If I say it’s been too long since I’ve picked up something so textured and jagged?
What does it mean that I wonder if these qualities are why the book feels, to me, so womanly?
And then correct myself: No, not womanly. Motherly?
Though I am not a mother, I was hungry for this book as soon as I heard its title, hungrier still once I saw its cover, words woven over by what appears to be the long dark hair of a human’s head, but which, in its disembodied unruliness, conveys something of the monster, the wolf.
What does it mean that the image made me hungry?
That I felt hungry to know what it meant to be A Woman Until, and then Mother? That as soon as it arrived I carried the book to bed, and read, and read?
The presentness of the essays. Arranged chronologically, many end with a circling round to their point of origin. “As I write this, I am having Braxton-Hicks contractions,” one finishes. Another: “I am at the university library. The baby has the hiccups. He is head-down and in place.” “It is becoming warmer next week, when my son will be two weeks old. He is next to me bundled, his eyes open.”
There is a pleasing momentum in this march toward and then away from the rupture of the title’s Until. In looking forward to the birth that takes place halfway through the book, and then looking back. Prushinskaya doesn’t ask the familiar question of whether her motherhood and her writing are at odds, so often a means of asking whether one’s motherhood and one’s selfhood are at odds. See Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: “To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry.” Rachel Yoder: “I wrote and I was not myself but, then again, I had not been myself for at least seven whole weeks and would not be myself ever again.” Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs: “Birth and motherhood upended everything and fractured my sense of self as a constant, whole entity.”
It’s obvious that, at least in the splinter of time this book covers, from late pregnancy until her son is a few months old, Prushinskaya’s writing and her motherhood are companions, or more than companions: inseparable. She is writing on the morning she gives birth, and then again days later. The book is a record, until it is a book.
These essays made me want to sit down and write my own essay in a single night. They make me want to write and not look back, even or especially because the perspective of a single evening is unworthy of trust. Lorrie Moore once described a character who tries to write at all times of day — to touch each of her words with morning, noon, and night — “No part of a day […] was allowed to dominate” — why not with every phase of the moon, then? — with every month, every year, never finishing — yawn! Reading Prushinskaya’s book makes me wonder why the fever of composition must be an excitement the process of revision typically works to erase.
“Does it help to know this was written while I was pregnant?” asks Prushinskaya, in a single line set between the book’s first essay and its second.
The question raises another: Does it matter that these essays are written from a position they call “liminal,” an “edge,” a “frontier”? “You and your baby are balanced on the edge of birth,” goes one of the book’s refrains, from Nancy Bardacke’s Mindful Birthing. Is there a different texture to writing that issues from such precariousness? When one’s plans to see a play, go to dinner, visit the planetarium, are “a tether to the place where I understand who I am, the place that feels like it is slipping”? One gets the sense that Prushinskaya is writing to maintain a hold on her selfhood. The book is a tether, until it is a book.
I am not pregnant, and I am not a mother, and yet I read hungrily about the conditions of motherhood, partly because I seek mothers whose mother-writing might mother my own writing’s progression from record, and tether, to book. When I say that Prushinskaya’s essays are textured and jagged, I mean that they swerve surprisingly, and convey an urgency that does not often outlive an editor’s smoothing touch — an urgency that is perhaps best communicated by precisely such sudden movements:
I write all this and then the baby and I listen to Stevie Wonder. I cry and watch him mind the sun spots during “I Believe (When I Fall in Love).” It all seems so stock I want to omit it. I judge myself for wanting to omit this life from an imprint of life, this essay. Then, I judge myself for that, because I am a writer and I require honesty first and editing second.
The book holds fast to its own uncertainties, its errors and slips. Maybe this is why the essays, none longer than eight or nine pages, tend to feel fragmented in their movement, though they don’t appear fragmented on the page. The book holds fast to its present. “I hesitate to leave that sentence be,” Prushinskaya writes elsewhere — but she does.
A Woman Is a Woman is a bit short for a book, which can make the photographs that separate the essays feel like they’re being asked to do more work than they do. The slim, slippery size recalls Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, another book about motherhood. But Galchen’s book is consummately pretty, and focuses, obsessively, not on the mother figure but on the infant Galchen calls “the puma” and compares to a “minor climate catastrophe” or a drug. In a passage on parenting that could be a commentary on the polish of the book itself, Galchen writes:
As if taste culture could keep the baby safe. Which in some ways it could: people would subconsciously recognize that the baby belonged to the class of people to whom good things come easily, and so they would subconsciously continue to easily hand over to her the good things […] It was an evil norm, but, again, one that it was difficult to not want to work in favor of rather than against one’s own child.
Prushinskaya offers an aesthetic commentary of her own: “What is the project of personal essay writing if not gathering stories in service of […] sharpening unruly, associative segments?” Her essays might have been “safer” in the hands of a sleeker publisher — they would have benefited from tighter copyediting and design — but, as they are, the intended “imprint of life” feels still-warm. We sense the promised mother-monster breathing under the surface of the text, not smoothed, but “sharp.” Her blood will stain the floor. Better, in this case, to resist “evil norms.”
Prushinskaya’s book recalls, too, Rachel Zucker’s defiant and deliberately un-beautiful books. As Zucker does in MOTHERs, Prushinskaya offers a parade of tributes to the writers who have mothered her writerhood: Alice Walker, Anne Carson, Anne Lamott. MOTHERs, too, is slivery, slim, and I find myself wondering if these motherhood-books are slim as though to offset the terrifying gravitas of mothering itself, or for some other, more practical reason. They leave me wondering: is there an aesthetic of motherhood?
Zucker asks the same question of Sheila Heti and Sarah Manguso on her podcast Commonplace: What, if anything, is the “form of motherhood”? At first, Manguso resists — too essentializing. But Heti quotes a passage from Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — a passage that ends, “Perhaps that is equally 7,” with the 7 left unedited, having been banged into the sentence by the writer’s son — to argue that there is indeed “a form directly linked to motherhood and its interruptions.”
It is no longer evening; I have been writing now for more hours than I intended, in front of three different windows, in several casts of light. I am not pregnant, but I have been housing a single project inside my body for many years. Often, I hear myself telling myself, Get it OUT. There is a precipice. An edge. The possibility of a rupture, a birth.
If the state of motherhood is one of intrusion, or interruption —
If a mother is less than, or more than, or other than a woman, as Prushinskaya’s magnificent title demands —
How do these mother-writers mother my writerhood?
“Books are proof of my existence,” Heti, the non-mother author of the forthcoming Motherhood, claims after Zucker suggests she became a mother “to avoid the terror of going through life without a witness.”
The analogy of book-as-baby, book-gestation-as-pregnancy, is clumsy and crude, but it sticks. And the onrush of literature giving voice to the experience of motherhood might have something to offer the arbiters of “taste culture” about mothering not just babies, but books. In another episode of Zucker’s podcast, D. A. Powell laments: “We fetishize done-ness.” He reminds listeners that Melville wrote, about Moby-Dick, “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught”: even this celebrated work was only a gesture toward Melville’s vision.
The ideal of the finished suggests unbrokenness, something whole. But my bevy of mother-texts tells me that the shift from woman to mother, like the shift from writer to author, or girl to woman, involves fracture, doubling, and dissociation.
Prushinskaya, on returning to work after her first son’s birth: “It is not that I do not feel those feelings, it is just that another person has them, a woman far away from me, not the woman in the storage room pumping with her breasts exposed to the office supplies.”
Maybe it’s the subject of motherhood, as much as the circumstance, that determines the form of these texts, and readers’ perception of “fracture.” In an essay comparing Alison Bechdel’s memoirs about her parents, critic Heather Love notes that Bechdel’s book about her mother reflects its pre-Oedipal subject with an aesthetic that is “murky,” “pliant,” “textured,” “involuted,” and “lush.” If the book’s “messiness” angers fans of Bechdel’s “tight,” “classical” memoir about her father, Love suggests, it might be because it provokes in them a surge of unresolved, pre-linguistic emotion that mimics how we tend to feel toward mother-figures. What Bechdel’s book about her mother finally offers is not the “perspective” of Fun Home, but the texture of “experience” itself.
Which is what A Woman Is a Woman offers, too. The reader knows that Prushinskaya is writing, there in the storage room on her first days back at the office, even before the scene catches up to the moment of its own narration:
One could wonder, for example, what he is doing at that very moment. Whether he is asleep or happy. One could adjust his wings and push him through the screen door, though the door is her own door, and she is the one who is leaving. One could paraphrase Anne Carson in veiled ways. She is a mother and a woman and she can only speak of herself in the third person at this moment in the storage room with the pumping and without the child.
The rupture of motherhood has released a “third person,” in Prushinskaya’s case: neither mother nor woman — and not baby, either — but narrator. The Until of the book’s title denotes the shift from an illusion of wholeness to the condition of an undeniably fractured self. Here is the self who has triumphed in extracting from the darkest chambers of the body those equally fractured stories she can no longer bear to house.
Helen Betya Rubinstein’s writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, and elsewhere.