When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.
Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment.
Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It’s a superb novel about unrest within and without.
Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States.
The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first?
Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I’d been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don’t think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché.
Now it’s 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it’s inarguably the work of a different person. I’m married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven’t lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so.
When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it.
As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That’s another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it’s like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that’s blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you’re asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It’s not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person’s time. That doesn’t mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good.
And when I talk about necessary books, I’ll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d’être, just burns on every page.
TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page?
IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator’s voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that’s never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma’s presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March’s voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn’t like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence.
I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country’s political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it’s important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions.
Emma’s voice is the main engine of the book. It’s a woman’s voice, of course, yet I’ve never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she’s direct. She doesn’t say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn’t say, occupy the book’s white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn’t use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She’s laconic and sensitive at once. That’s why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It’s a great poem, “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century.” It’s filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it’s told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that’s how Emma also thinks and talks.
TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off.
IM: I certainly won’t tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you’re right: it’s not what’s expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman’s voice, but I don’t. It was a voice—Emma’s voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I’m aware of recent controversy regarding writers’ appropriations of others’ cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn’t absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others’ lives for the sake of a text. There’s lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you’re going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it’s not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success.
As for my day job, I’m a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It’s ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer’s day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country’s culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I’m grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it’s a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can’t help but seem somewhat curious.
When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: “The future belongs to crowds.” You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It’s the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates.
TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not?
On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions?
IM: I like your alternative definition for “foreign service officer.” Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil’s national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat’s wife.
To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we’re not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don’t think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there’s more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco’s killing; perhaps it’s ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn’t. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas.
That’s all a way of saying that your questions aren’t naive at all, but they also aren’t straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo’s line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don’t mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma’s husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn’t something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they’re known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn’t feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma’s story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we’re only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It’s the background hum of the novel. I don’t need to say more about that here; there’s plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it.
TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere.
Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days?
IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can’t think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He’s named in the book, too. I suppose that’s to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve.
One of the finest recent novels I’ve read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending.
Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It’s a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I’m working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now.
Don’t you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can’t avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it’s fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love.
So I’ll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion.
TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace “out of fear…not devotion.” She judges this purported “happy ending” harshly: “their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult.” But there seems to me, in the book’s final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book?
IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn’t gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma’s, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
I’ve been breastfeeding my second child for more than seven months. She eats solids now — preferring pizza crust to all else — but those foods are consumed primarily for flavor and fun, and the development of fine motor skills, not nutrition. Until she’s got teeth, my child is kept alive with breast milk, and so she and I spend a lot of time together on the glider in the living room, a glass of water within my reach, a burp cloth on my shoulder, her perfect chubby body resting on The Boppy, which, to the uninitiated, is a nursing pillow that looks like a neck-rest for a giant.
(That word, Boppy! It’s so silly as to be demeaning. At least it’s not as bad as its competitor, My Breast Friend. Like I’m just over here, stringing beads onto a necklace or something, gabbing to no one. But nursing is kind of like that: mindless action punctuated by occasional admiration at your own handiwork.)
For the first months of my daughter’s life, when I was nursing a lot more often and for longer sessions, I depended on TV and books to keep me sane. (Now I worry the TV will rot her brain, and she often grabs what I’m reading; she straight-up ripped a page of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub!) I’m saddened by this turn of events because a couple of times the culture I was consuming reflected my own experience and it felt magical, like an old friend lighting up your cell phone a moment or two after they were in your thoughts. For instance, I was nursing while reading this description of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield: “a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour…with a baby at her breast.” I remember thinking: Well, that’s me all right. I feel about as threadbare as an old pajama shirt. Copperfield goes on to say:
This baby was one of the twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.
“Taking refreshment” — my daughter, who is honestly quite elegant for her age, loved that line! The next few times we see Mrs. Micawber, she is indeed a human buffet. It’s funny, I’ll give Dickens that. It’s also from the point of view of a young bachelor, far from a mother’s perspective as just about anyone.
It was with great delight, then, to watch season two of the very bawdy and funny television series Catastrophe. In the third episode, Sharon and Rob go to Paris to try to reconnect after having their second child. In the hotel room Sharon reports that her “tits ballooned with milk” after seeing a French baby in the lobby downstairs. I love that she calls her breasts “tits” here — they remain sexualized, and Sharon hasn’t traded her racy vocab for stodgy parenthood. When she realizes she’s forgotten her breast pump at home, I felt as anxious as she did. For the breastfeeding mother, engorgement is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the specter of Mastitis, an infection caused by blocked ducts, can make even the calmest mom panic. (At this year’s AWP my boobs grew so rock hard with unexpressed milk that, in the interest of education, I let a few female writers feel me up.) In this episode of Catastrophe, Robs tries, and fails, to explain to the Parisian pharmacists that his wife needs a breast pump; they think he wants to purchase breast milk itself. Hilarity ensues. Sharon tries to help her husband, but she took German in school, not French, and she’s freaking out about Mastitis. She asks them in a panic, “Do you know what’s gonna come out next time I breastfeed? Not milk.” Here she combines German and English, with a French accent: “Blood und puss!” I laughed and laughed, and I also felt grateful that writers are making such honest and tonally sharp art about an occasionally harrowing, not to mention isolating, female experience.
This got me thinking about other meaningful depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. The mother — pun intended — of all nursing scenes is, of course, in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, echoing the Ancient Roman story about a woman who nurses her imprisoned father, sentenced to death-by-starvation. If the memory of my junior year AP English class serves me well, this last scene further proves the Joads’ selflessness: the man Rose of Sharon feeds isn’t a friend or family member, but a mere stranger. The scene provides a moment of tenderness and connection after so much despair. These two characters are helping each other; the man needs sustenance, and Rose of Sharon, who has lost her baby, needs to connect to and nurture another human being. Or her body does.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the maternal needs of female slaves are denied, again and again, as their children are treated as commodities. Sethe’s own mother had to work in the fields and was unable to mother Sethe, and Sethe remembers being fed by the wet nurse only after the white babies had been sated, remarking, “There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left.” She thus places much importance on nursing her own children. One of the central precipitating traumas of the book is Sethe’s assault by white teenage boys who drink her milk. (Read this and this for more on Morrison’s novel and this part in particular.) Under slavery, Sethe’s body, no part of it, not even her milk, belongs to her. Or to her child. To deny a mother this right — it’s painful to even imagine. That Sethe chooses to kill her children can be understood as an act of maternal kindness, a kindness that’s been deranged by the horrors of slavery.
My Education by Susan Choi, like The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, also includes a scene of a breastfeeding adult. This time, it’s a sex scene between a young graduate student named Regina, and Martha, who is married to Regina’s professor. Martha also teaches at the university, but she’s on maternity leave. The reader is led to believe that Regina will begin an affair with Martha’s husband, but when the two women meet the attraction is immediate, their romance inevitable. In the scene in question, Martha’s breasts are heavy with milk and when Regina puts her mouth to one of her nipples and sucks, Martha experiences a spasm of relief. It’s sexy, for sure. But not only. It’s also a nod to the age difference between the two lovers (more than a decade), with the younger Regina playing the infant, dependent on this life-giving figure to sustain her. Martha, who is ambivalent about the affair from the get-go, experiences the shock of the Let Down. As any nursing mother knows, pent-up milk doesn’t flow without consequence. At first, it stings a little — as the baby drinks and drinks, carefree now that her needs are met.
One of the fiercest books about motherhood to come out in recent years is After Birth by Elisa Albert, and it’s got plenty of depictions of nursing — babies nursing, that is. Ari gave birth a year ago and she’s still traumatized by her unplanned C-section. Her identity has been turned upside down by motherhood.
“I get it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby and disappear.”
When Mina, former rock star and poet, moves to town nine-months pregnant, Ari feels hopeful. A friend! Mina had a home birth, but she’s having trouble nursing. She tells Ari, “I had no ideas my nipples could hurt this much! And I used to enjoy light S&M! When he latches I can feel it in my eyeballs!” Even though both my children nursed well from the get-go, there was definitely a learning curve, and Mina’s complaints are funny because they’re so familiar. This was the first time I’d seen the experience recognized in fiction and it felt like a victory. In the scene, Ari tries to give her new mother-friend pointers, and after cooking her a bowl of pasta, Ari nurses Mina’s baby for her. It’s not played for shock. Ari says: “He’s not choosy; he’s goddamn hungry.” The scene is perfectly cast as mundane (Mina, like any tired mother, inhales pasta as Ari feeds her baby) and beautiful. Like nursing itself.
He pulls off for a second, the abundance of surprise, and right away he’s searching for me again, mouth ajar, panting. Open wide. Gulp, gulp. Relaxes into me, eyes closed. The whole room goes all melty. Problem solved. All peaceful and blossomy, like after a good first kiss. Unfold. Bask. I remember this. I can do this. Nothing for her to do but watch.
This is a moment of purpose and peace for Albert’s narrator. For a parent of a baby, there is perhaps no sentence more powerful than “problem solved.”
It seems as though I keep coming upon depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. Anna Solomon’s beautiful and expansive (forthcoming) Prohibition-era novel Leaving Lucy Pear opens with an unwed mother, Bea, abandoning her baby beneath a pear tree. Before Bea does so, though, she unbuttons her dress and feeds her child for the last time. “She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple,” Solomon writes, “but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way.” Bea dislodges the child from her body before the baby is finished eating, and I found that difficult to read, considering the circumstances. Later, the baby, Lucy, is nursed by her adoptive mother. As Emma feeds the child, it feels to her as though Lucy is opening “a new bloody tunnel through her heart.” The connection between these two mothers, Bea and Emma, is profound and particular. And, yet, from their separate vantage points, they cannot even fathom it.
And here’s another example: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. By the time it’s published next January, my tenure as a nursing mother might already be over. Sekaran’s novel is about a woman named Solimar who’s come to America from Mexico illegally. She gets caught and is sent to a detention center. She has no idea where she is, or how long she will have to stay there. Her young son has been taken from her. She waits in a cell by herself, and as her breasts get more and more engorged, she grows more upset and scared. And hungry. She does not know when she will eat, or how her child will eat. As in the other scenes I’ve described, the physical experience of nursing isn’t denied. Everything emotional about it is also corporeal. But here it isn’t comic, or sensual, or suspenseful. It’s despairing. Her son’s absence is felt in the body. Without any other choice, Soli bends over and nurses herself. Unlike in The Grapes of Wrath, she is alone. For an undocumented mother, there is no help.
When I read that scene, my own daughter was, in Dickens’s words, “taking refreshment.” I had to put the book down, and hold her closer.
Writers who are also mothers are depicting what it’s like to care for a child, and that body of literature gets richer with every season. There are so many elements to parenting that I want to see more of on the page, but nursing, at this specific juncture in my life, seems particularly dramatic. Or maybe, at 3 a.m., alone with my child in the dark living room, I want to believe that’s true.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.