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Sarah Menkedick’s Four Books on Early Motherhood

I have always been skeptical of the writerly claim that literature is essential, even life-saving. I know that, coming from a writer, this is potentially blasphemous. Like most writers, I grew up a voracious reader, my definition of hedonism a Saturday afternoon sprawled on the grass reading The Age of Innocence. But literature has always existed for me one or two levels above that raw core where we grieve, suffer, struggle to survive.

Until I got pregnant. One of the many surprises of pregnancy (A revulsion for eggs! The ability to sleep 16 hours straight! A tiny human foot visible from inside of one’s body!) was the craving I developed for literature, not too distant in its urgency from the craving for Haribo gummy raspberries. For the first time in my life I saw that literature could play the fairy tale role of white knight, except my white knight wasn’t some blustering prince but Louise Erdrich writing about frozen enchiladas.

The Blue Jay’s Dance rescued me from depression in my first trimester. I was overwhelmed by the physical and psychological changes of pregnancy and spent weeks in a fog of hormones, uncertainty, and fear. My stepmom recommended The Blue Jay’s Dance and the fog began to lift. It sounds pathetic to me now, but Louise Erdrich was the first to give me a language for and understanding of motherhood outside of the circumscribed, sentimentalized, infantilizing vernacular of mainstream pregnancy culture. Of course I knew, in the way we know and can recite truths without ever internalizing or understanding them, that I could be a writer and a mother, that I didn’t have to subscribe to the conventional wisdom, roles, or cliches. But Louise Erdrich showed me this.

There was no going back; I couldn’t get enough of this literature of motherhood, and I still can’t. I read it with a hunger and a tense expectation I’ve never experienced with any other type of book. I read it viscerally, as if it were in fact the retelling of my own experience. And in a way, it is: for the first time I understand the universality of literature.

The books I’m recommending here are the ones I was given or stumbled upon at just the right moment in my journey through pregnancy and new motherhood. They’re the ones that gave voice to murky intimations and uncertainties, that – and forgive me some preciousness, for I am still awash in hormones and sleep-deprived and susceptible – sung my experience in the perfect pitch. I do not make the claim that they are “the best,” although to me they’re brilliant; nor do I make the claim that they are the most representative, although each was crucial in giving voice to my own transformation.

I offer them in the hopes that they will be for other readers what they were for me: little ships ferrying me from that desperate and sometimes half-crazed isle of guilt and fear and exhaustion to a saner shore, wherein dwell smart writer-women who have done all this before. I’ve listed them here in the order I read them, starting in the nauseous haze of the first trimester and going through the first returning pangs of self near the end of my baby’s first year.

1. The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich

It’s all here: the nacho cheese cravings, the grief, the foxglove and the licorice, the pierogi recipes, “the blood, the shock, the heat, the shit, the anguish, the irritation, the glory, the earnestness of the female body.”

During my first trimester, pummeled by hormones and nausea, I did not want a soft and tender ode to motherhood because, as I was realizing and as Erdrich demonstrates, motherhood is often neither soft nor tender. One of my favorite passages from The Blue Jay’s Dance involves Erdrich, frayed and exhausted with “a sensitive baby, irritable, intelligent, hair-triggered,” soothing her child by whispering insults: “‘You’re a crank,’ I whisper, holding her tenderly. A goddamn crank! You’re driving me completely nuts!'”

Yet this is not one of an emerging genre of austere, critical motherhood books whose mission is to lay bare the tedium and the difficulty (see The Cusk, below), but a book whose expressed meaning is to show “here is a job in which it is not unusual to be, at the same instant, wildly joyous and profoundly stressed.” Erdrich watches birds build nests of her daughters’ hair; she eats fiddlehead ferns to give her milk an “edge of sorrow.” She writes from a place of compassion and fellowship with women, loathing the typical “chirpy, condescending advice” and proclaiming “we are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be in training, like acolytes, novices to high priestesshood, like serious applicants for the space program.”

2. Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

The first few months after the baby’s birth were a timeless blur of milk and light and summer green. I remember looking at the clock and thinking, “2:15 p.m.” and then “7:05 p.m.” and then “4 a.m.” with equanimity, as if observing passing clouds. During this stretch I seemed to be living in twenty-minute intervals, a schedule for which Enright’s book was perfect. She confesses to have written it in brief snatches stolen from the total immersion of new motherhood: “The pieces were typed fast. They were written to the sound of a baby’s sleeping breath.” It is this “wildness of tone” and sense of intimate, immediate observation that make the book so appealing and perfectly suited to the delirious intervals between nursing, sleep, night, day. Also, Enright is hilarious:

The child does a spectacular crap in the silence of the shop, in front of the section marked ‘Philosophy.’ I say, ‘Oh, look at all the books. Oh, look at all the books, because I believe in talking to her, and I don’t know what else to say.

She is unromantic – one entire chapter is an extended metaphor comparing birth to being run over by a small car, from the inside (“Remember that the experience of being run over by a small car is a rare one, and you may want to feel and remember every minute of it for the rest of your life”) – and yet she’s never snarky or despairing, and at times, she’s sweet in the way you imagine your best acerbic friend would be made guilelessly sweet by motherhood: “I hold the baby and love her, like a tragic event. She loves me like the best joke out.”

The chapter on Milk is my all-time favorite on the subject of breastfeeding, and includes an amazing history of the subject in literature (“It was the whiteness of the whale that above all appalled me.”) The ending made me catch my breath; it encapsulated Enright’s perfect balance between whimsy and profundity.

3. Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother by Beth Ann Fennelly

By the time I began Great With Child I was more than six months in and familiar with the warren of paradoxes that define motherhood. I was also exhausted, with a baby who was beginning to sleep less and wanting to move around more. Fennelly’s book is another ideal pick for a brain eviscerated by an erratic schedule and hours of “Look at the DOGGIE she’s a DOGGIE yes see the DOGGIE goes WOOF!” It was the infusion of tenderness I needed to ease me down from longer and longer days. I read it in the bath, at night, crying at all sorts of small moments before crashing into a deep relieved sleep. This is not a book that engages much with the dark side of motherhood; its tone is more steadily upbeat and buttery than that of the preceding two works. Fennelly is a poet and each of these letters to her pregnant friend is perfectly crafted, elegant and funny and familiar, with small flourishes (“epaulettes of spit-up”). She pinpoints exactly my relationship to the literature of motherhood: “great books are vitamins that sense our deficiencies.”

Fennelly is giving advice via personal stories and anecdotes, but she is never didactic, never condescending; rather, she uses the occasion of the letters to explore and remember her own motherhood. Her language was precisely what I needed to see the ephemerality and beauty of moments through the thick of my everyday; her description of her baby “unwinding the skein of warm milk” is still the first image that comes to mind at each nursing.

4. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk

And so we come to The Cusk. It earns its intimidating moniker because it loomed darkly over all the other motherhood books from the beginning. I had heard about The Cusk. I knew it was unapologetic, scathing, a whole parade of stormy adjectives trotted out in reviews (“contentious” “unsparing” “disarmingly frank”); it advertised itself, in a blurb from The New York Times Book Review on its front cover, as a “war diary.”

I knew Cusk had been attacked and criticized with the particular ferocity reserved for mothers perceived as errant, and I knew that her book laid bare all the privations of motherhood. Early on, I feared it, cowered from it. On Twitter I meekly admitted my wariness and was urged on by the wise Emily Raboteau and Meaghan O’Connell, both of whom had taken on The Cusk and survived without – as far as I knew – a plunge into existential misery. “Wait until she’s six months,” Raboteau advised, and just in case I waited until eight.

The verdict: To say, as Kirkus does, that Cusk “doesn’t gloss over the pain” of motherhood seems like saying Dante doesn’t romanticize the suffering of hell. Alright, perhaps that’s slight hyperbole. But Cusk begins the book with a slip on a treacherous mountain slope that nearly killed her; mid-plunge, she is saved by a lucky grasp at a boulder, and then must inch the remainder of the long way down with the terror of falling still fresh in her mind. She makes it safely in spite of her fear, and this divorce of fact from feeling is her dominant metaphor for motherhood: in spite of revulsion, boredom, frustration, the desperate cravings for time and thought and self, she raises her baby.

If it sounds grim, it is. The sparse scenes of tenderness are largely borrowed from literature, as if Cusk has to escape her own experience to find the side of motherhood that has been taken to represent the whole throughout much of history. Meanwhile, a frigid, clinical distance characterizes the rest of the book:

My daughter’s pure and pearly being requires considerable maintenance. At first my relation to it is that of a kidney. I process its waste. Every three hours I pour milk into her mouth. It goes around a series of tubes and then comes out again. I dispose of it. Every twenty-four hours I immerse her in water and clean her. I change her clothes. When she has been inside for a period of time I take her outside. When she has been outside for a period of time I bring her in. When she goes to sleep I put her down. When she awakes I pick her up. When she cries I walk around with her until she stops.

Cusk is dismantling here the assumptions and expectations we have both for motherhood and the literature of motherhood. A Life’s Work is the antidote for all those times new mothers wail why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this? Cusk devotes, in fact, an entire section to this question. She is honest about everything that can make mothers feel as if they are at the bottom of a well, but instead of couching the dark moments within cheery anecdotes and bigger-picture discussions of eternal love and renewed perspective, Cusk offers no mitigation, no equanimity. Hers is a lament at times befuddled, angry, and resigned, but always crystalline in its depictions of the sacrifices at the heart of motherhood. Her time to herself has become precious, sparse, everywhere marked by anxiety about her daughter:

A visit to the cinema is no longer that: it is less, a tarnished thing, an alloyed pleasure. My presence appears almost overnight to have accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter, to which the price of experience is inseparably indexed. When I am out I am distracted by its ticking. My friends, whilst glad to see me, cannot necessarily afford me.

She will never again spend a Saturday morning reading. She tries to go out in public and ends up scurrying back into taxis in the rain with a screaming baby. She tries to go out alone and “[rushes] deliriously home in a taxi, having bizarrely gone out for the evening in order to visit phone boxes in the West End.” Worn threadbare by lack of sleep, she secludes herself in her kitchen to contain a baby whose explorations are relentless, tedious, and dangerous. She longs to commune with adults but cannot find any common ground with other mothers who seem determined to stick to The Wheels on The Bus. She is chastised and worried and humiliated by parenting advice books, breastfeeding consultants, doctors. She is exiled “in the housewifely slurry of everything that is both too late and too early, of madness and morning television.” She can no longer maintain some semblance of “a normal life,” or a life in which she could just pop out for a morning coffee or go to the pub on a random evening. Rachel Cusk, the writer, and Rachel Cusk, the person, have diverged, never to meet again:

To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed at one means to fail at being the other.

It’s all true, and it all sucks, and no one will tell it to you when you’re pregnant, although little by little after you have your baby it will come out in small chuckling admissions. And then you will find yourself withholding the darker knowledge, which is why I’m including Cusk, although ultimately I was surprised at how much I pushed back against her book. I thought it would resonate too much, would throw me into a funk about the all-absorbing self-annihilating nature of motherhood. Yet Cusk’s book ended up being the hardest for me to relate to, the one that left me a bit sad and alienated, even while certain moments made me blush as if I were confessing my own thinly buried secrets.

There is no transcendence and hardly any beauty or tenderness in The Cusk, and their lack sometimes seemed erroneous, as if the book had a hole in its center or was tilting, lopsided, in need of righting. In the end, I was relieved to find myself craving these qualities, which have been – along with the moments of struggle Cusk depicts – central to my experience of motherhood. I do not think mothers should be denied their Cusk, however. Her icy frankness allows women to talk and think about motherhood in previously forbidden ways, and Cusk gives new voice to the many dimensions – some of them haunting, some miserable – that characterize an experience so life-changing and consuming. Also, Cusk is funny, in a baldfaced way that can be slightly embarrassing to those of us (ahem) who rather guilelessly drank up all the standard pregnancy fare. Here she is on pregnancy books:

 Books about pregnancy go into this process of transformation, or sublimation, in sinister detail. You are offered a list of foods to eat, recipes for how to combine them, and occasionally photographs of the finished result, with captions such as Salad or Bowl of Granola. You are told, with the help of illustrations, how to get into bed, how to lie in it, and how to get up again. You are told, again with illustrations, how to make love. Possible conversations you might have with your partner concerning the impending birth and parenthood are detailed. You can conduct these over a cocktail if you like; non-alcoholic for you, of course.

I vaguely recall reading about the isolation of motherhood but having no sense of how it worked or to what it referred, just as Cusk vaguely recalls seeing harried, worn parents show up at her house and having no understanding of their plight. Then, in those first few months after the baby was born, I felt it and like most experiences in motherhood I felt it harder than anything I’d ever felt before. Motherhood often seems a “closed regime,” as Cusk puts it, under the total control of the (loving, tender, smiling from under a hooded duck towel) dictator of the baby. These books are – because what the hell, let’s just keep this metaphor going! – the banned tomes, smuggled in between nursings.

For me, they gave definition to washes of abstract feeling in the tired, delirious initial months, reminding me I wasn’t insane or a horrible person, and that what I was feeling was not only real but common. They also helped to bring into vivid relief all those tiny moments that feel impossibly fleeting, alive, and idiosyncratic, but are linked by the distinct way a mother watches her baby. These books offered, in other words, communion when I most desperately needed it.

I have never been so grateful to writers and in particular to women writers, and even now when I’ve carved out a bit more time for work and ambition, when I can begin to see beyond the intimate blur of what Cusk dubs “motherbaby,” I find I only want to return to these books. I want to read them over and over, to remember, to feel more acutely this time as it passes.

My baby is nine months old now, and I leave you with Anne Enright’s take on this particular moment:

On the day she is nine months old, I think that she has been outside of me, now, for just as long as she was inside. She is twice as old. I am the mirror and the hinge. There she is. She is just as old as herself.

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