JENNY OFFILL & CERIDWEN MORRIS
Discussions about motherhood are cluttered with logistics, dark nuances, and commiseration. They are frequently conducted under the punch-drunk fog of sleeplessness, grammar-addling distraction, and amazement. Discussions about creativity and motherhood are even more fraught—almost a matter of creativity versus motherhood, and the enduring shock of a total paradigm shift. In this conversation, novelist Jenny Offill (Last Things), aptly describes the exhilarating dark tunnel that swallowed her writing life with the blunt explanation: “I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I’ve been a mother.” Given all of the language of creativity and technique available to writers, and the equivalent mass of advice and instructions on pregnancy and parenting, there’s hardly a narrative bridge between creation and creativity. Offill and “mothering expert” Ceridwen Morris, author of From the Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Uncensored, Totally Honest Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, and Becoming a Parent, take up the stormy challenge of trying to explore and contain the experience of motherhood in a literary framework. Because there is, in fact, so much more than soggy diapers left to be explained.
JENNY OFFILL: We all have a strange conception of life and what it’s going to be like. I wasn’t one of those people who always thought I was going to get married and have kids. In fact, I have a much clearer vision of the life I was going to have without kids. I would write, teach, and have affairs with unsuitable men who were jerks, but it wouldn’t matter because I was just going to end up using it as material in a novel anyway. I would have a crappy but okay ramshackle house with dogs and books. I was going to have acres of time to do what I wanted to do. I was going to be lonely, but I was going to have time. Instead, the equation is completely reversed. The radiant hours I imagined, where I get to be by myself and in my thoughts, that uninterrupted writing time, almost never occurs.
But then the loneliness, which was a condition of my life certainly all through my twenties, is gone—or has been replaced by a different form of loneliness, which is more akin to a sense of alienation from the larger role that I’m supposed to be playing. Alienation from what it supposedly is to be a mother versus how I actually experience it.
CERIDWEN MORRIS: Before you had a child, did you use all those vast amounts of time or did you still feel like you never had time?
JO: The problem in those years was money. I always had a lot of jobs in order to buy myself time to write. I would work jobs for a while and then go away, usually to an artist’s colony or on a trip. I wrote in spurts. There would be three months when I wrote all the time, and then I would have to come back and do some stupid fact-checking job, or ghostwrite something—those cobbled-together jobs that I had before I finished my first book.
I found all these notebooks when we moved. I started paging through them hoping there’d be some deathless prose I could save, and of course I can’t even read my own handwriting. But the thing I noticed was that every other page was filled with calculations—when checks were coming in, how much things cost. My best friend, the poet Joshua Beckman, and I used to trade the same two hundred dollars back and forth.
CM: Do you think that loneliness you were talking about pushed you to write? Without the loneliness, would you have had the same . . . launch?
JO: I do think the loneliness pushed me. My whole first novel is about longing, this thing that’s half glimpsed that you can see your way to sometimes and sometimes can’t. It’s about a doomed love between a mother and a child. I certainly used some of my own doomed romantic experiences for that book and transposed them into another kind of story. What has been stranger about this period in my life is that when my daughter was really little, I didn’t feel like I was allowed to have any space in my own head. The demands of a small child are directly opposed to the state of mind you need to write. When Faulkner talked about how a writer becomes a serious novelist, he said, “An artist is a creature driven by demons. He is completely immoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. The writer’s only responsibility is to his art.” He goes on to say that Ode on a Grecian Urn is “worth any number of old ladies.” I call people like that—half in jealousy and half in horror—art monsters. But I understand art monsters. When I was young I was sure I would be one. The thing is, I’ve been a writer a lot longer than I have been a mother, so I understand wanting to write almost more than anything else. To be a writer in America where it’s not particularly valued, you have to be driven. And yet, once I had a kid, I was no longer allowed to work as obsessively as I once did.
CM: It’s funny you say that you don’t feel “allowed.” Is that because there’s a cultural idea that you can’t hog that time? Or is it because we’re in such a physiological state of giving birth and nurturing, being physically and emotionally attached to a tiny creature who’s basically helpless, for much longer than we were told we’re going to be attached to them? Everyone refers to “once you get the baby out,” but there is no “out.”
There’s a line in Rachel Zucker’s book of poems Museum of Accidents that just stopped me short when I read it: “Even the day my first-born son broke me open and split-shocked-shattered that quaint notion of before.” I always think about that quaint notion of before, because once it’s over it’s over.
JO: But there is no You there anymore. That’s the “old you.” And you’re only a shade of it.
CM: And that’s depressing, because it makes it seem that motherhood isn’t meaningful in itself, and that after it you’re less of a person than when you were just an individual. Do you feel like there’s resistance, among other mothers or the culture in general, to dealing with those emotions? Does the world give the impression that it’s something to get over? Just a stage and then you’ll get back to who you were? Or should you even try to regain your identity? It seems to me that there’s a quality in the general attitude informed by the women’s movement and second-wave feminism: you’ve got to get back to You and shake off this kid.
JO: I did time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when my kid was little and that was where I first had the feeling that motherhood was some kind of higher calling for many people—as in, the most creative, fulfilling thing they’ve ever done. But then there’s the whole other world of people who pass around this book by Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, which is an amazing memoir about the very early years with her baby.
CM: I loved it.
JO: It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever read about motherhood because when I was reading it I could feel the intensity of Cusk pushing back: All this is happening, but I refuse to be turned into a mother. Just a mother. If I have to sit at a Mommy & Me thing and sing idiotic songs for hours or talk about the relative merits of various hand-sanitizers, or compare nursing bras on the playground, I am going to wonder where my life went. That’s a world you’re not even supposed to talk about. You’re supposed to give yourself over to this avalanche of minutae, not ever be bothered by the tedium of it or by the way you go from having many roles that matter—writer, wife, friend, daughter—to suddenly only one: Mother. People who don’t have children will respond to stories like that by saying, “Well, you didn’t have to have a kid.” As if that’s the point. As if there’s any other similar huge experience that an over-talking, over-analyzing person like me, wouldn’t get to talk about. But motherhood, God forbid. Still, I understand it. Because there’s a primal fear with other mothers—and I have it too—that if you ever say things about wishing your life wasn’t the way it was, or that your kid didn’t do this or that difficult thing—there is some terrible god who will say “Okay, done. I’ll take her away. Here’s your old life back.” It’s such a terrifying thought that I feel afraid to even put it into words.
I wanted to read you this passage from Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life because it speaks to this strange combination of fear and love we all feel:
Nowadays those few who continued to see Dorrie at all registered her as a gloomy timid woman who had grown rather fat and overprotective of her three infants. They sighed with impatient pity to observe how easily small anxieties took possession of her, how her sense of proportion appeared to have receded along with her horizons. She was never still, she was always available, a conciliatory twittering fusspot. Since the arrival of the children, one, two, and then three, in the space of four years, she had broken herself into little pieces like a biscuit and was now scattered all over the place. The urge—indeed, the necessity—to give everything, to throw herself on the bonfire, had been shocking, but now it was starting to wear off.
CM: It’s brilliant.
JO: It was odd to observe that urge to “throw yourself on the bonfire” in myself, because I never felt as though I was naturally maternal. I used to joke that I could have been a good dad, because I thought I was all about distance. And yet, it was there. Even in the moments when I had time and space to myself, I couldn’t switch out of that sacrificial mode very easily. I’d want to concentrate and write something fantastic and instead I’d be thinking: Remember to pick up baby wipes. We need applesauce. She needs a shot next week. Tinfoil, toilet paper, teething medicine.
CM: If you’re going to be able to hold a big idea in your head for a long period of time, there’s no way you can do twenty things at once. You can blog, but most mommy bloggers don’t get paid; they may do it for free, possibly just to be able to do something other than take care of their baby. Sometimes it pays a little, it’s a flexible part-time job, you can be home for the kids—but then we’ve created a whole world of women sitting at home in living rooms, kids in the bouncy chairs, reading each others’ blogs and trying to drag traffic to each other’s sites—hounded by this feeling that there’s a lot of interesting things that could be said, but you have to say it fast.
JO: A lot of the mommy blogs strike false notes to me: “It sure is crazy and hard. Kid’s running around with diaper on his head while I’m typing! The pot’s boiling over on the stove—but isn’t that just life!” Of course but there’s also a lot more going on in people’s lives than that, but I do sometimes feel like the only level of discourse mothers are allowed to share is about the hardness of parenting. They’re allowed to talk about how chaotic and nutty it is. But not about how lonely it is? Or how strange or how sublime even. I feel like a lot of the conversations stay at the level of how logistically hard it is but don’t really touch on how emotionally or intellectually hard it is.
In the essay I wrote for Moistworks about when my daughter had colic, I discussed how my own life had become unrecognizeable to me. The image I used was of astronauts, who have to do all these make-work tasks that fill the day that are supposed to be done immediately and in a certain way, so that they don’t suddenly look around and realize they are in outer space, thousands of miles from other human beings. I compare motherhood to that, because it’s the same thing—you’re not supposed to look around and say I don’t recognize where I am. Sometimes I’m exhilarated, but I’m also sometimes terrified. My relationship with this man I love has completely changed, my relationships with my friends have changed, my relationship with my work has changed, and I’m supposed to turn it into a story about a messy diaper? That’s not all there is.
CM: Your story about the astronaut feeling and finding yourself in a new world—I feel like that’s where the conflict comes in. This is something your kids are doing to you. The battle lines are drawn. Even during pregnancy. Look closely at the language of medical advice to women; there’s a total separation between mother and baby. Sometimes you get the feeling that the whole culture is looking down at pregnancy and saying, You’re lucky to have that in there. It’s a time of great risk. The placenta is basically a joke. There’s nothing preventing that baby from getting hurt. But you get it; you don’t want to screw up your baby. The cultural dynamic is stronger than you. And it’s all fed by different, terrible parenting cultures.
JO: They’re pernicious. They all make me feel like I’m being subtly coerced into something that’s meant to cut off one part of my actual experience. One side says, walk away from your own life, it’s all about your child now, and the other says it’s about getting back your own life and going on as before. But neither makes sense to me. One is horribly self-sacrificing and the other is asking you to ignore the part of your life that is more enriched and complicated and profound. I don’t want to go back to what it was before. I came across a great line the other day in a poem by Barbara Guest that captured it for me. It says: “I am closer to you than land but in a stranger sea than I wished.”
But what about you? When did you become so interested in childbirth education? Was it before you had kids?
CM: I can see now that it predates the kids. I’ve been interested in this stuff, in pregnancy, weirdly, since childhood. I was the oldest of four, and my mom had her babies at home. I grew up around it. I wasn’t romantic about it but I was incredibly curious and not squeamish at all. I was interested in the anatomy and the guts of it. My dad was a journalist, and I remember the early photographs inside the womb being in magazines around the house from when I was little.
JO: That was a very seventies thing, to be able to see the womb and actual childbirth pictures.
CM: And then I did Women’s Studies in college and got interested in the weird way Simone de Beauvoir talked about motherhood.
JO: Was she even a mother? Her writing was so interesting to me before I had a kid, and now . . . well?
CM: I know. I keep wanting to revisit the whole “woman as womb” thing, because I think there’s a little bit of truth in it. Those Frenchies were very into the idea that motherhood was not something we need to resist and fight against, but an interesting part of a woman that made her different from men though not necessarily less important.
JO: They were on to something. And if you actually live there, it’s a very different experience to be a mother in France.
CM: I’m sure it is. I read all this stuff but couldn’t find much about American women and motherhood. Adrienne Rich wrote the great Of Woman Born. When I was pregnant I couldn’t stop thinking about all my Women’s Studies reading from college. The same questions were coming back to me. I started to see in childbirth and new motherhood an opportunity—where women are really open again. You’re vulnerable and you’re asking others what they think. You’re not locked down. It’s an interesting time to talk with women. It also got me wondering what had happened to feminism.
JO: People certainly don’t talk about it in a complex way anymore. Feminism got shoehorned into the little issues, rather than the big philosophical questions—the ones you find in the Greeks, too: “How, then, shall we live?”
There’s a book I first read, strangely enough, when I was in my twenties. So I was anticipating problems instead of living them, which as a bookish person, is how I lived much of my life. The book is Composing a Life, by Mary Catherine Bateson. It’s fascinating because it’s all about women’s lives and the different accommodations and choices they’ve made as their life has not gone on the path they’ve imagined. She profiles a very rarified selection—scientists, academics—but even given that the book is about “the question of discontinuity. What do people do when they’re broken away from what they know.” People who were somehow able to make a story of continuity between their lives—even if they were doing something very different than before, as you might have been an engineer in your home country and a cab driver in this one—had an approach to life that helped you handle the vicissitudes. You can end the game of “I was supposed to have a second novel out ten years ago.” Which is the sort of thing I tortured myself with for a while. Because I thought I as supposed to have a certain career trajectory. I published my first novel at thirty and things seemed like they were going one way but then pregnancy, motherhood, chronic illness—in short, Life, with a capital L—derailed me and for a long time I stopped writing. And during that period I watched all of my writer friends, including Sam, move steadily forward. I felt very much like I’d run into the station to use the bathroom and then the train left, and ever since I’ve been living in a small, strange town trying to learn the language.
CM: So you should write a novel about the bathroom.
JO: I am writing about the bathroom instead of the trip. And maybe starting to imagine the train ride again. Because once you’re past “How do I nurse?” “My baby’s not sleeping!” and “Will I ever have sex again?”—questions that cut deep, you’re not in it anymore and you forget. And part of me wants to remember, to get it on the page. I see women all the time—pushing a stroller, the baby strapped to their chest—they look like a bomb went off in their lives. I want to go up to them and say “I’ve been there,” especially if they’ve got a crying, screaming baby in their arms, because I did. But I don’t know how to cross that bridge. The same way I can’t say to the woman on the subway platform wearing tall, black boots and a really cute dress, heading out at eleven o’clock on a Friday night—“I remember your life. You don’t know mine yet.” I wish that someone, when I used to walk five hours a day with her to try to keep her from crying, had stopped me and instead of saying, “Put a hat on that baby!” or “What have you been feeding her?” had said, “Yes, it’s worth it. It gets better.” But of course, they couldn’t just say that. They’d have to be careful to say, “Don’t get me wrong. I always loved my children.”
CM: You have to add the “I love my children.”
JO: For me that ruins conversations I have with other mothers. Because the minute you get into anything real about motherhood, this anxiety begins to fill the conversation—about not speaking appropriately. People try to manage and control the uncontrollable emotion of love that is so ferocious once you are a mother—like no other. It really isn’t comparable to anything that came before, no matter how desperately in love with someone I thought I was. And in fact that despair from the early days doesn’t just transform neatly into “but it’s all so rewarding.” It becomes: “You get up every day and do what you need to be a mother.”
CM: You were saying that as a mother, people become afraid of anything that hints at ambivalence. What’s missing is the tension, and the nuance. It’s not that I hate my kids and I wish I could be someone else.
JO: No, it’s not like that at all.
CM: It’s that I love my kids and my work and my husband, but I have to earn money. We have all these things going on at the same time, and it’s almost like they’re at war with each other, but it’s not that simple. It’s not you can choose a side. It’s about the tension. I really like this one story by Paula Bomer called “The Mother of His Children” where tension is so beautifully described. He’s leaving on a business trip, and she’s at home with the kids saying goodbye. They don’t hate it, but they don’t love it either. It’s just a marriage, and the book cracks it open, and gets into what’s lost, what’s gained, and what might be left to imagine.
JO: If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of.
CM: When I first met Heidi Julavits, a writer, and a good friend, we’d both just had kids and she was writing her novel, The Uses of Enchantment, which came out when her daughter was only two. It’s a crazy book, with all these interwoven parts, but it’s so tight and complete I asked her how she’d done it. She said she was able to write, while dealing with being a new mother, because the book is broken up into dinstinct parts. I recently read that when Jennifer Egan was working on her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, with young children, she took a leap of faith and just kept writing—like hanging onto this fragile thread, hoping that somehow it would all add up. And amazingly, it does.
JO: For me, I had to change my own writing style. Every new mother told me, Don’t worry about your writing style, just write and get it down. But I write line by line. I don’t even know the story, until it’s revealed by the language. I need to get back in that level and think, What word follows this word? What small emotional moment or impression am I trying to capture here? Motherhood changes what you think about, what you write about. I’m trying to capture that now.
CM: It’s not like you were asking whether motherhood was good or bad?
JO: That would be like asking if it’s worth it to be a writer. It’s a miserable, miserable profession to have chosen, and it’s horrible most of the time. But it’s the only thing that I’ve ever felt meant to do. And now I feel like I was meant to be Thea’s mother.
CM: There are so many different phases with kids and motherhood. With my first baby I spent time asking myself who I was—a mother, woman, wife, thinker? By the second baby, I let myself just be an animal for a while. I knew I’d be bleeding for weeks and there’d be milk squirting across the room. I wouldn’t be able to complete a thought because I was flooded with prolactin. I knew that element of the experience would eventually end. But do you think now that you have a slightly older child, it’s easier to write? Was it the animal part that made things more difficult? If we’re going with animal versus mental?
JO: No matter what happens to you, it informs your writing. Art and life are not separate in my mind. Now I feel like spending time with her is satisfying on many levels. I love her and want to be with her, and I’m very intellectually engaged by her. But for a while it wasn’t like that. The animal was ascendant. For a long time I couldn’t stand on the subway platform without swaying. I could feel her in my arms even when she wasn’t there.
CM: I swayed forever.
JO: I still sway. Though she’s five now, and that life is gone, I still feel a little bit like I know that whole world of not writing well, gaining weight, not fitting into clothes, not getting a haircut. Not looking into the mirror for days at a time. This is the animal phase. Ultimately, it’s not just about there not being enough time to write. It’s also that you lose a very stimulating world. For me it was the loss of a more intellectual life. I kept thinking, Why do I even live in New York? I could be living in the suburbs; nothing is ever said to me that I can think about. And I’m sure I was equally tedious to other moms. We were all somehow stuck on this surface level. But my ideal of what life should be has changed. It’s no long that I’m off working alone in some perfect space. My ideal now is that I’m sitting around the table with six fascinating people, and we’re talking while our kids are running around behind us, old enough to play together.
CM: It’s not really mother against kid. It’s mother against culture.
JO: It’s against a culture that is just so repressive and so anti-intellectual and so joy-killing. It is a joy-kill to be a mother in America. Most of the time, at least.
CM: For a while I think I was in the research phase of motherhood. And parents are supposed to be boring and preoccupied with the logistics of “parenting.” But now that I have so little time for an intellectual life, I’m quite demanding. If I’m at a bar with a friend and I have two hours, I don’t want to waste time. I want to get right to the big stuff—the meaning of life.
JO: I feel like you could go back to writers like Montaigne—he used to wear this medallion that had, “What do I know?” written on it. His whole intellectual mission in life was to examine every situation he found himself in and ask, “What do I think I know, and what do I actually know?” I feel there’s a lot in our culture we think we know about motherhood—such as, being a mother will cause you to rethink your priorities, or being a mother will make you less ambitious, or being a mother will cause problems between a husband and wife. There’s truth in all of that, but it’s so small compared to the lived life of it.
A Motherhood Reading List
The Collected Stories of Grace Paley
Taking Care by Joy Williams
Getting a Life by Helen Simpson
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, and more importantly her amazing memoir,
A Life’s Work
Ghosts by Eva Figes
Because I Was Flesh by Edward Dahlberg
Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath
Baby and Other Stories by Paula Bomer
Women Writers at Work: Paris Review Interviews
Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson
My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
The Complete Essays of Montaigne
Key Short Stories
“To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing
“The Lover” by Joy Williams
“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore
“The Used Boy Raisers” by Grace Paley
Ceridwen Morris (interview 175) is a writer, mother, and childbirth educator. She is co-author of It’s All Your Fault and From the Hips as well as screenplays for Miramax and HBO. She lives in New York City with her husband, the novelist Sam Lipsyte, and their two children.
Jenny Offill (interview 175) is the author of the novel Last Things. She teaches in the writing programs at Brooklyn College and Columbia University. Her new book Dept. of Speculation has just been published.