The Stranger Guest: The Literature of Pregnancy and New Motherhood
By Lily Gurton-WachterJuly 29, 2016
She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon
In 1799, when Barbauld was writing, and the death of both mother and child during birth were commonplace, the line “fed with her life” would have had an ominous double edge: pregnancy often really meant giving up your life to a stranger. But the stanza also describes something else about pregnancy that is obvious and yet often left unspoken: that your body becomes inhabited by a stranger, by a guest who is stranger than any other guest you’ve ever hosted, insofar as you have never even met; and yet also closer and more intimate than any other, insofar as they are, really, a part of yourself. In pregnancy, you become strange to yourself, estranged from who you once were, from what your body used to be or mean or contain, so that your body turns into something that you no longer fully understand. In pregnancy, the distinction you once knew between self and other comes undone. So does the gap between how you protect yourself and how you care for others.
When I became pregnant four years ago, I was writing a book about 19th-century British poetry and war while teaching classes about the history of war literature. I began to think about the discrepancy between how we narrate these experiences. We have a rich, challenging, and complex canon of war literature, from The Iliad to poetry from the Iraq War, and an equally engaged and vibrant tradition of criticism and philosophy that deals with war, violence, and trauma. Interest in this literature is not limited to soldiers or veterans: lots of people read about war who have never fought and who never will. War fascinates because it offers us a representation of, and a response to, an extremity of human experience.
The same cannot be said about a literature of pregnancy or childbirth or parenting, though these are also extreme experiences that stretch our understanding and push us beyond comfort or even comprehension. Yet we don’t have a familiar canon of nuanced literary or philosophical texts about the experience of having a child, even though having a child, too, is a profound, frightening, exhilarating, transformative experience at the boundary of life, an experience from which one comes back a different person. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes Septimus Smith returning to London from World War I: he “had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now.” This is not far from the way the poet Alice Notley describes the self-erasure of motherhood: “For two years, there’s no me here.”
Writing and reading about war while pregnant and while caring for my newborn highlighted the overlap between these experiences while exposing this gap in the literary record. I began collecting passages about motherhood as I came across them, both texts like Barbauld’s that hint at the complexity of the experience and texts that remind us of who, historically, has controlled our narratives about motherhood. Whereas philosophy should look to pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting as an opportunity to think deeply about the distinction between self and other, the relation between body and mind, the meaning of being or of life itself, most philosophers have approached the topic in tangential asides in which they try to control women’s bodies rather than understand them. While researching Kant’s ideas about education, I came across a bizarre passage in his “Lectures on Pedagogy” in which he advises breastfeeding mothers to eat a lot of meat, since “if the mothers or wet-nurses eat only a vegetarian diet for several days, then their milk curdles just like cow’s milk.” Though he had no children himself, Kant is quite opinionated on the subject of parenting, insisting that “to come immediately to the child’s assistance when it cries, to sing something to it, etc., as is the custom of wet-nurses, is very harmful. This is usually the first undoing of the child.” The practice of swaddling newborns, Rousseau claims in Émile, is a “cruel bondage” that stems from the uncaring attitude of wet nurses: “The woman who nurses another’s child in place of her own is a bad mother,” he writes. “[H]ow can she be a good nurse?” (Rousseau famously abandoned his own children in an orphanage.)
But even these examples are exceptions, because for the most part, motherhood is simply missing from our literary and philosophical tradition, passed over quickly as if it were an embarrassment when it even appears at all. An odd omission, given how many people in the history of the world have either had a baby or been one. Shouldn’t we all be more interested in this? “We are often encouraged to compartmentalize and disown our births,” Elisa Albert has written, “as if they don’t matter, as if being alive at the end of the process is the only thing that matters. Imagine floating that kind of idea to a soldier just back from combat.”
It’s not as if there’s nothing to read about babies, of course. When you become pregnant, the books recommended to you will be how-to books, polemics about home birth or vaccines, reference manuals detailing “what to expect when you’re expecting.” There are endless magazines, websites, blogs, and message boards to multiply the germs of your nascent paranoias. These texts can be helpful, and yet, as Maggie Nelson writes in her recent memoir The Argonauts, “the most oft-cited, well-respected, best-selling books about the caretaking of babies — Winnicott, Spock, Sears, Weissbluth — have been and are mostly still by men.” As such, they can teach us how to treat diaper rash or when and why to sleep train, but they don’t answer or even ask the truly difficult questions. Considering the Q and A section of a pregnancy magazine, Nelson complains: “No one asked, How does one submit to falling forever, to going to pieces. A question from the inside.” How will having a baby disrupt my sense of who I am, of my body, my understanding of life and death, my relation to the world and to my sense of independence, my experience of fear and hope and time, and the structure of my experience altogether? Dr. Spock is silent on these topics.
As Nelson suggests, the easy explanation for the virtual omission of pregnancy and childbirth from the humanistic tradition is that most philosophy and literature has, historically, been written by men. And in the grand scheme of things, there aren’t that many books written by mothers at all, especially before the 1970s. The most famous women writers in the English language — Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen — did not have children, and one might argue that this is no accident, that having the time and freedom to write may have required not having children. There are exceptions, but until recently, the list of mother-writers has been short and not too sweet. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1890 after being treated for what some have diagnosed as postpartum psychosis. “Such a dear baby!” she writes in the opening to the story. “And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.” Gilman’s own diary echoes this bind: “Go down street and do errands preferably to staying at home alone with care of baby … very tired. Twitching and nervous.” She is clear about just how stuck and trapped she feels later in the diary:
Every morning the same hopeless waking. Every day the same weary drag. To die mere cowardice. Retreat impossible, escape impossible. […] he [her husband] cannot see how irrevocably bound I am, for life, for life.
The narrator’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper in that story suggests the extent to which having a baby can alter the way you see everything, even the seemingly neutral spaces and structures that are supposed to keep you safe. After Gilman’s postpartum hospitalization, the doctor sent her home with instructions to
[l]ive as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time […] Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.
When being a mother got hard, writing was seen as a symptom rather than a cure.
Sylvia Plath wrote some of her most famous poems early in the morning before her two young children woke up. The poems that are explicitly about Plath’s children, like “Nick and the Candlestick,” are filled with immense love but they also suggest an unnerving slipperiness between the I and the you:
O love, how did you get here?
In you, ruby.
You wake to is not yours.
And in “Morning Song”:
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
This effacement of the mother comes up again and again in the sparse literature of motherhood. In “A Baby is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead – 1972,” Alice Notley links this erasure of self to motherhood’s absence from the literary canon:
At this time there are few
poems about pregnancy and childbirth
do I find this curious
I want to shriek at
this culture gives me claw it to
pieces; has nothing to
do with me or
my baby and never will,
has never perceived a
he is born and I am undone — feel as if I will
never be, was never born
Two years later I obliterate myself again
having another child
Sometimes the literature of motherhood operates surreptitiously, under the cover of genre. Mary Shelley, whose mother Mary Wollstonecraft (also known as the “mother” of feminism) died from complications giving birth to her, began writing Frankenstein at the age of 19, having already given birth to two children, only one of whom survived. After the death of her newborn daughter, Mary wrote in her diary:
Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives. I awake and find no baby — I think about the little thing all day.
This dream finds its echoes in Shelley’s novel, where Victor Frankenstein is likened to Prometheus, who stole fire and gave it to mortals. (The book’s subtitle, often elided nowadays, is The Modern Prometheus.) So we might understand Frankenstein’s discovery of the elixir of life that can reanimate dead body parts as fulfilling Shelley’s fantasy of bringing back to life her lost baby, and, as her dream suggests, of a more malleable relationship between life and death. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s creature — who at one point calls himself an “abortion” — is abandoned at birth, and some critics have suggested that we should understand Victor Frankenstein’s disgust at his creation as a “study of postpartum depression, as a representation of maternal rejection of a newborn infant.” Writing in 1982, the literary critic Barbara Johnson wrote that “the idea that a mother can loathe, fear, and reject her baby has until recently been one of the most repressed of psychoanalytical insights.” Frankenstein, Johnson suggests, “touches on primitive terrors of the mother’s rejection of the child.”
Airing the possibility that a mother might feel anything but joy and affection toward her baby has been an important development in the history of feminism. Of course it is clear why society might harbor a “primitive terror of the mother’s rejection of the child,” and why mothers would try to hide any hint of anger or frustration toward their children. In her celebrated 1976 book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich tries to explain her own maternal vacillations, quoting her journal from when her children were young:
My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. […] And yet at other times I am melted with the sense of their helpless, charming and quite irresistible beauty — their ability to go on loving and trusting — their staunchness and decency and unselfconsciousness. I love them. But it’s in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.
Echoing Gilman, Rich finds that it is the combination of an intense love with an almost tragic sense of irrevocability that defines motherhood: “bound for life” is how Gilman put it, or in Frankenstein’s monster’s more violent terms, “bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.” The last part of Rich’s description has helped me understand the real bind of motherhood: that the hardest part is not the sleeplessness, the soreness, or the stress, but the way all of those everyday obstacles are tied to the “enormity and inevitability” of a love so strong that you don’t know what to do with it, a desperate kind of love that feels perfect and perfectly immobilizing. Motherhood is the painful love that Zadie Smith recently described in her essay “Joy”:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Surprisingly, in the time since I had my son and began noticing the dearth of motherhood writing, there has been a proliferation of texts that give depth and detail to the experience of having a baby: the birth, we might say, of a new literature of new motherhood. In the past two years alone, we’ve seen Elisa Albert’s After Birth (2015), Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014), Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (2016), Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015), and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015). This emerging canon encompasses a variety of literary forms and a range of tones, but it is united by the authors’ decision to treat motherhood not as an interruption of intellectual work but as its impetus. Each of these texts takes up the kind of writing and thinking that Gilman’s doctor urged her to avoid. For Biss, this means historical research into the history of vaccination, in order to ask ethical questions about motherhood, community, and vulnerability. Manguso is interested in how motherhood alters the experience of time and the structure of experience: Ongoingness is a fragmentary meditation on writing, marking time, diary-keeping, and the shift through which a “mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time.” Galchen’s Little Labors assembles a miscellany of real and literary babies and anatomizes the intensities of maternal love, “an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic.” Nelson’s philosophical meditation on gender, sexuality, death, and queer family-making takes seriously the experience of having a baby as one of “powerlessness, finitude, endurance. You are making the baby, but not directly. You are responsible for his welfare, but unable to control the core elements.”
Albert’s After Birth is the only work of fiction on my list; the prevalence of experimental nonfiction speaks to the movement I see emerging here, an extension of recent literary preoccupations with the forms of memoir and diary. The new literature of new motherhood exposes the feminist edge of our broader cultural obsession with the real. Even Albert’s novel, about a new mother falling apart and coming back together in upstate New York, borrows from the confessional mode to evoke a brutal honesty about the damages inflicted by motherhood:
A baby opens you up, is the problem. No way around it unless you want to pay someone else to have it for you. There’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another. Some deal by attempting to micromanage; some go crazy; some zone right the hell on out. Or all of the above. A blessed few resist any of these, and when you meet her, you’ll know her immediately by the look in her eyes: weary, humbled, wobbly but still standing. Present, if faintly. You don’t meet her often.
These writers tend to describe motherhood in violent terms, in language that recalls war or trauma. The loss that Nelson calls “experimenting with my obliteration” is described by Manguso as “a shattering, a disintegration of the self, after which the original form is quite gone.” “My pregnancy, like every pregnancy,” writes Biss,
had primed me for the understanding that my body was not mine alone and that its boundaries were more porous than I had ever been led to believe. It was not an idea that came easily, and I was dismayed by how many of the metaphors that occurred to me when I was pregnant were metaphors of political violence — invasion, occupation, and colonization.
If motherhood is an obliteration or disintegration of the self, then how can that erased mother write? Does the mother have to come back together to find a voice with which to narrate her situation? This is a paradox already familiar to critics and scholars of war literature: extreme experiences tend to evade explanation or even description, and the writer able to understand and give a full account of what happened is often not the one who has suffered it most forcefully. In the context of parenting, this manifests as a problem of timing. By the time a new mother has the time (or free hands) to write again, the most extreme experience is beginning to fade from her memory. These recent books are attuned to this problem. In After Birth, Albert asks: “so who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?” Nelson puts it even plainer: “here’s the catch: I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write.”
So part of the problem is logistical, structural: how can you write about an experience that, by definition, prevents you from writing? How can you think about an experience that seems to prevent or frustrate thought? Motherhood, writes Sarah Manguso has a “wild velocity […] an enforced momentum forbidding contemplation.” Galchen investigates the effects of this problem on literary history. One section of her book, titled “Literature has more dogs than babies,” collects literary infants, from Tolstoy to Toni Morrison, and notes that fiction writers tend to skip over this phase extremely quickly: “Most babies who appear in literature are, by paragraph three, already children, if not even adults.” Another, “Notes on some twentieth-century writers,” provides a list of authors, both male and female, followed by a note indicating how many children they had and at what age their first novels were published. In another section, entitled “Mother writers,” Galchen acknowledges the nascent genre of new motherhood, mentioning Manguso and Elena Ferrante, before concluding: “But among the mother writers of today probably two of the most celebrated are men: Karl Ove Knausgaard and, in his way, Louis C.K.”
A crucial predecessor to this latest generation of mother writing is Rachel Cusk’s 2001 memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, itself inspired by Rich’s landmark Of Woman Born. Fifteen years ago, though, there was not the appetite, or even tolerance, for the literature of motherhood that we are seeing now. In fact, Cusk has discussed the intense backlash she received after publishing her book; one reviewer suggested that she was a bad mother and that if everyone were to read the book “the propagation of the human race would virtually cease.” “I was accused of child-hating,” Cusk writes,
of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual. One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences? Why was I not busier, more tired? Another reviewer — a writer! — commanded her readers not to let the book fall into the hands of pregnant women.
We are not far — certainly not as far as we should be — from the advice of Gilman’s doctor: “Live as domestic a life as possible […] And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”
The recent response to the emerging literature of new motherhood has been far more generous; these books seem to be circulating in a mainstream from which they would have once been dismissed. The Argonauts made The New York Times’s 100 notable books of 2015; On Immunity was chosen for Facebook’s book club; After Birth was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015. I have the sense that readers — not only mothers — are eagerly embracing these books. “[A] baby,” Maggie Nelson writes, “literally makes space where there wasn’t space before.” So, too, these writers are making space in the literary world where there didn’t seem to be room before: a space in which pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum experience are neither ignored nor pathologized, but simply — and at long last — described.
Lily Gurton-Wachter is an assistant professor of English at Smith College. Her first book, Watchwords: Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention, was published in 2016 with Stanford University Press.
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