Motherhood in the End Times

Having a child forces you to confront all of those abstract threats you might have previously labored to ignore: physical entropy, the planetary future, human ...

Having a child forces you to confront all of those abstract threats you might have previously labored to ignore: physical entropy, the planetary future, human extinction, and, most upsetting of all, your neighbors. Each of these menaces wends its way into the debut novels of Megan Hunter and Paula Cocozza, works whose meditations on the futility of domestic entrenchment take on a particular climate-crisis, post-Brexit, Trump-era timeliness. In these novels, neighbors, nature, and motherhood are linked for the way they upend the fallacy of self-containment.

Children operate as daily reminders of the provisional quality of perimeters. Toys spill onto the yard next door, but so do disputes, renovations, and even the offspring themselves. Both Cocozza’s and Hunter’s novels depict how parenthood intensifies one’s vulnerability to the incursions of externals, whether of the neighborly or the environmental variety.

In Cocozza’s case this is symbolized by a London fox infestation that’s probably tied to deforestation and has apparently threatened the city’s real-life babies, circumstances that lead the protagonist, Mary, to develop a fateful bond with one unusually intrepid fox. In Hunter’s narrative it is a massive London flood, which, after the recent spate of hurricanes, reads disturbingly less like a dystopian plot and more like current events. When, on the run from the flood, Hunter’s narrator sees television footage of her stepmother being mauled in a supply run, she realizes that this is “what no one ever wanted: for the news to be relevant,” a sentiment that these days, in so many ways, hits all too close to home.

Hunter’s The End We Start From (soon to be a major motion picture) is a work of apocalyptic fiction told in apothegms, a form befitting the constraints of a mother on the move. The book reads like a diary written in shorthand, with characters only referred to by initials: there is R, the husband, and Z, the baby, and friends O, C, S, and J. It describes a family forced to flee a giant flood that hits London just as the baby is born. “We have planned a water birth, with whale music, and hypnotism, and perhaps even an orgasm,” the narrator mentions wryly, offering a hint of her pre-disaster income bracket, but they hadn’t prepped for the apocalypse, which ushers in a very different kind of water birth from the one they had intended.

Children operate as daily reminders of the provisional quality of perimeters.

Although the scope of the flood is never fully detailed, perhaps because it is difficult for the chronicler herself to ascertain, we know that it has driven people out of the city, separated families, and necessitated checkpoints and refugee camps. Hunter’s short paragraphs are interspersed with biblical verses, which felt a bit like spiritual filler in an already very lean book. Nevertheless, the narrative is gripping in its allegorical minimalism. It does not take much to see how the flood operates as a metaphor for the onslaught of postpartum anxiety, because after the birth, “everything becomes unstopped.”

For the new mother, this “everything” includes hormones, colostrum, and also her protective defenses against the threat of impending global cataclysm. Yet the book retools this maternal anxiety into an ethics of cooperative living; rather than reinforcing domestic insularity, the climate catastrophe dislodges it. In other words, if the new mother is stressed about her neighbors, it is because she only now realizes how much she has always depended on them.

It is due to this same new-parent vulnerability that Mary’s neighbor Michelle in Cocozza’s How to Be Human is so distraught about the foxes invading the neighborhood. When Michelle, portrayed as an unsympathetic yuppie suffering from postpartum depression, implores Mary to help her rid the area of its foxes, Mary agrees, although she has no intention of following through. She secretly likes the foxes, or, at least, she likes one particular fox, who in this strange tale eventually moves into her yard, her living room, and her bed, essentially taking the place of her ex-fiancé, Mark. The scale of cataclysm in Cocozza’s book is largely confined to the domestic register and mostly concerns Mary’s breakup with her ex, but this marital discord seems to be a harbinger of a greater disequilibrium. Like the baby, like the flood, the fox is an emissary of disorder.

Cocozza’s latest addition to the corpus of fox fictions merges the erotic undertones of D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1923), about a woman’s obsession with the animal, with the allegorical moralism of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943). In the Exupéry novella the fox offers a lesson on the mechanisms of domestication. Using the example of the Prince’s beloved rose, the fox explains that affective attachment is not some inherent or biological connection, but a construction arising from how we devote our energy and time. The allusion is significant given that Cocozza’s novel opens with Mary finding Michelle’s newborn daughter on her doorstop, named Flora instead of Rose. Mary, we learn, is ambivalent about the prospect of biological maternity, but she is delighted to find the bundle on her stoop, for she and Flora, as we learn later, have been developing a special bond.

The plot of How to Be Human offers the backstory to how the neighbor’s child ended up on Mary’s stoop. Mary claims that the fox, sensing her latent caretaking ability, dragged Flora there. Michelle is dubious, and tensions escalate until Flora’s family decides to move. The suspicion with which Mary is viewed after the stoop incident suggests that her deep affection for the neighbor’s child is as socially strange and incomprehensible as loving a fox, and here is where the Lawrence connection is palpable. Like Lawrence, Cocozza uses the fox to dramatize the social discomfort with nonnormative or “variant” kinship relations. After all, it was the fantasy that one could uncomplicatedly share a neighbor’s child (not to mention wife and property) that was the last straw for Aristotle vis-à-vis the plausibility of Plato’s Republic.

The End We Start From also interrogates the conception that there is something feral about loving a neighbor’s child. Only after the apocalyptic flood has marooned her in a refugee camp and her husband has fled can Hunter’s narrator imagine truly caring for a neighbor’s progeny. In London, before the “disturbances,” she promised herself she would never be like the groups of mothers “swerving their pneumatic buggies around our feet.” And when first she arrives at the refugee camps, she is repulsed at the sight of some of the “grotesquely large” older babies. But then she befriends a fellow mother from the camp, and in a short time she is sleeping with and nursing both babies, “a twin-mum, turning from one side to the other,” while her friend stands in the supply line. Notably, in both novels the establishment of new kinship communities is contingent upon the departure of the male of the family, whether fiancé or father.

Neighbors are important in these novels for the way they occupy the gray zone between the private and the public. Both novels center on characters in apparent positions of racial and economic privilege, but their unsettling of the division between the native and the refugee has a more capacious relevance. By recasting the fantasy of domestic belonging in a global environmental context, which of course lends all humankind the tourist’s status, they challenge the naturalized boundaries between host and guest. Hunter’s flood’s ability to ruthlessly dislocate individuals serves as a reminder of the precariousness of social hierarchies and perimeters, a guiding conceit of apocalyptic fiction.

Likewise, Cocozza’s treatment of the fox unsettles the primacy of the anthropocentric perspective, with chapters of the book even narrated from the fox’s point of view. When the fox shows up to Michelle’s family barbecue, Mary comes to suspect that he “was not so much the final guest as the elusive host, evading the partygoers swirling around his land with the hospitality of Gatsby.” The fox is a neighbor too, and one who teaches Mary to appreciate that “no matter how lonely the city became, you could open a door or even just an eye and find a mass that listened back.” If, for our early-morning, pre-caffeinated selves, the looming silhouette of the neighbor sometimes resembles an obstacle to contentment, it can also, when framed by a lit window on a sleepless night, operate as a beacon of consolation.

Neighbors are important in these novels for the way they occupy the gray zone between the private and the public.

At the same time, while Hunter’s and Cocozza’s narratives have provocative points of convergence, such as in their neighbor dramas, the two novels are not a seamless pairing, and it requires some maneuvering to make them line up. For example, the mother is only a secondary character in Cocozza’s text, whereas she is the central narrator of Hunter’s plot. And while climate change is the explicit subject of The End We Start From, its presence in How to Be Human can only be inferred.

Formally speaking, Cocozza’s is a more conventional-looking novel than Hunter’s, but one glaring similarity is that her how-to title and Hunter’s aphorisms point to a tradition of advice that has become nominal or obsolete (Hunter’s narrator remembers with a pang: “Sleep when they sleep, went the old advice in a book far away and underwater”). Both works also engage in different varieties of stylistic digression (Cocozza’s fox-POV chapters; Hunter’s biblical verses), neither of which quite comes off, perhaps because in departing from their otherwise subtle narrative aesthetics, such moments strike the experimental note a little too hard and a little too awkwardly.

Cocozza’s semi-ironic how-to title recalls another guide to being a person in the world, Roland Barthes’s How to Live Together, which finds a model for the ideal neighbor in the monastic principle of “idiorrhythmy,” which he defines as “solitude with regular interruptions.” The concept, from the traditions of Saint Benedict and Saint Anthony, refers to the capacity of certain monks to live in proximity without imposing their personal rhythms on the others.

Tellingly, though, it was not a monastery but a startling scene he witnessed outside his window that inspired Barthes’s interest in the concept. He saw a mother pushing an empty stroller while pulling her son along by the hand. Barthes, who had a notoriously intense relation to his own maman, is appalled to see how the toddler “is forced to keep running, like an animal, one of Sade’s victims being whipped. She walks at her own pace, unaware of the fact that her son’s rhythm is different. And she’s his mother!”

Surely any parent who has ever needed to get anywhere could easily drum up the missing context for the scene. Moreover, it is possible that this Marquis de Sade with a pram whom he is scrutinizing from his window is herself a neighbor of Barthes, in which case his outburst is enacting the very intrusiveness that idiorrhythmy is designed to combat. More interesting than Barthes’s critique of the exasperated mother is the way that his comment illustrates the susceptibility to external opinion that defines so much of a mother’s life after childbirth.


The Murder of Theory

By Anna Kornbluh

Since, as Barthes’s anecdote reminds us, it is almost impossible to avoid becoming entangled with one’s neighbors, perhaps the next best thing is to be more strategic about our entwined fates. Thankfully, of course, having a baby isn’t the only way to arrive at this realization of our interconnectedness, but new parenthood is presented in these novels as offering schooling in the porousness of perimeters, a lesson that the border-crossing figure of the neighbor in Cocozza’s novel also portends. In this respect, Hunter’s and Cocozza’s literary inquiries into communal motherhood contribute to the rising (usually religious) movement of “intentional neighboring,” a theme that, in different degrees, also informs popular post-apocalyptic narratives such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne.

In these dystopian settings, keeping it together as an adult, let alone as a mother, seems to require not only the assistance of neighbors but also the superhuman equanimity of a stoic sage. Hunter’s and Cocozza’s motherhood narratives raise the uncomfortable possibility that being a functioning person and an informed citizen of the world don’t always seamlessly go together as far as mental health is concerned. Like all anxieties, then, these stories also give voice to a desire: for a catastrophe that could return us to a simpler experience of motherhood—and community—unmediated by what Hunter calls the “itch to Google,” an advent that would sweep away the advice manuals, newsfeeds, and media sensationalism with the rest of the debris. icon

Featured image: My Family (2017). Photograph by Leandro Cesar Santana / Unsplash