Reviews — From the April 2018 issue

Never Done

The impossible work of motherhood

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Discussed in this essay:

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, by Jacqueline Rose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $26.

Motherhood: A Novel, by Sheila Heti. Henry Holt. 304 pages. $27.

My son was born on the night of November 8, 2016. Because he was three weeks early, I had not voted absentee. All day I repeated, “I can’t believe this man is preventing me from voting for our first female president.” A few hours after the birth, I instructed my husband to look at his phone and find out what was happening with “my main bitch Hillary.” Concern crossed the nurse’s face. “You know, it’s not looking good,” she said. “I’m so sick of this liberal anxiety!” I replied. “She’s got this in the bag!” The nurse raised her eyebrows and fiddled with the IV; a trained professional does not argue with a woman who is recovering from a thirty-seven-hour labor. From across the room, my husband cleared his throat. “Trump won Ohio,” he said.

The hospital was swamped with babies. The doula said there was a supermoon. There were no beds available in the maternity ward, so we were moved to the inside half of a double on a general floor, approximately the size of a broom closet. “He won North Carolina.” The closet was not big enough for my husband and the bassinet, so I sent him home and asked the nurse to wheel the bassinet next to my bed. The cafeteria was closed. I was very hungry. I looked at my phone. Trump had won Florida. In the night, the baby on the other side of the curtain cried, which made my baby mewl. I was too weak to pick him up, so I rubbed his stomach and said, “Sh, sh.” I looked at my phone. Trump had won the election. I fell asleep. In the morning, I had a text from a friend: “CONGRATULATIONS YOURE A MOM IN A NEW FASCIST AMERICA!!!! But seriously all my love.”

“Mother and Child,” c. 1940, by Nell Dorr © Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. Gift of the Estate of Nell Dorr

My husband showed up. I was starving, stitched, bleeding, unable to walk, and my abdominal muscles had separated, but he had been up alone all night and looked crazed. He handed me some nuts. My mother arrived, and my in-laws. They took photos. A lactation consultant came through and watched the baby fool around. Through the curtain, we heard our roommates basking in Trump’s victory and mocking the distressed posts of their Facebook friends. My husband swears that the other dad cooed to his daughter, “You’re going to make America great again!” We petitioned for an early discharge, and at one in the morning loaded up the car, like criminals.

I heard that other people who had babies around the same time became fixated on politics, obsessed with making the world better for the new life they had made. Their social media feeds grew ever more fervent and passionate, and they took their infants to protests and marches. I skipped the protests. I read the news all the time, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with me. Other people were mourning the rise of nationalism, xenophobia; Rudy Giuliani was going to be secretary of state. I had never been happier. I was high on oxytocin. Sometimes I cried when I looked at my baby. He was perfect. I had gone to hell and come back with him. Sometimes I nodded off and woke up screaming because I feared I had dropped him off the side of the bed. At other times I joked that he was going to grow up, build a time machine, travel back to the day of his birth, change the outcome of the election, and get himself born, but that was just a way of trying to connect two unrelated events.

There was an ugly hematoma on the back of my baby’s crushed, pointy head, and whenever I looked at it I felt guilty for not getting him out sooner. During labor, when things were hardest, I’d said over and over, “I can’t.” In the days after, the shame of having wanted to give up haunted me. Now I think that’s what being a mother is: it is something that you can’t possibly do, and yet you keep doing it anyway. That doesn’t mean you do it well — or maybe it’s just that doing it well doesn’t look as you expected it to. According to D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” mother, it is important to fail at mothering, or else your child will not pass from illusion to reality. The mother teaches the child to handle frustrations by being one.

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