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June 1, 2016

Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen


My littlest and lastest child turns three on Sunday, which means that we no longer have a baby. I sleep all night and in the morning the only people in my bed are the people who are supposed to be there. Everyone in our household uses the toilet. My husband and I go out often and leave our children with a babysitter. On Friday, I left my family for twenty-four hours and they got along perfectly well without me, all of which are details that might seem perfectly mundane, but we’ve had to come a long way to get here. And with my children being (very deliberately) four years apart, I didn’t even suffer babies with the perfect intensity that other women do (and some of them don’t even call it suffering!). I went out for dinner last night with my friend who had three under two—she’s still recovering. It was seven years ago, but I still recall quite vividly how becoming a mother blew my universe apart.

And sometimes I think I’m over it. While in the years after Harriet was born, I was entirely preoccupied with the politics of motherhood, these ideas don’t fascinate me the way they once did. I’m interested in Suzanne Buffam’s The Pillow Book because of the narrative possibilities that motherhood has to offer literature, structurally speaking, and also because it was very good and surprising, but not because mothers and motherhood aren’t inherently interesting to me anymore. Never mind that I edited an entire book about them (which I still think is pretty damn interesting, but still). As other women become mothers and are discovering the uncanny strangeness and unfathomability of the motherverse for the very first time, I have to remind myself to be patient with them, with their fascinations. Just like other women were patient with me, as I was thinking these thoughts as though I were the first woman to ever think them.

“…and so after I had the baby, I found myself in the position (now interested in babies) of those political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an “issue,” like, say, Dick Cheney, with his daughter, who married a woman.” —Rivka Galchen, Little Labors

All of which means that I didn’t really think I needed to read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors. I’d read Buffam’s book two weeks ago anyway, another book born out of new mother panic. Also informed by Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, from eleventh century Japan. But then the New York Times review of Galchen’s book was most intriguing. And then I actually saw the book, which is this gorgeous little package that fits perfectly in your pocket or your tiny purse, and I just had to have it. I started reading it on the flight home from Montreal, and fell totally, completely in love.

Imagine then Buffam’s book, but written by an acclaimed prose stylist instead of a poet. Each piece is a mini essay on motherhood, womanhood, the nature of babies, the nature of babies in literature, and how women relate to each other, and to the world, and about how going about the world with a baby is an altogether different experience than being without one. The pieces are terrifically funny, rich with surprising insights, and disclosing just the right details while withholding enough to maintain an element of mystery. (In the very first essay I ever published about motherhood, for example, I am shining a flashlight into my vagina within the first few paragraphs. Rivka Galchen never does this. Or at least if she does, she doesn’t let us know.) Sarah Ruhl in the Times writes of Galchen’s “sleight of hand—something only partially revealed — so that the fragments glow more.” (Presumably not with the aid of a flashlight.)

These fragments are preoccupied with the poster for a Keanu Reeves flop; the tiresome anecdotes we tell our friends about our babies presuming they’ll be interested (and once those friends have babies, they even actually are); a mention of the woman who drowned her five children; a horrible woman whom Galchen regularly encounters in her building’s elevator who has strong feelings she must articulate about her baby’s size; on head shapes, their remarkability and otherwise; about troubling proclivities toward orange; one piece beginning, “Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions.”; about Frankenstein, Godzilla, Rumpelstiltskin, Lucille Ball, and The Tale of Genji (but not all in the same essay); about screen time, and what writers had children and who didn’t, and why writers’ children keep writing about closed office doors (and Galchen wonders why these doors are more troubling than the doors at Daddy’s work, downtown in a high rise building); about babies in art; and her complicated feelings about women’s writing and “women’s writing,” which she fascinatingly teases out.

New variety of depression: It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.

Things that one was misleadingly told were a big part of having a baby: Diapers. Changing them. Bottles. Cleaning them. Wraps. Baths. Sleeplessness. Cheerios. All these things exist but rise to consciousness about as often as the apartment’s electricity does.

4 thoughts on “Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen”

  1. How did I not know about this book?! I’m a huge Galchen fan. Must get, must get tomorrow, thanks Kerry

  2. Shawna says:

    I have the Buffam book in my pile of books to read. I think you’ve convinced me to look for this one, too. But it’s interesting that point when you want to step away from the various stages of parenting. Mine is about to turn 18….and we’re about to put a lot of things aside, mentally. (Or so we think).

  3. One more thing — I wish you, Mizz Kerry, had written the G&M review on this. The reviewer in this weekend’s edition seemed too busy showing off her knowledge of essay collections (one of which she is “at work on”) to reveal much about Galchen’s prose stylings and take on motherhood.

    And note to Shawna above – mine is 16.5 — stages upon stage, yes!

    1. Kerry says:

      Yeah, that piece was lacking focus. Which for such a small and focused book is a missed opportunity.

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