Reading Like a Mother
Recently, I gave birth. To be more specific: recently, I almost gave birth in a carpark, because when I telephoned the midwives at the hospital to let them know I needed to come in, they didn’t believe I was in labour.
‘If you were really in labour,’ the first one said, ‘you wouldn’t be able to have this conversation.’
I hung up, wondered about the reality of my own existence for a moment, and tried to sit quietly with my heat pack and watch a re-run of Frasier.
I called back twenty minutes later, when the contractions were three minutes apart.
‘First baby?’ said the second midwife.
‘Take some panadol. It’s going to be a while.’
Reader, it was not a while. I waddled up to the birthing suite with the baby’s head hanging out; he was thrown onto my chest about twenty minutes later.
Since then, I haven’t had a lot of time to read.
It is one of those strange coincidences that everything I have managed to read in the past few months concerns itself with birth and early motherhood. I’m not seeking such material out; postpartum, I seem to have developed a radar for motherhood content, particularly of the dark and/or peculiar variety. This includes Nell Zink’s Mislaid and The First Bad Man by Miranda July. Near the opening of Zink’s novel, which begins in the 1960s, there is an unplanned pregnancy. Soon after that, the following terse exchange about breastfeeding occurs between the protagonist and her mother-in-law:
‘It’s the natural way,’ Peggy said. ‘It’s good for him.’
‘You’ll be tied to that baby like a ball and chain. You can’t let him out of your sight and no one can help you with him. No self-respecting woman does that. It’s like turning yourself into an animal.’
‘I got news for you lady. Guess where he came from?’
‘Don’t get all in a snit,’ Lee said.
‘But that’s exactly it,’ his mother said. ‘You don’t know the chemical composition. There could be anything in there. It’s unscientific.’
‘Science gave us the bomb and DDT,’ Peggy said.
I read this during a break in a cluster feed, while my newborn dozed on my chest, curled up like a brussel sprout.
The black cover of July’s novel, meanwhile, contains praise but no synopsis, so I was surprised as well as impressed to get halfway into the book and encounter July’s detailed and gory description of birth and the postpartum period; in particular, I was pleased to see the grating monotony of being attached to a breast pump captured in literature (shoop pa, shoop pa, shoop pa—if you know, you know).
My husband recently remarked that parenthood is ‘the art of trying to do three things with two hands’. No wonder I’ve been leaning so hard on audio content. In particular, I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. But here, too, I’ve found myself gravitating towards stories about new mothers—or perhaps it’s more the case that these are the stories I remember. ‘A Sheltered Woman’ by Yiyun Li stands out in my memory—and not only for the character of the new mother, Chanel, who weans her baby at six days old and effectively goes on a motherhood strike while her husband is out of town. I was moved by the story’s protagonist, a nanny named Auntie Mei. Determined to eschew emotional attachment of any kind, Auntie Mei takes care of babies only for the first month of life, before moving on to the next family. And yet, despite herself, she begins to feel tenderness towards Chanel’s baby:
At least Auntie Mei had had the sense not to have a child, though sometimes, during a sleepless night like this one, she entertained the thought of slipping away with a baby she could love. The world was vast; there had to be a place for a woman to raise a child as she wished.
Auntie Mei is a blunt and often impatient character (‘I would rather you were a cow,’ she thinks, when Chanel complains of being treated like one), but Li’s story hints deftly at everything this character has gone without, in order that no one be ‘disturbed’ by her existence.
Another story I came across on the same podcast was Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘Who Will Greet You at Home.’ This story, in which women become mothers by making children out of inert materials and having their mothers bless their creations, has a fairytale quality, and turns monstrous as only a fairytale can.
Then there are the books I read about pregnancy and motherhood itself. Here, I can only suggest staying away from much of the genre. There’s the vocabulary, for one thing: ‘dreamfeed’ displeases me, as does ‘tummy time’ (my baby still participates in tummy time, I just find myself groping for alternative phrases. ‘Abdomen time’?). I don’t relish being told to ‘Just Breathe’, or that ‘You Got This’; I distrust affirmations of any kind. Anyway, should you find yourself pregnant and wading through a similar mire of goddess literature, I suggest reading Expecting Better and Cribsheet by Emily Oster. Oster is an economist who assesses the recommendations made to pregnant women and new parents by analysing the data on which these recommendations are based. Oster’s own anecdotes, including one about an antenatal class she attended in which birth was demonstrated by a doll being pushed through a turtleneck, are also reassuringly messy and absurd.
The other genre of books I have encountered recently are, of course, books for babies themselves. We have many of these, in various teetering stacks around the house. There are high contrast black and white picture books with op-art style spirals and giant, staring birds and bugs. There are books with mirrors built into them, books that make crinkling sounds, and books that change colour when water is applied. On the whole, I can tell how much my son likes a book by how concerted his effort is to destroy it; if he tears at the pages or gums them repeatedly, I know he approves.
I say I haven’t had much time to read lately, but of course, like all new parents I’m reading all the time. I’m squinting at the directions on my son’s medication. I’m googling ‘baby language’ and trying to discern whether the sound he made is more a ‘Heh’ or a ‘Neh’. I’m reading handouts about vaccination, and stool colours, and correct latch. I’m reading the instructions for a mucus sucking device called a ‘Nose Frida’, (and despite having read them, I am unprepared for how successful and revolting it turns out to be). I’m reading cards we received, and re-reading them when, before I know it, it’s time to fold them away. I’m reading the word BONDS everywhere I look—hanging on the line, in piles of unfolded laundry, on the tag curled against the nape of my son’s neck.
For now, it’s almost impossible to think there will be a day when, unhurried and without distraction, I’ll be able to sit down and read a book. But I know that day is coming; and I suspect that when it gets here, I will feel it has arrived too soon.