Parenting Is Always a Ghost Story: A Conversation with Yael Goldstein-Love
By Claire JarvisOctober 1, 2023
The Possibilities by Yael Goldstein-Love
As well as being a novelist, Goldstein-Love is also a trained psychotherapist, and her new novel offers an analyst’s insight into the psychological dis-ease of early motherhood: even in the best of circumstances, one’s first foray into motherhood feels like an adjustment disorder. Yael recently sat down with me to discuss the novel. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity.
CLAIRE JARVIS: As I read into the science-fictional plot of your novel, I couldn’t help but return again and again to David Mitchell’s multiverse. Have you read him? He does a similar thing in that he embeds his science-fictional leaps in what is, really, a very dense, realist framework.
YAEL GOLDSTEIN-LOVE: Yes, I love Mitchell for this very reason. The task I set myself with this book was to try to capture the deep existential strangeness of becoming a mother. The experience was mind-bogglingly different than I’d anticipated—more wonderful, more terrifying, and more disorienting than I ever could have conceived—and I felt there was no way to do justice to it with straight realism because it did not feel like straight realism while I was living it.
When I was thinking about how to pull off this book, I thought a lot about other writers who also use science-fictional leaps to get at aspects of reality that might not otherwise be accessible, from Octavia Butler to Emily St. John Mandel and Dexter Palmer. There’s of course a long and robust tradition of coming at reality through sci-fi leaps. I’m rereading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) right now for a new project I’m working on, so this is very much on my mind again, the question of how, if you’re going to make use of the unreal to get at the real, you go about finding your own unique and project-specific balance between the realistic and unrealistic aspects of your story. This is going to sound wacky, but I think of this balance between realism and not-realism in terms of getting the smell right rather than the aural metaphors we usually use for literary choices—voice, tone. There’s something more visceral, more primal in this choice, and disgust lives closer to the surface when you get it wrong.
I was really struck by an early description of Hannah’s entry into “the possibilities”: “My world began to wobble. The waves were starting again, the pulling outward like contractions.” I was curious about why you present Hannah’s capacity for moving between realities as evoking childbirth?
When I was trying to get this balance right between the real and unreal, one thing that felt immensely important to me was not to skirt around the bodily aspects of becoming a mother. The maternal body is just a wild, wild thing to find oneself perched inside. It’s almost like a time machine. We all come from a mother’s body, and I don’t just mean when they’re pregnant with us but also during infancy, when we’re kind of a system: us and mom (or whomever our primary caretaker is; I’m using “mother” as a kind of shorthand here).
I think we carry both the rejection of and lingering longing for our mother’s body somewhere deep inside so that being part of that system again—a system of two bodies, mother and baby—brings back a lot of old feelings, as well as memories so ancient they predate our use of words and so are hard to think about in words. And so it’s almost like, during those newborn months, you’re kind of thinking about those memories through your body. Or at least I was.
I developed a very new relationship with my body while giving birth and in the postpartum period. I came to regard it as almost a partner in the project rather than simply a part of me—it knew things, like how to have contractions, how to make milk in proportion with my child’s demands. It was important to me to capture the physical aspects of early motherhood in this book, and to capture them in a way that felt visceral to the reader, which made salient the strangeness of details we tend to take for granted and overlook because they’re “familiar”—that is, until you’re going through them and then you’re like, no, wait, this seemed familiar from the outside, but from the inside, this is weird.
I wanted to highlight another passage where I felt that the psychoanalytic emphasis on core experiences came into sharp relief: “In that sun-drenched room she’d seemed more animal than human, and so did I: a hot, shameful trickle running down my leg because I’d wet myself in fear of my own mother.” This detail is midway through the novel. In it, we get a glimpse into Hannah’s childhood. If the science-fictional seems to call to the early days of new motherhood, being a daughter seems more obviously connected to an older form. This scene, embedded in a memory of Hannah’s visits to her mother in a mental hospital, seems like Sarah Waters: a modern, gritty detail drawn from a much older, mannered novel. I’m curious if you saw any connections with older novel forms, and if you thought at all about the way this novel incorporates madwomen into its pages.
Yes, very much so. My first thought in response to that question is to remember a period in my own childhood—I must have been nine or 10—when my mother, who is also a novelist, seemed always to be reading The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. She’d often talk to me about it, putting the ideas into terms I could understand, but in my memories, she seems quite upsettingly unreachable, probably because I can’t understand the ideas she’s explaining but also because I know she’s reading this book as a way into a new novel she’s starting to write, another private world I can’t follow her into. I think, for both personal and more intellectual reasons, the 19th-century madwoman is a trope I tend to associate with the distance that can come between mothers and daughters, interrupting some flow of wisdom and succor.
Speaking of flow, I want to hear more about the place of milk in the novel. You present breastfeeding as a kind of secret code in the second half of the book. Why do you think breastfeeding is at once such a central feature of writing about motherhood and so weirdly under-presented in novelistic worlds? One of the challenges it presents to readers is that the closeness of the nursing mother and child—something you capture concretely in Hannah’s gaze as she feeds Jack—wards off perception. It acts like a block, in a way, to narration. The way you choose to use this image—first as that emblem of maternal care and closeness, then as this harried and terrifying vision of the breastfeeding mother without her child—strikes me as unusual in realist fiction.
I think it’s hard to capture the intense intimacy of the mother-infant bond through realism, and I’d never seen it done in a way I related to in fiction. I really wanted to try to capture in a concrete, easy-to-understand way just what a profound and different form of communication a parent and infant share—a communication that involves no words at all, and that takes place through the passing back and forth of intense emotion instead. I guess this was my attempt to take what I consider one of the most useful and intuitive ideas of psychoanalysis and show just how incredibly helpful and intuitive it really is. To run a little roughshod over Melanie Klein, here’s the general idea: the baby is maybe cold, hungry, tired, in pain from gas, but of course, being a baby, has no idea they’re cold, hungry, tired, or gassy. And so, the parent is like, Oh, it’s cold in here, or Oh, it’s been three hours since she last ate, and they give the baby what it needs to end the awful feeling and return to a feeling of contentment. It really blows my mind still that this happens, and living it was really a revelation.
I thought that once you gave birth to the baby, you were done lending yourself to the task of creating another person, but lending your body really has nothing on lending your mind to creating another person, which is what this process is. Living through it changed how I think about all communication now. I’m so much more aware now of the feeling-to-feeling communication always running beneath the verbal communication, even when I’m talking to other adults.
I was also startled by the key sign of Jack’s impending disappearance, which is his low temperature. I was intrigued by the way you blend the mundane misery of early parenthood, with its thermometers and charts and endless methods of recording inadequacy and failure, with the science-fictional destruction of any semblance of maternal care. A question: is this science fiction or supernatural fiction? What is the place of the scientific multiverse in a world occupied by ghosts?
Parenthood is always a ghost story. We’re haunted by our own experiences of being parented, as well as by our parents’ experiences of being parented, etc. That’s intergenerational transmission (not just of trauma, but also of trauma) in a nutshell. To me, the multiverse in this book was not so much about what exists out there—other universes—but what exists internally, all the parts of our own minds and hearts we’re not aware of, or are only vaguely aware of, but that can wreak havoc, especially in intense periods such as early motherhood. I’d call those unconscious processes, but you could just as easily call them hauntings (the child psychoanalyst and social worker Selma Fraiberg uses the phrase “ghosts in the nursery” to describe exactly this).
One obvious problem of a book about early motherhood is that the end result has to be a loss for both people in the social compact: the separation of infancy into independence is crucial for the formation of discrete consciousnesses, of literal human beings, but it’s impossible to experience that separation without a sense of loss. Not to say that loss is anything, for most people, that isn’t manageable or even salutary. But that it is a loss of a proximity that changes one’s sense of one’s place in the world.
Hannah’s expression—literally—of milk when her sense of Jack’s presence reoccurs is a metaphoric form of that process of separation.
I mean, I don’t think everyone who can have a child ought to have one, but I also think that, for me, having children gave me a window into another life. Into a world that is palpably different from the other worlds I occupied before parenthood. That access is shaped by the embodied reality that childbearing and nursing brought. Again, this isn’t the only way to parent, but for me, being a person who became two, in a clear, decisive moment, was revelatory. Literally revelatory—a world was opened to me of which I had not conceived. I’m going to follow this idea down a bit, but could you say a bit about how it was writing through what I know is your darkest fear, that your child didn’t survive birth?
As I was reading, I, too, felt pressurized and worried by the scenes where Hannah sees her dead child, in part because it conjured up all the horrible circumstances that led to one of my own children being hospitalized shortly after his birth. I wonder if you could say more about how you wrote through those scenes. How did you feel about the horror of those mercifully fictional worlds hovering just beyond our more comfortable one? The process of letting one’s child grow up is, even in the most banal lives, a process of letting one’s child be at risk in the world. In other words, weaning happens for mothers too!
It does! And there are so many varieties and layers to that, of course. Motherhood requires reconciling ourselves to the pretty horrifying fact that there is no such thing as maternal omnipotence. I think there is a wild mismatch in our maternal drive to protect our kids—as primal a drive as hunger and thirst—and our power to actually do that. I think part of the maternal weaning process is really about figuring out how to live with powerlessness. I really and truly can’t know whether I can keep safe this person that every cell of my being wants to keep safe, so how am I now going to live a meaningful, rich life and allow my child to live their meaningful, rich life from within this awareness?
The difference between living with that risk and being consumed by it seems to me to be the plot of this novel. But accepting life with risk also makes Hannah, by the novel’s end, into something almost monstrous. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so maybe veer away, readers, if you haven’t read the book yet, but … why does Hannah have to lose track of, or learn to ignore, the other Jacks? I understand structurally why she does, but there’s also something monstrous about the way the other Jacks just … sort of recede?
There is! It is a monstrous choice, and yet so is the other choice, the one her mom made.
To me, I read Hannah’s final psychological move as entering a kind of mindfulness practice, or perhaps cognitive behavioral therapy, whereas the mode of the rest of the novel seems to be psychoanalytic reconciliation. But how much can we do things that are “helping us” when they require such enormous loss? (This is maybe the central problem of ethical motherhood, writ large.)
I think for me this is really the heart of what I had to figure out as a mother.
In that account, any mother who encounters “the possibilities”—the endless other worlds in which one’s child lives and is vulnerable—is necessarily monstrous.
I think you don’t even need to encounter them! I think there is something monstrous just built into being alive.
I mean, you reified anxiety in this book!
But it’s not just motherhood—we all are in some ways monstrous in our commitments to our loved ones over every other living human. And yet it would also be monstrous not to choose our loved ones over strangers.
Do you think that’s especially so for people who mother?
Yeah, I think nursing, parenting, and caring brings this out to a more extreme degree.
The love that bonds us to people is also a relationship that necessarily deprioritizes as well as prioritizes. This all reminds me of the fact that Klein, who of course started working as an analyst after having children, only imagined nursing as something that took place over six months. And even now, years after weaning, in some very real way, I still don’t feel like a person but like a networked or fungal person. A spore here, a spore there.
That’s a great description. I think I feel like myself now in most ways, but, yes, I also bear some resemblance to a redwood grove. And in this novel, the anxiety of writing through my worst fears—it really helped me. I sort of needed that, to really face it all, in all the vivid detail that fiction writing entails.
I want to ask you a bit about Hannah’s denouement: between her own experience as a child wanting to, and being unable to, be held by her mother, and the way her milk lets down when her body connects to Jack’s possibilities. This seems to be quite different from the ways I’ve seen early motherhood represented in fiction. I was struck by the way that Klein and Donald Winnicott, another British psychoanalyst, work as kind of bookends for this novel. Can you say a little bit more about those two basic stances: holding versus letting go, or nursing versus the mother as food? Especially with that idea of the mother as a redwood grove—we’re sort of networked and nested, but we’re also arms and breasts: partitive and fragmentary?
I think that’s such an important part of the experience of motherhood, coming to bear that we are a fragmentary collection of body parts and functions while also maintaining some hold on the fullness of our own experience and reality. In fact, neurological studies find a “primary maternal preoccupation” rewiring of the brain in any parent who does intensive caretaking, whether they are the birthing parent or even related to the child.
Motherhood requires one to be a sort of complex, nested set of people—oneself as a worker or thinker, oneself as a homemaker, oneself as a romantic partner, oneself as a mother—while also feeling fragmented or partial: mom as arm, or mom as boob.
To mother well, we need on some level to be able to be both at once.
That brings me to another plot question. Is Hannah’s mom, Eva, a bad mother? Or is she a good-enough mother (given her choice to stay inside the possibilities instead of sticking to one reality)?
I think she’s a good-enough mother who was put in a nearly impossible situation. She saved her daughter, and she made what she thought was the best choice after that.
Yes, that’s my sense too. But there’s a way that the trauma that’s perceptible in Hannah’s life—that scene comes to mind where she pees when visiting her mom—suggests otherwise.
Right, Eva failed spectacularly, but so do we all. I think, again, it’s that lack of maternal omnipotence.
I have always wondered about this with Winnicott: where is the line between the good-enough and the bad mother? Because doing the best with what you have is one thing, but abandoning your child because you have to save other versions of your child is a truly horrific way of being a bad mother!
You can be good enough and your kids still may suffer terrible trauma you were unable to prevent.
To me, this novel pushes through the difficult period that connects a child’s birth to his or her life, the shift from pregnancy to parenting. It’s wild to me that writing about birth trauma and early parenting after difficult birth is both widely consumed and weirdly disavowed. It’s a kind of “niche” writing that ignores the fact that, one, lots of people still give birth and, two, all of us were, as far as I know, born!
Yes, and how the DSM still requires that for there to be a trauma during birth, either mom or baby had to be in real physical peril, because otherwise it’s not far enough outside the normal range of human experience—which is something you really can’t say if you’ve given birth, I think. Truly, what other human experience is even glancingly like giving birth?
Birth’s not actually an experience that is perceived as common, despite so many of us doing it! Which I think has as much to do with the baseline masculinity of our culture as anything.
I think we make this all niche—not just birth but breastfeeding, all the very intense sensory experiences of birthing and caretaking—because we all went through it, and we don’t like to be reminded of our utter dependency. I don’t think that’s a digression at all. I think that’s central to this.
Perhaps we don’t like to be reminded of our constant brushes with annihilation. Because, as your novel suggests, the problem of birth trauma is that all of us, every one of us, will die. And we don’t want to.
Birth makes us feel fucking mortal, which we hate.
Yael Goldstein-Love is the author of two novels, The Passion of Tasha Darsky (2008) and The Possibilities (2023). She also practices psychotherapy with a particular interest in the transition to parenthood and is working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology. She lives with her son in Berkeley, California.
Claire Jarvis is a writer and critic. She lives in San Francisco with her family.
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