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September 17, 2018

Motherhood and the Map

In July, Lauren Elkin wrote an essay about a new and sudden influx on books about motherhood, and I rolled my eyes at the idea. Because of course Lauren Elkin is pregnant with her first child, which is around the time that most literary people discover the existence of a motherhood canon. “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.” Which annoyed me not just because after nearly a decade of motherhood, because of course it’s been on the map all along—and I even did my part to expand its boundaries by editing The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood in 2014. But also because Elkin’s discovery of motherhood reminds me of my own earnest revelations of a decade ago, that parenting indeed is not “a niche concern,” and it’s a little embarrassing to see one’s naivety reflected in such stark terms.

The other week, two of my library holds came in at once: Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne, and And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready, by Meaghan O’Connell. I read Down Girl at once, and found it illuminating and really profound. I’ve since had to return the book—there are many holds on it after mine—but if I still had a copy here I’d been sharing the lines where she writes the misogyny inherent in our understanding that the history of feminism occurs in waves, each one sweeping away whatever came before. Instead of us there being a more constructive model of this history, something indeed that is cumulative. I was struck by this idea, by the way that waves must undermine us. As Michele Landsberg explains in Writing the Revolution: “Because our history is constantly overwritten and blanked out…., we are always reinventing the wheel when we fight for equality.”

I didn’t pick up Meaghan O’Connell’s memoir at all, however, until I received a note from the library that it was two days due. I’d been resisting the book for ages, since seeing it in the bookstore and deciding I didn’t want to pay the price of a hardcover for a book that was slight, so I was content to be the hundredth-something library hold, and even once I brought the book home, as I’ve said, I still didn’t read it. Partly for the same reason I found Lauren Elkin’s essay annoying. “We have lacked a canon of motherhood, and now, it seems, one is beginning to take shape.” OH GOD, NO. (Note: Please read my review of Val Teal’s amazing and irreverent 1948 mothering memoir, It Was Not What I Expected:  “It is often said that nobody tells the truth about motherhood, though I think the reality is really that nobody ever listens.”) I’d read enough motherhood memoirs for one lifetime, I decided. There was indeed nothing new under the sun, even if you happen to be raising your baby in Brooklyn.

But then it wasn’t a very long book—the very reason I hadn’t bought it. Perhaps I could even get it read in two days (because such expansiveness is possible in the life of a mother whose children are nine and five). There were many holds on this book as well and it could not be renewed, so I picked it up and started reading, and what happened next, like motherhood, was not at all what I’d expected.

Reader: I really, really liked it, this story of a woman who got pregnant when she was 29 and decided to have a baby before she even owned a home or a car. Unlike O’Connell, my baby was planned when I got pregnant when I was 29, but we were similarly missing the house and car and career stability (actually we’d just decided to skip those) and there were people who, when they heard I was pregnant, had asked me, “Oh, Was it planned?” I identified so much with O’Connell’s story of motherhood before she was ready, and it brought back so many memories I’d forgotten about altogether—like when she jumps up from the table at last once a week to run to the bathroom because she’s convinced she’s started to miscarry and then comes back sheepishly, “False alarm.” How the pregnancy never feels real, except for about forty minutes after she’s had a sonogram. About reading Ina May Gaskin and deciding that you too can be a hero. And once her baby is born—that failure of imagination. The double standard of a society that demands you breastfeed but doesn’t know where to look when you do it. O’Connell writes that she’d known it would be hell, but had imagined the hell would be logistical instead of emotional. And that was the part where I put my finger on the line of text and shouted, “Yes, this exactly.”

I’d forgotten so much of it—and I have probably read and written about motherhood more than the average person. But so much of the story had disappeared from my consciousness, swept away—like as a wave, as it will. And I’d even decided that stories of new motherhood were no longer relevant to me, that I was done with al that. The same problem as Lauren Elkin but in reverse. Scoffing, of course, there’s always been a motherhood canon, but now it’s dusty on the shelf and I don’t even need to read it.

There might be something to the waves, something more than misogyny. I wonder if men’s lives are more linear than women’s, whereas I know that in my own experience, with motherhood in particular, my self has been continually overwritten. As it has been again now that my children are more independent, and as it will be when they get even older, and then with menopause—all these changes. I don’t remember who I was before. I don’t remember when I ever needed those books. Sometimes I pick them up and read my notes in the margins though, and it’s like they were written by a stranger.

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