’s the kind of space I hope we are able to create one day in our (real, physical, bricks-n-mortar!!) bookstore. It’s a place where I want, as Claire Vaye Watkins says in “On Pandering,” not to be unflinching but to flinch.
Finally, I said Commonwealth was one of my favorite books of the year, and I didn’t tie it up with the others. It’s beautiful and my mother and I both loved it, which never happens, but so much has been written about it that I don’t feel like you need my take on it. (Plus this blogpost is way too long, and I am unable to take that intro to creative writing advice, “Kill your darlings.” I want to love my darlings. I finally want to have darlings!!) Know that it too deals with questions of motherhood and missed or alternative forms of motherhood. And in it Patchett’s writing is the rawest I’ve read of her fiction. She does what I hope to have the bravery to do: she tells intimate truths. On the Bookworm podcast, she tells Michael Silverblatt, “I think that three books ago, five books ago, I would’ve thought, ‘that just belongs to my father, and I can’t use it because it’s his life,’ but it was my life too because that was the way that I grew up.” Three years ago, five years ago, I would’ve been too scared to share and make mistakes. Now, I want to take what’s mine and write it. Write it urgently. Write it tenderly.
* I may call her this; she is my friend; she co-writes this blog.