The Monumental Unsaid: A Conversation with Rachel Yoder
By Sara PetersenAugust 23, 2021
Rachel Yoder’s wildly inventive debut novel is a revelation for mothers craving the validation that early motherhood is a psychic battlefield, in which one’s very sense of self is at stake. In Nightbitch, we follow the protagonist — named simply “The Mother” — as she evolves from dispirited, bored, lonely stay-at-home mom into the eponymous creature, a raging, howling entity that expresses the furies of motherhood by metamorphosing at night into a feral dog.
In the novel, Yoder explores mom culture, gender roles, and, above all, the warring dualities contained within the experience of motherhood. About these dualities, Yoder writes: “She would never wish Nightbitch on another mother, certainly not, for while feral-mommy-time had its fun, its vitality and power and brazenness, at its core it was something very private and sad, those deeply held dreams that a mother had tucked into a cold, dark corner of herself.” In a story that gives full voice to the innumerable nuisances, exhaustions, shocks, and injustices of motherhood, Yoder manages to create a fairy tale that feels both bitingly fresh and somehow as old as time.
I had an email exchange with Yoder to discuss her novel, the loneliness of motherhood, the lies of MLM culture, and the irresistible allure of speaking the “monumental unsaid.”
SARA PETERSEN: Despite being furiously unhappy and bored as a stay-at-home mother, Nightbitch frequently tries to convince herself of the rightness of this arrangement (after all, her husband “had a job […] he made money”). But then this line appears: “She stood with the babe in arms and watched him back the car from the driveway.” How does this archetypal image and your own experience of early motherhood inform Nightbitch?
RACHEL YODER: That image of the mother with child watching as her husband leaves is a classic one that you can find repeated endlessly in all of literature. The image is also holy — the Madonna, who was also abandoned (that’s a sacrilegious analysis, I realize, but pragmatically, it’s the truth), though I would argue that the mother-child bond is the holy part as opposed to the Mother Alone. (I do wonder what the cultural value of having the Mother Alone as a holy image is. I am very suspicious of it. It seems to be of value to the patriarchy.) For me, this image is actually the mother’s greatest fear: the abandoned mother left to care for her child. I didn’t know to fear this image before I had my own child. I consider myself independent, quite happy to be alone for long stretches of time. I am a writer, after all. Yet when my own husband’s job demanded that he be gone each week, his ceaseless departures felt nearly criminal after the birth of our son. I was in the house, with my son, lonely in a way I had never been before. I craved the wisdom of community when presented with this mysterious, mewling little creature, yet the best I could do was sort of wander through mommy-baby activities, unable to connect meaningfully with other moms, completely isolated. My early experience of motherhood didn’t so much inform the character of Nightbitch as it is Nightbitch. It was my way of processing the catastrophe of marital division in early motherhood and my deep, animal desire for protection and togetherness.
You write of stay-at-home motherhood: “And, honestly, what a privilege. What a treat. She understood that she was just a privileged, overeducated lady in the middle of America living the dream of holding her baby twenty-four hours a day.” This book dives deep into maternal malaise and makes the reader see, in an unapologetically visceral way, how soul-crushing it can be for mothers. Tell me what it’s like to say what is so often left unsaid as it pertains to the screaming monotony of early motherhood.
I think the power of this book comes in its rebellion, in saying the things we are normally not supposed to say or express or even really think. So much of my writing comes out of this rebellious impulse to do the thing that you’re not supposed to, whether formally or having a character be unlikable, vulgar, etc. I like it when art transgresses polite boundaries, and there are so many fucking polite boundaries when it comes to motherhood. I am reminded of the Mennonite baby showers I sat through as a child, where each gift was passed around the circle after the mother-to-be carefully removed the wrapping paper, folding it neatly for future reuse. I found the folded wrapping paper infuriating. The pastels of the party, the floral dresses, the quiet chatter. Everything so restrained, obscured even. I couldn’t understand where the truth was in the room, for there did seem to be something monumental that was being left unsaid. The monumental unsaid is what is contained in this book, I think.
Despite her growing certainty that she’s morphing into a dog, complete with sharp canines and furry haunches, Nightbitch leans on so many classic white-lady tropes, including joining a wellness-centric MLM and using toxic positivity to make herself “better.” Worn out from trying to coax her small child to sleep, “she told herself to be a detached observer of her emotional landscape.” Where does wellness culture fail mothers? And why did you include an MLM in the book, and how do you think MLMs and the allure of being a “joiner” connect to motherhood?
I was listening to a podcast called The Dream as I was writing Nightbitch, the season all about MLMs. In an early draft, I tried having Nightbitch go to a Midwestern psychic for advice, but it felt too campy.
I have always struggled to be a joiner. I am a loner by nature. But when you have a baby, you want nothing more than another mom around you. Perhaps this is a gift of motherhood, this urge to be around other women, but it’s also a challenge for those of us who are more introverted.
And I think it’s interesting that you specify “white lady tropes” in this question because MLM culture is both aggressively white and aggressively capitalistic, at least in its American iterations. I in no way set out to write about whiteness, but I do think to a certain extent that’s what I’ve wound up with. And there’s this feeling I have that MLM is an outgrowth of the lies of patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism. It encourages women to buy into the myth that you can “create your destiny” if you “work hard” with the “right mindset.” It is the American Dream/Scam writ small and sold to mothers struggling to do it all, often alone. Forget community. How about an “exciting wealth-generating opportunity”? Wellness culture failed mothers in its conception and will continue to fail mothers until it is reconceived outside of capitalism and outside of whiteness. It is propaganda, essentially dishonest. And I think Nightbitch feels that. She is literally losing her mind in search of something honest.
Whether you experience a postpartum mood disorder or not, I don’t know a single mother who doesn’t feel a sense of shock that somehow their particular version of motherhood feels like a scam. You write about Nightbitch: “Her sense that society, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, all these things, were somehow masterfully designed to put a woman in her place and keep her there — this idea had begun to weigh on her.” Did you experience this cognitive dissonance yourself, and do you still think the social construct of modern motherhood is a “sham”?
Yes, and yes. And I’ll do you one better: I think the social construct of modern womanhood is a sham.
When we have children, we have this biological imperative to keep them alive. It is everything. But we aren’t just animals. We have this higher brain, too, which complicates things. I felt pulled between my very real and urgent animal impulses in motherhood — to be with my baby, to nest, to sleep, to eat — and my higher-brain desires for fulfillment, for a career, for purpose beyond the domestic sphere, all of which also feel hugely important to me. But then I came up against these gendered scripts that automatically began to play out in my house. I cook. I clean, I keep track of all the activities. I worry while my husband works outside the home, comes home, and then is free to do what he wants because of his economic contribution, of more value than mine. Believe me, none of this was conscious on my husband’s part. He’s not an asshole. But we both have asshole programming from very traditional upbringings in religious households. The sham runs deep, through generations and across continents. And you can see how once the sham might have made a lot of sense, but we are still running this program within a completely transformed modern society, uninterrogated, and that’s where I start to get pissed.
Throughout the novel, Nightbitch is searching for answers. She wants to understand why she is turning into a ravenous wild dog, she wants to understand the wisdom of other mothers, and she wants to understand “that single, white-hot light at the center of the darkness of herself — that was the point of origin from which she birthed something new, from which all women do.” What is it about motherhood in particular that invites this type of psychic, existential questioning (of world and self)?
“Split in two” is the phrase that is coming to me. We grow a mass of cells inside us and then purge it, but even after the purge, we are deeply, psychically connected to the cells. They were our cells after all. There is a sense of both unity and division. We are able to hold both. How could you not then start to become existential and psychic? The questions of motherhood are profound and serious and as deep as a seeker is able to journey. It’s my hope that we are now entering into an era in which we are as a society creating a serious literature of motherhood. It is easily the most fascinating topic to write or read about, yet it has historically been undervalued and overlooked because, of course, it is fundamentally concerned with the female experience. Motherhood has been so sanitized — pastels?! ruffles?! flowers?! what the fuck?? — but it is, from the very start, a literal mess of shit and blood.
When I was in labor, during a particularly gnarly part when the baby needed to turn and couldn’t, I started to scream with each contraction. These screams grew so intense that my husband, on the verge of passing out, had to leave the room. “I’ve never heard those sounds come from a human before,” he later commented. During labor, I better understood what the word “torture” meant. I felt a deep, psychic empathy for people who had died from torture. I understood their suffering. And then, at the end, I had a baby that I had grown in my body. I pushed it out of a small hole, which is fucking crazy. Do you see how powerful this is? Honestly, how are men not terrified of us? And how is the world not exactly as women would have it?
Midway through the novel, Nightbitch decides that efforts to think of herself as an artist, or even to perform the role of a “good mother,” are futile.
She is becoming a better mother because she is becoming a better dog! Dogs don’t need to work. Dogs don’t care about art. […] She likes the idea of being a dog, because she can bark and snarl and not have to justify it. She can run free if she wants. She can be a body and instinct and urge. She can be hunger and rage, thirst and fear, nothing more.
Tell me the origin story of mother-morphing-into-a-dog.
My entire adult life I have been working on one writing project or another, but after my son was born in 2014, I stopped writing. For the first time in over a decade, not only was there not an idea in my head, but I also didn’t even want to write, preferring instead to stare at my baby for hours (literally). After nearly two years of not writing, however, you might say that I began to panic. Maybe I just wasn’t a writer anymore. Maybe that era in my life was now complete. I was distraught, angry, confused, exhausted. Then, on a Monday afternoon in January 2016, most likely while my toddler napped, I opened a document and typed out a quote from Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, which I was reading, that I’ve now seen referenced by various women in various pieces of writing. You might know it as “the art monster” part, specifically.
I wanted to be an art monster, too! In fact, I quickly understood this was my most profound desire, had always been, but now as a stay-at-home mom with a husband who traveled each week for work (much like the protagonist in Nightbitch), I didn’t see how this was in any way possible. I was a mom, which I loved, but I was not a writer, as I had longed to be my entire life, and was so angry at what felt like a sudden apprehension of my situation. I began to rage against the circumstances of my life, quietly, in my head. And this was the primordial, subconscious miasma from which the figure of Nightbitch was created.
I didn’t start writing Nightbitch until a year later, after the 2016 election, which sent me over the edge with rage. I saw that if I didn’t want to destroy my marriage or begin murdering random men, I would need to find some sort of outlet for what was happening in my head, so I started writing.
Another piece of Nightbitch’s origin story has to do with the women I met in films in the years leading up to drafting this book, figures I found compelling for unexamined reasons that didn’t become entirely clear until much later. For instance, the absurd ire of Kathleen Turner in John Waters’s Serial Mom (1994). Mabel’s chaos in Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974). (Mabel still haunts me, and not in a comforting way at all. I think about her a lot.) Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975). This is perhaps the only movie where I knew what would happen at the end before it happened. Because, of course. I could feel it in every fiber of my body.
After transforming into Nightbitch, the protagonist seems to view all mothers through a different lens, including her own mother, who gave up the potential of an opera career to be a housewife. Can you say more about how the corporeal immediacy of motherhood intersects with dreams deferred?
Motherhood for me is about coming to terms with loss. You become a mother, after all, by having your most precious creation wrenched from your body. It’s often violent, the most violent thing many women will experience. And as soon as your child is separate from you, you see that it is mortal. It’s devastating. And you begin to lose the child as soon as it is born. God, it’s so brutal. And mothers hold this tension for a lifetime, the tension between creation and destruction. We understand dreams and regret, future and past, in a much more bodily way than men ever can. There is a bloody, violent point in time that clearly delineates a before and an after for us. Motherhood is not just a concept; it is a physical reality.
What do we lose as a culture when we make the tacit assumption that mothers will stop dreaming? What do we lose when we think of mothers’ self-sacrifice and martyrdom as givens? Mothers are able to dream in phenomenal ways. They understand transformation unlike anyone else. Perhaps we should begin to create the space and support for them to dream. Imagine what might happen. Imagine.
Sara Petersen has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The Washington Post, InStyle, and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first book, Momfluenced, about mommy Instagram culture, which will be published by Beacon Press.
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