What exactly is motherhood? I’ve been mulling it over the past few months, during which time I again experienced pregnancy and childbirth, and again dealt with the confusion and sleep deprivation that attend the motherhood of early infancy. I agreed to write something for Public Books during my last trimester, a period that, this time, was cut short. I’m sure I can make the April deadline, I joked, unless the little beggar comes early. Which of course he wouldn’t, because that isn’t what happened last time. But he did come early, and then, after he arrived, we discovered he was even earlier still. The robust science of prenatal care in one of the richest countries in the First World is not so exact a science that it can’t be two to three weeks off in dating a fetus. Now we know.
And this second birth was not like the first. The first came naturally, at 40 weeks, in a textbook (though we know there’s no such thing as a textbook birth, as Ina May and all the rest calmly insist) 14 hours. A perfectly healthy, robust 8.5 lb. baby. This birth was different: induced, with labor slow to start, and then it happened all at once, a short burst of fury and he arrived, small, but seemingly perfect; the horrible threats of growth restriction, of misaligned and malfunctioning placentas, of motherly sickness and perhaps even death, all flew out the window.
But that night, after what the doctors kept calling an “apneic event,” which is to say, after he stopped breathing, and after I chafed my blue and unresponsive son into a silent and then frighteningly soft scream, we landed in the NICU, a place of heroism at once banal and extreme, and a place of unrelenting, intense, suffocatingly hopeful observation.
After he had stabilized and the tests had been run, he slept there, and I made my way back to my own postpartum bed, stunned at the intensity of the previous two and a half days, confused about what was happening to me. I fretfully asked the nurse if there was anything to eat, and she brought me a cup of salty powdered chicken stock and a small cup of vanilla ice cream, dense and chewy with stabilizers. I cried, and she comforted me, then checked my stitches and my vitals, and wrapped me up in a hot blanket on the hospital bed, tucking the warm dry cloth underneath my body, making me a little cocoon. And I slept.
What, exactly, was happening to me? I was already a mother, but, now, I was a new mother again. Everything was different as well as the same. I now knew twice over the suddenly deep-voiced groan that comes from you during transition, a groan that brings a knowing, pitying, but also almost comical, look between doctor and nurse. I knew twice over my certainty and insistence that I absolutely couldn’t do it that was a clear sign of the baby’s imminent arrival. I knew the pinch of Novocain before the midwife—or, this time, doctor—stitches you up.
And now, two months later (I wrote this in June, not April, when I finished the books I was meant to read in March), I’m still not sure what has happened to me. A semblance of a routine is developing, in fits and starts: nursing, sleeping, “playing,” then repeating it all again. My toddler is funny and furious, also in fits and starts, kissing the baby by lowering his huge head toward the new soft one, grabbing at the baby’s onesie, yanking its zipper down, and trying to pull him bodily forward, raging and throwing his toys around, but not at, the baby. All of it: normal, normal, normal.
No one is ever ready for the utter disarray that having a child brings to their lives; and yet, eventually, everything returns to a new normal.
Motherhood, though, isn’t exactly what I just experienced. Many people can be mothers. Mothers adopt children. Fathers become mothers. Motherhood is a process of unfolding: teleological, but also flexible. It does not require one to be born with a specific chromosome or genetic pattern; it does not require one to give birth. What I had just undergone was a little different. It is adjacent to, and often aligned with, motherhood, but it is different nevertheless.
What is it we agonize about when we agonize about motherhood? Is it the social and political constraints that attend female life? The frustration and inconvenience of living in a society that does not acknowledge or support, in anything but the most rudimentary way, the time and effort required for childrearing? Or the surprise with which that society responds to motherhood’s endless small indignities? Or, perhaps, the stupid ideological place—at once central and so peripheral as to be almost invisible—afforded motherhood in our culture? If we took the temperature of contemporary publishing, we’d know: all of these.
Delivery stories put the fact of maternal pain at the forefront, but they don’t quite get at the necessary connection of that pain with the mothering that comes afterward. Women suffer to be mothers, and the birth story, especially the traumatic birth story, is the clearest account of the form that suffering takes. The confusion of pushing a large-headed human child from the enclosed womanly body draws together bodily pain and maternal care over and over again. Our culture, right now, loves a birth story, loves a clear-sighted account of the losses motherhood brings with it. Loves the gory, but not too gory, details. Loves to linger over pages of description that detail the bewilderingly varied experiences women have of the American way of birth.
Sheila Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, begins from this assumption. In it, the protagonist, a semi-fictional Sheila Heti, considers the question of motherhood, in the abstract, as it relates to her own material conditions: should she become a mother? More basic than that, though, because that presumes working reproductive organs and successful pregnancies: should she try to become a mother? Heti’s novel metabolizes this central question for modern womanhood in the motif of turned coins.
The protagonist asks her coins yes or no questions: heads is a yes response, tails is no. She borrows this imagery from the I Ching, but the method of questioning, and the surety of the applicability of the coins’ responses, is nothing like predictive. With this repetitive literary toy, Heti manages to identify an ideal symbolic register for modern maternity. It is not the making of a woman; it is just something that happens, more often than not. Heti’s prose is clean and worried, simple and direct, but also fully absorbed with, and representative of, the way that a mind in the process of making a huge decision spins in circles.
Motherhood in the End Times
Meaghan O’Connell’s sharp collection of essays, And Now We Have Everything, coheres into a more familiar shape. The essays move chronologically through the author’s surprise pregnancy, horrifying birth story, and challenges in early motherhood. One of the central questions, for O’Connell, is how to balance a writerly life with new motherhood. O’Connell’s partner’s job is flexible enough that they can take turns with childcare, but even so, after a few months, neither of them seems to be getting much done, and O’Connell, who is breastfeeding every two hours when she begins working again, seems to come up hard against the challenge of engaged, physical maternity and a full-time job. Familiar is the ache of a full breast in a coffee shop, is the late-night googling of Kelly Mom horror stories. Part of the appeal of O’Connell’s voice is its frankness, but also its familiarity.
Every woman you know who has had a baby in the last five years has a text chain with her friends in which they have recounted every indignity of their bodies: their postpartum shits, saddlebags, and sex lives. Every one of them knows which of their closest friends had epidurals or C-sections, which had tearing, and where, which breast pump they used, surreptitiously, under their shirts as they commuted on trains. The mass of motherly information overwhelms you until you can’t quite remember where you read the bit about block feeding, or the blog post about avoiding mastitis, but you know it’s there, blinking its pixilated truth in a dark corner of the web. O’Connell renders the passage from woman to mother vividly, as one that is always partial, always incomplete, and yet takes place in the opposite of a vacuum, in a social and medial environment that floods one with information, brand names, experiences.
Familiar, too, is the horrible realization that the path you’ve started on is, at a relatively early point, irreversible. At one point late in her pregnancy, O’Connell goes through a period when she can’t feel the baby kick as much. She is worried, and her partner is not: “What I really want him to acknowledge, to feel with me, is that we are standing at the precipice of death now, all the time. That it’s undeniable, part of the deal sooner or later; inextricable from life. We created a death.”
The process of becoming a mother, and perhaps of becoming a family, is recognizing this bitter fact, and recognizing the miserable way your body can betray you as you create that death. O’Connell’s pregnancy ends in an emergency C-section: “My doctor gave birth to my baby,” she writes. “My doctor would be climbing on a chair and leaning all of her weight onto my abdomen and literally pushing my baby out of me. She’d knead him down from the outside,” like a large, woman-shaped, external uterus.
In all of this, the familiarity of O’Connell’s expressed feelings—resentment, anxiety, irritation, and insane love—works to underscore her book’s central claim: no one is ever ready for the utter disarray that having a child brings to their lives; and yet, eventually, everything returns to a new normal. The couple expands, and the family comes into disorganized being.
The threat of disruption that birth brings is one that looks, in some ways, like a fear of castration.
Both O’Connell and Heti chart out their books in precisely observed prose; but differences in voice and genre distinguish them. O’Connell’s is chatty, comfortable, tinged with a wry, indie rocker’s irony that feels, still, self-protective. Merve Emre has written about the way women expose themselves in prose to join the writerly fray, an unsettling by-product of our enthusiasm for stories that come from female trauma.1 Although O’Connell’s essays explicitly recount her bodily injury, there is something at their core that keeps the reader from her inner life: she threads the needle of exposure by creating, at the essays’ center, a small, silent house: we do not know her son, and, so, we do not truly see her as a mother. She has kept this from us. There is a limit to the reader’s access.
Heti’s novel, and the fictionalized representation of the author therein, feel more unsettlingly naked. We do not know as much about Heti’s body, or about her way of being in the world, but her decision to present, as the central topic of the novel, the conundrum reproduction brings to contemporary women, makes the novel feel more intimate, more exposing. It goes something like this: we know pregnancy changes a body, and we know birth can traumatize a person.
O’Connell’s challenges are the challenges we expect birth to bring. Once the decision is made—she will have a baby—we know that the decision’s effect on her life, on her embodiment, is up for grabs, but there will be an effect, no matter what. Alternately, Heti’s harrowingly vivid dreams—she imagines her breasts are penises, hovering at her navel; she dreams of possible children, blonde-haired and charming—feel like access to a mind that has not yet fully absorbed the way a mental leap (I will have a baby) works its way out only through the mysterious tissue of our bodies.
Weirdly, although Motherhood doesn’t detail, well, motherhood, it is strangely close to the phenomenon of birth, in part because the central embodiment in Heti’s novel is the mind in all its disorganized dislocation and not the body at all. The topic of Heti’s novel is the mind’s inability to fully absorb the body’s part in the world, especially the threat of the body’s recalcitrance. The social necessity of reproduction makes child-rearing feel like a foregone conclusion, that even people who have chosen not to have children are trapped in a swamp of expectation—that they will change their minds, that they don’t know their minds, or their bodies. “Without children,” Heti writes, “it doesn’t look like you have made a choice, or that you’re doing anything but continuing—drifting.”
Heti’s preoccupation with making a decision that is clear-sighted and true runs up sharply against the problem of reproduction, in part because no one can really make an informed decision without the experience of having a child. Worse, for Heti, the problem of child-bearing is that child-rearing—child-having—is fully bound up in social and cultural sentiment: “I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling,” she writes, explaining that, to her, “childbearing [feels like] a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.” For Heti, child-bearing has as its central opposition art, and her anxiety about no longer making art, or perhaps finding out that having children is no substitute for making art, drives the novel forward.
In both of these books, there is a tension between the woman as agent and the woman as conduit. Between the woman as writer and the woman as mother. Between a woman as someone who does things, and a woman to whom things are done. Between a woman who has made a decision, and one who has not.
In And Now we Have Everything, O’Connell describes her first tentative efforts to reattach herself to her sexual life with her partner. Pregnancy and breastfeeding, she points out, have the same hormonal weight as menopause; desire ebbs, and one’s body might not be ready, with its combination of re-stitched parts, exhaustion, and the desiccation breastfeeding brings, to accommodate sexual life as easily as it did before. Almost every birth story addresses, in some way, what happens to the vagina: its injuries and its authority as the central place of the birth experience, the location of a woman’s entrance into motherhood. Birth stories produce a flipped Lacanian world, one in which the lack is the place to be.
But such stories only get at half the picture, and this half felt to me increasingly like one that missed out on a key aspect of birth: the weird place the biologically female body occupies at the heart of the birth narrative. Of course the child emerges from the birth canal through the vagina, or else is pulled out of the womb in a surgical theater, with the small slit above the pubic line standing in for a kind of vaginal entrance. The symbolic force of the conduit from the inside of one body to the outside world is hard to deny.
But what about the propulsive force pushing the baby out from within? Uterine contractions, despite what you might have seen on television, are utterly involuntary. The pushing the woman does is above and beyond the pushing her body does on its own. In my second pregnancy, I felt spooked by the strangeness of the uterine world I once again occupied. The uterus expands from its small, bell-shaped stasis to accommodate not only the fetus but also an entire new organ. What is this squat, powerful piece of muscular tissue in our symbolic life? Anything? Nothing?
People who have not given birth worry about what happens to their vaginas after birth. Are they misshapen? Do they lose feeling? I remember asking friends before my first birth for the most gruesome details of their birth experiences, and there were many: prolapse, blood loss, hemorrhage. There are endless injuries, and they can have devastating physical effects for years after the birth, never mind the mental traumas. Women’s status, as sexual creatures and sexual objects, is disrupted by birth; we might fear it signals the end of sexual satisfaction; we might fear we will be so traumatized by birth that we can’t experience our bodies pleasurably again. These things do happen, even if they happen rarely.
In both of these books, there is a tension between the woman as agent and the woman as conduit.
Like a pseudo-Renaissance sex theorist, it’s easy, perhaps, to think of the vagina as the location of woman’s sexual life, so the threat of disruption that birth brings is one that looks, in some ways, like a fear of castration. The thinking would go something like: if the involuted penis that is the vagina is injured or torn, perhaps sexual pleasure might also end? Perhaps, too, the vagina is a site of intense cathexis because it can be reproduced surgically? Bottom surgery gives some trans women the experience of vaginal penetration by doing just that: by involuting the penis, by insisting, surgically, that the vagina is a phallus.
Bottom surgery thus underscores the basic sameness of the human genital: the sensitive, delicate skin of a penis and the sensitive, delicate skin inside a vagina can serve similar functions, conceptually and actually. In this soggy Freudianism, we can see the way that art—that location of undone sex, the sign of sexual frustration—offers a secure simulacrum of reproduction. Both art and reproduction come from the sex drive. Both art and children can be located in the phallus, which can be either masculine or feminine; its material tissue is, after all, the same.
But what, then, do we do with the uterus? What is the uterus in all of this? Obviously, the uterus is not the sign of womanhood, nor is it the sign of motherhood, exactly. After all, motherhood and womanhood are utterly separable from biology—they are constructed, social categories, ready to be experienced by people regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth or their reproductive fertility. One of the nagging problems at the heart of my own feminism, though, has to do with the way birth—and birth in particular—causes psychic and social dislocations for the people who experience it. The uterus is the dense, irreducible sign of this basic failure of fungibility. While it may not be true for much longer, at this point in time, every person on earth has come to the world from the inside of a uterus.
I’m not sure what to do with that knowledge. The uterus asserts itself again and again in the cycle of reproduction: from the uterine cramps women feel during their periods to the agony of contractions to the wincing pain that accompanies the earliest days of breastfeeding, the uterus is a secret, but potent, reminder of the dumb biology at the core of child-bearing.
I did not have an epidural for either of my births, and I don’t feel proud of that fact, but I do feel lucky—as lucky as I feel that my periods never required more than a couple of ibuprofen, and lucky that my uterus shrank back down after childbirth instead of washing me in a hemorrhagic flood. Lucky that my uterus eventually got with the program and bore me two beautiful children; lucky because its tissue does not wander beyond its confines, reproducing its aching cells in my abdomen, padding other organs; lucky because I have never been made to feel ashamed or afraid of its blood as it leaves my body. Muscular pain is, after all, a precondition of uterine life, and very often the pain goes on too long, feels too insistent, and feels too powerful to bear, but bear it we will.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Merve Emre, “Two Paths for the Personal Essay,” Boston Review, August 22, 2017. ↩