Courtney Zoffness’s memoir in essays, Spilt Milk, explores the physicality of the body and how generational memory, anxiety, and disappointment entwine within us to conceive life. Zoffness’s essays detail her experiences as a mother, as a friend to a mom who serves as a surrogate, and as a daughter. But beyond simple conclusions about mother/child relationships, Zoffness’s work allows us a window into the experience of how we both inherit and pass on different parts of ourselves. She explores one son’s need for power and the potential traps of interpretation she falls into when trying to see his role-playing through adult eyes. Through explication of the history she shares with her mother, she examines the guarded nature of artists, and how sharing her mom’s creative traits means that she never really gets let into her mother’s world. Zoffness asks important questions about her body in particular — what it holds, how it is able to bring life into the world, and how she can create art with it. Spilt Milk affords Zoffness space for introspection — over years, through different points of view, and in and out of her life’s timeline — of what her body has meant in the tangible space she inhabits. Hers is a body that creates meaning.
Zoffness, who suffered from anxiety before she was old enough to name it, explores the elixir of DNA and child-rearing that forms our personalities. She begins Spilt Milk with “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” which looks at the helplessness she feels watching her son Oliver undergo many of the same struggles she had as a child. “I want to put my son at ease,” she writes following his anxious episode, “to talk about his behavior. On the flip side, I don’t want to make too big a deal of his sensitivities, don’t want him to worry about his worry.” Like many parents, she wonders if she’s helping or hurting: “How to calibrate this?” Therein lies the maternal tug at the heart of Zoffness’s work: just how much of a child’s life is their own, and how much is bred, forced upon, or given to them by their parents? “I am both his nature and his nurture,” she says of Oliver. So much depends on the reaction of the mother. The vocabulary her son chooses after an anxious episode matches the one she used in childhood: “[He] can’t breathe. These are the words he uses.” Zoffness illustrates the physicality of anxiety: the gestures of panic, the way it moves the nervous system, and the way its diction can follow generational lines. This idea and its subsequent questions flow through each of her essays like a trickling stream. What did her narrator give to her son? What did her mother give to her? And how much meaning has she created in her own life?
While exploring issues of a mother’s individual role in shaping her child, Spilt Milk also looks at the interconnectedness of bodies and our shared physical experience, particularly in essays like “Holy Body.” In second-person narration, Zoffness’s narrator describes her undertaking of a ritual mikveh, the Jewish immersion ceremony, tailoring each step to her personal and secular beliefs while she contemplates the effects of time and pregnancy on her body and a friend’s decision to act as a surrogate for an infertile couple. Zoffness hesitates to assign meaning or transformative properties to the pieces of the ceremony, but the resulting meditation is both physical and self-aware. The mikveh, her friend tells her ahead of time, is “a forced pause, a way to delineate where you are on your journey. It is a bookmark you slip in between pages to ruminate over what you read, to interpret the story’s significance, its power.” In “Holy Body,” as in other essays, Zoffness’s narrator’s sense of self is tied to her interpretation and creation of stories. As an artist, it is her job to resist easy imagery or conclusions; she writes to “unravel knots in [her] own understanding.” Essays like “Holy Body” demonstrate Zoffness’s ease with language and the way she honors her reader by trusting her to draw her own conclusions. Zoffness braids several narrative lines together within the same essay. Her work lends itself to inspiring questions rather than providing answers.
“Your characters need to have desires,” Zoffness tells a writing class. “Drama arises when people struggle to get what they want.” The desire for a greater connection with her mother is central to her narrator’s actions in many of these essays. Zoffness calls these:
[M]y own preoccupations: love and faith and mental illness. Also, always, motherhood. My protagonists are aspiring mothers and new mothers and daughters struggling to get close to their mothers. […] [It is] an effort to fathom this singular and labyrinthine relationship with the most insistent tool I have: storytelling.
For Zoffness, storytelling is as much a part of motherhood as motherhood is of storytelling. The author’s mother, a singer, has always been mostly unknowable to her. She exists just outside of her understanding. “As a kid,” she says, “I wanted things from her I couldn’t name. Not just affection — though I wanted that too. I wanted more of her. Leave it, she’d say, when I pressed.” Zoffness’s mother works in a locked studio, and she won’t give her daughter a key to her home. Zoffness is always on the wrong side of the door: “What I heard: Art is a secret.” Yet as Zoffness considers how she guides her son through the world, she acknowledges the chasm that exists between any parent and child: “How large is the gulf, I want to know, between what a parent knows and what a child cannot understand? How vast is the harm society will do to my sons and the harm they will inevitably do in return while their mother waits for them to grow up?” No matter the point of view from which the mother-child relationship is viewed, it presents opportunities for misunderstanding. Zoffness’s posture is always one of curiosity.
These are essays about pain. About belief. About desire. In Spilt Milk, even when it damages the child for the mother to make herself unknowable, it’s a necessary tenet of the mother living her own life. Zoffness explores this space from every angle, always returning to the idea that complication, not simplification, is how this story is best told. She says,
I want to tell you […] about storytelling. How my drive to bring the imaginal into the real is accompanied by a fondness for narrative, for beginnings and endings. How I delight in transformation, not only in characters on the page, but as a writer, as a reader. How I can feel pulverized and remade by stories — a glass orb made into a pile of shimmering shards into a framed work of art. How I seek this experience in real life too.
Zoffness’s mother’s distance causes her great pain, but it also serves as a catalyst to many of the considerations she makes about herself as a mother. It is also this distance that allows her the space to determine who she will be. Zoffness, in turn, is unknowable to her children and cannot entirely know them. Without lamenting this as a tragedy, she does what good artists do and explores it. In the spaces between generations, Zoffness creates.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.